There is No "I" in Team

Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Here's a true confession of a self-described "Resilience Rabbi" spending a year writing about resilience: sometimes I don't feel very resilient. 

Sometimes I feel tired, drained, even hopeless. I suspect we all have those moments when we don't seem to bounce back from adversity, when the proverbial turkeys get us down. After all, life is dynamic and our inner realities don't always flow in ways that our left brains would call "rational." In those poignant moments, it can be hard to fully feel anything else – or anyone else.

It's through this lens of emotional and inter-personal realism – that how we feel individually can freight, shade or even block our sense of each other – that I read this week's paresha (Emor). Through that lens, I receive a valuable resilience lesson about how we balance ourselves and others, what's within us and what's beyond us.

Emor begins with individual instructions for now-outdated spiritual practices about the sacrificial cult (Lev. 21-22), then describes Shabbat and the spiritual calendar (Lev. 23), then directs all the people to bring "clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly" (Lev. 24:2). The individual practices are just that – individual, personal to each of us. Shabbat and the spiritual calendar are collective.

Take that in. There are individual spiritual practices, and there are collective ones. We're called into both. Individual practices without the collective can become isolated, self-absorbed and even self-righteous. Collective rites without individual experience can become performative and dull, even fake.

Jewish resilience wisdom is precisely in balancing and harmonizing the individual and collective. When individual lives feel dull and diminished, Torah's wisdom calls us to reach for the collective. When our participation in community feels dull and diminished, Torah's wisdom calls us to recharge within. 

Only when we fire on both thrusters – both individual and collective – can we bring what Torah calls the "clear oil of beaten olives for lighting." Pure olive oil is especially difficult to make: it requires much effort to pick olives, carry them, press them and refine their oil into pure clarity. By their nature, the many steps of making pure olive oil ask communal teamwork in which every participating individual's effort is necessary but no participant's effort is sufficient. 

In modern jargon, there's no "I" in that kind of team. The wisdom of Jewish spiritual life is precisely that it tacks from individual to collective and back again. That's how we all can shine brightest.

Just ask the pure olive oil, shining bright as our quiet resilience teacher.

Rabbi David Evan Markus