The central practices of Jewish life—prayer, study, celebrating, caregiving—require community. Communal institutions organize people together for the collective pursuit of sacred purpose and for mutual support. In the midst of pandemic, we are discovering new ways and structures for cultivating community even as our buildings are closed and we practice social distancing.
What is necessary about community and what is sacred about it? According to the teachings below, what aspects of communal life are most important?
The Torah here describes God's charge to the Israelites to create their first communal institution: the Mishkan. This moveable sanctuary was created through the voluntary contribution of gifts (Hebrew: Terumah). While the Mishkan was a physical structure, the biblical text does not present it as a house for God. As Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, "God does not live in buildings. He lives in builders. He lives not in structures of stone but in the human heart. What the Jewish sages and mystics pointed was that in our parsha God says, “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell in them” (Ex. 25:8), not “that I may dwell in it.”
- How do material donations and construction projects serve to cultivate community?
- Later on (Exodus 30:11-16), the Torah requires all Israelites to pay a regular half-shekel tax. Do you think voluntary contributions or required taxes are more effective for building community? For securing institutions?
- What has this time of social distancing taught you about the role of brick-and-mortar buildings in sustaining community?
In this pithy statement, the ancient sage Hillel conveys the importance of balancing self-advocacy with service to others.
- How do you understand the relationship between the three parts of Hillel's teaching?
- In what ways does the crisis right now encourage service to others? In what ways does it encourage focus on the self?
- How do you understand the connections among the sayings of Hillel that are collected here? Is this an arbitrary list, or do you discern some logic in how the various teachings relate to each other?
- In what ways does this list of teachings build on Hillel's wisdom from Pirkei Avot 1:14 above?
- Based on this small collection of teachings, what value does Hillel assign to community? Why is it so important to him that people not separate themselves from the community?
A baraita is a teaching from the earliest generations of Rabbis known as the Tannaim. According to this baraita, a Torah scholar or Rabbi requires a whole range of communal institutions.
- How would you group the ten institutions that are listed here into sub-categories? Do you see any logic behind how this list is ordered? Do you think the list is organized according to importance?
- What kinds of services do the institutions listed here provide? What does this suggest about the value of community?
- Which of these services are best provided by Jewish communal institutions? Which are best provided by the general community? Which by governmental authorities?
- If you were making a list of the top ten communal institutions that you would require in choosing a place to live, what would be on the list?
- How does the baraita's list relate to the kinds of services and organizations that Jewish communities support today?
What do you as an individual value most about community?
What institutional structures need to change to serve communal needs in this time of crisis?
What are we learning right now about new strategies for overcoming isolation and building community? When public health requires social distancing, what changes and investments can we make in our institutions so that they can serve our communities in the present and in the future?