Sunday, February 12, 2023

Avot 2:5--Always Room for One More

Avot 2:5—Hillel says. . . “Do not separate yourself from the community.

To be Jewish is to be part of a community.  Most of our practices cannot be achieved alone. Only by joining with family (biological and/or chosen), friends, acquaintances, and even strangers can we perform our tradition’s core mitzvot: Jewish learning, spiritual service, and acts of lovingkindness.  Recognizing this truth, Hillel urges us to maintain strong communal ties.

Why do we need this exhortation?  Because, as Hillel recognizes, community will inevitably be difficult.  To join with others is to acknowledge and accept the need for sacrifice, to be willing to not always get your way.  The price we pay for communal benefits is what Rabbi Mordecai describes as “a willingness to be reasonably unhappy.”  Communal life always includes some degree of conflict, and putting up with people you don’t necessarily like.  If we hold out for a community where no one ever insults, offends, or ignores us, we will always end up alone.   

My favorite teaching on this topic comes from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s marvelous book, When All You’ve Wanted Isn’t Enough.  Kushner recounts how, just before Yom Kippur, he runs into an unaffiliated Jew who insists on sharing why he won’t be coming to services: “I tried to get involved in your synagogue but I found it to be full of hypocrites.”  To which Rabbi Kushner is tempted to respond: “True.  But there’s always room for one more.”

Instead, he notes: “A synagogue that only admitted saints would be like a hospital that admitted only healthy people. It would be a lot easier to run, and a more pleasant place to be, but I’m not sure we’d be doing job we’re here to do.”

Community is hard—as all worthwhile endeavors are.  The paradox is that when we are most tempted to separate ourselves from communal life is usually precisely when we most need it.

May we all find and sustain community that both comforts and challenges us.

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