Shifting Our Perspective from “Me” to “We”

A traditional Jewish tale teaches that what appear to be personal decisions directly affect others.

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Rabbi Grossman’s Blog: Torah For Our Times
Parshat Vayikra 2020

By Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation, Columbia, MD
www.beth-shalom.net

Two small villages were situated opposite each other across a river, connected by a bridge. Both villages had the same resources, were approximately the same size, and had a similar mix of rich and poor. Yet one village thrived while the other was in severe decline.

Desperate to know the secret of the thriving village’s success, the mayor of the declining village crossed the bridge to visit his counterpart. The mayor of the thriving village welcomed his neighbor and heard him out. He then suggested the following: “Let us set up a great vat in our town squares and ask our residents to each contribute to it a small skein of wine. You and I will share the first cup of wine from each vat.” The mayor of the declining village agreed. They set a date and announced the event to all their residents.

All week, residents of both villages lined up to pour their contributions into their respective vats. The day came and the mayor of the declining village again crossed the bridge to visit his counterpart. Together they drew the first cup of wine and drank deeply, enjoying the taste of the mixed wines. Then they crossed the bridge to the declining village. Together they again drew the first cup of wine. This time the wine appeared clear, like water. The two mayors tasted from the cup and discovered it was water!

“How could this be?” the mayor of the declining village cried. The mayor of the thriving village offered an explanation, “In my village, everyone poured into the communal vat the best wine they could contribute, which made a delicious mix. In your village, everyone figured, ‘Why should I put myself out? Let someone else do as asked.’ Not wanting to be found out, they all brought water instead of wine. That explains the difference between our two villages. In yours, everyone is only concerned for him or herself. In mine, though everyone’s capabilities are different, all contribute to the collective good.”

For each resident of the declining village, it was all about “me.” For each resident of the thriving village, it was all about “we.” If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it is that we are more “we” than we ever admitted. What we each personally do or don’t do directly affects others (and ultimately ourselves) for good or, literally, ill.

Our Sages taught, even one letter in the Torah holds an important lesson. Look at the last letter of the first word of this week’s Torah reading, Vayikra, in the attached photo from the Torah Scroll. It is smaller than its fellow letters. That letter is aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the first letter of the Hebrew word ani, “I.” Vayikra means, “and (God) called (to Moses).” According to tradition, Moses was the humblest of men. Yet even Moses had to reign in his “I,” his ego, to hear God word. We most certainly do.

Our Torah reading, Vayikra, also begins by first listing voluntary sacrifices and only then obligatory ones. Life includes sacrifice. Some, like death and illness, are terribly painful. But other, voluntary, sacrifices we make can give our lives purpose and meaning. Our ancient text speaks to modern times. State and local officials have asked us to make voluntary and obligatory sacrifices. Are our egos small enough to allow us to shift our perspective from “me” to “we”?

Like the villagers in the declining village, what appear to be personal decisions directly affect others. Like the residents of the thriving village, each of us has something to offer our neighbors. That willingness to share, that harnessing of our egos for good, lies at the heart of success, whether collectively filling a vat with wine or weathering a crisis like COVID-19.

Shabbat Shalom!

© Copyright. Susan Grossman. 2020.

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    Rabbi, I thought that the story of the two villages beautifully, but simply demonstrates the consequences of a selfish or selfless communal attitude.

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