Community Before Self

A late post this week as I have been distracted, as we all have been, by the events in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman last week killed 17 people in a high school. And while this is not the first time this has happened, this one has hit me particularly hard for a variety of reasons: it is a location I am familiar with, as my grandparents lived in the general vicinity; the impact on the local Jewish community feels greater than in other mass shootings; and with a son in high school, I could relate to the community, the students and the parents.

With this latest school shooting, we also return to the familiar cycles of civic ritual: mourning and grief, vigils and memorials. We also return to the familiar cycles of sound bytes and platitudes: politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” followed by a chorus proclaiming that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. And the dance by many lawmakers around any other reason for the shooting other than the most obvious, the accessibility and ease of procuring guns themselves.

I don’t have much more to add to the overall conversation. I too mourn the loss of life. I mourn too the inability of our society to do anything about it. I’ll just repeat that we need to recognize that one of the biggest deterrents to mass shooting accidents is gun responsibility legislation.

There will still be violent people, of course, who seek to hurt others. But if they do not have access to lethal means to hurt others, then fewer people will be victimized. One can still do damage with a knife, or a club, but the damage will be much less than a semi-automatic rifle. People still die in car accidents, that is not an argument to stop wearing seatbelts.

While limiting and qualifying gun ownership is the biggest need to stop similar incidents, there may be some truth to the statement that it is not just guns that are the problem. While the right likes to defer to “mental illness,” and there are those on the left who point to “toxic masculinity,” I think that the real underlying factor is “radical individualism.” We suffer at times under a society that values the self over the community, rights over responsibility, the one over the many. Governments, authorities, societal structures are suspect.

We are always in need of improving our communal institutions, but we can not live separate from them. The Torah portion this week is a object lesson; parasha terumah describes the building of the ancient mishkan, or Tabernacle, the central institution of the Israelites. It is to be the gathering place of the people, the center for worship, the place where God dwells among the people.

The fact of the Tabernacle in and of itself is a lesson–we need communal norms and structures, and we can not exist independently. This is made more explicit in the description of how the Tabernacle is to be built. While a few people were selected as the craftspeople, everyone contributes the raw materials. At the beginning of the parasha we read: “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts, you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.'” (Exodus 25:1-2)

In other words, everyone contributes to the building of the mishkan. It can not be built in isolation, everyone has something to give. We do not live our lives in isolation, we are dependent on, and responsible for, each other.

In this case, our own “right” to own a firearm does not outweigh the need to protect fellow citizens and preserve public safety. This goes beyond distinguishing between “law abiding” and “not law abiding.” In some cases, those categories should not even exist. The key should be to restrict and limit guns, not just ownership.

To do so in our country, we need to recognize that “rights” are not absolute. People wrote the Constitution, and they can rewrite it. But more than just the technical aspects of legislation or amendments, we need to embrace the value that community sometimes comes before self. Too many lives have been lost already because we have failed to see this. Let it be that our hearts so move us to make a change.

To Give is To Receive

The blintzes are back!

This year, after a year’s hiatus Blintzapalooza returns. Blintzapalooza is one of Temple Beth Hatfiloh hallmark events, the Sunday in March when we open up our doors and welcome in the community to eat blintzes and bagels, buy used books, participate in a Jewish cooking contest and support local charitable organizations. It is a celebration of Jewish food and Jewish values.

I remember when I first came to TBH I was so impressed by Blintzapalooza not only because of the scale of the event, and all the work that went into pulling it off, but because it does a unique thing—it raises a lot of money, then gives it all away. At a time when all nonprofit organizations, synagogues included, recognize the precarious need to raise funds, Blintzapalooza allows TBH to raise money to support not itself, but other organizations. It is tzedakah (righteous giving); it is giving outward, not inward.

blintzes[And in case you missed it, Blintzapalooza is this Sunday, March 20 from 10-2. This year’s recipients are the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, South Sound Parent to Parent and ROOF Community Services Food Bank.]

In our weekly Torah reading we have completed the Book of Exodus and pick up the Book of Leviticus. The narrative of the Israelite journey in the wilderness takes a pause as we turn our attention to laws, ritual and practices. Some of those are compelling, some of those are repelling, but all included in our sacred text for us to wrestle with and engage (which makes Leviticus such and interesting book.)

The opening of Leviticus is introducing the sacrificial system. Prayer in biblical times, as it were, was carried out through an elaborate system of animal and grain sacrifices that would be administered by the priestly class in the sanctuary of the Tabernacle. If you had a desire, or needed to make atonement for sin, or wanted to express gratitude, you would bring an offering of the best of what you had to the Tabernacle where it would be offered up to God.

The Book of Exodus ends with the final construction of the Tabernacle, so the Torah is making a natural progression from the building of the sacred space to the functions of the sacred space. The building of the Tabernacle was a communal effort—the text describes the Israelites all donating their best wares (metals, fabrics, etc.) to its construction. It was an inward focused project which allowed the Israelite community to uplift itself by developing a unifying center. And now that it is built, they turn to donating their best wares (livestock, crops) to God, to that which is beyond them. Thus the Torah is also making a natural progression from giving inward to giving outward.

In other words, we need to sustain ourselves, but we also need to sustain others. We need to give to ourselves, but we also need to give to others.

And when we give, we receive. From an organizational perspective the question could be raised about the wisdom in mounting a major fundraiser to solely benefit other organizations. But by giving we do benefit. Not only in the satisfaction we may feel in the act of giving itself, but since mutual responsibility and support is a Jewish value, by giving we develop deep relationships and good will among our neighbors that does benefit us over the long term.

The ancient Israelites offered their best to show their love and devotion to God, in exchange for being supported and cared for in return. When we offer our best, we show our love and devotion to others, and in exchange we too will be supported and cared for in return. The sacrificial system in Leviticus is reminding us that perhaps there is a cosmic sense of return on investment. We may not always see the tangible benefits of our acts of giving, but they are real and will be made manifest to us in time.

Maybe there is a direct connection from the sacrificial system in the Torah to Blintzapalooza since both after all are focused around food. But more importantly, there is a direct connection because they both serve as an expression of the obligation to give outwardly, and how giving is a spiritual activity whose benefits are immeasurable.