The rabbis taught: Adam was created on the eve of Shabbat. And why was he created last?…Some say: So that if he becomes too haughty, he can be told: the gnat preceded you in the order of creation (Bavli Sanhedrin 38a).
Tu B’Shevat always makes me think about how small I am. When a person considers the vastness of the universe, the complexity of the natural world, and the variety of flora and fauna throughout the earth, it does not take a belief in God for a person to realize that he/she/they is a small speck in a much bigger picture. And perhaps just as importantly, once a person recognizes the smallness of each individual human being, taking that idea seriously requires that a person treat every other living with elevated sanctity.
Our rabbinic commentators understood this idea, and used images of how our ancestors related to all living beings and the natural world as a proxy for explaining how God is mindful of all living things. The best example of this ideal is Moses, who was a shepherd of sheep before he was the shepherd of the Israelites, exemplifed in this midrash below:
While our teacher Moses was tending the sheep of Yitro in the wilderness, a lamb ran away from him. Moses ran after the lamb until it reached Hasuah. Upon reaching Hasuah, the lamb came upon a pool of water and stopped to drink. When the lamb reached Moses, Moses said, “I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty. You may be tired.” Moses placed the lamb on his shoulder and began to walk. The Holy One, blessed is God, said, “You are compassionate in leading flocks belonging to mortals; I swear you will similarly shepherd my flock, Israel… (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 2:2).
In this midrash, God takes note of Moses’ treatment of animals because Moses treats one sheep in his flock with the same level of care and attention Moses would show any human being. And because God rewards Moses’ treatment of sheep with the honor of shepherding God’s people from slavery to freedom, all of us learn a powerful lesson about the standard to which God holds us in terms of how we are to be in service of one another. By extension, if Jewish institutions take this idea seriously, we must develop an ethic amongst our leaders of constantly gauging how we make other people feel.
This year, to use a metaphor of Danny Meyer, the greatest restaurateur in the United States today, I find myself thinking about what it means to constantly be in a dialogue with the Jewish people. Too many Jewish institutions say that their primary purpose is to serve the Jewish people, yet the way that they go about this is more a monologue with a group of insiders, as opposed to a dialogue with a vast expanse of Jewish people not engaged with any of our institutions. Meyer argues in Setting the Table that this framework is the opposite of hospitality, and to really care about people is to remain constantly mindful of how what we do makes others feel. Meyer writes:
Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. Service is a monologue—we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top” (65).
Of course, any synagogue leader would bristle at the suggestion that their congregation does not care about people. “We’re all about people! We’re warm and welcoming,” they would say. Fair enough. But what Danny Meyer challenges us to do is something more elevated, placing the spiritual needs of the individual Jew at the center of the synagogue experience, constantly asking who we are trying to serve, as opposed to trying to serve the insider. At a time when fewer and fewer Jews are members of any synagogue, it would be reasonable to suggest that this aspiration is one in which most congregations fall short, whether they aim to or not.
Tu B’Shevat challenges each of us to see every living being as something worthy of complete attention and care. And if we are to treat every living being with that level of attention lest we forget the majesty of God’s world, then it follows that we must give the highest amount of care to every Jew our congregations wish to serve.
May our observance of Tu B’Shevat be an opportunity for us to embrace the eternal dialogue of Jewish Community.
Tu B’Shevat Sameah.