We begin this month at Shomrei with a wonderful Shabbat gathering. On Friday night, May 2, we will celebrate our amazing Mensch Squad members with a Shabbat meal and service dedicated to them. The membership of the Mensch Squad includes a sizable portion of our community. And the place the Mensch Squad occupies in our community life is even larger. These “Mensches” place themselves on call to be of service to other friends in Shomrei who need a ride or a meal or other forms of support in times of illness, loss or treatment. Such aid and comfort has been a literal lifesaver for members of our shul family. Those of us who have needed to avail ourselves of their help know how selfless the Mensch Squad can be. Those of us who have been fortunate enough not to need those services should be jumping to salute them and toast them in respect and gratitude.
The Mensch Squad program at Shomrei is an excellent example of the beautiful way that a sacred community, nourished by traditional Jewish values, can meet the challenge that I discussed last month in my Kol Emunah column. Continuing my commentary on the traditional morning service, I broached the problem of how we can fruitfully go about balancing our private selves and our public selves. It strikes me that the Mensch Squad provides one very powerful instance of such a balancing act. Let me explain.
A term coined to describe the social position of the individual in today’s secular, free society is “the sovereign self.” Each of us is our own boss in determining what we think and do, what we believe or how we choose to spend our time, and with whom. Such extreme freedom is exhilarating to contemplate and to live. Our synagogue community, like all groups and institutions today, struggles against the tremendous pull of radical individualism, calling, instead, for commitment to a collective world, with common obligations and values, set schedules and established mutual expectations. How can a shul hope to attract free individuals to such a collective discipline?
An answer can be found in the traditional morning prayers I referred to last month. The prayer calls upon each of us to speak the truth to ourselves in public and in private. What is that truth? Basically we need to remind ourselves that, no matter how accomplished, smart, famous, powerful, etc., we are, no “sovereign self” is really totally sovereign in the end. We are indeed capable of so much, but we are also in need of so much that we cannot supply to ourselves in isolation.
This truth has two profound aspects. One aspect is that living in community gives us so much more than we can attain alone. Singing alone is not the same as singing together with others. Thankfully we do not have to personally write all the books that we would like to read, or personally make all the movies we would like to see. The Talmud (Berakhot 58a) records the grateful exclamation of one sage, Ben Zoma:
“Look how much effort the first humans had to exert until they could eat a piece of bread! They had to plow, sow, harvest, gather, thresh, winnow, separate the chaff, grind and refine, knead and bake. And only after that could they eat. But I arise in the morning and find it all ready for me!”
None of us can do it all. We need to open our eyes in wonder at all that we enjoy from the work of others, whether that work is in the material or the spiritual realms, whether that work was done this morning or three-thousand years ago. We cannot do it all ourselves. Yet we each have something to contribute to the greater good.
But there is a second aspect of this truth. That same Talmudic discussion teaches that one should recite a special blessing when one sees a huge gathering of people all collected in one place. One praises the Eternal, “the One Who sagely understands all secrets.”
What a surprising blessing! Just at the moment when we witness a huge gathering of the public, we praise God as the One Who can see into each individual’s private, secret thoughts, into their inner being. Gathering as a community is not only meaningful because it adds a dimension that no individual can provide. It also provides the unique power to help us in our most private moments and needs. Just when we may be feeling most vulnerable and exposed, just when we may feel that our privacy will be compromised or destroyed, a caring community can be there to help preserve and maintain one’s privacy and one’s dignity.
This is exactly what the Mensch Squad does. Under the gentle coordinating hand of Dale Russakoff, “mensches” are recruited in confidence to help with delicate and personal assistance. And because the Squad is an “official” body of the shul, seeking its services can often feel easier than making a personal plea to a specific person. The public makes it possible for the private to stand firm.
Our daily prayers, in speaking of this truth, of the special role that the public can play in preserving the very special realm of the private, closes with another blessing (- how precious is the power of blessing!). This blessing gives a name to the result we achieve by successfully committing ourselves to go beyond our sovereign selves and enter into a covenantal community. It is called Qiddush Ha-Shem – Sanctifying God’s Name. The term “God’s Name” means “God’s Presence.” It refers to our awareness of God as a reality in our lives. We use the term “Name” to remind us that, just like us, God, too, has a public and a private Self, so to speak. God’s Name is God’s public persona – what we call God. To “sanctify” God’s Name/Presence is to make God’s Presence more manifest, more felt. The exact wording of the blessing is “m’qadesh et shimkha ba-rabim – You make Your Name holy among the multitudes – by means of the public.”
Our goal as a sacred community is to create a public that makes God’s Presence more felt, both collectively and in private.