The formidable African-American dancer, poet, civil rights activist and singular storyteller, Maya Angelou, died this past week. Although much admired for her memoirs and the poem she read at Clinton's inauguration, I always admired most her resilience, her capacity to overcome many obstacles in her childhood, and her deep commitment to her heritage.
Angelou once wrote: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Angelou knew the sting of abuse, the humiliation of prejudice, and the blessings of love. She knew how one remembers both the good and the bad ways people make you feel: we remember a kind word, a listening ear, a comforting hug or a shoulder to lean on. We are grateful for a congregation that sends meals over when a new baby is born, or a meal of consolation when a loved one dies. Our spirits are "lifted up" by the core communal Jewish values we share.
For those who are vulnerable, aging, in need of financial or spiritual aid, the carrying capacity of the community is a virtual lifesaver.
"Carrying capacity" might be a good alternative name for our parasha's title, Naso, which literally means "lift up." In these chapters, God gives Moses precise orders for the leaders of the people - both the priests and the Levites as well as the tribal chiefs. While this sections is lacking in exciting narrative like some of the sections in Numbers, there is a sense of vast power in an orderly universe.
The section includes the instructions on how the the sons of Aaron bless the Israelites in what has become one of the most familiar biblical texts, the priestly benediction. In Israel, the blessing is said daily by the kohanim. In Orthodox synagogues outside Israel, it is recited on the pilgrimage holidays when the congregation is blessed by members who descend from the line of the priests. Rabbis offer this blessing to their congregants when they officiate on special occasions and in many households, parents lay hands on their children's heads on Friday night and bless them with the words of this benediction.
When the Priests bestow this blessing upon the assemblage they begin by saying these words: "Blessed are Thou O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron, and has commanded us to bestow a benediction upon His nation Israel with love."
With love. Indeed, the Priests are told that if they do not feel love in their heart for every member of the congregation (!!!!!), they may not offer the benediction. Can we love the whole congregation?
Love and responsibility are inextricably intertwined from a Jewish perspective. The Priest is a Jewish leader , an agent of the Almighty, and of the nation Israel at one and the same time. He must know what hurts the nation and what the nation needs, and must actively assuage the hurt and lift up the nation. The holy community.
In short, he must love his people, all of them, and take responsibility for them. "Do not bless them in haste, nor in hurried excitement, but full consciousness and with a whole heart."
I think that is what Angelou would understand.
We, at the Federation, in our agencies, in our synagogues, are part of a kingdom of priests, and we, too, need to act with communal responsibility and with communal love.
This past week, many of the community professionals came together in collegiality and with the desire, the passion, to work together for the commonweal. At the final meeting of the Foundation and Federation grant making process last evening, decisions were made to give $1,000,000 to our local agencies, organizations and synagogues in order to strengthen their physical and human capacity to build the community. The committee struggled with how to best divvy up communal dollars with an understanding of the needs of each group. I can not express enough admiration to the group for their dedication and the seriousness with which they approached their task to "lift up" our community fairly, without bias and with love.
In two weeks, the Federation, Foundation and JCC will hold their joint annual meeting and express our appreciation to our leadership, our volunteers and our staff who daily express their love for the Jewish people and perpetuate a caring community we can be proud of. It is a labor of love.
May all of us have the merit to bring about blessings through our holy work - our words, our deeds, and our compassion.