The Safest Place for the Holidays and more

    September 2009            
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"This Rosh Hashanah, Be Safe and Go to Shul!"

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman

I know I'm not the only one who feels anxious these days and a recent report about the most likely causes of accidents hasn't helped me one bit. I read that I should: Avoid riding in cars because they are responsible for 20% of all fatal accidents, stop walking on streets and sidewalks because 14% of all calamities occur to pedestrians, and never, ever go to a hospital, even to visit a sick friend, because 32%of all deaths occur in hospitals. Great. From the looks of it, I will be spending my days at home behind the computer. But wait, 17% of all mishaps occur at home so maybe that's not such a good idea, either!

There are ways to fight my anxiety and I'm determined to muddle through. The internet offers an abundance of suggestions ranging from meditation and yoga to chamomile tea and aromatherapy massage. And of course I can always join the more than 27 million Americans who turn to prescription drugs for help.

But good news comes from surprising research that states that only 0.01 % of all deaths occur in a synagogue, and these are usually related to previous physical disorders. And the number of deaths related to Jewish text study is so small that they are not even recorded! My conclusion? The safest place for me to be at any given time is in shul, (synagogue) praying or studying Torah! Won't the rabbis be pleased to find out that they are doing more than their fare share in alleviating the medical crisis facing our country?

On a serious note, the idea that being in community with other Jews will keep us "safe" is not a new concept. Rabbi Hillel taught in Ethics of the Fathers: "Do not separate yourself from the community." But Hillel's maxim requires us to ask ourselves two questions: What is the Jewish community and what am I doing to be a part of it?

The Jewish tradition gives us wonderful images of what community can and should be. Imagine this scene, depicted in Exodus: You are camped at the bottom of a mountain called Sinai, in the middle of the desert which you have been hiking through for the past three months after narrowly escaping the Egyptian army. You are with your family and friends, your teachers and fellow slaves. You have been preparing yourself for three days - washing your clothes, cleaning your tent, becoming as pure as you can. Then, on the third day, you look up. A heavy cloud covers the mountain and lighting and thunder rock the sky. Shofars are blowing all around you as fire and smoke pour down from the mountaintop. Suddenly, without notice, the world becomes still. Not a bird chirps, not a baby cries. You stand in total silence as a witness to the most important event in Jewish history. And in that moment you become a part of the community that receives the Torah. And along with everyone there, you agree to enter into the Covenant with God and become a member of the People of Israel.

Our tradition teaches us that everyone was present on that day – 600,000 people - from the leaders and the elders to the wood choppers and the water carriers, from the oldest sages to the newborns. The Torah says that we were encamped at Mt. Sinai but the verb "encamped" is in the singular form, not the plural. Why would the Torah use a singular verb to describe the actions of more than half a million people? Did the scribes make a grammatical error?

The sages asked this same question and this is what we are taught: That when the Jewish people stood together for the very first time to enter into the Covenant with God, it was a transformational moment in history. Individuals who had known each other their entire lives saw each other as if for the first time. In that moment, they realized that they belonged to each other and that they belonged together. They were connected in a way they had never been before. And even though each person saw, heard and understood the word of God uniquely, when they stood together at Sinai as a group, they understood and felt the power of what it means to be a community. A singular, awe-inspired Jewish community.

What does this text teach us today? That our connection to other Jews, those with whom we are close and those we do not know at all, dates back thousands of years. And that the relationship we have with each other is based on something much deeper than mere acquaintance, circumstance or convenience. It is a sacred relationship, grounded in what happened between God and the Jewish people at Sinai. In English we call this relationship a covenant; in Hebrew, a Brit.

This covenant means that the Jewish community to which you belong is the same one for which you are responsible. Likewise, because you belong to the Jewish community, it is responsible to you. A heavy burden to be sure which is why the rabbis of the Talmud said: "A community is too heavy for any one person to carry alone."

Over 2000 years ago, our sages understood only too well the burden of taking care of those in need. They were faced with as many, if not more, social, economic and communal problems as we are today and they knew how impossible it was to care for everyone unless it was a collective response. It was because of this wisdom that Jewish communities the world over, no matter how poor or isolated, have always established organizations to provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and help for the sick and needy.

The oldest lesson in Jewish history is what keeps us safe, as Jews and as human beings. And while it is up to each one of us to decide what our commitment to our community will be, one thing is certain: We have to work together – for each other and with each other - to make this world a better, safer place for all.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman (  is an award-winning, nationally syndicated columnist, author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. Her book "One God, Many Paths: Finding Meaning and Inspiration in Jewish Teachings" is available at and won a 2009 Best Book Award from the Arizona Book Publishing Association.


from the September 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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