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Belonging in a Big Community

02/09/2023 10:49:02 AM


There’s a mathematical limit to how many people you can know well. Well, there’s a theory of one anyway. A British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, suggests it’s 150. Beyond that size, any social group starts to lose coherence and splinter. Dunbar’s number is based on our cognitive capacity as understood by human brain size and structure. Our ability to know people well and feel comfortable with them takes brain space and time. We learn about the other person, remember facts and feelings about them, and get a sense of their social connections and role in our community.

These relationships are built on and strengthened by regular contact. We can have a shared sense of identity, or purpose, or task. Getting to know people and feel connected with them takes time. In our modern age, we tend to forget that and feel that thousands of friends exist at our fingertips. And while there’s an amusing footnote to Dunbar’s number that suggests Americans in particular might be capable of 290, not 150, close relationships, for each of us there is some limit.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Yitro says to Moses that his trying to meet the needs of every Israelite in the desert, 1 man with 600,000 relationships, is lo tov, לא טוב, — no good. Moses cannot possibly get to know, connect with, or understand this many people. Yitro warns Moses that he will wear himself out, נבל תבלֹ, he will surely wither. But he also says that the people will be worn out too. Without real connection, there’s nothing holding the group together. We need smaller groups.

So that’s just what Yitro teaches Moses to do — divide up in groups as small as 10 so that each and every Israelite is included and every group has the same weight. Then each group needs an individual functioning as point person and leader. Yitro says the leaders should be anshei chayil, אנשי חיל, to lead each group of 10. And the rabbis work to define this Hebrew term. Some say it means capable, or God fearing, or those with many resources. But in the verse before we learn that these leaders are simply the ones Moses teaches how to lead; Yitro instructs והודעת להמ את הדרך ילכו בה , v’hodata lahem et ha-derekh yelkhu va, and you’ll teach them the way to go forward. 

10 people can do a lot of cool things together. If you want to find a smaller group to strengthen your connections at B’nai Torah, or if you want to learn how to lead a group, find out more about our Yitro-approved small groups here: We’ll be hosting a workshop for those leading or interested in leading on February 26 at 10:30 (sign up here:

May you find and grow your circle and feel connection, belonging, and friendship, this week and every week. Shabbat shalom!

Sun, March 3 2024 23 Adar I 5784