Making a Difference

Last week Friday night we held our
annual scout Shabbat to honor our brownies and girl scouts, our cub scouts and
our boy scouts. At the service I told a story you may remember from the High
Holidays. It is the story about a little boy standing on the beach throwing
starfish into the ocean. A passing man sees him and asks: “Why are you throwing
starfish into the sea?” “Because the sun is coming up and the tide is going out
and if I don’t throw them in they will die,” says the boy.
The man shakes his head: “Don’t you
realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t
possibly save them all, you can’t even save a tenth of them. In fact, even if
you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”  The boy
listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it
into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

This story made an impression on
many of the adults who heard it on the High Holidays, and it also made an
impression on the children who heard it last week for scout Shabbat.  I am grateful to Karen Zatz for who suggested
that I use it for a children’s service. In the discussion that followed it was
very clear that the kids got it! They understood that it was not really about
making a difference to a starfish, but about making a difference in our world.
“Even if you can only do a little, it still helps,” said one of our Brownies,
summing up other comments.

The flip side of that story is also
true – acting alone, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to effect great
change. For that, we have to gather together and work in concert. The Book of
Exodus closes with this week’s Torah reading tomorrow morning. It begins with a
gathering, a holy convocation where Moses asks the Jewish people to each do their share to contribute to the
building of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the portable sanctuary that the
Israelites carry with them through their journey to the Promised Land. The text
emphasizes the voluntary nature of the contribution. The outpouring of
contributions made Moses the greatest fundraiser of all times! The people
brought bracelets, nose-rings, all manner of gold jewelry; wool, linen, goat
hair, ram skins, silver, copper, acacia wood, precious stones, spices and oil.

Voluntary gifts are brought for the construction of the Tabernacle

The skilled craftspeople and artisans volunteered their labor to weave, to
carve, to embroider, to cut and set stones, to work with precious metals and to
do all manner of work connected with building the Tabernacle. Working six days
a week, the Tabernacle, all of the utensils for worship and the clothing for
the priests were ready in two months time! 
As in the story of the starfish, each person, contributing what they
could, made a difference. Yet no one person could have completed the task – to
build a dwelling place for G-d — alone.

The relationship between a group
and an individual can be a complicated affair. In fact, there are three words
in Hebrew, “edad”, “Tsibur” and “Kehillah” that define these associations. An
“edah” is a group of like minded people. It is related to the word for
“witness”. The Jewish people are described as an “edah” at the foot of Mt.
Sinai, where they witness the giving of the Ten Commandments and together
proclaim “we will perform them and study them.” They are described as an “edah”
when they hear the report of the spies sent to the Land of Canaan, and as a
group decides they want to return to Egypt. The problem with being part of an
“edah” is that it can lead to what is called “groupthink” – the practice of
making decisions as a group that discourages creativity or individual
responsibility. Another Hebrew word for “group” is “Tsibur”. A “Tsibur” is a
collection of individuals. It is a “public” with little that binds them
together other than they are in one place at the same time. A congregation on a
Shabbat morning where there is a bar mitzvah is a good example of a Tsibur.  Some people are here to worship and do not
know the family of the bat mitzvah.  Some
people are only here because they are friends of the family. There might
people present who are of different faiths. They gather for one purpose, but
once that is finished, they will go to their homes and resume their lives
without a sense of group identity or connection.

Jews gather at the Western Wall on Sukkot. This is an example of a Tsibbur,

Then there is the Kehillah. This is
the kind of group that gathered together to build the Tabernacle, the
metaphorical dwelling place of G-d. The Kehillah is a group with a common
purpose and shared ideology, like the “edah”. Yet, members of the Kehillah do
not lose their sense of individual identity or agency. We see this in the Torah
portion. Each individual brings what their heart moves them to bring. Each
person donates the particular talents that they possess. There is plenty of
room for individual initiative, freedom and creativity. Although bound together
in a common task, and sharing a group identity, members of the Kehillah
maintain their distinct individual talents and will. Each individual can take
pride in their contribution to the community as a whole. Each individual can
say, “I contributed this”.

This is the reason why the word for
“synagogue”, in Modern Hebrew, is “Kehillah”. You may recognize the word
because it is what our Newsletter is called — “Kehilah(t) Kodesh” – “Kehillah
of the Holy”.  In a “Kehillah of the
Holy”, everybody has something to give and each person’s unique gift is valued.
In a “Kehillah of the Holy” those gifts create a “dwelling place for G-d”. That
dwelling place is however, not the Tabernacle, or even the synagogue. That
dwelling place for G-d is in the hearts and minds of each one of us. That
Kehillah can be found anyplace where we come together to seek G-d and to find
meaning in our lives.
Shabbat Shalom