Our Torah reading opens with the words ‘vayakhel moshe.’ The Hertz suggests ‘Moses assembled,’ but that isn’t quite right. There is no English verb ‘to community-ise,’ but if there was, that would be a much better translation. The people are not coming together as an assemblage of people clumped together, it’s a coming together in community. And then Moses says, ‘These are the things which God commands you to do.’
I’m interested in the relationship between community and commandment. We live in a world where Western philosophy and political culture has overstressed the value of individual autonomy (‘To your own true self be true’ suggested Peer Gynt as a operating philosophy for life.’) Judaism is less interested in personal autonomy and independence than it is interested in mutual dependence and obligation. Certainly Synagogues, communities, like our own are in terrible trouble if this doctrine of individuality pervades all else.
From the outside the option of mutual dependence and responsibility may seem unattractive; who, after all, would rather be obligated than free. But from the inside the sense of obligation that emerges in community is not a burden, it is the fulfilment of our humanity. My ability to be in a community with you is not about assembling in the same place at the same time as you, but about the way in which I become committed, obligated, commanded by you and you by me. This is the territory Levinas, the great French Jewish philosopher of the last century made his own. When we truly encounter another person, taught Levinas, we become bound to them, aware of their fragility and need, and in doing we discover what it means to live ethically. I think it is also only be being commanded by our ‘community-ising’ that we come to live well.