One of the Beit T’Shuvah residents keeps having toilet paper stolen from her room. Maybe it’s a prank? Perhaps it’s someone else’s laziness? (Residents are responsible for re-stocking their own toilet paper from the storeroom). The whole situation led to an engaging conversation in last week’s Big Ethics, and what resulted was an important discussion about how seemingly minor issues actually have major implications for community life.
Residents made fascinating observations as they offered (many quite energetically) their take on the situation: how they were or weren’t affected. Some held that it reflected a general disrespect for one another; others thought the whole scenario mildly amusing, but generally a waste of time to address. All in all, it was quite the rousing discussion, eventually centering around the balance of responsibility which each member of a community has – each towards ourselves, each towards others. We also talked about the imbalance that results – as many of us have learned – when we lack this type of integration and, left to our own devices, spend a disproportionate amount of energy leaning one way or the other. Fortunately, we have found that the path of recovery provides us with an alternate course and a means for building a more balanced and integrated life.
We are not alone, and far from the first to discover the perils of falling into extremes. Through the stories of Noah and later of the construction of the Tower of Babel, the Torah provides us with deep insights into the dangers of either living excessively for oneself or, conversely, giving up one’s sense of uniqueness for the sake of the collective. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (zh”l) describes this in his commentary about the parashah:
So the Flood and the Tower of Babel, though polar opposites, are linked, and the entire parsahah of Noach is a brilliant study in the human condition. There are individualistic cultures and there are collectivist ones, and both fail, the former because they lead to anarchy and violence, the latter because they lead to oppression and tyranny.
The Noah narrative provides us with a model for the risks and consequences of living exclusively for ourselves. Even if our actions are not explicitly “lawless,” our selfishness continually corrupts our connection to the needs of the world beyond ourselves. In parashat Noach, we are introduced to a notable figure, one whom the Torah explicitly describes as righteous. Noah stands out among all of his neighbors, the best option available to help with G!D’s continual attempts to establish a world worthy of reflecting G!D’s Holiness. In other words, aside from Noah, everyone was living exclusively for themselves, only looking out for “what’s in it” for them and lacking any regard for the well-being of others. In somewhat of a “do-over,” – the basis for which is this pervasive lawlessness and corruption – G!D reveals to Noah the plan: a flood will eliminate the entirety of civilization and then Noah and his family will re-populate the world.
As counterweight, the Torah provides us with an example of the dangers of swinging too far to the other extreme – when our over attachment to the collective causes us to lose our connection to our own unique Holiness. In the story of the building (and destruction) of the Tower of Babel, the people were so unified in their efforts to be community that they were insulated from individual connection with G!D. They became so enraptured with their ability to build that they confused the worship of their own (collective) abilities with worship of G!D. The Tower of Babel story shows us the potential danger of losing ourselves in collective thinking, disregarding the unique Holy Soul within ourselves.
In our own search for balance the path of recovery encourages us to ask ourselves:
● What does each of us – bringing our own, Divinely-instilled capacities and passions to the work – need to do to begin to undertake (or to continue) the task at hand?
● What tasks are important for maintaining our spiritual connection (and sanity)?
● And how are we all joining together to contribute to a strong, healthy community?
It’s an on-going challenge to find answers which allow for a healthy, integrated balance of our responsibilities. Fortunately, over the next few chapters of Genesis, the Torah provides us with characters who, while imperfect, model integrated living; Abraham, Joseph, and Rachel, among others, are individuals who combine a strong sense of themselves with a sense of their responsibility for others.
Who knows, maybe it will inspire our residents to replenish their neighbors’ toilet paper rolls!
Chaplain Adam Siegel