Habbits of the Heart: Thoughts on the Parasha & Interpersonal Relationships

Dear Friends:

This week I put up the first photo that I have ever placed on Facebook of the SOLD sign on my house of 38 years in Westville.  Within a day or two, I have had more than 200 friends “like” the picture and a large number of very lovely comments that truly lifted my spirits. I am not sure if my posting is the occasion for the record number of one billion people, one-seventh of the Earth’s population, who logged into Facebook on Monday as most of the people who logged in were outside the U.S. and Canada, but this was a milestone for the world’s biggest online social media network.

It reminded me of an old Ladino proverb: “My heart wants neither coffee nor the coffeehouse; my heart wants a friend; coffee is an excuse.”  We all need companionship, social interactions in our lives..friends, family, community, a sense of belonging and continuity.

We drink coffee or have a beer not just because we are thirsty but because we crave sociability.  We want a friend or a colleague with whom to talk. We want a place where we can share ideas and be comfortable that we are accepted. Before I became the CEO of the Federation, I never drank coffee. Yes, I drank coca-cola but never coffee…except for coffee ice cream.  These days, both because I rarely sleep anyway at night and need the caffeine but also for the opportunity to talk with folks. I usually meet for coffee many times a week.

In our technological era, it becomes increasingly difficult to sit down face to face and really bare your soul.  People are so busy with their cell phones; they are texting; often they are not present even when they are sitting across the table from you. You say hello to people when you pass them on the street, on the bike path, in the halls of the JCC, and they don’t hear you because they are plugged into their iPod. Friendships become attenuated; communities fragment…and we are grateful when there is someone who has the time and the inclination to have a relaxing cup of green tea or iced coffee with us.

We live in unsafe, trying times. It takes us to the cliff edges of life.  We fail victim to the ease with which social media provides a false sense of community as we are bombarded with messages that entice us into dangerous directions. Noel Biderman, until recently the CEO of the company that runs the adultery website Ashley Madison, made millions off the philosophy that cheating is a natural part of married life. We can be lulled into unconsciousness of propelled into frantic activities that divert us from our chief priorities…work that is satisfying, families that our loving, friends that offer comfort and support, congregations that provide camaraderie and spiritual sustenance.

People want and need that sense of community. Yet, sadly, our world seems to be increasingly obsessed with undermining societal wellbeing. The contemporary catchwords are “new”, “improved”, technological innovation. We have built-in obsolescence. I need Word 10; I need iPhone 6.

There are times when I mourn the breakdown of families, separated by distance and reliant on SKYPE with the increasing alienation from the past, from historical social texture.  And there are times I am so grateful that I can see my grandchildren, and be seen by them, even while they are in Ranaana, Beersheva or New Orleans while I am in New Haven.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetsei, reminds us of rules that create and maintain society, relationships, community.  Replete with 74 mitzvot – the commandment to return lost objects; to help an owner unload an over-burdened animal; to build a safety fence around one’s roof so no-one will accidentally fall off; to offer loans to those in need; to pay laborers on time; to provide justice to the widow and orphan – all these rules contribute to a society with moral fiber, with a social texture that is caring, inclusive, and loving. They teach us to focus on the “other” as a fellow human being, rather than a faceless, nameless entity.

The Etz Chaim commentary states that the overarching theme of Ki Tetsei, is the “irreducible dignity and worth of the human being.” The laws made a moral appeal to conscience. Judaism is far more about relating to the other than it is about relating to the self. It rings with “habits of the heart”. Alexis de Tocqueville’s expression of the traits essential to the American character.

Maybe we all need to worry less about coffee, and more about conversation. We need to maintain and deepen the relationships which transform the community. Shabbat allows me to put down my cell phone, stop texting, turn off the email, and concentrate on the people around me. By connecting to each other, we strengthen the fabric of our community and our lives. We connect our generation to past generations and to the generations yet to come.  We see this when we go to a shiva house and offer consolation by our presence; we feel this when we rejoice at a bris or baby naming; we participate in this when we dance at a wedding. I am so grateful to those who offered me hospitality this weekend as I left my home, a home filled with memories of my children, of simchas, and a shiva for my mother-in-law. Meals proffered, hugs shared, offers to help pack up boxes, flowers cut from my own garden to delight me, and yes, messages of love and concern, posted on my Facebook page…. all helped so much to remind me of how blessed I am to live in a relational community which offers meaning and purpose, belonging and love.

The parasha reminds us that our goal as individuals, as congregations, as community, and as Federation, must be to help Jews develop the inclination to be engaged, to be aware of injustice, and be motivated to act to alleviate it: to be part of a caring community of which we can be proud.

Our hearts want neither coffee nor coffeehouses; our hearts want a welcoming hand, a listening ear, a comforting word; coffee is but an excuse. Want to meet at Starbucks next week?????

Shabbat shalom


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