These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The Small Stuff (Shabbaton Dvar)

Posted on September 28, 2014 by Suzanne Hutt

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Suz HutWhen I learned that the theme of this Shabbaton would be “Building Community,” I asked Meesh if I could speak about something that I am extremely passionate about, and thankfully she said yes. But before I get to that, I want to talk about what we are, all of us, which is basically a room full of strangers. As Natan said so eloquently the other night, it’s strange to think that although we may feel very close by now, we’ve actually only known each other for three weeks. So how do we go from being a room full of strangers to being something more, like a room full of friends?

As Meir brought up a few days ago, it doesn’t happen overnight. These things take time, and it also takes effort and intentionality. But what exactly does that effort look like in our day-to-day behaviors? Parasha Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:18) teaches us

, אהבת לרעך כמוך

to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a central tenet in Jewish thought. It’s a great concept, but this single phrase doesn’t give us a roadmap for the how. How can you love someone that you just met three weeks ago?

In his book Strive for Truth, Rabbi Dessler writes that “love springs from acts of giving.” Whereas we usually think of it as the other way around, that we give to the ones we love, here we see another side of the discussion. Rabbi Dessler writes:

That which a person gives to another is never lost; it is an extension of his own being. He can see a part of himself in the fellow man to whom he has given. If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to whom he gives, he would realize that the only reason the other person seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to him or shown him friendly concern. If I give to someone, I feel close to him. I have a share in his being.

So I return to the question, what exactly does this giving look like on a practical level? Last year in my MSEd classes, we spoke a lot about how to foster a sense of community in a classroom full of strangers, and my friend Cate introduced me to this small, simple procedure that has become a major passion of mine. It involves passing papers! Some of you who sit next to me in class may have noticed that I have this strange way of passing papers, but I assure you there is a reason behind it! The way that it works is that the first person receives a stack of papers from the teacher, takes the one on top for himself, and advances the top paper so that it is easily grabbable when he passes the stack to the person seated beside him. Then that person takes the top paper and also advances the next paper in the stack, making it easily grabbable for the next person, and so on. It’s such a small gesture, but it is an extremely powerful way to show the person next to you that you care for their well being, that you are looking out for them.

It is such a simple thing, passing papers, but at Pardes we do it ten times a day, at least! And it is always a break in the action; we go from engaging conversation and questioning and intense learning to this lull, a very mundane act of passing papers, shuffling around and worrying that we might not have enough copies, etcetera. Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn this mundane, meaningless act into something more elevated, more meaningful, an opportunity to show each other we care? In Michael Hattin’s Siddur class, we learned that in Judaism, nothing throughout the day is taken for granted. Every moment is an opportunity to take a small, otherwise monotonous act of our day and elevate it to a holier status. Eating, using the bathroom, tying your shoelaces in the morning. Wouldn’t it be great if every time we passed papers at Pardes, we could work toward building a stronger community? I can say from personal experience just how amazing it feels to receive a stack of paper where the top sheet is advanced; it sends a clear message that the person seated beside me is invested in my well being.

Since this is Pardes, after all, I am not looking to coerce you into adopting this paper passing method. But as we embark on this journey, starting a year at Pardes together, I urge you to take every opportunity to show each other empathy. I’ve come to appreciate that the most significant way to build community is actually in the really small stuff. In giving to each other in small ways, even like passing paper, we can begin to build a stronger kind of love, the love that takes us from just neighbors to friends.