Cultivating Community

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?

(א) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (ב) דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃ (ג) וְזֹאת֙ הַתְּרוּמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּקְח֖וּ מֵאִתָּ֑ם זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת׃ (ד) וּתְכֵ֧לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֛ן וְתוֹלַ֥עַת שָׁנִ֖י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ וְעִזִּֽים׃ (ה) וְעֹרֹ֨ת אֵילִ֧ם מְאָדָּמִ֛ים וְעֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים וַעֲצֵ֥י שִׁטִּֽים׃ (ו) שֶׁ֖מֶן לַמָּאֹ֑ר בְּשָׂמִים֙ לְשֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וְלִקְטֹ֖רֶת הַסַּמִּֽים׃ (ז) אַבְנֵי־שֹׁ֕הַם וְאַבְנֵ֖י מִלֻּאִ֑ים לָאֵפֹ֖ד וְלַחֹֽשֶׁן׃ (ח) וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
(1) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: (2) Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (3) And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; (4) blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; (5) tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; (6) oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; (7) lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. (8) And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

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?

(יד) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

(14) He (Hillel) used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?

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?

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמִין בְּעַצְמְךָ עַד יוֹם מוֹתְךָ, וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ, וְאַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לִשְׁמֹעַ, שֶׁסּוֹפוֹ לְהִשָּׁמַע. וְאַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאִפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה:

Hillel said: do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death; and do not judge not your fellow man until you have reached his place; and do not say something that cannot be understood [trusting] that in the end it will be understood. And do not say, "When I shall have leisure I shall study;" perhaps you will not have leisure.

  • 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?

ותניא כל עיר שאין בה עשרה דברים הללו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה בית דין מכין ועונשין

וקופה של צדקה נגבית בשנים ומתחלקת בשלשה

ובית הכנסת

ובית המרחץ






ומלמד תינוקות

משום ר' עקיבא אמרו אף מיני פירא מפני שמיני פירא מאירין את העינים:

And it is taught in a baraita: A Torah scholar is not permitted to reside in any city that does not have these ten things:

(1)A court that issues punishments;

(2) a charity fund for which monies are collected by two people and distributed by three;

(3) a synagogue;

(4) a bathhouse;

(5) a bathroom;

(6) a doctor;

(7) a bloodletter [according to Rashi's commentator; this might also be a nurse or physician's assistant];

(8) a scribe;

(9) a butcher;

(10) and a teacher of young children. They said in the name of Rabbi Akiva: It should also have varieties of fruit, because varieties of fruit illuminate the eyes.

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?