The importance of community in sorrow and in joy
One of the great blessings of Jewish law is that it mandates our interactions with a community.
Early on in the book of Genesis, we are told that "it is not good for man to be alone." In context, this quote certainly refers to the importance of couples and partnership in Judaism, and Judaism's desire for every human to find his or her life partner. However, even if the intent of the quote was different (and its other meaning remains relevant and true), the quote also points to the importance of human beings surrounding themselves with a community of others.
One of the great blessings of Judaism is that it mandates our interactions with a community. Many prayers require the presence of ten adults, a minyan. While traditionally Judaism had required ten adult males, the liberal streams of Judaism also recognize women as being able to fill that role. The upshot of such a requirement is that even for many prayers that do not require a minyan, Jews often pray together as groups. Thus, as someone says the private prayer for the ill, he is surrounded by community.
At no time is the Jewish community more strongly felt than during times of loss. Two weeks ago, I was shocked to learn of the untimely and unexpected passing of a woman very dear to me. As "luck" would have it, I was not only in the United States, making it possible for me to attend the funeral, but I happened to have been at the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly convention. I could not have asked for a better community of strangers to comfort me in my grief than this group of people who all understood the role community plays in our sorrows.
The sense of community that I felt among the rabbis paled in comparison to the community that surrounded the bereaved family in the days that followed. Far from the ten adults necessary to recite the mourners' prayer, hundreds of friends and family gathered for the funeral, showing what love and support they could, while we mourned together. During the shiva (the seven-day mourning period following a funeral), visitors filled the house to the extent that there was a line to get into the house of the bereaved family. Clearly, in this time of tragedy, the community gathered together to comfort one another and be there for the family.
However, it was clear to me that this community was created not by the death but rather the life of the deceased. Surely Judaism's laws ensured that some people would be there during the family's time in need. But it was the way that their daughter, wife, and mother focused on the people around her that brought them all together. She devoted her life to caring about people and creating a community for everyone around her, and in her death, it was clear that she succeeded.
Too often, Jews only remember their communal responsibilities when it comes to times of mourning. Yet Judaism expects us to maintain community not only in times of need, but also in mundane times as well as in times of celebration. For a thirteen year-old to recite the blessings over the Torah, there need to be nine other adults present. Same for the blessings recited under the wedding canopy. Judaism reminds us that we need to create community in times of happiness as much as in times of sadness.
In fact, as my friend (a fellow rabbinical student) pointed out to me, Judaism places such an importance on the group experience that the Torah has multiple words for groupings, including shevet, edah, and kahal. The last one, kahal, has remained in modern Hebrew to denote congregation. It is also the word most similar to the Hebrew word for community, kehila. In fact, in Hebrew, only two letters separate the congregation from community, "yud" and "hey," letters that spell out one of Judaism's names for God.
This is indeed the essence of Judaism: our purpose is to make God's presence felt through the creation of community. If we succeed in maintaining that community all of the time, then the community will naturally be there through happiness and sadness, when we need it most.
Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and is beginning the Israeli bet midrash program at the Schechter institute. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.