The DNA of Our Community: A Shabbat Drash from Sci-Tech
by Cantor Michelle Rubel, faculty
This week’s big question is: What is your Jewish DNA? We know that DNA is the blueprint, the recipe for the foundation of life. Through our DNA, each of us is connected as a species and each of us is unique. Our Jewish DNA serves a similar function. It is the stories and values that shape our jewish identity, that shape our understanding of our Jewish selves. Through our Jewish DNA, each of us is connected by our common values, and each of us is unique.
There’s a story that comes from the Talmud about a person who wanted to convert to Judaism. He first visited a Rabbi named Shammai. He told Rabbi Shammai “I will become Jewish, but only if you can explain the entirety of Torah to me while I stand on one foot.” Shammai laughed him off. “I don’t have time for this mockery of our holy Torah!” The convert then went to visit another Rabbi named Hillel. He told Rabbi Hillel “I will become Jewish, but only if you can explain the entirety of Torah to me while I stand on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel said “of course.” He continued, “this is our holy Torah: what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is the explanation of this – go and study it!”
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. Rabbi Hillel is teaching us the basic building block of Judaism, boiling it down to one single concept: empathy. Empathy is the capacity to feel and understand what another living thing is experiencing. To put ourselves in another’s shoes. Empathy is what allows us not only to feel FOR others, but to feel WITH others. Especially those who’s life experiences and circumstances might be different from our own.
Here’s an example: Two friends were walking down a path and came across a pair of shoes. The shoes belonged to a poor man who was working in a field nearby. The first friend said: “I have an idea. Let’s take the man’s shoes and hide in the bushes with them. Wait until he comes back and can’t find them – he’ll be so confused!” The second friend said: “I have a better idea. Instead of taking the man’s shoes, let’s leave a coin in each one. Wait until he comes back and sees that!” So the two friends put a coin into each of the shoes and then hid in the bushes. When the poor man came back from working and found the coins, he was overwhelmed, weeping with joy and gratitude. The two friends couldn’t help but feel some of that joy as well as they hid nearby.
Empathy not only helps us understand the experiences of others, but helps us feel connected to other people. It’s what creates a community that is more than just a group of individuals. When we make sure everyone here at Sci-Tech feels included and valued, just as we would want to be included and valued, it binds us together into a kehillah kedoshah – a holy community. It’s easy to steal someone else’s shoes, especially when you share a living space. Of course, all you end up with is a pile of shoes that may not even be your size. But if we make the choice to put coins into each other’s shoes, to treat each other with kavod, to show kindness and pursue justice – we can all be rich.