Welcome Back, Kehila!

One of my favorite modern “Rebbes,” Dr. Brene Brown, writes that, “connection is why we’re here; it is what give purpose and meaning to our lives.” If there is one idea about human nature on which both science and religion agree, it is that social connections are integral to our health and well-being, and that family, friends, and community relationships are central features of the human experience.

Jewish tradition includes volume after volume of legal and philosophical discourse aimed at guiding the average human toward living a life of spiritual fulfillment, much of which focuses on interpersonal, familial, and communal interactions and relationships. How do we treat the vulnerable? How do we earn a living ethically and responsibly? How do we design and implement a society around principles like justice, loving-kindness, and respect? The understanding that we are all inextricably linked to one another both socially and spiritually is explicitly and implicitly found throughout this kind of literature.

I recently came across a wonderful article in by David Quammen in The Atlantic, a publication which my iPhone keeps insisting I want to read whether or not I select it for myself. Here is the link. In this article the author reminds us that despite the American and Western ideal of rugged individualism that colors so much of our experience, biology struggles to describe the organisms that inhabit our planet as individuals with any kind of accuracy. In fact, what biologists find when they study both the evolution of life as well as living organisms is an inextricably complex web of connections that resist our attempts to define either species or individuals as meaningfully distinct. We are deeply connected, and we can’t escape it.

A few examples offered in this article include:

  • The recent discovery of neanderthal DNA in direct human ancestors, blurring the lines between what had previously been considered two distinct species.
  • The Aspen tree, which behaves like an individual organism but is in fact connected deep underground to many other trees in a grove. If the grove is the individual organism, then an 80,000 year old grove covering over a hundred acres in Utah may be the earth’s largest individual organism.
  • Even a human being, the ultimate example of an individual, is in fact composed of trillions of bacteria necessary for proper food digestion. Further, each cell in our body includes mitochondria – formerly distinct bacterial organisms that evolved into cellular energy production machines that are completely integral to our lives.

Returning to my main point — as science marches forward, we see more and more “discoveries” that in fact turn out to be confirmations of the wisdom our tradition developed over its thousands of years in numerous geographic and political systems on Earth. The central tenets about compassion, justice, empathy, are confirmed as scientifically “healthy.” Perhaps most importantly, science is confirming the idea that each human being (perhaps each living thing) doesn’t function as an individual, but as parts of a whole. Whether that whole is divinely ordained or not is a question of faith and belief, but the value placed on connection over individual couldn’t be more clear or more central.

“Neither the individual nor the state is where we discover who we are and why… Beyond the most basic rules necessary for the maintenance of the most rudimentary social order, morality lives in communities and the traditions which sustain them.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith pp. 14-15

As we launch our 36th year proudly educating Jewish children in Northern Virginia, I am looking forward to continuing our conversation about education, spirituality, human nature, and how to live meaningfully through a Jewish lens. Wishing us all a fantastic Academic Year 2018-2019!

Shabbat Shalom,