The URJ Reflection Project: Go Deeper on “The Setting”

August 15, 2020Rabbi Esther L. Lederman and Rabbi Leora Kaye

As part of the URJ Reflection Project, a new set of offerings and experiences for the High Holidays in a time of social distance, we’ve also developed three short essays that allow you to go deeper into the essence of Jewish wisdom that grounds these rituals. Drawing on the themes of each of the three parts of the project — called The Spiritual, The Setting, and The Memorial — here we provide more insight into Jewish teachings around community, mourning, renewal, and life. We invite you to share these stories with loved ones and immerse yourself in the wisdom that our ancient tradition provides.

Of all the ideas, philosophies, morals, and wisdom that Judaism teaches, from Biblical times through the present day, few are emphasized as much as the importance of community. Belonging – the knowledge that you are necessary, that you matter, and that, in turn, others will steady you – is a grounding philosophy of the Jewish experiment.

Since the onset of COVID-19, the loneliness experienced by people, those who literally live on their own, and those surrounded by family members, has become a reality that requires compassionate repair and response. 

Additionally, the racial injustices that have continued to pervade America have added to the feeling of isolation experienced by Black and Brown people. In a time when many are experiencing loneliness and loss, white people are struggling to understand both their individual and collective responsibility to address racism and systemic oppression.

While the various stressors that are weighing people down are almost too many to name, Judaism can offer a safe haven. Our communities – when they are at their best – can provide a sense of belonging that is a salve to the solitude. Torah teaches us this.

Though there are parts of the Torah with which we may quarrel, there are other moments that offer truths that stand as moral guideposts, and they are repeated often in the Jewish narrative.

The episode of a person with tzaraat is one. In Leviticus we learn that one who is a m’tzora (leper), and who suffers from a scaly skin affliction, must be sent out of the Israelite community, and then… brought back in. Torah teaches that it is not the safety and security of the populace that takes precedent, but rather, the individual — the human with feelings and vulnerabilities and connections to community. That is who we are to care for.

We are taught this again some 800 years later in the Talmud when we read the simple and often quoted proverb al tifrosh min hatzibbur, “Do not separate yourself from your community” (Pirkei Avot 2:14). What does that mean beyond the obvious? It speaks to the deepest core of who we are Perhaps it is not only that you should not separate yourself because of what you may lose, but because of what the community will lose without you..

In Judaism, community is both about what you receive and what you give. It is about what the people in your community receive from you – your humor, warmth, intelligence, grace – and yes, what you may receive from others in return. Every person with whom you interact, every single one, will share their humanity with you. They will lift you up when you have fallen to your knees and they will celebrate with you when you rise up in moments of joy. And you with them.

At its heart, this is a religion which holds dear the idea of connection – of belongingness. To each other, to self, to your understanding of God. What you bring matters.

Our High Holiday liturgy quietly and profoundly continues to remind us of the power of connectedness. We come together in the various confessional prayers to say what we have done that we might want to change in the coming year, not in the first person “I” but in the collective “we.” And, the expectation is that we will all lean on each other to change it.

I, alone, cannot change my jealousy or the times I have gone in a direction I should not have or led others down a treacherous path (real examples from our ViduiViduiוִדּוּי"Confession;" liturgical prayer recited throughout Yom Kippur; confessional said before death. prayer) without the help and teaching of the people who hold me accountable. I need the people who are living this life with me to point out what I might be able to change, while offering their support and guidance as I do so, before we stand in a space of confession again next year. And I can do the same for them.

Walking alongside each other, Judaism says, ultimately allows us to access our vulnerability, but also our bravery — and together those two qualities may be the key to connecting to others. Those connection points might be precisely what will allow us to understand the wisdom of thousands of years of tradition inviting us to be a part of this holy obligation.

Visit for ways to meaningfully reflect on the Jewish year 5780.

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