Friday, March 25, 2011

Communities or Empires?

I am constantly fascinated by the unexpected places where I encounter profoundly meaningful messages.  In an incident I may have related in previous postings, I was walking down Michigan Avenue when just such a message jumped out at me from the window of a Caribou Coffee location:

Build Communities
Not Empires

I gazed at the window pondering the meaning of these four words.  “Build Communities” stands alone. Depending on how it is punctuated, this message can be a statement, a command or an aspiration. “Not Empires” is a fragment no matter what punctuation mark is placed at the end.  What does the combination of a potential sentence and a clear fragment add up to?  Why did these two phrases call out to me from the window? And what, if anything, is there to learn about the Jewish future from this message in the window?

Without delving too deeply into the grammatical implications of the phrase, “Build Communities” can stand alone because community requires multiple people and implies multiple structures.  Implicit in “Build Communities” is the understanding and necessity that the community be one of meaning and covenant.  Absent a strong sense of connection, mutual responsibility and obligation, what appears to be “community” is, in actuality, just a group of people living near one another but existing more or less as individuals, private human empires. Like the phrase “Not Empires,” one person standing alone is just that - standing alone, a fragment detached from the rest of society.

Just as one person is not a community, neither is one building.  An edifice that is not part of a community, believing that it can stand alone or rule entire areas on its own,  can be an empire but it cannot stand for long.  Ultimately, it is either abandoned due to emptiness or is crushed under the weight of the empire it seeks to rule.  A grand edifice is, more often than not, a sign of growing hubris.  In many it ways, it marks the beginning of the end.  Whatever the original purpose of the edifice, the absence of community within it overcomes the existence of purpose if one exists.  If nobody buys into the purpose, the grand building sits alone, falls into a state of disrepair, and eventually crumbles.

Parashat Shemini presents us with a model that long predates the Caribou Coffee window message.  The opening verse says:

א  וַיְהִי, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי, קָרָא מֹשֶׁה, לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו--וּלְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel;    
Vayikra 9:1

When the Torah says “...on the eighth day...” what eighth day is it talking about? Rashi, in citing the midrash Torat Cohanim, teaches that this is the eighth day of the installation of the Cohanim.  At the center of this installation was the erecting and dismantling of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle over a seven day period.  On the eighth day, once the Mishkan was put up again and the Cohanim installed,  only then did Aharon transmit the blessing to the entire people, the Community of Israel, and only then did the Divine Presence - השכינה - descend to dwell among them.

At the end of the parashah, after the offerings by Aharon and the strange (and deadly) offerings by two of his sons, after other details and lengthy expositions of acceptable and unacceptable animals for consumption, the importance of all of these rules, the essence of why the community exists, and why the Mishkan is central, is reinforced:

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי;

For I am the LORD your God; therefore, sanctify yourselves and be holy; for I am holy;
Vayikra 11:44

When completed, the Mishkan is not a stand alone building: it is at the center of the camp, of the community; it holds the path to sanctity, to holiness, to purpose - The Torah and Mitzvot; and is the meeting place between the members of the community and God.  Everything else is built around and connected to this central place and mission.  In its eventual and perfect framework, everyone is connected to one another and to God.  Nothing stands alone; it is all purposeful community with a social/ethical/behavioral contract, also known as a ברית or Covenant.

Yesterday, I had an incredible, hour-long conference call with six staff members who attended the National Ramah Commission’s Bert B. Weinstein Winter Staff Training Institute.  Together, we talked spiritedly about the social contract of camp.  I listened as they shared their sense of what makes camp sacred to them and to others, why it is important, and what the shared obligations must be in order to maintain the holiness of the community.  Their strong sense of loyalty and commitment to camp as an institution and to Judaism as a way of life, to one another as staff members and, most important, to the well-being and development of their campers was inspiring.  For them, as for their peers, camp is a place where Torah and People, not buildings and selfishness, stand at the center all with an eye to the future, for this is the meaning of community versus empire.

Spurred by my encounter with the Caribou Coffee window message, “Build Communities, Not Empires,” by my conversation with our Weinstein participants, and by the explicit messages of the installation days, the putting up of the Mishkan, and the statement of ultimate purpose in our parashah, I want to raise the questions I believe we all should and must be pondering:

Are we standing alone or are we building and being part of community?

Do we articulate, repeat and live by our explicit mission? Or is the mission and vision a document to be written and then tucked away and ignored?  

Are we meeting the requirements of our social contract and inspiring and providing for future generations?  Or are we cutting off our future for an expedient solution to today’s financial challenges?

A movement is not a set of institutions or “members.”  It is an idea, a set of values, aspirations, and covenants that centers and directs a group of people to achieving meaning and Divine interaction.  Take people and purpose out of camp and all you have is a bunch of buildings on a lake.  But, when those same people and purpose are put back into those buildings, we get community, purpose and a future working toward what we call “The World to Come.”  The questions listed above serve as reminders that whether we are talking about  camp, our local institutions, our Movement or our People, purpose, meaning, ultimate outcomes, and Covenant must be at the center.  In so doing, we insure that, rather than creating short-lived empires and fragments, we are building sustainable, holy Jewish communities in constant interaction with one another and with God, working to bring about the perfect world and an insured future.

Shabbat Shalom.

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