Moses defined value of authentic community, our young and our old


Exodus 6:2–9:35

Ezekiel 28:25–29:21

It is in the midst of the plagues narrative that the core value for synagogues is given voice by Moses. This week we will read of the will read of the series of plagues God brings upon Egypt to force Pharaoh’s hand to free the Israelites. Each time, Pharaoh encounters a terribly destructive plague, and each time, his heart is hardened and he remains stubborn and unwilling to free the people.

At the end of our reading, Pharaoh capitulates. Then in next week’s portion, Pharaoh says to Moses, “Go worship your God. With whom will you go?” and Moses says, “With our young and our old we shall go.”

Moses has the opportunity to leave the youngest and oldest members of the community, and he rejects it instantly. A community means something only when it incorporates the whole community, young and old alike. As is often the case, Torah articulates a value, and it becomes our responsibility to clothe it in mitzvahs, in real behavior in this world. And as is often the case, the value runs contrary to our nature and that which surrounds us.

Ours is an era of increasing fragmentation. Personalized information streams have replaced newspapers. People can form a virtual community along the narrowest of interests. There is so much information available that, of necessity, we have developed amazing tools to filter just the news or emails in which we are interested. We have gained greatly from such tools, but something is lost, as well.

Age groups are just as fragmented. There are benefits to targeted programs. The needs and tastes of people in their 20s are different from people in their 70s or 80s. Yet when age groups cease to meaningfully interact with one another, we risk ghettoizing whole categories of people.

If young adults are offered marginal programs within the Jewish community to “meet their needs,” many will opt out, knowing that they are not really being offered a central place at the table. And by the same token, if programs for the elderly are marginal, it can be a way of keeping those wrestling with the challenges of aging out of sight and out of mind.

Moses offers a different value. With our young and our old we shall go.

I am in love with synagogues and firmly believe they have the best chance of building real communities — communities that make space around caring and learning for old and young and everyone in between. Synagogues are one of the few institutions in contemporary American Jewish society that appeal to a broad set of Jews.

At my synagogue, Kol Emeth, we have members of every age, from newborns to people in their late 90s. We have members of incredible wealth, and members at risk of homelessness and hunger. While we charge dues, no one is turned away for financial reasons. I suspect that nearly every synagogue in the Bay Area could say the same.

Synagogues are called holy communities, kehillot kedushot, in our tradition. That is a name and a challenge, a call to action. Synagogues are communities when they welcome people at many stages on their spiritual journey, and when they make room for people of different ages, genders or economic status.

One of my teenage congregants has taken to visiting a man in his late 80s. The visits started because the man was feeling lonely and because the teenager needed volunteer hours. They began meeting weekly and studying Talmud together.

Today, they each feel they have gained far more than the other. The teenager questions why he gets volunteer hours for a project in which he is learning and gaining so much. The senior is grateful for the visits and, more important, grateful for the chance to be giving rather than only receiving. For one hour each week, he is in the role of intelligent teacher, which is healing and in sharp contrast to his role as patient and elderly person that he inhabits many other hours.

This is what it means, with our young and our old we shall go. Together we learn a great deal from one another and realize how much we have to offer one another.

As we read Moses’ value, I challenge all of us to seek after ways we can participate in and strengthen communities that bring the generations together in ways that are based on caring and learning. Then we have a chance of turning Moses’ challenge to Pharaoh into a blessing for ourselves.

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected]