Creating Community (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning)

For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God… It is the precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement.

That’s Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, known colloquially as Rav Kook. Let me say part of that again:

For the building will be constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God…

We might reasonably ask: what is Rav Kook talking about here? What is “the building”?

Often in Jewish tradition when we hear reference to a building, especially when it sounds like it might be a Building-With-A-Capital-B, the text is speaking of the Temple. The first Temple was built in Jerusalem in 957 BCE, and was sacked by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second Temple was begun some fifty years later; it was sacked by the Romans in the year 70 (C.E).

But Rav Kook is speaking in the future tense, about something which will be built. He might mean the Third Temple — for which, I should note, the Reform movement officially does not yearn! But the idea of a rebuilt Temple implies a time when the work of perfecting creation will be complete; the messianic era. Perhaps that’s what he’s speaking of. Perhaps he means Olam ha-ba, the World to Come.

But I don’t think he has to be speaking about a literal construction project at all. I think he’s talking about Jewish community.

[A]nd the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for these and those are the words of the living God…

Just as “the building” requires many different parts, truth does, too.

“For these and those are the words of the living God.” Some of y’all may remember the Talmudic story about the longstanding dispute between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, the two archetypal schools of Torah interpretation. Each set of scholars claimed that the law was in accordance with their own views. But then a bat kol, a voice from heaven, announced Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim, “These and those are the words of the Living God,” adding, “but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”

Since both these and those “are the words of the Living God,” why is the law according to Beit Hillel? Because they were kindly and modest; they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai.

In modern lingo, we might call them pluralists. They accepted the possibility that someone else’s interpretation might be right.

I love Rav Kook’s idea that in order for truth to be built, we need all of our “variegated souls and backgrounds.” The building of a community requires all of us.

This community, like Rav Kook’s building, is constructed out of diverse parts. Some of us joined this congregation when it was Orthodox. Others joined when this community was affiliated Conservative. Still others joined once this community became a part of the Union for Reform Judaism. And some of us aren’t officially “members” at all, at least not yet.

We all have different reasons for being a part of this community. Some of us may join because we want to educate our kids. Some of us may join because we have a spiritual thirst, and we find that davenen in this community feeds our thirst to connect with the prayers and to connect with God. Some of us, because we want to honor our parents, or because we just want to support the existence of a synagogue in northern Berkshire.

Members or not: in an existential sense we all belong here, we’re all welcome here, no matter where we come from, no matter what our religious background, no matter what our personal spiritual practices may be. And the community requires all of us, all of our approaches and ideas and souls.

The first time I was called for jury duty, I was caught between exasperation and curiosity. (This may sound like a non sequitur, but bear with me.) I’ve been called many times since then. I’ve spent mornings in the courthouse, watching the videotape in which a judge speaks to us about the importance of doing our civic duty. I’ve answered questions about prejudices which might disqualify me from serving.

I don’t hope to ever wind up on a jury, but I admire the fact that our nation’s system of justice is built — at least, in its most ideal form — on a foundation of equality, where each of us has a part to play. Creating a just society isn’t something left to the rich, or consigned to the poor. It isn’t work that’s permitted only to men, nor work endured only by women. No race or sexual orientation or creed exempts one from taking part. There’s something profoundly egalitarian about this system. Building justice is work which all of us must do.

In our Jewish lives, too, we live in an egalitarian system. In Reform Judaism, there are no distinctions between kohen, levi, and yisrael, the ancient divisions of the Jewish people into priestly castes and ordinary folk. And in our community, people of all genders and sexual orientations are both entitled and expected to live a life of mitzvot.

Although the word mitzvah is often translated as “good deed,” it means “commandment.” Jewish tradition speaks in terms of positive and negative mitzvot, things we are commanded to do and not to do. Many of these are time-bound, which means they’re meant to be performed within a particular span of time.

In the early traditional understanding, men were obligated to perform time-bound mitzvot; women were not. Prayer is the quintessential example of a mitzvah which is incumbent on men, but from which women were considered exempt. After all, it was presumed that we had children to care for!

As the mother of a three-year-old, I appreciate the way our sages valued the “women’s work” of caring for a household and a child…but I’ve always chafed a bit at the corrolary that therefore, women didn’t “count” in a minyan. If we weren’t obligated to participate, then we couldn’t be counted as participants.

That was the norm across the board in the Jewish world until 1845 when the Reform movement chose to count women for the purposes of making minyan. Today we take egalitarianism for granted in almost every liberal Jewish community. We presume that people of all genders “count.” Our challenge is a different one: the challenge of standing up to be counted in the first place.

