Staying in the circle

In the Jewish community, it takes real effort to stay in the circle.

You. Me. We. I. Us. Them. They’re not just pronouns. They define who we are, who we’re with, how we exist. In relationships. It is not good for us to be alone. God knew that right from the start, and said so in Bereshit 2:18. We were created in relationship to the earth, for a relationship with each other and through a relationship with God. We were created in community. 

What makes a community strong? Our communities are an accumulation of individual relationships, each one plus each one, knitting the fabric between us. More than ever, todays we choose to be part of the communities with which we are identified. More than ever, we form our own circles, and leave the ones we don’t want to be in anymore.

In the Jewish community, it takes real effort to stay in the circle. With all the choices we have, with all the ways there to spend our time and our dollars, there has to be a compelling reason to stay in the community. The reason, it seems, is relationships. It all boils down to that.

In Ron Wolfson’s recent book Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, he identifies a variety of relationships, ranging from the one we have with ourselves, to the one we have with the Divine. In between are the connections we have with our friends, families, the community, Israel, our heritage (Torah), and the world. It is relationships, not practice, theology, denomination, or a building, that will keep people in the circle. If the relationship is strong, the connection to the group will be strong.

Wolfson says relationships are all about experiences and stories. Stories about the experiences. Doing things with others that become experiences that you tell stories about. Connecting over telling stories about shared experiences, and trusting that those stories and experiences will continue to mean something to the other half. 

Sometimes, it’s not just the good things that keep you in a particular relationship. There are the stories of how relationships break down, too, and they have their own hold on us. We find one of them in Ki Tisa in the book of Exodus. This is the lowest point in several relationships—the one between the people Israel and Moses, between Israel and Aaron, between Aaron and Moses, and between each of them and God. Faith and trust were at the core of them all.

Israel doesn’t trust Moses to come back down from the mountain: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron… ‘Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses… we do not know what has happened to him.’”  (Ex 32:1)  Aaron supervises the building of the Golden Calf, and when Moses eventually comes back down, he is horrified; he drops the sacred tablets. The relationship between the brothers is completely shattered. Moses can’t believe Aaron let him down so badly, disappointed by his faithlessness; Aaron is wondering why Moses abandoned him.  God is furious that the people were so easily swayed, and Moses is annoyed that he has to clean up this huge mess. 

Though this was the nadir of relationships at Sinai, ultimately they were repaired. It took true repentance, putting aside anger, acknowledging the disappointment, awareness of misdeeds, and the step-by-step rebuilding of trust to move past it all. Yet, this very catastrophe—the experience itself—became an essential part the story we’ve told to each other ever since, connecting us. Knowing we got so close to the brink and still could salvage the relationship became our strength. If we can tell even that story with passion and conviction, we won’t want to step out of the circle again.   

If we can harness the power of the stories that connect us, our relationships will be that much more secure.          

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems,

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