NiSh’ma: Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur

Sh’ma Now offers three takes—Rabbi Yoshi Fenton, Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis, and Yakir Englander—on the verse, “Al tifrosh min hatzibur” — what it means to belong fully to a community.

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Pirkei Avot 2:5

הלל אומר, אל תפרוש מן הצבור, ואל תאמן בעצמך עד יום מותך.

“Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death."

NiSh’ma: Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur

Yakir EnglanderBy Yakir Englander:

Yakir Englander: This saying is from the Mishnah Tractate Avot and teaches that effective critique must come from within a society. Social reformers, to have any influence on the hearts of their people, must be one of them in their pain and struggles.

Some sources attribute the verse also to Rabbi Zadok (Avot 4:7), the same person who foresaw the rotting ethical fabric of Jerusalem 40 years before its destruction, and who began to fast and pray for the city and its morally righteous citizens. This same Rabbi Zadok criticized the Temple priests’ interpretation of holiness, which privileged the purity of the sanctuary above human life.

In Genesis, Abraham argued with the Most High over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah because he felt responsible for the welfare of everyone in Canaan, which had been divinely promised to him. He struggled to find even ten righteous people, for whose sake the Almighty would spare both circles. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, a Hasidic rabbi and leader, criticized Abraham for his lack of imaginative argumentation. The Berditchever wrote, “If not a single righteous person had been found in Sodom, the Rebbe commented, he would have sojourned to live there in order to save it from annihilation.”

The choice to become “a single saint in Sodom,” seeking its salvation, is far from simple. The people of Sodom, like the people of Jerusalem before its fall, were stubborn in their ways. It is the same today in Jerusalem. Those who set the value of human life — Israeli or Palestinian — above the “purity of the sanctuary” are seen as traitors. Such “troublers of Israel” are forced to live in acrimony, even as they pray that Jerusalem will be spared coming destruction and might, instead, be honored as the place where the “King of Peace” resides.

NiSh’ma: Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur

Yoshi FentonBy Yoshi Fenton:

Yoshi Fenton: Two thousand years ago, Hillel and the rabbis of the Mishnah, whose words fill the pages of Pirkei Avot, didn’t pray together. They didn’t all agree on the law. They didn’t all agree on the best strategy for the future of the Jewish people or how to keep kosher. They argued, even fought, and the schools of Hillel and his colleague Shammai are famous for being at odds with one another. Ancient rabbinic Judaism was anything but homogeneous.

The diversity within the Jewish community during the time of Hillel is arguably rivaled only by the diversity we find today. During the time Hillel and Shammai lived, you could affiliate with the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes. You could be a Hellenist or a Zealot. The options were many, so what was Hillel talking about when he warned against separating oneself from the community? What community was he talking about?

The story of Hillel and Shammai offers some insight. Over the 300 years that the two schools dominated the rabbinic scene, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the schools of Hillel and Shammai) had more than 350 disagreements over the law that were serious — even bloody. But we also learn from the Talmud that despite all of their disagreements, “Beit Hillel did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Shammai and Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Hillel.” (BT Yevamot 14a) The talmudic rabbis understood that the big tent of Judaism is just that — big. And when it comes to profound expressions of community, such as who marries whom, even fundamental differences are put aside.

Knowing when to engage, struggle, and fight to change one’s community and when to step away and not look back is a question for prophets; it wasn’t even clear to Abraham, as Yakir Englander suggests. Before Abraham pleaded on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, he left behind his family and the people of Haran. Before he was a saint, he ran away. Most of us aren’t prophets, yet the deep truth of this Mishnah remains. Hillel reminds us that we are all klal Yisrael, one people — one big, crazy, dysfunctional, loving community. Now, we just have to act like it.

NiSh’ma: Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur

Jordana Schuster BattisBy Jordana Schuster Battis:

Jordana Schuster Battis: Yakir Englander writes that Hillel’s text demands that each of us be a social critic, sometimes standing as a “single saint in Sodom,” crying out a message of change from within a society hostile to our plea.

Another, perhaps more hopeful, way to understand the text is to strive to be teachers of empathy within our communities — guides who make our way through the wilderness together with other sinners on the path. None of us are saints; one of the Torah’s first lessons is that all of us are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. When we bring this awareness to those we journey with, we have the chance to acknowledge the holy experiences and capacities each one brings to our endeavor. We hear each other’s stories, recognize each other’s pain, and acknowledge each other’s questions and insights. Even though, as a guide, I may have studied the terrain of our journey extensively and I may have important directions to share, teaching that everyone is equally made in God’s image reminds me not to believe only in my own expertise. I follow the caution at the end of Hillel’s text: “Do not believe [only] in yourself until the day of your death.” This humility may help us all to find a new path forward, lit by the divine and humbled sparks in each of us.

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NiSh’ma: Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur

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