In the beginning of this week’s portion, there is a well-known passage: “You are standing this day before the Lord your God…. Neither with you only do I make this covenant…but with him that stands here today…and with the one who is not here with us this day….” (Deuteronomy 29:9-13)
In a few days, on Rosh Hashana, Jews will assemble, again “standing before the Lord our God.” The convergence of congregants who gather for prayer, study, and reflection calls our attention to the intense desire we share to be part of a community in this time of fragmentation, distance, and dislocation.
“Creating community” is a different process from “finding community.” To create community requires effort and often a shift from thinking of ourselves as individuals whose expectations should be met to participants whose efforts are required. When we begin to think in communal and not personal terms only, we begin to recapture the sense of commitment to others that is indispensable for real community. A sense of loyalty to others, of faithfulness and reliability, of continued presence and participation is what others depend upon to make their own commitments to community.
The tendency to use the standards of the marketplace to evaluate membership in a community, specifically in a synagogue, can be problematic. “Happiness” often translates into being in agreement, and “a sense of community.” But when we are “unhappy” with one or another aspect of a service, a sermon, or a synagogue — which often translates as being in disagreement — we may experience this as an absence of a “sense of community.”
Creating community requires moving beyond “happy,” because inevitably there will be times when we are disappointed, in disagreement, or disenchanted. By staying with the community, we sustain the community and enable it to function. By staying with the community, we shape a culture in which cooperation and compromise rather than demand and defense become the operative ethics. By staying with the community, we model the type of covenantal relationship that others depend on; we affirm that notwithstanding our current disappointment, we are in for the long haul and will not abandon our obligations.
This is the season of teshuva. Teshuva is not an explosive incident in which all that is wrong dissolves and is replaced by all that is right. It is, rather, a long and challenging process that requires sustained effort and a commitment to perseverance.
The creation of true community is also a long and difficult process. It too requires sustained effort and a commitment to perseverance. The only reason to participate in the difficult and challenging work is to become what we, as a community, want to be, which is to say, what we are challenged to be.
In this way, we enter the New Year, not as an amalgamation of individuals, but as a community. In the words of this week’s portion: “You are standing this day, all of you, before the Lord your God.”