I want to speak about the blessed intersection where individuals and community meet. As Jews, this nexus is our most shining moment, the source of our greatest creativity and our deepest gift. It is what makes us a people bonded together all over the world, and linked through time and space.
It is my deepest belief that every single one of us has a story. A story that brought you to this particular moment of time in which you are reading this, hearing it, or sharing it. A story that you have woven with the unique blend of gifts given to you as the core of who you are and the talents and experiences and opportunities you have created in your life. Your story is about what you have learned, what has endured, and what values you hold most dear. There never has been a story like yours – and there never will be again. Amazing.
I wrote my rabbinic thesis about how the sharing of personal stories from our lives helps create community. In what word, what I learned is that telling each other who we are through our own stories is nothing less than PROFOUND. When we tell each other who we are, not only the “this happened and that happened” but the depth, the meaning, how the story has shaped us – we share these as sacred offerings of our own hearts. It requires a LOT on the part of everyone. It means that we have to sift through what are the elements of the story that have given us juice, and what should be left on the editing floor. Not easy. And on the part of the listener, it requires deep attention, a tossing out of projection and “oh that happened to me.” When we really want to hear someone’s story, we have to drop down beneath the chatter in our own heads and have real curiosity about the gift with which we are being presented.
I often ask people, in classes I teach or over coffee — What do you KNOW is true? FOR YOU? What is it that you believe is so essential that you want to pass on, be known by? And how did you come to know that that was true? For example, one thing I know to be true is that in order to grow a garden, I must make sure the soil is cared for, rich and receptive. Building the base is essential – taking time to take care of what isn’t even seen is key to growing anything. And I not only know this from my garden, but I know this from raising our kids. From our 32 year old marriage. From studying Torah. And it is from this place that I deeply value investing in the foundation of any single thing that is worth building and growing (relationships, new communities, groups….)
The collection of every person’s wisdom (what you know to be TRUE) is your Torah – your singular teaching.
My mentor, Rabbi Larry Kushner writes in his book “God was In This Place and I, I did not know”:
“Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching. Some seem to know their Torahs very early in life and speak and sing them in a myriad of ways. Others spend their whole lives stammering, shaping, and rehearsing them. Some are long, some short. Some are intricate and poetic, others are only a few words, and still others can only be spoken through gesture and example. But every soul has a Torah. To hear another say Torah is a precious gift. For each soul, by the time of his or her final hour, the Torah is complete, the teaching done.”
When we really really listen to each other’s stories, we open ourselves to see the divinity in each single soul. How many of you have had the experience of making a quick judgement about another person, only to find out how wrong you were when you heard their story? Believe me, I just came back from a one week long silent retreat and after now 3 of these I once again am amazed at the ability of the human’s brain (read: mine) to go from observation to judgement in a split second — only to have it all blown to pieces when the object of focus (the other person) actually speaks and emerges so much more beautiful and wise that I could ever imagine!
Shavuot is the time when our sages believed that the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. We left Egypt where we were in a state of constriction, made the decision to become free, and then we wandered for 49 days in the desert. Most probably dazed and confused, complaining, a big mess — until we land at the foot of a mountain.
And it is said that at the mountain, we, became more than individuals with individual stories – we became ONE as we experienced the Divine presence and received Torah. AS ONE. Kol ha’AM – the entire community experienced the giving of Wisdom with a capital W and Torah with a capital T.
This is our mystical experience as Jews. In the simplest understanding, we were given the 10 commandments. But the rabbinic tradition holds that it was ALL truth, ALL wisdom – even wisdom that was not yet created.
And so another way to understand Torah is that Torah is our collective truth. That Torah is about what we know, as a people, to be true and real as a community. And we received that together.
As each of us dips into that story — this becomes our shared story — our COLLECTIVE story.
And it is here that the glorious merging of the individual and the community occurs. Our challenge is to hold in one hand the understanding that each of us has a unique special contribution and story that only we can fulfill — and at the same time – in the other hand, understand that we stand together, we share a common story, a BIG story. A community that is able to honor both of these truths rests in a place of grace.
 Kushner, Lawrence. God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993, 177