Earlier this past week I was back east to attend the board meeting of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, my professional organization. I serve as the 1st Vice President, having been elected to that position by my peers this past March after serving a few years on the Board in other capacities. We meet in Philadelphia biannually, in the spring and in the fall.
It’s been a great experience to serve in this capacity; I get a lot of meaning from these gatherings both because we are addressing organizational issues, thinking through what it means to be an association in support of rabbis, both personally and professionally, and because it is another forum in which I get to grapple with the issues facing the American Jewish community and the Jewish world today. At these meetings I have had some very deep, thoughtful, engaging, challenging and inspiring conversations.
This past meeting we did something new and different. Before we convened as a full Association board, we held a joint session with the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, the arm of the movement overseeing the education of rabbis as well as the congregational services. We spent some good energy doing some visioning work as to how we can best serve both our own movement and the Jewish people.
At that session I was honored to be invited to speak about “hopes and fears” as a pulpit rabbi specifically, both for me and those I serve. I shared my thoughts on inequality as I expressed last week in my Rabbis Without Borders blog post: “Funding Innovation is Nice, Now Let’s Redistribute Wealth,” about the inequality of resources among congregations, which leads to an inequality of experiences and education. The hope of those I serve is for meaningful Jewish experience, and the fear is that I can’t provide it because of limited resources.
But moreso than what was discussed was the idea of the collaboration itself that seemed to be the big breakthrough. While from the outside it shouldn’t necessarily seem that way, our boards as a whole don’t get together that often (though there is mutual representation on both). For while we are both a part of the same movement, we serve different constituencies and have different missions.
But there is, of course, common ground, and the ability to explore this in depth was a good experience.
As we draw closer to the Festival of Shavuot this coming weekend, we can reflect on the nature of the Israelites’ journey out of slavery, coming to its climax. The Festival of Shavuot is the festival of Sinai, marking and celebrating the story of the revelation on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites received the Torah and commandments from God via Moses. (See Mel Brooks version) It is a story of covenant, when the Israelites fully became a free people by forming a new society based around a new organizing structure. We remember our own covenants, our own relationship to sacred text, and our own commitments to community.
There are many midrashim (commentaries) about the Torah story bout Sinai, and one I particularly like is based on a close reading of the Hebrew. In Exodus 19:1-2 we read, “In the third month after the Children of Israel left Egypt, the same day they came to the wilderness of Sinai. And when they left Refidim and came to the wilderness of Sinai, they camped there. They camped facing the mountain.”
What is lost in translation is that the first few verbs–“came,” “left,” and the first instance of “camped”–are all in the plural. The final verb “camped” is in the singular form. The ancient commentary Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael understands this to mean that when they were travelling towards Sinai the community was constantly quarreling, they were divided, they were separate. But when they arrived at Sinai they were “of one heart,” they were joined together, they were united. It was only after this unity were they able to received the Torah and be open and receptive to its wisdom.
We are hearing a lot about “unity” these days, as each of the major political parties is seeking “unity” around their chosen candidates in order to be better positioned in the fall elections. But while both sides talk of “unity” we know that the early part of this election season revealed some deep divides within the parties.
What then is unity? Is it thinking with one mind, feeling with “one heart.”? We should be wary, perhaps, because the quest for “unity” could be a means to quash dissent or silence voices. We should be open to difference, for it is from constructive conflict and disagreement that we can grow. The key is how we relate to that difference.
When I was in Philadelphia, I took the train each day between my friend’s house in Bryn Mawr, PA where I was staying and the rabbinical college in Wyncote, PA. At the station near the college was an advertisement talking about a new hospital merger. The sign read “collaboration + compassion” and it struck me as very instructive. When differing groups join together, maybe the goal is not to become completely of “one heart,” but to collaborate, to work together, to join forces in a common goal recognizing where they are alike and understanding where they are different. And the key to relating is to approach each other with compassion, with deep love and caring and desires for positive outcomes.
This “collaboration + compassion” is what I felt when these two boards met earlier this week to find common cause and recognize the organizational differences. We approached each other with a desire to work together and with care for our shared hopes and fears.
And perhaps it was this “collaboration + compassion” which defined the ancient Israelites at Sinai, who camped by the mountain with a verb in the singular. They were together, unified but not united, not of “one heart” but with open hearts to one another. And it was this condition, ready to collaborate and act with compassion, that allowed the Israelites to be prepared to receive the Torah.
If we seek out opportunities for collaboration while acting with compassion, then we too will be blessed with wisdom and vision.