Last week, I went to a gathering in my neighborhood of young Jews sharing their personal stories of Jewish identity. The series of monologues, called Kaleidoscope, is based on the premise that we Jews come from all kinds of backgrounds, all sorts of places, and do not fit into any neat box: we are diverse, colorful, unique, and the guardians of our own Jewish journeys.
The monologues were mostly funny, while very poignant. Stories from a self-proclaimed ‘Blewish’ Jew (black and Jewish) who wrestled with her Jamaican and Jewish identities, slowly finding some semblance of acceptance in the Jewish community; Jews-by-choice and their projected-by-others struggles of assimilating with Jews-by-birth; a Jew of Chinese and Ashkenazi descent who contended with his own stereotypes of culture and identity; first-generation Americans balancing multiple worlds across many ethnicities (which I especially related to); and more.
But mostly, I cried.
Tears strolled down my cheeks as they shared their pain, their intense longing to fit in, their conviction to march to the beat of their own, idiosyncratic drum. But I was not sad. I was moved by the potency of their Jewish identity that pulses so strong, so valiantly, even in the face of adversity.
How beautiful is the Jewish soul.
I also cried because their stories rang true. I know what it means to feel like an outsider. I know what it feels like to want to belong, so badly. I understand the pain of being misunderstood. I fight this fight, too.
My birthday was last week. I was born in the dual Torah portions of Va’yakhel and Pekudei. (Dual portions! In the month of double-fish Adar! Oh, duality plagues me!) They say that the Torah portion you are born in reveals something deep about your mission in this world. I can attest to that. Years ago, when I learnt the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings on these parshiot, I learnt a secret to my soul.
Here’s the question: how it is that the first portion, Va’Yakhel, that is about the counting of each individual Jew, is called by its name, which means “and he gathered.” And how it is that the next parshah in this double portion, Pekudei, which means “the individuals,” is about the gathering of the Jews into a collective mass. It seems to be mixed up. The names do not correspond to their appropriate subject matter. Something is up here.
The Rebbe explains that this is not a mix up, but the secret to solving the seeming tension between the Individual and the Collective. An individual can only become fully actualized if he or she is an integral part of a larger whole, a unified-through-purpose-and-vision community. And a community can only be efficacious, only be real, only be complete, if it is comprised of actualized, whole individuals.
There is no paradox. Only a beautifully-balanced, sometimes-hard-to-achieve, symbiosis of the Individual and the Community.
Both are needed.
We were sitting after the monologues and someone posed this question to the panel: Can you imagine a world in which your stories will no longer ring true? A world in which adversity and divergency will no longer exist? A world in which our stories will meld into one?
And maybe I misinterpreted the question, but it seemed like this proposed reality was being glorified. A world in which everyone belongs. A world in which our personal narratives rub or challenge no one.
To me, that’s not an ideal.
I was born on the 20th of Adar, the day that Choni Ha’Meagal drew a circle around himself would not leave that circle until G-d answered his prayers for rain for the Jews of his community. Its a day that is extra auspicious for prayer, for demanding the super-natural be revealed in our everyday lives.
But I take another message from the man-inside-the-cirlce.
Sometimes, we need to draw a circle around ourselves. We need to protect our individuality. We need to recognize that we are unique, that each one of us has a purpose in this world that belongs to each one of us alone.
There are times when I will need to struggle alone, face my internal demons, learn who I am underneath it all.
There are times when only I can find my power, access my strength, live my intention in this world.
When I need to stand alone.
I am not you. You are not me. I have my own story. And it is not yours.
We stand so much to lose if there is no more tension between our Self and Others, even as it translates into personal pain. Its like a diving board that juts out into the Pool of Life. The pain adds a spring to our step, a bounce to our jump, a bit of momentum, that lets our impact in this world hit that much harder, that much deeper.
Yet the choice we make is: How big is that circle? How do we draw it? How tightly do we wind int around ourselves, in a defensive web of separation? How flexible are we in its diameter, how porous are its walls, how rigid and defined?
We each stand in our own circles, yet when we will it, they expand and contract into living, breathing, spirals- at times widening to include others in its grasp, at times just looping around our feet, secure.
Are we rushing toward inclusion?
There is purpose in separation.
It allows us to unite.
For through that amorphous circle, we can connect with others— and make miracles happen for everyone.