August 28, 2008
Taking time for yourself
Parshat Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
The dining room echoes as my feet step across a wide, empty floor once filled with tables and benches. Outside, I listen to wind blow through the trees. Clotheslines sit empty. The pool deck is dry and clean.
After nine weeks of living with almost 900 people, I enjoy a simple walk through camp uninterrupted by questions, or greetings. Soon I will return to my crowded Jewish neighborhood filled with shuls, restaurants and grocery stores. For now, I am content to drink in the silence and the solitude, welcome and unfamiliar.
Jewish life is noisy. We talk in our study halls and sing at our dinner tables. Jewish hermits are, well, oxymoronic. Our community measures success in affiliation. But communal life can be smothering. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "It is as individuals, not as members of a mass-kind that we are asked to observe mitzvot.... The social aspect plays a very great role in Jewish life, but we cannot allow it to eclipse the individual."
The parsha begins: "See [re'eh, singular] I place before you [lifnei'chem, plural] today blessing and curse" (Devarim 11:26). Why begin in the singular and finish in the plural? To explain, two commentators -- Rabbi Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz and Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin -- both quote the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) where it is taught that a person should always see himself as half innocent and half guilty, and the world as half righteous and half evil. Why? So that when one person does one mitzvah, he will tilt himself, and with him, the fate of the world toward good, or, if he sins -- God forbid -- toward evil. The fate of the world rests in the hands of what one person will do the very next moment.
How would your life change if you lived this way? How would the Jewish community look if we took each individual so seriously?
I think a lot about why Jewish camps succeed. Much is rightly made of the "thick" sense of community that is present in camp communities. We eat, learn, wake up, fall asleep, play, mourn, cry, sing, dance and grow up together. But kids don't just love camp for community; camps succeed because counselors and campers feel known at camp, not as "members of a mass-kind" but as people, as individuals. Camps typically have one counselor for every four to six campers. Good counselors sit outside the dining room with a child who is having a tough time, and stay up late talking with a camper and listening to what excites him or worries her.
I have often thought that if I were the rabbi of a shul, I would try to initiate an individual meeting with each person in the synagogue, not on the occasion of a bar mitzvah or a wedding or a funeral, but just to sit and talk, to get to know the individual persons that comprise a community. (With many synagogues having hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of members, the project might take years, even decades, to complete.)
On a communal level, too often we forget that the world is changed one person at a time. Our programs aim to reach many people but at what cost to the individual Jew? Speaking to a group of Jewish educators, Heschel declared, "When the Bible calls upon us to open the heart [see Deuteronomy 10:16], it is appealing to the religion of the individual.... We teachers face the pupil as an individual: We have to take into consideration his rights and his tasks. To respect these rights and to think of these tasks is the great duty of educators, for to educate means to meet the inner needs, to respond to the inner goals of the child. We dare not commit human sacrifice by immolating the individual child upon the altar of the group."
On a spiritual level, too often the "I" is lost in the sea of Jewish community. Even before God we forget to stand alone. We mindlessly recite the words of the siddur but fail to offer our own hopes and fears and dreams to God. We forget or neglect to carve out time for solitude. Why? Too often we tell ourselves that our obligations to our family, jobs or community, are too important for us to "indulge" ourselves. Solitude is no indulgence. It is the seed from which relationships can grow.
"See," God says to each single person. The fate of the world hangs in the balance; the task begins with you alone.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.