Our Parsha begins with a new covenant, a covenant that brings with it a game-changing upgrade in each individual’s relationship to the Jewish community. Until this point in the Torah narrative, each person was responsible for his own business; if Stu Goldberg* witnesses Sol Cohen* eating publicly on Yom Kippur and attempts no intervention, only Sol, the perpetrator, is held accountable. Once this covenant came into play, Stu would now be roped into culpability as well since he was apathetic to his fellow’s transgression. That is, the new standard dictates that what Stu does out of the public eye can only implicate himself. Whatever he does in a public venue, however, is now not only his own private business but is apparently everyone’s business. In light of the many mitzvot that require us to be community-minded, the mitzvot that challenge us to think and care about the physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare of others, it is clear that an involved and caring attitude toward the community is a key Jewish attitude. This covenant not only supports that idea but it also raises the bar; if someone withdraws from his community and no longer interests himself in others, he will not just fall short of fulfilling an obligation. He will actually be personally accountable, to some extent, for committing a transgression.
When I lived in Israel, I was privileged to study under a Rosh Yeshiva (Yeshiva Dean) that has some fantastic pedagogical talent, and he used it generously to convey the message of the primacy of having a sense of connection to the community. He, first of all, would constantly talk about “Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibbur“- the dictum in Pirkei Avot that says “You may not separate yourself from the community.” He spoke about it in his classes, he spoke about it in his sermons, and he spoke about it in one-on-one conversations. (He would also, paradoxically, constantly and incessantly stress the need to be independent and not follow the crowd, and constantly and incessantly revisit the need to find balance between these two extremes.) What really drove this message home, however, was the fact that this man really built his life around these principles. To the uninitiated, he would seem like the very last person to care about making himself part of the community. In the Yeshiva world that he makes himself a part of, he is a radical trailblazer and revolutionary who painstakingly built up a successful yeshiva that is purposely designed to challenge the intellectual model of the contemporary yeshiva! Blending in with his community is therefore no simple matter. He nevertheless manages to pull off a healthy relationship with his community by identifying and then emphasizing their common ground at any and all opportunities.
Emerging from our own independent-thinking and sometimes self-centered minds to think about the community and to think about others is not something that can be accomplished without the help of habit and constant practice. The message of this new covenant, is that emerge we must.
* Two fictional characters.