Limbs of a Whole: Caring Community

By Rabbi Jill Maderer, sermon delivered Yom Kippur Morning 2011

A boat filled with travelers sails in the ocean, when suddenly one passenger begins to drill a hole in the floor.  His fellow passengers plead with him to stop, but the man says, “Mind your own business.  This is my seat, and I can do whatever I want to the floor under it.  Am I telling you what to do?  No.  So why don’t you leave me alone?”

This midrash—this classic Jewish legend– of course, is not about a boat.  It is about how different parts of one entity can make or break the integrity of the whole.   Inspired by this midrash, the 16th century mystic Isaac Luria imagined that the Jewish community is a body, each of us, a limb.

Take a walk and feel your left arm swing forward as your right leg takes a step.  Injure just your pinky toe and feel your entire leg strain from the physical compensation.  As we move through life, each of our limbs makes a constant and lasting impact on our whole body.

We can see this connectedness at Rodeph Shalom every day.  As we move through congregational life, each limb, each member, has the potential to make a lasting impact on the whole community body.  As limbs of a whole body, we are connected.

This interdependent vision of true community is not easy.  And so, as sociologist Robert Bellah argues, instead of forming communities, people form lifestyle enclaves.  A lifestyle enclave is a group, such as a country club or soccer league that is composed of people with similar backgrounds, ages, political views, interests, even appearances.  What characterizes a lifestyle enclave is homogeneity and independence.  For instance, when families grow out of commercial play-spaces, such as the Please Touch Museum, we move onto the next activity.   It’s not a permanent relationship.   In a community, we share responsibility; we share a past and we share a future.  What differentiates a community from a lifestyle enclave, Bellah explains, is that community commitments run deeper and the diversity of the members is much greater.

Jewish tradition challenges us to move past the enclave in religious life.  Countercultural and yet deeply relevant, Isaac Luria’s image of limbs of the body reminds us that we are bound together, that interdependent community transcends the individual.  This morning, as we confessed our transgressions to God, we recited our prayers in the plural form.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu—that suffix “nu” means “we.”  Al chet she’chatanu—for all these we sinned.  We pray in the plural in an effort to support one another.  We also confess in the plural because we live in the same community where we enable sin to exist, even when it is not directly our own.  With the plural voice, we proclaim our shared responsibility and our shared destiny.  As limbs of a whole body, we are connected.

From singing in the Congregational choir, to greeting at the door, to reading Torah, there are many ways for us here to participate in the interdependence of community.  Some of the most profound connections in our congregation occur when we accompany each other through life’s most intense experiences.  Jewish tradition offers a prescription for us to support each limb in our community body.  It comes in the form of the daily prayer, Elu Divarim, which we recited this morning.  The Elu Divarim prayer reads: These are obligations whose worth cannot be measured: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people.  In order to transform a group of people into a true community, Elu Divarim submits, we need to become what synagogues now call a Caring Community.  We need to comfort each other in times of loss, celebrate with each other in times of joy.

Elu Divarim demands action.  You know the bumper sticker that reads “Do random acts of kindness”?  It’s sweet, but it’s not Jewish.  There is nothing random about mitzvot.  We are bound to one another as limbs of a body.  When we comfort the mourner, when we visit the isolated, when we celebrate a wedding blessing, when we reach out and draw one another in, it is with intention.  And I would go so far to say that it is with responsibility.

True, Reform Judaism offers individual choice rather than obligation to Jewish law.  Yet, as Rabbi Freedman taught on Rosh Hashanah, some choices require commitment.  If we choose to have a caring and binding community, rather than just an enclave, then the mitzvot: to comfort, to visit, to celebrate –compel each of us to share the responsibility and to bring ourselves to the whole.  Our congregation is proud of a growing effort whereby members take care of one another with intentional acts of kindness, in our own growing Caring Community network.

Elu Divarim forges a path of what we can bring and what we can receive in order to foster a bond of belonging.  The text teaches us a model for a Caring Community network, in which we touch each other in our most intense life experiences and in our moments of deepest need.

Sometimes, the greatest obstacle to heeding the call of Elu Divarim is the challenge of vulnerability.  Intense life experiences force us to face mortality and to see each other when we are not at our best.

I understand the temptation to separate from others in vulnerable moments.  Last year, I underwent emergency surgery.  It’s behind me now and I’m fine.  But at the time, I looked and felt so fragile that I wanted to hide.  As I know many of you have experienced in your own health challenges: I could barely stay awake.  I could not cough out a sentence much less a conversation.  I did not want anyone to encounter me as weak.  I did not even let Rabbi Kuhn visit me in the hospital.  That was a mistake.  There’s nothing wrong with a little vanity and a little privacy.  But I allowed it to get in the way of connection and support.  Finally, while I recovered at home, I let Rabbi Kuhn, as well as a few others, visit me.  As challenging as it was to set aside some pride, and accept that people would see me at my weakest, not to mention see toys strewn all over the living room and dirty dishes all over the kitchen, the visits pulled me back into a world where I am not alone, and my family is not alone.  I do not live in isolation, nor do the people who reached out to me.  It took me those few days to remember that relationships are more important than privacy and that connections are more healing than isolation.

