Covenant and Liturgy

A pair of questions disturbed journalist Sebastian Junger as a young suburban Boston resident, living “in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever happened,” he tells us in  Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
— Tribe, p.xiv

I found these oft-quoted lines baffling, and I was not alone in this reaction:

I am tempted to remind Junger that sacrifice and courage are necessary in many fields of life, from parenting to volunteering in refugee camps. He could also join a solidarity movement. That is what he claims he is seeking, after all.
Joanna Bourke in The Guardian

His analysis of life in Boston and its suburbs, for example, totally overlooks the sacrifices made by teachers, nurses, or those fighting for social justice, workers’ rights, against racism or other social ills in his own or other communities as well as the dangers experienced by African Americans or the poor in nearby Somerville or Boston itself.
Suzanne Gordon in Washington Monthly

But Rabbi Danny Zemel, in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at Temple Micah (DC), explained that he finds these questions “paramount,” understanding them somewhat differently in Jewish terms:

How do we become counter cultural? How do we become breakers of idols?”

Zemel points out that “[the Jewish] covenant commands us to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and argues that the synagogue should be a “place where we can learn and absorb” a “counter-cultural” message in a world that can seem to applaud self-interest over group interest. He asks:

How do we learn this call – actually more than just learn it, but feel it in our being? How does it become “us?”

How does it become “us”?

For me, one clear answer is the liturgy, which I tried to express in the “heart map” below. Another is ensuring that we recognize, and regularly celebrate, the many opportunities to prove one’s worth to the community highlighted by Bourke and Gordon above. I remain confused by Junger’s youthful state of mind and join critics of Tribe who find that his “danger” focus led him to glorify war and miss abundant examples of courage.

As it happens, this year’s National Blog Posting Month theme is “Type your heart out.” Look for more daily posts on courage, heart, Judaism, and covenant as November unfolds.


Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging NY. Sebastian Junger. Hatchette Book Group, 2016

Heart map inspired by Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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