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Finding Ourselves Through Others

Finding Ourselves Through Others

The Meaning of Community


There is a story of a teenage boy who was suffering from typical teenage angst, and went to the Rebbe for advice. He was having a difficult time and kept slipping back into situations that he knew were not right for him. He asked the Rebbe: How come G‑d didn’t just create us as angels? If He had, we would be perfect, and we wouldn’t make such mistakes and create such problems.

The G‑d wants us to be unique individuals Rebbe explained to him that G‑d doesn’t want us to be perfect; He wants us to be unique individuals who grow and learn from our experiences and mistakes. He asked the boy if he understood the difference between a photograph and a portrait.

When you want to capture a perfect replica of something you see, you take a picture. The picture can be beautiful, and is exactly what you witnessed with your eye. Yet the typical photograph costs pennies to reproduce. A portrait, on the other hand, is something that is always filled with inaccuracies. It can never be a perfect reproduction of something, like a photograph can. If anything, the better the portrait, the more creative license that went into it to bring out the meaning and color and beauty that does not always exist in the surface look.

Unlike a photograph, the portrait can sell for millions. People pay for the portrait because it is a reflection not only of the subject, but of the artist as well. That person’s creativity is part and parcel of the portrait. The Rebbe explained that the angels are G‑d’s photographs. We, however, are G‑d’s portraits.

The Torah portion that we read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, Nitzavim, begins: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem—“You are all standing this day before the L‑rd, your G‑d: the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers—every person of Israel.”

The idea is that before we head into Rosh Hashanah, we gather together as a group, as a community. When we talk about a community, the word used in the written Torah for this is kahal. But the term used in the Oral Torah is tzibbur (spelled tzaddik, beit, vav, reish).

Interestingly We head into Rosh Hashanah as a communityenough, the meaning of tzibbur, when used in the Written Torah (vayitzbor Yosef, Genesis 41:49), refers to piling and amassing diverse objects, assembling together very different things.

There is a beautiful quote from Elias Canetti, a Jewish writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, that says: “Jews are different from other people, but in reality, they are most different from each other.” (Crowds and Power)

So this idea of a community is the throwing together, the assembling, of a lot of different and diverse parts.

The 17th-century Kabbalist Rabbi Nathan Nata Shapiro of Krakow explains in his work Megaleh Amukot that the word for “community” should be understood as an acronym:

Tzaddik: Tzaddikim: Righteous

Beit: Beinoni: Intermediary

Vav: And

Reish: Rasha: Not So Righteous

What is interesting here is that all of these categories exist together, and they are bound by the letter vav. Vav means “hook,” and hooks together, binds together, what comes before it with what comes after it. So it is not distinguishing between the righteous and the intermediary, and then, down there, the rasha, the wicked one. But rather, it shows that they all must coexist to be considered a tzibbur, a community.

It is easy to want to forget those who we don’t feel are worthy of our respect, who we don’t feel deserve to be included. Yet this is our reminder that everyone is part of our community, and no one can be left out or forgotten about.

The No one can be left outnumerical equivalent of the word tzibbur is equal to that for the word rachamim = 298. Rachamim is the term for empathy, and this shows us that empathy is required in order to connect to others. What does it mean to have empathy, as opposed to sympathy? Empathy is the ability to truly relate to and understand the other person as if what they are experiencing is also happening to you. It is the ability to connect on an internal level, not just an external one.

This is why the root of rachamim is rechem, a womb. Only when we feel that the other is truly a part of ourselves do we have compassion and empathy. And when we feel that the other is a part of ourselves, then we are able to deal with the differences—and the things that need help. If you are told that the baby within your womb has a problem, it is not the baby’s problem, it is your problem, and you love your baby and will do whatever you need to do to solve that problem.

So to have a community, there needs to be a feeling of interinclusion; and to truly feel like we are one united group, we need to have empathy and feel that we are all a part of one another.

But this is not as simple as deciding that I just need to work on connecting to my neighbor who is really obnoxious. Or that I need to reach out to that woman who is always so rude to me. It is far from that easy.

