Rabbi Marc Katz’s Shabbat Dvar Torah – Parsha: Behar-Bechukotai

There is no greater statement of communal responsibility in the Jewish tradition than the statement, “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh BaZeh,” or “All Jews are responsible for one another.” It speaks about our need to care for one another, to look out for one another, to rebuke when our neighbor falls out of line, to comfort when our friend is in need.

But what few people realize is that, like every adage, this one is tied to a Biblical quote. And though we might assume that our command for communal responsibility should find its roots in the command to “love [our] neighbor as ourselves” or the law to judge another fairly, the idea of communal responsibility, Arevut in Hebrew, takes its source from the strangest of places.

This week’s Torah portion contains a list of blessings and curses. We are taught that if we worship God and act with justice and faith then god will reward us. But if we don’t, if we stray from God, we will be punished. We will face war and famine, bloodshed and persecution, loss of land and foreign foes.

And it is in this list that we get the proof for why communal responsibility is important. In the litany of horrible things that might happen to the Jewish people we read among the many curses the warning that if we do bad we “shall stumble, one up another.”

Reading this curse, we can’t help but think about an image of a stampede, running away from danger or toward an exit or toward a prize. If everyone runs in lock-step, we are secure. Everyone gets to their destination. But if one person falls, it creates a cascading motion. Soon one person becomes six, and six turns into twenty. People are crawling over one another, clawing their way past those on the ground. This is the image that the Torah depicts.

But, as our Rabbis explain in the Talmud, if we look out for our neighbor and make sure that he won’t fall and if everyone does this, we will all remain upright. Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh BaZeh, all of Israel is responsible for one other. If we keep one another from slipping, from straying, from tripping, then we all remain intact. In a brilliant move, our Rabbis proved the need for communal responsibility by showing us the picture of what our lives would look like if we didn’t care. They warned us how easy it is to stumble, one upon the other (San 27b).

Our communities are stronger when we work together, and though our Talmud provides this sentiment in theory, I’ve been schooled in the importance of communal responsibility through the relationship between CBE and Altshul.

When I began ten years ago at CBE, Rabbi Andy Bachman pulled me aside and told me the history of this amazing minyan. He impressed upon me the crucial place that Altshul plays in the life of the Brooklyn Jewish community. He taught me that it is the job of an institution to foster a living Judaism that is vibrant and alive, even if that Judaism looks different, prays differently, and has different communal norms.

I wish I could say the spirit of communal responsibility, of Arevut, is always easy, but it is not. As we worked to combine Purim celebrations, figure out a routine for Shavuot, negotiate space on busy Shabbats, or incorporate CBE members into Altshul’s second day holiday celebrations, there were times when it seemed that “we were stumbling, one upon the other.”

But the thing that kept our relationship going was the knowledge that the word for communal responsibility, arevut, shares the same Hebrew root with the word for a guarantor. And just like most people in the room needed a parent to guarantee their rental contracts when they first moved to Brooklyn, the essence of communal responsibility is rooted in a shared responsibility to swoop in and ensure that none of us defaults on our foundational commitments to the Jewish world.

It is every community’s obligation to provide platforms for meaning making. It’s is each of our tasks to create avenues for social connection. We each have a duty to provide powerful prayer experiences, sensitive and open spaces, and paths to thoughtful intellectual engagement with our sacred texts.

While I think that CBE does all of that well, I know that not every member of the wider Jewish community will find what they need at our clergy led services. Altshul walks beside us toward the same larger goals, and as a traditional egalitarian community, does so in it’s own way. Our goal is to learn to walk in stride, urging one another on and making sure that in our collective march, our feet don’t get tangled.

There is a debate in the Talmud about whether a prayer leader who has already recited a certain prayer is allowed to go back and lead that prayer for others. We know that if someone says a prayer for you and you answer Amen, it’s as if you said it yourself. But maybe, say our Rabbis, only someone who is saying the prayer for the first time can set you up for your Amen. Can you light the Hanukkah candles or hear the Megillah read and then turn around and do it again for someone else’s sake?

Yes, says our tradition. Af al pi she-yatsa, motsi: Any blessing which one has already recited on behalf of himself, that person can recite again on behalf of others (Rosh Hashannah 29a).

Though the medieval commentators give a host of reason, my favorite has always come from Nissim of Gerondi (or the Ran) who wrote in the 14th century:

The principle of communal responsibility means that if your fellow Jew has to do a mitzvah which he has not done, it is as if you yourself have not fulfilled your own obligation. Therefore you have an obligation to say the blessing and to do the mitzvah so that the other person can fulfill his obligation.

That by the way is the reason Chabad stands on the street corner and asks if you are Jewish. If you haven’t shaken the Lulav or heard the shofar, it’s as if they have not as well.

Over the years of interacting with Altshul I have learned that even if CBE conducts the best services, brings in the best speakers, or deeply pursues justice, we have not fulfilled our obligation to the Jewish people. We may read Torah across the street, but there are still those who want to hear the whole portion on Shabbat. We may pray deeply in those pews but we do not recite musaf. We may bless our congregants but we do no duchan.

Altshul matters because it speaks in it’s unique register to a group of Jews who need something else and it provides it to them with warmth and energy and integrity. The Jewish world is richer and more complete because Altshul exists.

I’m going to miss a lot when I head to my new community in Montclair. I’m going to miss leading third grade tefilah, visiting my preschool classrooms, and praying in this chapel and across the street in the sanctuary. I’ll miss Debbie and Shir L’shabbat. I’ll miss my yearly trip to Israel with our eighth graders (or maybe not).

But on the top of that list I will miss Altshul. This relationship does not exists in most places. I am so thankful I have gotten to learn from you over these ten years. I am so thankful for all that CBE has learned from you over these ten-plus years.

May both institutions continue to walk together, stride by stride, in perfect step for many years to come.

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