Some of us may pray daily. And some of us even maintain a practice of daily liturgical prayer, using the words in the siddur. But for most of us, spiritual practice is the item which falls off the to-do list when times get busy. And even if we do make time to meditate or to daven, we tend to do it alone, on our own time.

Solitary prayer and meditation are wonderful. And they’re a longstanding part of Jewish tradition. But the mitzvah of daily prayer, as it’s classically understood, is specifically an obligation to not be alone. It’s an obligation to come together in community. Phrased another way: it’s an obligation to make a minyan, a quorum of ten.

Prayers which involve a call-and-response are traditionally only recited when ten are present. One is the bar’chu, the call to prayer. One is the kedusha blessing of the Amidah, which begins n’kadesh et shimcha ba-olam, “Let us bless Your name throughout the world!” And one is the prayer we’ve come to know as Mourner’s Kaddish.

From my teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel I learned about the beautiful practice of standing next to a mourner so that the mourner knows that they are being heard. Listening, and responding with amen and with the refrain y’hei shmei raba m’vorach, becomes an active act. The kaddish is a kind of duet, a collaboration, created through the mourner’s speech and the community’s response.

And traditionally, it requires ten adult Jews in the room.

Can kaddish be recited alone? I know mourners who have prayed the kaddish alone and have found comfort in the ancient cadences. I have recited mourner’s kaddish with fewer than ten adult Jews in the room, and the prayer still had meaning for me and for them.

But I think that when our sages mandated that the mourner’s kaddish be recited with a minyan, they were on to something. They understood that there is meaning, for a mourner, in being surrounded by the loving embrace of community and saying these ancient words to listening ears. And there is meaning, for a community, in together creating the container within which members can safely mourn.

When I was a student chaplain, I came to feel that my primary job was to listen. When I listened with my whole attention, God listened in and through me. The same is true when a mourner is reciting kaddish. We are God’s listening ears; we are God’s compassionate embrace. This is a mitzvah; a commandment; an obligation.

We may chafe at that notion of obligation. “Most of us feel constrained or burdened when we hear this word, as though freedom is now constrained and happiness compromised,” writes Rabbi Irwin Kula. “But in fact, when we heed our obligations, take responsibility for our decisions, place our duties for others before our immediate satisfactions, we actually are happier as a result.”

Some of us may push back: commanded by Whom? I’m not sure I believe in God, so how can I be commanded? Others may say, that’s not what religious life is about for me. I come to synagogue for spiritual satisfaction, or to honor those who have died, but not because of any “commandments.” Or, perhaps: I join the synagogue to support Jewish community, but that doesn’t mean I’m “commanded.”

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued otherwise. For Levinas, the most important thing is not the self but the other, which is to say, other human beings. Levinas taught that when we allow ourselves to truly meet someone else, we encounter a “trace of God.”

When Moses asked to see God’s face, God replied that no one could look upon divinity and live. So God placed Moses in the cleft of a rock and passed by him, and Moses saw the divine afterimage. For Levinas, that afterimage of God is present when we truly see each other as whole human beings. In meeting and honoring the other, he said, we encounter God.

And we become responsible to each other. For Levinas, that’s what it means to be metzuveh, commanded. Rabbi Ira Stone writes, following Levinas, that “The beginning of ethics is holding the door for another person and saying, Apres vous.” In order to lead an ethical life, one needs to hold the door open for the other. To notice that the other needs you, and to be there for them as you are able.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel, who lived in the late 1800s, taught that “one of the methods by which the Torah is acquired is by carrying the burden with our fellow.” This is the Jewish path. We reach enlightenment, you might say, by schooling our lives in practices of being responsible to each other. Even more: this is how we cultivate joy.

And how do we do that? By showing up. At naming ceremonies and b’nei mitzvah, weddings and funerals — preparing meals of celebration, and meals of consolation — learning and growing together — feeding the hungry together — and helping each other fulfill the mitzvah of saying kaddish with a minyan.

We read in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, that “When two sit together and discuss words of Torah, the Shekhinah, God’s Presence, is present with them.” Surely God is found in our gatherings even when we are as few as two.

But a gathering of ten feels qualitatively different from a gathering of two. Imagine setting a dinner table for ten and having only one or two guests show up: you might still have a wonderful time, and you’d have plenty of leftovers, but it’s not the same. Beyond that, there’s something important about understanding ourselves as ethically, and spiritually, obligated to each other.