Nor can we look at the levels of the community in the acronym, that of the righteous, the intermediary and the not-so-righteous, and start deciding where we or others belong. Perhaps I think that I am kind of in-between, vacillating between being righteous and not being so great, and you are really pretty perfect and that guy over there is just not so great. So the three of us should get together and go golfing, and we will have formed a nice little rectified community.

It goes much deeper. It is not that you are righteous, you are the intermediary, and I am the wicked one. But rather, you are all three, he is all three, and I am all three.

We are all righteous, intermediate and wicked—all in different ways and at different times—and what forms a community is when all of our different ways join together, with empathy for the other, and unify.

When We are all righteous, intermediate and wickedwe can recognize this about ourselves and about others, then we can start to understand how we are all here to teach one another, and it is only through learning from others and teaching others that we can start to develop and grow.

This is why we read this statement, of how we all stand together before our Creator, right before Rosh Hashanah. And He knows we are not angels, because He didn’t create us to be perfect. But He did create us with the ability to connect with others and become better people. For, after all, a community is comprised of a diverse group of individuals, each with his or her own unique talents and abilities, and each an essential part of the whole.

May we be blessed to enter this new year with the ability to reveal our potential and help others reveal theirs. May it be sweet, healthy and productive!

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Hani Ezra September 12, 2015

I love the way you explained community, thank you. I will give this as a shiur on seider night to my family...baruch hashem. Shana tova to everyone. Reply

Raymond Bastarache NB.Canada September 8, 2015

man is made after the image of G-d? G-d does not want robots....for people? it would be very boring........he gave man a free-will to love Him ..... each human differs from one another because of our millions DNA? Genes?...particular personalities... which makes the world go round. every person has his particular talent? that's what makes it so interesting.I knew a person who's answers were always to the negative yet I wanted to hear his opinion? to consider all solutions.....does not mean I have to live with him? or have him as a business partner? .... Shalom. Reply

Rachel Kingston pa September 17, 2014

Thank you! I used your article at a women's gathering and it was so pertinent and inspiring! Reply

caroline Montreal.QC December 21, 2012

Thank you I am met a great Jewish man ,,,he told me lot of things about Jewish religious,,also I am so interesting that story..I love to read you wonderful article,,, give me more think about life.....I was wonder how to do I can become a Jewish woman...Because I have not any religious yet...please to help me found way to found heart..Happy new year to everyone!! Reply

Michelle uk September 15, 2012

bless you and thanks! love Reply

hbb Baltimore, MD September 11, 2012

Thank you! I enjoyed this article, so beautiful to read, to feel the potential for a community to be this way. For each of us as individuals to be humble enough to see these truths. From those of us who feel we have nothing of worth to offer to those who feel a strong sense of self and those in between. We are all here for a reason, may we all be blessed to see the emes revealed to us as we strive to grow and share. Reply

Keli Leeba Sydney, AU September 11, 2012

thank you! Have just read this on the train and am thankful that I did so. Truly touched my heart, Sara Esther. L'shana tova...! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma September 30, 2011

Tzibur commune ity The burr is what sticks and what sticks together: This, a community.

This article is so beautiful I am going to come back and make a copy for myself, because there is such depth of insight within.

We can plumb language endlessly for meaning and find the connective tissue that binds us all, and each time, I read something THIS wonderful I feel such total awe, and I wish I could remember it all, because each piece of this, is so beautifully wrought.

Thank you for putting together such a wonderful piece that is awesome in its depths. A beautiful truth about us all. Reply

Daniel Jerusalem September 17, 2009

where to pray I n general, most Chabad Houses do not charge to come pray for the high holidays, SO check out for the one nearest you on the front page of this website, chabad. org

good luck! Have a sweet yr.! Reply

Anonymous Baltimore via September 17, 2009

free services Y.,

You can search for free high holiday services in your area at: Reply

Anonymous NYC, NY September 13, 2009

Thank You! I have ben feeling alone and unloved and found your writing. What a breath of powerful fresh air! Thank you for putting it all in perspective for me.

Do you know of any temple that would allow me to go for the high holidays, but without having to pay? That would be great.

Thank you again!

Y. Reply