Guest post by Rabbi Jessie Wainer
(Takes a selfie with the congregation). For many of us, taking a selfie has become second nature. We are living in the age of the selfie, solely focusing on documenting and sharing our individual lives with the public. For those of us born prior to the advent of digital photography, we know this wasn’t always a possibility. If we wanted a picture of ourselves, we needed to engage someone else in the role of photographer, lest we find ourselves with a picture of the top of our head in front of the Eiffel Tower. Today, technology has evolved to allow us to do everything independently, taking as many selfies as necessary until we get just the right picture. Inherent to the ideology of the selfie is that we focus on the self rather than the larger world around us. When we choose to take a selfie, we are not generally acknowledging the implication that our choices have on others, instead only focusing on making ourselves look as good as possible.
Long gone are the days of liberty gardens and donning another’s oxygen mask before our own. Rather, we are hyper-focused on grabbing the last roll of toilet paper on the shelf, even though we already have a stash in the pantry. We obsess over which political candidate benefits us the most rather than thinking about who is best for the country as a whole. We mercilessly interact with one another, often behind the veil of the internet, trading ruthless remarks before even considering the human being on the other end of the post or conversation.
We, as a society, have become preoccupied with ourselves. We make choices that prioritize us over the greater good. This was not the way that our society has always been, and with this recognition comes the opportunity to help swing the pendulum back towards a focus on communal responsibility while still maintaining our personal autonomy.
In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar poses this question, “Ask yourself: When making a choice, do you first and foremost consider what you want, what will make you happy, or do you consider what is best for you and the people around you?” 1Instead of asking ourselves, “How does this choice benefit me or my family,” we must begin to ask ourselves, “How does this choice help support the larger communal goals and values while still providing benefit to myself and my family?”
Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hasidic philosopher, taught that every person should carry two pieces of paper in their pocket. In one pocket, we should have a slip of paper that says, “I am by dust and ashes.” In the other pocket, Rabbi Bunim teaches, we should have a paper that reads, “The world was created for me.” These two pieces of paper remind us that while the world was created for us, it was also created for everyone else. We need to find the balance between celebrating our unique needs and supporting the needs of our community.
Our American history reminds us of the importance of Rabbi Bunim’s teachings. Roger Williams, a pioneer of religious tolerance in the mid-17th century, tells the following story in his “Letter to the Town of Providence” .2 He writes that there is a ship containing hundreds of people that goes out to sea. On this ship, there are “…both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks…” and, Williams continues, peaceful relations between these groups on the ship hinges on two things, “…that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship.” Williams preaches the importance of making personal choices when it comes to religious practice. He also reminds the recipients that responsibility toward community supersedes personal autonomy. Williams tells the people of Providence that “…notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course…and also command that justice, peace, and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all passengers.” Williams reminds us that while we can prioritize our personal liberties, our communal responsibility comes first.
We, as a society, have deeply strayed from the lessons of William’s letter. We are prioritizing the choices of the individual over the broader needs of the community. We have continued to only read the piece of paper that tells us the world was created for me, ignoring the now crumpled paper reminding us that we are but dust and ashes.
There are three ways to create a new habit of considering what is best both for us and the people around us. Judaism can help focus on our communal responsibility through our texts, which often focus on the communal nature of religion, by helping to remind ourselves of the humanity of others and by encouraging all voices to be heard. Building this new habit will remind us that the world was created for each of us and that we are but one small part of the world around us. Creating a new habit, like reading the papers in each of our pockets, is not always easy, nor is it something that happens overnight. Establishing a habit takes time, patience, and practice. However, if we commit ourselves to the work, we have the opportunity to not only help change our current societal expectations but that of the next generation.
On Yom Kippur, we will read the story of creation. The Talmud teaches us that Adam was first created alone so as to remind us that each human is unique. All of humanity is descended from Adam, and therefore, each of us is obligated to say that “…The world was created for me”3 The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is also a reminder of the importance of accounting for the needs of those around us, in addition to ourselves. Abraham, seeing that God may destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil actions, confronts God and asks, “I who am but dust and ashes, if there are fifty innocent people in the town will you spare them?”4 Abraham, when considering what to say to God, could have asked only, “How does this decision benefit me?” Instead, Abraham asked, “How can I benefit both myself and those around me,” shifting the conversation to one that would benefit him while also saving the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Perhaps the most profound text that recognizes the importance of both the individual and the community comes from Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Hillel, who asks, “Im ain ani li, mi li – If I am not for myself, who will be for me? U’ch’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani – And when I am for myself alone, what am I? V’im lo akshav, ay-matai – And if not now, then when?”5 Hillel simultaneously reminds us of the importance of advocating for ourselves and that we are not the sole factor in the equation.
