Just this week I attended the Jewish Futures Conference here in New York. David Bryfman, Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the Jewish Education Project, posed the following questions:
- What are our communities?
- How many communities do we belong to?
- What are your most meaningful communities?
- How are the communities that you are a part of similar and different to those of your parents and/or grandparents?
The discussions around our tables were fascinating. Most of us belong to many different communities and I know that for me, many of my communities, and my closest friends, stem from professional communities, which in my case are often also religious of some sort. And surveys show that we belong to more communities than our parents and grandparents, and that our children belong to even more communities. Some of them are physical, but many are virtual. While we are used to dealing with changes in our physical communities all of the time, there is a growing virtual world out there and the possibilities are endless.
This has really got me thinking about how we create community and grow it. In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha-alot’cha, we get a glimpse of the growing pains that the Israelites are going through. The flash and excitement of the opening journey is over. There are no more seas to part or calves to build or Torahs to get. The Israelites are well into the schlepping portion of their travels and the people are getting restless. You can just imagine the calls of “are we there yet?”, “I’m bored,” and “who put you in charge?”
In Chapter 11 of Numbers, the people start kvetching. The people started complaining bitterly to God and God was in no mood. So God, in what I suspect was not one of God’s finer acts, creates a fire, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. So the people kvetched to Moses, who prayed to God, and God stopped the fire. I guess Moses had God’s number, in more ways than one.
Then the “asafstuf,” the mixed multitudes who left with the Israelites started complaining about the food. The manna wasn’t cutting it anymore. They wanted meat. And then, the Israelites realized, yeah, we miss our fish and veggies and fruits. Discontent spread through the Israelite camp like crying in a nursery. And even the leader had it. Moses was exasperated and cried out to God for help. Clearly, leadership is not always fun, especially when you’re the only one on top and you haven’t developed a good support structure to reach out to the various constituencies. God hears Moses’ cry and rains down quail for the kvetching to eat. But all is not well as the quail is either rancid or they overeat and it causes a plague. Fun times! There really isn’t any closure and the story of our people goes on.
I thought of this story of community as I sat in the Milwaukee airport last Sunday on my way back from five days of singing as only Hava Nashira can do. There was the usual frenzy to board the plane; would I find room for my bags. This was not a community of choice or a pleasant one. Shortly we learned that we were to leave the plane for an indeterminate amount of time due to a sensor malfunction. The time span ended up being seven hours. And while we did not become one cohesive community in that time, there was an air of friendliness and cooperation that didn’t exist before. There was a commonality among us and it brought us together for a short time. And when I found out that the later plane, the plane we were jealous of, ended up circling LaGuardia due to the thunder storms and had to divert to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to refuel, I thought, one never knows where blessings will be found.
Perhaps we were willing to be gracious and friendly because our communal issues only lasted a few hours, and we received a free flight. And the Israelites’ communal issues lasted much longer. We also had no choice and no clear cut leader. The Israelites had a leader in charge, but that leader wasn’t really in charge. God was.
And at the very end of the portion we get a real sense of who is inside the community and who’s not. Moses may have to appeal to God to for help when the Israelites complain, but when God hears Miriam and Aaron make a ethnic slur against Moses wife, God acts swiftly against Miriam and strikes her with some sort of eczema. (Yes, I note that Aaron is not stricken. I’ll leave that for another time.) And like the CEO that keeps getting his contract renewed regardless of how the employees are treated or act, Moses prays for the healing of his sister and she is healed — “al na refah na la.”
So what is the take away here? Every community is different. A good leader must acknowledge that and figure out how to help create a structure which is nurturing and caring of the members’ needs. And most importantly, the leadership must be willing to respond to those needs. Because we know there is always another community around the corner vying for their membership. And not every group will survive a plague of quail.
Thanks Alix Brown for your wonderful photo!