We have a unique challenge today to balance the local and the global. It’s not easy to remain invested in both conversations. And while meta-connections provide gratifications and expectations that local Judaism rarely actualizes — that is, if I’m part of an exciting national and global conversation about the priorities of the Jewish people, why would I continue spending time concerning myself with purely local matters? — neighborhoods continue to be the hubs of Jewish life.
Perhaps, experiences of the global and local can inform one another. In Exodus Rabbah, the rabbis teach what role “borrowing” played in Creation:
“The day borrows from the night, and the night from the day.
“The moon borrows from the stars, and the stars from the moon…
“Thus it is also with human beings, with a single difference: All these others borrow without ending up in court.”
Day does not end discreetly when night begins. Rather, day and night merge and learn from one another. Their very essences are too intertwined to separate.
Global and local discourses are also interdependent; the two perspectives can and must borrow from one another. Today, though our global relationships and meta-discourses (via social media) are essential, they can eclipse important and holy opportunities right before our eyes.
We are commanded to love our neighbor only once in the Torah; we are commanded by the Torah 36 times to love a stranger — something obviously more difficult. It is often the distant relationships that expose our true character. The local determines our fate, the distant our destiny. The parochial evokes nostalgic contact while the less familiar inspires the dream. The Torah is adamant that we must go beyond the local and familiar and enter relationships of giving and healing beyond our four walls. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that neither tribalism nor universalism works alone. In tribalism, we retreat to the familiar, and in universalism, others are brought into our expanding tribe. An alternative is to love and cherish our local uniqueness but also to value and engage with the diverse peoples and ideas that a global approach offers. We should insist that tribalism “borrow” from universalism and vise versa. Tribalism, at its best, solidifies community, language, identity, and kindness. And universalism, at its best, solidifies interconnectedness, diversity, and justice.
I try to use the closeness I feel with God to make the world smaller, a more familial place, by embracing the lonely and the isolated. When I walk in complex or dangerous environments, I carry the lights of spiritual intimacy with me. For example, I often feel isolated working on a campaign, where partners don’t follow through with their commitments and the opposition engages in unfair personal attacks. At those times, I try to remember that God is with us and I strive to find a light against the rampant darkness. This focus can be regenerative and reparative for me. Being spiritually prepared allows us to engage in face-to-face conversations as well as in the vastly more complex and diverse discourse of global conversations. Global conversations are still, and always, made up of many individual voices, sometimes difficult in their own solitary ways.
Though social media hits us with a flood of information and data, the encounter can sometimes leave us empty of concrete relationships, and we must work hard to form strong bonds. The individual narrative and global trends are intertwined. The local rootedness of our individual communities sustains us.
Achieving this balance requires both reverence for the vastness of the ecosystem surrounding us and humility for the knowledge of its complexity. We must be, simultaneously, empowered to engage and aware of our limitations. Our community leadership must empower this courage and model this humility. There are individual limits that we must all learn for ourselves, but also collective limits that our communal leadership must help us to navigate.
A midrash on the first chapter of Genesis inspires my own local-global spiritual practice.
“God gathered the dust [of the first human] from the four corners of the world — red, black, white, and green…. Why from the four corners of the earth? [We learn that]…every place that a person walks, from there she was created and from there she will return.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 1:13)
In the 21st century, we belong everywhere (“every place that a person walks, from there she was created”). We are all made up of the same stuff and share equal dignity. On the other hand, each of us has our own colorful uniqueness (a combination of “red, black, white, and green”). My own particularism is informed by my deep local relationships and work, and I draw on this particularism when I venture beyond my local borders (physically or virtually). Too often, highly interconnected individuals dismiss the value of physical presence. And, too often, individuals remain too locally rooted, and they become stagnant in a small sphere of ideas. The midrash teaches us that there is a cost to all when we fail to dance between both. Our time requires that we dance in both worlds.