Lyrical approach to week’s parsha

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

My formative years were during the 1950s and 1960s. During these decades, there were enormous changes in culture, in the physical sciences, and in psychological, sociological and anthropological sciences. The music of the 1960’s also reflected these changes.

While there were so many groups of musicians to whom I listened during these years, one, Simon and Garfunkel, seemed to speak to me. Their lyrics were introspective, as I am, and their close harmonies and haunting melodies touched the very core of my being. 

One of my Simon and Garfunkel favorites was entitled “I Am a Rock” and was released in 1966. The refrain, “I am a rock, I am an island,” resonated with my sense of independence and my need to protect myself from any vulnerability. After all, “. . . a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” 

As I graduated from high school, then college, and then found myself in the Army, I recalled the lyric, “I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.” After all, I was a rock, protected with my hard shell on the outside, and an island, invulnerable and remote, alone in the sea of humanity and all of its messiness.

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Experience since then has taught me that to be a rock and an island may not be the healthiest way to go. For, as John Donne wrote, “No [hu]man is an island.” We are all in this thing called “life” together. The pain of never having made a friend is much deeper than that of losing a friend. The sadness of never having laughed or loved is more profound than having done so, even when pain and loss follow. As Dean Martin reminded us, “Everybody loves somebody sometime.”

Our Torah portion for this week, Ki Tisa, begins with an order to take a census of the people. However, rather than simply having everyone count off, Moses is told to collect a half shekel from each person. The funds were to be utilized to maintain the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle in the center of the camp which served as a focal point for communion with God and with one another. One has to marvel at this ingenious method that provides an accurate count without assigning a number to each individual. But, one has to ask, why was a half shekel collected? Why not a whole one from each person?

There are many brilliant answers to this question in the commentaries, but one speaks to whether or not each of us is an island. Rabbi Mordecai Katz in his work, “Lilmod Ulelammed,” suggested that no individual is complete in and of his/herself. Therefore was the half shekel required — to emphasize this interdependence.

This commentary speaks to us today in light of the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” One fact it seems to indicate is the trend toward  remaining unaffiliated with a synagogue is increasing, particularly among the youngest cohorts. People seem to disdain “religious” institutions and communities in favor a personal “spirituality.” In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, people are increasingly thinking of themselves as “a rock and an island,” with their “books and . . . poetry to protect [them].” 

Rabbi Katz’s observation that no individual is complete in and of him/herself applies very aptly here. While congregations are imperfect and put us in contact with a large number of people who may, at one time or another, inflict pain, they are also capable of providing great healing and comfort. Religion gives form to the spiritual, and the community provides reinforcement. No [Hu]man is an island; we are linked inextricably to one another as Jews, as members of the larger community and as human beings.

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona and treasurer of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.