“Once the other has called us,” writes Rabbi Ira Stone, “once we have fallen in love, we are enjoined to a life of never-ending responsibility.” As a parent, I’ve come to understand this deeply. Once I came face-to-face with our newborn son, my life was irrevocably changed. I became not only Rachel, not only poet and rabbi and thinker, but also his mother, responsible to him and for him. Always.

But that same kind of responsibility inheres in all of our relationships. Each of us is responsible to, and for, each other. The fact that we come together to shoulder each others’ burdens is what makes us a Jewish community. In this community we come together in this way regardless of denominational background. Whether you grew up Reform or Orthodox, whether you grew up Jewish or non-Jewish, whether you are intermarried or inmarried or single: each of us is responsible to and for each other.

I said earlier that we all belong here. All are welcome. I mean that. And belonging bears a price. I’m not talking about membership dues or high holiday donations, though obviously we appreciate everyone who’s able to help us keep the roof intact and the heating bills paid. I’m talking about presence.

Every day is a spiritual barn-raising, in Jewish tradition: an opportunity for people to come together and help each other with something none of us can do alone. One could say, echoing the famous dictum, “no man is a minyan.” No person can make community for herself or himself alone.

As a pluralistic community, a community with roots in all three of the major denominations of contemporary Judaism, we have a unique opportunity to work together to create a life of learning, a life of celebration, and a life of prayer, a big tent beneath which we can all be sheltered. Like jury duty — see, I told you I’d get back to that! — this is work which we all must do.

Over the course of 5774, we’ll do some learning here about minyan, kaddish,  and what it means to build community — starting with a two-part class on kaddish and minyan which I will teach along with Rabbi Pam Wax next month.

“Davening in a minyan,” writes Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, “reminds me that no person is an island. It gives me a much stronger feeling of K’lal Yisrael, the greater body of the people Israel. Each of us is a link in a chain of tradition that stretches back thousands of years. The God of my ancestors becomes more real to me in shul.”

Here’s a secret, already known to those who come here on Saturday mornings: our Shabbat services are short and sweet, a mere 90 minutes long. They are rabbinically guaranteed to enrich your life, lower your blood pressure, and connect you with those around you. And, as my beloved teacher Reb Zalman points out, each of us is a cell in the body of K’lal Yisrael. When we come together, we are more than the sum of our parts.

Whether you show up every week, or once a month, or half a dozen times during the year, your presence is a twofold gift. You get 90 minutes to sing, pray, and relax. And you’re constituting community by showing up for someone who needs to mourn…so that when it’s your turn to mourn, there’s a strong and healthy community to be there for you, too.

Though this isn’t just about ensuring that ten are present to surround and comfort those who mourn. It’s about stepping up to be an active participant in creating community. Torah teaches that we are called to be a mamlechet kohanim, a nation of priests. Connecting with holiness, striving to imbue our lives with meaning, creating community: these aren’t tasks we delegate to a hereditary caste of priests. They’re not even something we delegate to our rabbis. These are everyone’s task.

In Reform Judaism, we often privilege informed choice over the accumulated decisions of our sages. We may think of ourselves as choosing Jewish practice, rather than being born into it or obligated to it by default. But we can choose to be obligated to each other. We can choose to understand ourselves as co-creators of something intricate and beautiful. Together, we weave the tapestry of our community. And that requires all of us. If one person doesn’t show up, doesn’t bring their thread, then there’s a hole in the tapestry where that thread is meant to be.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to study the work of a Harvard-trained Israeli happiness expert named Tal Ben-Shahar. He writes:

Many people believe that the key to a successful relationship is finding the right partner. In fact, however, the most important and challenging component of a happy relationship is not finding the one right person — I do not believe that there is just one right person for each of us — but rather cultivating the one chosen relationship.

This is true of spiritual life, too. No religious community is perfect…including this one. You may find that there’s something we do here which you wish we didn’t, or something we don’t do which you wish we did. There may be someone here who pushes your buttons, or something that doesn’t quite meet your expectations.

But being part of a congregation is like being in any relationship. What matters is that you choose the relationship and cultivate it. And, as in any relationship, the blessings you receive in return will be proportional to the amount of your investment. Again, I’m not talking fiscally; I’m talking about soul and heart.

Rav Kook wrote that the building will be made from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various approaches, various souls and backgrounds.

This community needs each of us. Not despite our differences, but because of them. It’s in and through our differences that we can know ourselves to be part of a much greater and more vibrant whole.


Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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