Rabbi Freedman’s Shabbat Message

TAZRIA 2024/5784

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK – RABBI DAVID FREEDMAN

John Donne was an English poet, scholar, and soldier from Elizabethan times – he was born in 1571 and died in 1631.  Although born into a Catholic family, he became a Church of England minister and rather surprisingly some 400 years later we can still quote from some of his sermons.  Perhaps the most famous was a speech that he wrote in the form of a poem – its title – No Man is an Island.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

As well as if a promontory were:

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee.

What was he saying in this sermon?

In my humble opinion, Donne was expounding upon an idea, an idea profoundly rooted in Jewish thought and practice – namely, the inter-connectedness of people.  He felt strongly that no man is, or should remain, an island – in other words, segregating oneself without regard for society as a whole, without any inter-action with one’s neighbours, without making some contribution to the common good, and without any appreciation of what others might have contributed to one’s own life.

Donne said that every death diminishes him, if so – every birth presumably should nurture him, and every joyous occasion should expand his horizons.

The founding president of Indonesia, President Sukarno went even further when he said: The worst cruelty that can be inflicted on a human being is isolation.

And that is what this week’s sidra of Tazria comes to teach us – the text describes people who physically or emotionally cannot live with others – and yet it then spends an inordinate amount of time describing how the Kohen examines and re-examines, evaluates and re-evaluates the outcast with the single goal of bringing that person back into the community.  As one rabbi explained, the main purpose of our text is not to cast out, but to bring back, to purify those who have been isolated, and help them feel whole again.

I was very moved when I read a report this week about one particular family whose brand new house was inundated following the excessive rain we experienced last Friday and early Saturday morning.  Jemima Macdonald and her family had only moved into their new home in the Wollongong suburb of Thirroul a fortnight before disaster struck.

In spite of the heartbreak at finding much of their new house under water, Ms Macdonald, speaking on Sunday, said that she had found “a silver lining to the past devastating 48 hours, in the neighbours and community who have rallied around them.  We had neighbours, people from the other side of Thirroul coming over and bringing their shovels and their mops and saying what can we do, where do we start?  We didn’t know a single person when we moved here, and we moved here to be part of the community and that is what we got yesterday.”

In a report entitled, Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, current US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy examined the mental state of those people who felt detached from society, or abandoned by the very institutions that had been established by government to support them.

He wrote the following in 2023:

When I first took office as Surgeon General in 2014, I didn’t view loneliness as a public health concern.  But that was before I embarked on a cross-country listening tour, where I heard stories from my fellow Americans that surprised me. People began to tell me they felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant.  Even when they couldn’t put their finger on the word “lonely,” time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country, would tell me, “I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself,” or “if I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice.”

It was a lightbulb moment for me: social disconnection was far more common than I had realized. In the scientific literature, I found confirmation of what I was hearing.  In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness.  And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut off so many of us from friends, loved ones, and support systems, exacerbating loneliness and isolation.

We only have to think back a few years, as to what we felt like during Covid – when we could not embrace one another, pray together, walk together along the same promenade, work together in the same room, visit the homes of our nearest and dearest, share their grief at a funeral or their joy at a simcha.

As a result of the pandemic, we felt as if we had been defeated, our humanity diminished and emotionally many were disheartened.

It was the late Rabbi Sacks who described, again and again, the nature of Judaism as an insistently communal faith.  He wrote:

There have been belief systems that emphasised the individual… For them the primary religious experience is the private (isolated) communion of the soul with God.  That has never been the Jewish way.  To be sure, we have had our share of mystics but the greatest challenge as Judaism has seen it, is not to ascend from earth to heaven through the journey of the soul, but to bring the Divine presence from heaven to earth and share it with others. That is an essentially collective task, which is why the covenant at Mount Sinai was made, not with individuals but with an entire people.

So, said Sacks, we pray together, we celebrate together, we confess our sins together, we even, mourn together.  The holiest prayers in Judaism require a minyan, minimally defined as ten men.  The Sages ruled that “one who separates himself from the community” forfeits his share in the world to come.

Maimonides defines this as simply living apart from others, not sharing their burdens or their grief.  One who separates himself from the community may lead a life of righteousness. But he or she is not righteous, for they lead it alone, and that is not the Jewish way.

Having a sense of community embraces spirit, character, image and pride and is a vital element of a healthy community.  It is a feeling that people within the community matter to one another with a shared faith that their needs will be met through commitment and togetherness.  Being a part of a community can make us feel as though we are a part of something greater than ourselves.

There are so many positive aspects of belonging to an engaging community or group.  Here are a few of them:

  • SUPPORT – Being part of a community enables us to give support to other members. With so much stress in the busy world we live in, there’s never been a more important time to help others struggling with their mental and physical wellbeing. Being supportive of others will help them to feel good and better about themselves.
  • INFLUENCE – With community participation comes empowerment. When people feel empowered, they feel a sense of control enabling them to influence positive change.  Being able to make a difference to a group that is what matters to its members.
  • SHARING – Sharing stimulates innovation and growth. Ideas breed new ideas. Apart from having personal benefits of gaining knowledge and insight, sharing also contributes to the community’s greater worth.
  • REINFORCEMENT – Reinforcement can be an effective learning tool to encourage desirable behaviours and provide motivation. A strong and engaging community will go beyond the immediate, basic needs and ensure that fulfilment is a positive experience.  By doing so, it builds beneficial rewards and reinforcement for an enjoyable sense of togetherness.
  • CONNECTION – An open bond with new connections is what builds valuable relationships, and gives us a deeper sense of belonging. It helps us to reach our goals and brings a sense of security.
  • RESOURCES – Communities are rich in resources. Having knowledge is a unique resource and through its use, it increases in value.
  • PASSION – Having an outlet for interests gives people the opportunity to share a subject they’re passionate about. This helps to spread confidence and encouragement to create new things that they can share with others.

Many years ago on British television, there was a play written by a Jewish playwright called Jack Rosenthal – it was called the Bar Mitzvah Boy.  It struck a nerve in the Jewish community because it described the lead up to a young man’s Bar Mitzvah, which in the event for various reasons on the Shabbat of his Bar Mitzvah he ran off to a local park and refused to go back into shul to read his portion.  It matters little what happened next – what was singularly important was the fact that you cannot celebrate a Jewish celebration on your own – up a mountain, on a cruise, cycling round Australia, or standing in a park all on your own.  To quote Rabbi Sacks – that is not the Jewish way.

I don’t think that we always appreciate the statement that is being made by Bar and Bat Mitzvah families when they choose to celebrate their simcha in shul, in public – as if it is our simcha – which of course it is – because no man is an island.

I don’t think we always say thank you – loud enough to the Bar Mitzvah boy or the Bat Mitzvah girl for choosing to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah in front of an entire community – it takes courage, it takes practice, it takes a great teacher and it takes great determination.  Baruch Hashem – today’s Bar Mitzvah family have risen to the occasion and demonstrated to one and all that they understand that their joyous occasion is not theirs alone to enhance the spirit of just one family, but rather to advance and expand the horizons of an entire community.

When we share our joy, our knowledge, our kindness and our resources we bring the Divine presence from heaven to earth.

When we teach a Bar Mitzvah boy this lesson when he is just 13 years old, we do so in the hope that for the rest of his life he will apply this idea to every aspect of his life – for when he does so – that is when we know for certain that he has become Bar Mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi David Freedman