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The Discordant Notes of Open Orthodoxy

What Makes a Community a Community?
Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

In an article last fall in The Forward, Rabbi Gil Student asked a simple question: “Why does such a small nation continue to split into smaller pieces of a shrinking pie?” Why do we Jews seem intent on taking our already small number and finding ways to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groupings?

Rabbi Student suggests these schisms and fractures are responses to modernity. As he notes, in many ways it is simple human nature. The world changes, people change. But more insightfully, he speaks to the nature of groups:

“Aside from basic human nature, there is an important political aspect to the splits. A movement remains viable only when its members care what each other think, when they are willing to listen and respond to one another’s concerns. Compromise is the masking tape of unity, clumsily but effectively keeping loose pieces from falling off. When we stop caring about how our colleagues and neighbors react, when we act unilaterally on the most contentious issues, we implicitly create new movements that are only formalized over time.”

I would suggest that nothing defines a community so much as its recognition of common leadership and willingness to respect the authority of that leadership.

We just read Parshat Tetzaveh, which begins with the charge to Moshe to command the community of Israel to bring all that is needed to maintain the menorah. He is also told to instruct the “wise hearted” to prepare the vestments for Aaron the kohen. However, as the parshah unfolds there is an abrupt change in how God instructed Moshe: “And you shall make a menorah.” “And you shall make a shulchan.” “And the mishkan shall you make.”

Moshe is no longer told to command others. The instructions are directed at him personally; it seems incumbent upon him to build various components of the sanctuary.

Which is it? Is Moshe to instruct and command others, or is he to do the tasks himself? Speaking to this point, the Midrash Hagadol directs us back to the parshah’s opening pasuk where we read v’ata tetzaveh, “and you shall command the children of Israel,” veyikchu, “that they shall bring.”

From this it is clear that Moshe’s role was to instruct, guide and command. It was Israel’s task to fulfill, create and do. To emphasize this point, we see that Moshe’s name is never mentioned in the parshah. This was so the Torah would not create the erroneous impression that the burden of responsibility to create and maintain a sanctuary is solely placed on the shoulders of Moshe, the leader.

The focus is not on Moshe. It is on Israel to establish a House of God, a task shared by the entire community of Israel. It is on the leader to inspire, teach and motivate. It is on the people to respond.

The balance and relationship between leader and community speak to the heart of what it means to be a community, and what it means to thrive. Cynics would suggest that the burden of the mikdash is to be borne by the communal religious leaders. The truth is that the burden is to be borne by the people. “Ah,” reply the cynics, “so the real burden is on the community. If that is true, what is the need for leaders? To claim the glory?”

The Torah is clear on the balance between leader and community. Veata tetzaveh – the leader’s job, Moshe’s job, is to teach, inspire, and prompt the community. The community’s job is to respond – veyikchu – to generously cooperate, participate and share. Only when everyone carries out his responsibility fully and honestly can a sanctuary be built.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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