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Illness and Connection

It was one of those difficult weeks where nearly every day I received a phone call about either a sudden death in the community, or someone who had just discovered one form of cancer or another and was struggling with the “Why me?” question and the fear of death staring them in the face. It was also a week where I was reminded nearly every day of why Judaism places so much emphasis on the power of community as the foundation of our religious identity.

“I’m just so grateful for all the support everyone has given me at the synagogue,” I heard over and over again. I realized that in the midst of my own frustrations and feelings of impotence in the face of these painful personal traumas and fears, it was those who were suffering who gave me strength and inspiration by their simple acknowledgment of the power of community.

I was reminded that the foundation of Jewish identity is not belief (as it is in most typical religious systems), but rather belonging. Being Jewish is about belonging to the Jewish people, belonging to something greater than merely the self, being part of a community, being part of something ancient, solid, and enduring that itself gives comfort, solace and even inspiration as we face the difficult moments of our lives. It surely doesn’t take away the pain and sorrow or eliminate the suffering and loss, but it helps to place our personal suffering in a broader context that seems to help us find the meaning and purpose of life in spite of our sorrows, in spite of our losses, in spite of our personal sufferings.

“I don’t know how I would have made it without my friends and community,” I hear over and over again. “Thank God I am part of the synagogue, that I have someplace to go to connect with people and not feel so totally lost and bereft,” people tell me. And every time it reminds me of why we are here and the real reason that Judaism and the Jewish people have survived for 4,000 years. I believe it is because we have discovered that the true secret to the meaning of life lies in that indefinable, mystical space called “relationships.” It is precisely the nurturing of relationships through the complex layers of mitzvot, religious disciplines and obligations of Jewish spiritual life that reinforce community and in so doing provide us with the profound gift of belonging over and over again.

This week’s Torah portion is filled with exhortations and warnings about lepers, plaques, skin diseases and bodily emissions that rendered our ancestors ritually unclean, followed by the various offerings, sacrifices and rituals that the priests could perform to reinstate them into a state of ritual purity. I believe that the true underlying lesson of this portion isn’t really about the diseases but rather the deeply-rooted need to find ways of bringing people who were infirm or excluded from the community back into the community once again.

Our faith in the power of community, our profound need for human connection, for belonging, for being part of something grand and transcendent in life is so deep that it became one of the primary roles of our ancient priests to bring us lovingly back into a state of purity, of spiritual healing and of community. It seems to be a need we still experience in our own time as well.

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The Reconstructionist Network