We have a responsibility to consider how our decisions benefit both ourselves and our community. We will fall short of being our best selves if we do not recognize our personal desires. However, when we only consider what benefits us, we are acting in a selfish manner and not in the best interest of the larger community. When we take into account our needs, as well as the needs of others, we are following the precedent and expectation set both by our Jewish ancestors as well as our American predecessors.
Our Jewish texts help to center ourselves within and our focus on community. If we are to truly adjust our approach to focus on communal responsibility, we need to engage in conversation with everyone in our community, not just in our echo chambers. This, I know, is easier said than done, particularly given the extreme individualism and polarization that we are currently experiencing.
This past summer, in the days following the Dobbs decision that struck down Roe v. Wade, I was talking to and commiserating with a colleague and friend of mine. We lamented about a decision that, for one of the few times in history, revoked the rights of individuals and removed our ability to have personal autonomy over our bodies. This decision also added an additional layer of fear for other minority groups, who are left to wonder if their rights will be the next to be revoked. As my friend and I continued to speak, she recounted a conversation that she had had with one of her colleagues, an Evangelical pastor who holds very different views on the issue of reproductive healthcare. After the Dobbs decision was announced, she called him to remind herself that people on “the other side” are also good human beings and that while they may hold vastly differing opinions, they, too, are living, breathing human beings with very real feelings. As she said this, my body tensed. I was ready to argue with her, but then I realized that my reaction was not to this pastor, a kind person with whom I had also worked, but to his ideology.
It was at that moment that I understood that I, too, was a part of the problem and could be a part of the solution. If we are truly to rededicate ourselves to our communal responsibility, we have to find ways to see the humanity of others, even when we do not always agree, for they, too, are a part of our community.
The United States national motto is “E Pluribus Unum – from many, one.” We are a strong country of individuals. Many of our ancestors immigrated to this country to fulfill the individual American dream. Individualism is an important coping mechanism. It has allowed many people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and see that American dream through to completion. However, American individualism should never have become something that is practiced to the exclusion of others. This is where we are today, and this is why it is time to begin to shift our focus back toward our communal responsibility.
One of the most profound ways that we can illustrate communal responsibility is by ensuring that every eligible voter has the right and ability to vote. Voting is a fundamental right. We may have personal opinions regarding which candidates to support; however, it is our mandate as Jews and as citizens of this country to ensure that democracy is at the forefront of our election process. This year, the Religious Action Center has reactivated its Every Voice, Every Vote campaign, and I would like to invite you to join me in participating in this campaign. This nonpartisan effort is aimed at strengthening democracy by ensuring that every eligible voter has the opportunity to vote in the upcoming midterm elections.
There are a variety of ways that we, and our families, can participate in this effort. We can start by making sure that everyone in our community is registered to vote. We can help write postcards to engage under-represented voters in a variety of states, including Wisconsin, that have been impacted by voter suppression. We can join weekly Every Voice, Every Vote Zoom calls, which will provide a connection with others and focus on a particular skill, resource, or action. We can sign up to serve as a nonpartisan Election Protection volunteers or staff a polling place in our community.
The rabbis of the Talmud teach that “Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yochanan said: One may only pray in a house with windows.” 6 Our prayers, while offered in a communal setting, are often viewed as solitary, a private conversation between ourselves and God. However, Rabbi Yochanan reminds us that even during prayer, we must be conscious of the outside world. All the moreso, when we engage in daily activity, whether at work or at home, we must be aware of our community and how our choices impact those around us. (Takes a panoramic picture of the congregation). When we take a selfie, we only focus on ourselves, and we only read the paper that tells us the world was created for us. When we take a panoramic picture, we include everyone and remember that the world was created for us and, at the same time, we are but dust and ashes. We turn our focus outward such that the choices answer the question, “What is best for us and for the people around us?” And with that, we welcome the new year with a renewed dedication to both ourselves and the people around us. Shanah tovah u’metukah – may you be blessed with a happy, healthy, and sweet new year filled with panoramic pictures.
1Iyengar, Sheena. 2012. The Art of Choosing. London: Abacus. p.30
2“Amendment I (Religion): Roger Williams to the Town of Providence.” Press-Pubs.uchicago.edu, press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions6.html.
3 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a
4 Genesis 18:27-28
5 Pirkei Avot 1:14
6 Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 34b