Ever wonder why they call a spelling competition a Bee? While it may seem to have to do with all the frenetic activity that approximates buzzing around a hive, apparently the origin of the term is not related to the insect. Instead, most authorities relate the Spelling Bee to its now less well known predecessors, the Spinning Bee, the Husking Bee and, yes,the Apple Bee. These informal gatherings were common occurrences in the world of rural America and denote days when the entire town would come together to assist in tasks like weaving, harvesting or otherwise helping with the work required for the well being or enjoyment of the community. In those instances "bee" seems to derive from a root meaning favor or bounty, similar to the word "boon."
If this speculation is correct, then it opens an interesting insight: A Spelling Bee can be seen as competition in its purest sense, a forum pitting players who do everything possible to be the last person standing. However, the Bee itself is nothing without the common endeavor of its participants and their shared buy in to invest so heavily in the importance of what they are learning and the rules by which this game is played.
If that is the case for the setting that seems most competitive, how much more so for the communities we share and cherish in our lives.
Ironically, in the Torah portion for this week a gathering assembled to be a model for the Israelite people as a whole and contribute to their well being, becomes instead an instigator of rebellion and ultimately extreme punishment. Of the 12 leaders who are selected to act as advance scouts to report on the goodness of the Land about to be inherited, 10 of them return with negative and fractious testimony. When these 10 less-than-virtuous individuals are referred to it's as an edah -- a word often used for community. From this is derived, according to the Talmud, the concept that 10 is a sufficient number to be counted as a minyan, a full complement for saying prayers. In other words, of all the examples of community and peoplehood available in the story of the Israelites, the instance that we rely on to define community is one in which everything broke down!
But that is the deep wisdom of this Talmudic teaching echoed in the irony of the term "Spelling Bee." Numbers do not define a community, either for good or for bad. Neither does the stated purpose. What makes a community or a kehila as it is also known in Hebrew is a constant recognition of how each individual acts in accord with an investment in the success of our endeavors, the valuing of our principles and, most importantly, the wellbeing of each other.
Whether in the national spectacle of spelling prowess (which incidentally this year came down to the proper spelling of knaidel, the yiddish word for matza ball!) or in the communities to which we belong.
Follow Rabbi Michael Bernstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Ravbareket