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What is "community"?

In this week's Torah portion we encounter a confusing array of references to "the community". In Hebrew the word throughout Parshat Korah for community is 'edah' (spelled ayin, daled, hey and pronounced ai-da). The Torah uses the word 'edah' and related forms to describe two separate rebellious groups, those led by Korah and those led by Dathan and Abiram, as well as the Israelites who do not join in the two rebellions. Indeed, at times it is quite difficult to know which community is being spoken to or otherwise mentioned! (This confusing use of the word community has actually been going on for several 'parshiot').

This raises a very relevant contemporary issue: when we speak of belonging to community it is often not clear what is meant. When the word community is used most of us believe that, theoretically, we have a reasonably good idea of what is meant. However, when pressed to define who is in or out of a certain community; or the purpose/function of a community; or the boundaries between one community and the next the task becomes much more complicated. Often, even when we think we can identify the obvious connections which create a community, we discover we are wrong. For example, we might think that being a member is a common denominator for people to be involved in our congregations. However, it is not. There are participants in our "community" who are not members of our congregations.

There is a hint of what must exist between people for them to constitute a community in the Hebrew word 'edah'. To understand it, one must first note how the Shema is written in the Torah. (See page 276 of the siddur Kol HaNeshama for an example). The last letter of the word 'shema', ayin, and the last letter of the last word, 'echad', daled, are written in bolder and larger scripts than the rest of the letters. This is a scribal marker for us. The two letters, ayin and daled, together spell 'ayd' (pronounced aid), which means witness or testify. The Shema, then, is understood as the essential expression of our commitment to Adonai.

When you add the letter hey to 'ayd' the word becomes 'edah', community. The letter hey is significant for two reasons. First it is the only letter in the four letter tetragrammaton -yud, hey, vav, hey- used twice. Second, it is a silent letter. From this we learn that a community is comprised of people who besides sharing overt commonalities also share something silent and divine. A community is what exists when people conjoin their individual commitment to "Elohay ha Ruchot/God, Source of the Breath of all flesh" (16:22) with one another in some ineffable way. What then ultimately distinguishes the destructive communities of Korah and Dathan and Abiram and the community of Israelites who remained faithful to Adonai? The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 5:7 answers this when it sets up Korach as the paradigm of a dispute which was "sh'lo l'shem sha'mayim" (an argument not for the sake of Heaven). A community that is "sh'lo l'shem shamayim" is mainly interested in promoting itself. In other words, a divinely imbued community is one that promotes something greater than itself.

It is said that we sometimes learn our most important lessons from difficult experiences. Parshat Korah is certainly one of the more difficult portions to understand, yet from it we can learn much about the essence of communal life.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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