The Right Kind of Community
Earlier this month, the Jewish Week published an article entitled, Synagogue Is Like ‘Cheers’ Without the Booze. The article was written by the paper’s editor, Andrew Silow-Carrol, and in it he reflects on what synagogue community provides for people and what is lost when a community stops attending synagogue. It’s like Cheers because it’s a place where everybody knows your name. He writes, “if you spend enough time in synagogue, you know these casual — even hurried — exchanges (saying shabbat shalom, catching up at kiddush) forge tighter bonds than others might expect…. We know each other’s business: how the kids are doing, who’s ill, who’s mourning. You may not be invited to the wedding of a synagogue-mate’s son, but you are in the pews for the aufruf and, peh peh peh, the baby naming.”
There is no doubt in my mind that what Silow-Carroll described is a large part of what synagogue community means to us and what it does for us.
But I think this description misses a crucial element that distinguishes between different communities – highlighted by the midrash on the very first verse of the Torah portion we just read.
"וַיַּקְהֵל משֶׁה אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' לַעֲשׂת אֹתָם".
“Moshe gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together, and said to them, ‘These are the words which God has commanded.’”
The rabbis of the midrash show how the opening of this portion is a direct continuation of the story of the sin of the golden calf from last week’s Torah reading.
First, the tabernacle (mishkan) served as an atonement for the golden calf:
תבוא 'ועשו לי מקדש', ותכפר על מעשה העגל, שנאמר בו 'קום עשה לנו אלהים',
God’s statement of “make for me a sanctuary” atones for the golden calf, when the Jews told Aharon, “make for us a god,” using similar language.
ותבוא קהלת משה רבינו, שנאמר 'ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל' ותכפר על קהלת אהרן, דכתיב 'ויקהל העם על אהרן'
And Moshe’s Kehilah, congregation, atones for Aharon’s congregation – in our parsha it says vayakhel Moshe et kol Adat b’nei Yisrael, and there it said “vayi-ka-hel ha’am al aharon.”
There was Aaron’s community, associated with the golden calf, and Moshe’s community, associated with the mishkan.
The key to understanding this other community model lies in a nuance, which is the difference between Moshe’s Kehilah and Aharon’s Kehilah. The community of Moses is a community of "the whole congregation of the children of Israel," in contrast with the community of Aaron, which is described in the verse as a community of the “am,” the people.
What, then, is the difference between Am, and Edah? An am is a collection of individuals. They may share some commonalities, a common place they live, common ancestry, maybe common preferences. An Edah, on the other hand, is a grouping of the same individuals under a common vision – the word has the same root as Edut – an Edah provides "testimony" for something, and the same root as Ya’ad, “goal” – an Edah shares goals and aims.
That first part of the Midrash gets to the heart of the matter. Aaron's community conceived of itself as the center – aseh lanu Elohim – make a god for us. While Moshe’s community saw God in the center - va’asu li mikdash – the temple is for God – we are not at the center.
Rabbi Samson Refael Hirsch, in his commentary on the portion of Bemidbar which also has the word Edah, wrote that an Edah “...designates people joined together for a common calling and held together by the solidarity of that calling.” Being part of the edah, more than than just the Am, depends on one’s actions, on one’s commitment to the mission of the Jewish People and on their solidarity with other Jews.
The Jewish Week’s reflections on a synagogue are certainly true of Kehilah – that aspect of community – and that is very important. I am not minimizing the value of Kiddush and the social aspects of congregation. But what makes synagogue life valuable is that it’s not just a Kehilat Am, but a Kehilat Edah. Our congregating is mission driven and elevates our Jewish lives, collectively, and also as individuals.
It makes our prayer better. From a halakhic standpoint, ברוב עם הדרת מלך, prayers are better in a larger gathering of people. According to the Shulchan Aruch, if one lives in a town which has a larger congregation and a smaller one, one should prefer to pray with the larger congregation. But even from our own individual perspectives, inspiring prayer is very difficult alone. We can be inspired by the chazzan, by the people around us, by being here and hearing what’s going on in the lives of our congregational family, and coming to a better understanding of what we need to pray for.
It makes our Torah study better – the Talmud in masechet Brachot writes, אין תורה נקנית אלא בחבורה- we only acquire our Torah knowledge when learning together with others. The technical reason is that we may make a mistake or misunderstand something we read on our own, but beyond that there is so much to be gained from hearing what others have to say about a subject. Moreover, we are just more likely to learn Torah when we are part of the synagogue community, surrounded by people interested in something similar.
And we don’t need any special sources to know that being part of a community improves our acts of Chessed and elevates our tzedakah. Surrounded by others who have similar concerns that we have, and who do and who give, we too are moved to do more and to give more. We can participate in larger Chessed operations and Tzedakah campaigns, having a greater impact than we could on our own.
All three pillars of Jewish life – Torah, Avodah (prayer), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of kindness), are influenced and improved by coming to the synagogue. Sure, we are a Kehilah, everyone knows your name, we have community. But we are so much more than that. We are a Kehilat Edah, we share goals, share values, and we push each other to live by them and thus elevate ourselves and each other, and all of us collectively.
Now is a particular time when the concept of being part of our Edah looms large. We pray for all the innocent people of Ukraine who now find themselves in a war facing pure evil – a true humanitarian crisis. We care about and pray for all of them. And we have a special kinship and bond with our Edah – Adat Bnei Yisrael. Ukraine is home to one of the larger Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, and of course the region was home to 1.5 million Jews before the Shoah. There are now, by some counts, 200,000 Jews there. And they must flee. A friend of mine, the journalist Yair Rosenberg, shared a video of the director of the main synagogue in Odessa, tearfully begging Jews around the world to pray for them as they were forced to evacuate their synagogue on shabbat. As you know, the Jewish community here in New York is rallying together to help them.
Let us actualize the potential of our very special Kehilat Edah here at KJ to do what we do best and what a Kehilat Edah is for - inspire each other’s Tzedakh and Tefilah. After Shabbat, I urge you to please make a contribution to the KJ Benevolent fund for our Ukraine Crisis Fund. Our Benevolent fund will support some of the groups that are providing relief and can use our help. Together as a Kehilat Edah we can do more than any of us can do as individuals.
The same is true when it come to prayer. Let us pray by reciting Tehilim together as a community.