Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Peace of the Whole

It is now eleven months since the horrific murder of the Fogel family in Itamar. You recall Ruti, Hudi and there three young children were brutally stabbed to death by Arab terrorists on Friday night as they slept in their beds. Last night in my neighborhood shule, where Ruti's father, Rav Ben Yishai most often davens the afternoon and evening prayers, the Rav of the shule asked him to say a few words between Mincha and Maariv. You see, with the end of the eleven months, Rav Ben Yishai, who has been saying the kaddish for his family, will stop reciting the mourner's prayer. He, Rav ben Yishai, will no longer take his place with the others who grieve the loss of a loved one to chant the traditional kaddish.

Rav Ben Yishai is a modest and unassuming man. While I do not know him personally, his dignity is evident in the way he carries himself. He is defferential to others, even though in many cases he is both older and more learned than they.He speaks in a quiet yet firm voice. What he says comes from a place deep within. It does not need to be shouted or repeated to be heard. He had but a few words to convey to the small community of men he has davened with now for near a year each evening. But what he said was compelling. In essence he said that his children died 'al kiddush Hashem', sanctifying the great name of G-d. Their place in heaven could not be higher. He said that he draws comfort in knowing that there sacrifice is an inspiration for all of us in our committment to the love of the land of Israel and the Torah of Israel. Their death while hugely tragic was not empty. It served to make the ideals in which we believe, ideals which are often abstact, real and alive for us. Through them and their sacrifice our Judaism is renewed and deepened and given much more veracity.

Have you ever wondered why it is that when we pray, even our most intimate prayers, like the 'amidah', the silent sh'moneh esrai, we frame our talk to G-d in the plural form rather than the singular. We almost never use "I". Instead every request, blessing and praise is put in the form of "we". Even when we perform a very personal mitzvah, like putting on tefilin or lighting Shabbat candles, we say "blessed are you L-rd our G-d etc..who has commanded us". We do not say "who commanded me" ! Why? Why does tradition insist that we use the plural and disdains the more personal singular form.

I will tell you another story...also one that happened yesterday. I live across the street from the Yeshiva Mercaz Ha'Torah. One of the outstanding Rebbes of the Yesiva, Rav Aryeh Greenwald makes it a personal priority to reach out and learn with men and boys in the community and to offer the marginalized Shabbat hospitality.
He has been learning daily with one elderly and compromised man for some two years. Yesterday they made a siyum on completing an order of the Mishna. If this man, had made a party, say to celebrate a significant birthday, I am not sure he would have ten people to invite. Here, with Rav Greenwald, he made a siyum in the Yeshiva and 40 young men were present. They knew him a bit since he came to daven on occasion when he ate with the Greenwalds. On this day, these young Yeshiva boys were his community.They sang and danced with him. They celebrated his joy. They gave him a sense of belonging and helped him to feel the worthiness of his achievement in his Torah study.

We live in a time that emphasizes the development of the individual. Western society has long put the focus on the "I" over the "we". Just note what I wrote. "I" is capitalized always; "we" never. Self actualization is the priority. Success is measured in personal success. But is that a Jewish perspective. Does our tradition support emphasizing the "I" above the "we"?

I think not! I think we are misguided in taking on the prevailing values of the culture that sorrounds us. In Torah perspective the "we" needs to be given precedence.
Who we are as individuals matters. But not as much as the whole to which we belong.
The Sages taught us that by dint of the way we express ourselves to G-d. No matter how noble our act of devotion or heatfelt our prayer, we can only speak to G-d as part of the community of our People. No "I", no matter how significant, learned or holy, can supplant the "we". It is only in the context of community that an individual has enduring meaning and stature.

That lesson was clear at the siyum where a man with no friends, isolated and alone, had a sense of belonging and meaning through the "we" of the unlikely community of Yeshiva boys 50 years his junior. And it is true for Rav Ben Yishai and his family who grieve. The only solace to be found in the brutal murder of his children and grandchildren is to see the Fogels not as a private family brought to a tragic and untimely end. But rather to see the Fogels as a part of the Jewish People living our nation's story in which their sacrifice, horrific though it was, enhances the character of the whole to which they belonged.

The truth evident in the stories above is equally true for you and me. No peace can be had for the indvidual as an individual in this world. Life is tragic. We all fail, and even when we accomplish, our accomplishments when standing alone, hardly matter. We all die and barely leave a trace for having been. No, the only peace to be found for the individual is as part of the whole. As part of the whole we transcend. As part of the whole we prevail. As part of the whole we contribute to a perfection that is impossible to us as individuals.

My sense is that in our practice of our faith we miss the mark. We are so busy worrying about our personal devotion and its level of excellence that we fail to see ourselves as part of the community. Our emphasis so often is on "how am I doing" relative to the expectations we and tradtion puts on us. Rarely do we consider how we are performing as part of the ensemble that is the Jewish People and if we are contributing our limitted yet important part to the whole.

This Shabbat we read of the Exodus. So many of the commandments we are given both this week and throughout the Torah are "to remember the exodus from Egypt".
What are we meant to remember when we perform mitzvot? What is recalling the Exodus
supposed to invoke. Surely we might answer "gratitude to G-d over our redemption".
But may I humbly suggest that perhaps we are meant to recall that even when we perform the most personal mitzvah we are part of a people. We do not do mitzvot as indiviudals isolated and alone, no matter how holy we may be. In keeping a mitzvah even as an individual, even in the privacy of our home, we need to see our act as belonging to the story of our People and connected to the Exodus that was a national not an individual event.

Peace for the individual is impossible. We can only know peace as part of the whole. Perhaps we need to alter our perspective and worry less about the individual we are and more about the body we are a part of and how we are doing our share for its wellbeing. Perhaps our focus should not be on becoming a spiritual hero but rather on becoming a good team player!

Shabbat Shalom

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