In order to participate in each other’s lives, we need to open the door and let each other in.  Those of us who need a visit, need company, need presence, are typically not at our best—not at our social best or our physical best or our cognitive best.  We know it and we feel exposed.  We are broken and we do not want to be seen.  Privacy becomes our crutch, isolation, the unintended consequence.

In my work as a rabbi, I am more typically on the other side of the hospital bed, or of the home visit.  I find deep meaning in my visits with congregants who are experiencing loneliness, pain or fear.  Still, as I know many of you have experienced when making visits, sharing company with those experiencing such vulnerability often requires us to confront uncomfortable realities of mortality, of weakness, of diminished capabilities.

The Talmud, a 5th century Jewish text, instructs: “Be careful to respect an old man who has forgotten his knowledge through no fault of his own.” For it is said, “When the Israelites carried the Torah through the wilderness, both the whole tablets and the fragments of the tablets were placed in the Holy Ark.”

In lifestyle enclaves, we want to be seen as our best.  In our community, we need to be seen, even in our brokenness.  And as we visit others in need, we need to respect them in their brokenness.   Indeed, the fragments, too, were placed in the Holy Ark.

Many members of our congregation have exposed their brokenness and many of you have accompanied others in their times of need.   Last year, a fairly new member who was a regular at our Shabbat services, found that his cancer became more aggressive.  At times, he needed to be hospitalized and eventually he became homebound, in the care of hospice.  His wife spent part of her days at work and part of her days sitting with him.

This couple did not have family living in the area.  Meals were not getting cooked and another night of delivery pizza was not appealing.  When another member of the congregation asked if there was something she could do to help it became clear that a nutritious meal was in order.  One meal turned into a whole schedule and congregants signed up to deliver.  Someone who didn’t cook instead offered rides from the airport for family and friends coming into town to visit their loved one in his last days.

I remember visiting with this sick member in those final days.  Every breath was so labored and he was exhausted enough to pause for rest in between sentences.  And yet, he devoted some of that precious remaining breath to words of gratitude for his community.   He could no longer travel to the synagogue and participate in Shabbat services; but, he appreciated how the synagogue came to him.

Community support could not lengthen his life, but it created a profound connection and transformed the end of his life.  After the man succumbed to his cancer, these congregants attended the funeral and shiva.  Each brought something of himself—a meal, a card, some company.  Each brought something of herself—a ride, a memory, a presence.  As they brought themselves, not only did they comfort the mourners, they saw one another investing in the whole.  To deliver a meal was to feel a part of a greater effort to bring solace.  To offer a ride, was to feel keenly that they did not live in isolation from their congregant’s needs.  To bring their presence was to be uplifted by the reward of touching someone’s life.  And so, these people who were trying to help a congregant found that their own connections to the community deepened.

This group of congregants could not cure cancer.  But they could create profound connections.  We cannot fix each other’s problems, but we can transform each other’s lives.  As limbs of a whole body, we are connected.

So many of you here at Rodeph Shalom are bringing yourselves to important efforts to deepen the profound connections of this community.  You comfort one another in times of sorrow and rejoice together in times of joy.  Right now, our leadership is reimagining and reorganizing our Caring Community network so that its efforts will touch more congregants, especially in this time of congregational growth.  This network will develop our communications system so that your efforts to care for one another are better supported.

Our Caring Community leadership team has chosen to first concentrate on reaching out and visiting our homebound members.  Many of these members have spent their lifetimes engaged at Rodeph Shalom and now find themselves isolated from the community where they once brought so much of themselves.  Some of our b’nei mitzvah students have already taken the lead here, visiting our elderly and listening to the wisdom they share, born out of the experiences of their long lives.  To add to this effort, we will develop our network of visitors and of congregants who can be visited.  Please let me know if you are ready to sign up to visit or if you know a member who should be visited.  We will hold a Caring Community Homebound Visiting orientation on October 25 and I hope you will feel compelled to participate.  I welcome you to flood my inbox with your interest on Monday morning.

These are obligations whose worth cannot be measured: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people.

We share responsibility; we share a past and we share a destiny.   Parts of one entity can make or break the integrity of the whole.  As we move through congregational life, each limb, each member, has the potential to make a lasting impact on the whole community body.

As limbs of a whole body, may we be connected.