Expanding Our Circle of Caring

This Dvar Torah is dedicated to Lily Serviansky, the outgoing Board Chair of CAJE, a mentor, a thought partner, an incredible community leader and a friend. If you know Lily or her leadership skills, like me, you are impressed by how she always seeks a harmonious path, is very adept at making ‘sholem’ between differing parties, and creative in finding a way to bridge divides. 

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

The small holiday of Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) occurred this week.
It’s a break in the semi-“Lenten” time period between Passover and Shavuot when tradition forbids weddings and celebrations and asks Jews to adopt the custom of not shaving or cutting one’s hair as an act of mourning.
For some of us, it is a reminder of when Covid began and none of us could get haircuts and all of us were “in mourning” for the life we had previously been able to live.
In Israel, Lag BaOmer is celebrated with the building of bonfires and going into the forests to play games and remember the heroism of General Bar Kochba who led the Jewish army that fought the Romans during the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE).
The defeat of that revolt was when Jews truly lost hope of an immediate return to sovereignty over the Land of Israel. So that may also explain the rituals of mourning—an expression of the grieving we as a people did upon losing our self-determination on our ancestral land.
Lag BaOmer also teaches us several cautionary pieces of Torah that connect to what we do at CAJE day in and day out.
The Talmud tells us that "Rabbi Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples…and all of them died at the same time [on Lag BaOmer] because they did not treat each other with respect. " (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot, 62b)
One of interpretations of this passage suggests that the Talmud refers here to the death of the soldiers of Bar Kochba, (rather than Akiva’s students), who died not fighting in a war for Jewish independence, but because they could not find ways to respect each other and work together towards the common goal of defeating the Roman enemy!
This interpretation recalls another Revolt against the Romans that took place 60 years before the Bar Kochba Revolt.
That revolt, called “The Great Revolt” (70 CE), led to the Romans destroying the Second Temple.
About that catastrophe, the Talmud asks: "Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time the Jewish people were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] mitzvot, and the practice of charity?” [Meaning, the Jews were faithfully observing these laws and practices, so why were they punished with the Temple’s destruction?]
Because the Talmud answers, “among them prevailed sinat hinam / hatred without cause." (Talmud Bavli, Yoma, 9b).
What does this have to do with us here in Miami?
We in Miami take pluralism, respect for the multiplicity of voices, and communal harmony very much for granted!
When I served as a national staff member for the Florence Melton School, it was my job to visit communities across the nation and help them establish Melton franchises.
Unless you’ve lived a substantial amount of time outside of Miami-Dade, you have no idea how dysfunctional most of the communities out there are and therefore, how little they are able to accomplish as a community because they don’t treat each other with respect and stoke hatred for each other without cause.
Having joined the staff of CAJE nearly 30 years ago as the only female executive and the only Reform individual, let alone rabbi, I don’t take pluralism for granted.
I am deeply grateful that this community and its leadership are able to balance the sensibilities of its more traditional members with those of its more progressive members.
This extends not only to gender and religious worldview but also regarding our very diverse ethnic identities, cultural backgrounds and political perspectives— and that’s just within the Jewish community, not to mention beyond it!
When there’s harmony, it is human to take that state of being for granted.
Yet, watching the videos of African-American supermarket shoppers cowering from a white supremacist murderer in Buffalo and having just shown videos to our communities’ teens this past Sunday about anti-Israel and anti-Semitic acts of violence against Jews on campus, I urge us all on this Lag BaOmer to recognize the bonfires of hatred and dissension that start small but can very quickly roar out of control.
Jews were chosen (some say we chose ourselves) to be a vanguard, a case study, a pilot program in promoting certain beliefs and behaviors in this world.
We are deeply committed to particularism, which means loving and supporting our fellow Jews no matter how different they are from us.
Paradoxically, I believe it is this particularism that teaches Jews how to be extraordinarily empathetic beyond the Jewish community. And we see statistically that Jews give to non-Jewish charities and to their communities in far greater percentages than our small numbers would predict.
Perhaps the reason is our ability to see the dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Jew in Morocco and the light-skinned, Russian-speaking Jew in the Ukraine as our own brothers and sisters.
In this way, Jews practice expanding our circle of caring and commitment beyond immediate family, beyond neighborhood, city, state and nation.
We were educated to see Jews who look and sound and live very differently from ourselves as part of our family.
And while it is directed at fellow Jews, these Jews live all over the world and so it extends our caring globally.
Of course, once you practice seeing beyond your small circle and open your heart to larger circles, it’s not that difficult to widen your circle to include non-Jews, other causes, and global concerns.
It is in this way that particularism may actually lead more people to become universalists, than to ask people to jump to a globalist perspective from the outset!
Few people can see -- and more importantly feel -- a connection to those who look and sound different from them, but many Jews live this value every day.
Let’s recommit ourselves as Jews to being countercultural during this difficult time by…
  • Watching our words in person and on social media.
  • Calling out the attitudes and expressions of hate on the far left and the far right.
  • Continuing to treat everyone with respect and dignity, endeavoring to recognize we are all made “B’tzelem Elohim—in the Image of the One the Stands Behind all the Diversity” no matter how much we may disagree.
Having just celebrated Lag BaOmer, a holiday dedicated to remembering what can result from disharmony and sinat hinam / senseless hatred, let us appreciate the skillful Jewish leadership we have seen demonstrated by Lily over these past two years at CAJE and over many more years in other communal roles.
Let us show the rest of the world Miami’s appreciation and respect for diversity, our ability to work together towards common goals and our embrace of the newcomer, the “other,” who can, if we champion them, widen our own horizons and help us reach our own infinite human potential.

Shabbat Shalom