Let's say you were living in colonial America - where would you have lived, with the Europeans, in cities or farms, or with the Native Americans, in camps?
In the 18th century, colonial society and Native American society sat side by side. The former was bustling with commerce; the latter was communal and tribal. As time went by, the settlers from Europe noticed something: No Indians were defecting to join colonial society, but many whites were defecting to live in the Native American one.
This struck them as strange. Colonial society was richer and more advanced. And yet people were voting with their feet the other way. When they would go to war, Europeans would 'rescue' whites from the Native American camps, but the whites would always go back. They didn't want to be 'rescued' and brought back to colonial society.
Even as late as 1782, the pattern was still going strong. A famous writer Hector de Crèvecoeur (Crevcor) wrote, "Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European."
Sebastian Junger writes about this phenomenon in a book called Tribe. The native cultures were more communal. Junger writes, "They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone."
Colonial culture was more individualized - and trust me, we've come a long way since then. Now, everything is specialized - even the neighborhoods we live in. Interestingly enough, we think it'll make us happier, but it does the opposite - according to the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries, who have more stuff and more privacy, suffer depression by as much as eight times the rate as people in poor countries who are forced to live together.
In this week's parashah, Ki Tavo, we read about an interesting character, the farmer whom I will be speaking about this Shabbat. The farmer is a lonely profession. If you are in the business world, you talk to the people, but farmers only have the land to speak to. The land might listen well, but doesn't respond. All year, day after day, dawn to dusk, the farmer works his field, usually alone.
And so we read about an interesting mitzvah - in our parashah, the farmer is forced to leave his isolated plot of land, once a year, and come to Jerusalem to offer his first fruits. Along the way, the mishnah describes how the farmers would gather together, and they would come in unison to Jerusalem. Little by little, they realize that they aren't so alone. The residents of Jerusalem would leave the city to greet them, standing in their honor yelling out, "Brothers, come in peace." Even the king would greet them. For one time a year, they were embraced by community. They gave their first fruits, bikkurim, to the priest and they prayed. They had to say very specific words:
"My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8 The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me." (Deuteronomy 26:1-10).
Does this situation sound familiar to you? Every year, we replay this same situation in modern times. Year after year, there are lonely people, the farmers, who work day after day, week after week, who only experience holy community during these weeks, the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. And we, members of a year round holy community, the residents of Jerusalem, stand ready to embrace them.
Our high holiday season officially kicks off this Saturday night with our Selichot service and or Big Reveal program
. We hope you can join us this Saturday night. Now is the time to come back to the center, and when we do, we welcome in others who are hungry for community and Jewish experience.
As we journey to Shabbat Ki Tavo, let us all realize that happiness will not be found within our individual, but within the camp, within the gates of holiness. Happiness will not be found in private, but found in public, in the Center. Let us all welcome each other in as we begin this new year.
Rabbi David Baum