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Avoiding the Crowd or Missing the Divine? Embracing the Messiness of Community© - Behar 2024

I will never forget an advertisement I saw on the Subway, years before Covid, when I was a student that pretty much summed up what it felt like to live in New York City: 

Over 8 Million people in New York City…and we can help you avoid them all!

This business was a food delivery app, which would later become Uber Eats or Grubhub, where you can deliver your favorite restaurant's foods to your home.  After Covid, being on self-imposed house arrest or lockdown seems terrible, but imagine if you were on the subway on your way to get a bite to eat, squished between strangers who conveniently forgot their deodorant in a not-so-spacious subway car.  In addition to being squished between people you may not want to be between, you will often time be asked for money by the homeless or those living in extreme poverty.  I can tell you that this app would have been tempting during my days living in New York.  

It's no wonder this advertisement appears on the subway. The subway reminds you that you are not alone, and with a little money and an app, you can avoid people altogether!

It's tempting, but alas, it's not the Jewish way of being.  And this is what I want to talk about today.  It's easy to say 'live in community' when you have to live with others, but what about when you can be alone - where do we draw the line with our solitude?  Are the apps of convenience we use making us even more lonely?  What can Parashat Behar teach us about living with others? Let's explore the balance between solitude and community and how it can guide us in our spiritual journey.      

For years now, we've been on a slippery slope toward solitude. The famous political scientist Robert Putnam wrote about it in his book Bowling Alone.  He noticed the decline in bowling leagues in our country, not just bowling leagues, but community involvement in civic organizations, and a decline in overall organized religion in our country.  Church and synagogue attendance has decreased from the previous generation to the generation before that.  People are avoiding each other, especially people who are different from one another.  

Don't get me wrong: focusing on the individual is also a Jewish concept.  

The book of Leviticus began on a very personal level.  The people of Israel were taken out of Egypt as a people, and they built the Mishkan as a community, but we see something interesting in Leviticus – the introduction of the individual sacrifices.  A person had an obligation to bring a sin offering or perhaps a thanksgiving offering, but these offerings, although having different motivations behind them, have something in common:  they are reactions to events that occurred to an individual person.  

Korbanot comes from the word Hebrew word Karov, meaning something that brings one closer to God.  The personal events in one's life brought them closer to God.  Leviticus showed the people that God did not just live on the mountain; God did not just split seas but dwells within each person's heart if you create an environment to allow God to dwell in you.  

Judaism is built upon peoplehood, but Judaism is also built upon the individual's relationship with God.  How can we forget Hillel's famous statement in the Ethics of Our Fathers:  Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – if I am not for myself, who will be for me?  

At this point in their lives, Bnai Israel are freed slaves still at the mountain of Sinai.  For their whole lives up until this point, they had no individual identities.  They were slaves – not treated as human beings, and in their journeys throughout the wilderness, they witnessed miracles as a community.  In the book of Leviticus, God teaches Bnai Israel what it's like to be a person – to be you. 

The message is clear to the people - having some ME time is ok!

And yet, we must remember Hillel's famous follow-up to this statement, U'chshenai L'Atzmi, Mah Ani - If I am only for myself, what am I?  There's a famous line in the book of Genesis.  God creates Adam, and God thinks the animals and the trees are enough for Adam, but they aren't, so God says these famous words:  Lo Tov Heyot HaAdam Levado - It is not good for human to be alone. (Genesis 2:18).  

And so, before they get too used to being alone with God, they are reminded of something: when you enter the land and you get your own home – do not forget that you are not alone, and you cannot remain alone.    

There will be over a million people in your land…and I will prevent you from avoiding them all!  

When they enter the land, they observe the Shmitta year, when the land is ownerless and everyone can partake of its bounty. This egalitarian practice and the Jubilee year, when all slaves were granted their freedom, underscore the importance of community and equality in our faith. It's a powerful reminder that we are all connected, regardless of our social status or material possessions.  

All will be bound by freedom.  

In this parashah, Bnai Israel learns how to live with others even when they don't have to live with others.  

And this is still our great challenge - choosing between the benefits of solitude and the messiness of community.  It is very tempting to live alone, to avoid the messiness of life with others, to stay home and get your favorite dish rather than take the subway.  But, if we do this, we are missing out on the spiritual richness and growth that comes from being part of a community, and the richness of the beauty of this world that can only be found surrounded by others.

On Saturday evening, we observed a mini-holiday called Lag BaOmer that has taken on a life of its own in recent years.  It is celebrated by bonfires and a pilgrimage to the grave of Shimon Bar Yochai, a famous rabbi who some believe wrote the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah.  

Shimon Bar Yochai was a great rabbi, but he was famous for one not-so-flattering story.  One day, he and his son had to exile themselves to a cave due to a Roman Emporer who tried to capture them, and a miracle occurred in the cave - a spring came burst out of the ground and a carob tree grew out of nowhere.  They had food and water, and Torah - that's all they needed.  They lived in this cave for 12 years, and they emerge to see men plowing and sowing their fields.  Rabbi Shimon cannot believe his eyes - he sees Jews not studying Torah, but working in the real world.  He says, "They forsake eternal life (olam) and busy themselves with temporal life?!"

Every place they turned their eyes to was immediately burned. A heavenly voice (bat kol) came out and said to them: "Did you go out to destroy my world?  Return to your cave!"  They returned.  A year goes by, and they venture out of the cave again, and this time, they see a man with two myrtles. and they ask him what he is doing with them, and he answers that he's bringing them home for Shabbat, to represent the two aspects of Shabbat, Shamor, to observe Shabbat, and Zachor, to remember Shabbat.  And their minds become at ease.  

This story reveals the destruction we can bring to the world when we remain outside of the world and out of touch with others.  The more closed off we are, the more our eyes turn can burn others, and the less understanding we are of others who might be different than us.  The man they find isn't a rabbi; he's just an ordinary Jew, and perhaps they see that their way isn't the only way to be - that they must be with others to touch the divine truly.    

When you live alone, you don't realize that the difference between haves and have-nots can be a stroke of chance, a flip of a coin, that you could be in either place.  When you live alone, you fail to see the humanity in others.  When you live alone, you run the risk of keeping God out of this world.

I often ask people when they feel holy moments.  Many say, "On a mountain, or when I was praying in front of the lake alone at camp."  When you truly search within yourself, you will discover that the holiest moments you've experienced, those unexplainable moments when you felt a touch of the divine, occurred when you were surrounded by others who were focused on something holy and greater than themselves.I felt a holy moment at our daughter's Simchat Bat.  We invited our congregation and our family and friends outside of the community.  Our RSVP list grew and grew, and of course, 70 more people came than RSVPed.  It poured rain and created a flood, and there was tremendous lightening and thunder before and during the ceremony.  Those who wouldn't stay for the seudah, the festive meal, had no choice but to stay and be with us.

Some of you may not have eaten; I know I didn't. By the night's end, the food was gone; for once, there were no leftovers.


On that rainy night, I am sure many of the guests thought: It's gross-out, the room is small, and it'll be packed with people—maybe I'll stay home and order in. And I don't blame those who did; it was truly a crazy night. But that touch of the divine, the Shechinah, God's presence, filled us with holiness that no food could have. It's because we weren't alone—we were together.

And so, would you do one thing for me:  when you have the urge to stay in and forgo community, fight that urge.  Get on the subway or your car, and join in on a holy moment as part of a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.  You might be squished, the food might not be so great, but you might be able to fill yourself up with something that can't find alone - but a touch of the divine you might find together.  

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