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The Need for Community

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon.

Years ago, when my children were very young, and I was not so old, Susie and I both had to officiate at separate occasions. And so, Ari tagged along with me and Shira with Susie. It was a baby naming. After officiating at what would now be a twenty-year-old’s ceremony, I told my then five-year-old he could go outside and play with the other young children. Later I was told by the grandparents the following story. The other children apparently asked Ari who he was and why he was there. He was the only kid who was not family at the event. Ari explained, “My dad is the rabbi.” The children looked at him quizzically. “What’s a rabbi?” one asked. “What does a rabbi do?” another one of the kids said. And Ari responded, “He goes to parties.” I have held on to that story for some time. As funny as it sounds, and apparently as easy as my job appears to five-year old’s, Ari was serious. And he points us toward an important, Jewish message.

Since Purim, and the middle of March, I have felt like I have been officiating at your sacred occasions with an arm tied behind my back. I could not offer a hug of consolation at funerals. I could not embrace you when we shared joyous occasions. (I am of course the guy who even hugs his electrician after he finishes his work.) And I miss the essence of my calling and the defining element of our congregation and our people. I do not mean to suggest that we should not be social distancing or that we should not be wearing masks. Health comes first. But at this moment, I am missing a great deal. Like you I just want to wish 2020 away. And even though we could not, or should not, have made any other choice for these High Holidays, standing in this sanctuary without you, is like trying to lift a thousand-pound weight alone. Our prayers are really only our prayers if you join in, if we sing together. So, I hope you have been singing loudly because that is what we need more than ever. I miss seeing your smiling faces. I miss marching the Torah around the congregation during the hakafah and catching up with every one of you. At this moment most especially, I miss seeing you gathered with family members and friends. And I am left to imagine you sitting in front of your computer screens or TV’s and smiling back at me. This year is a year like no other.

And so, my sermons will be different than other years. On these days, I often speak about contemporary issues like antisemitism, but this year I really only have one question for this moment and for this hour. How are we going to get through this? And by this I don’t mean the upcoming election. I mean instead how are we going to get through a year in which everything is turned upside down, in which we have had to master online learning, how to estimate six feet, how to safely get together with friends, when and where to wear masks, and how to evaluate risk on daily, and evenly hourly, basis. I will wander into contemporary events, and offer present examples to illustrate my points, but there really is only one big question that is vexing our souls.

We are scared. We are frightened. We are worried. We wonder when, if ever, we will be able to wrap ourselves around our friends, and even strangers, and swirl around in a sweaty, celebratory hora. So, here is my answer to that question. Here is the response required of us. We should return to our Jewish roots. Let us take comfort and gain strength from the Jewish wisdom of ages past. I admit. It’s not a particularly original idea and it may not seem like a creative notion, but I am a rabbi after all, and I have found our tradition’s wisdom to be the best medicine for any crisis.

This morning I wish to make the case for Jewish values. Why do Jewish? Because this is what we need right now. And so, this sermon is in truth one big long, sermon but in three parts.

I am going to offer three Jewish values that we need more than ever and that I am certain if we hold on to even more tightly, we will not only get through these months—and may it not be years—of struggle, but will find ourselves with renewed strength on the other side. And here are those three values: kehillah—community, heshbon hanefesh—soul searching, and pikuach nefesh—preserving life. We need to return to some basic Jewish values. This morning I will explore one, kehillah—community. You will have to come back on Yom Kippur for the other two.

#1. Kehillah. Community. As far as Judaism is concerned, we only realize our full potential in the company of others. The solitary ascetic is an ideal of other traditions but not of ours. It’s not just because the ascetic does not enjoy a pastrami sandwich. It’s mostly because the ascetic sets him or herself apart from others. You can’t really do Jewish by yourself. You are supposed to study with others. And you are supposed to pray with others. There is nothing more emblematic of our people than the hora. It’s what makes a Jewish wedding a Jewish wedding, or at least what used to make a Jewish wedding.

I often teach couples that as much as they might be worrying about what they should have for the appetizer course or what the band should play for the first song or if table ten got their lambchops on time, it’s not their job to make sure their guests have a great time, but the guests’ job to makes sure the couple dance at their wedding celebration. It is a mitzvah of the highest order to make sure a wedding couple dance, called in the tradition gemilut hasadim, a deed of lovingkindness. When we do this, we imitate God. God ensured Adam and Eve’s happiness when making sure they danced at their wedding ceremony. This is what our tradition imagines God does. God pushes a loving couple together and helps to swirl them around in a circle of happiness.

And I offer all this not to make the many couples I spoke with about rescheduling their 2020 wedding ceremonies feel remorseful, but to remind all of us that it is others who lift our lives, that is the company of family and friends, the community that make our events holy. We have had to reimagine how to include others in new and different ways these past few months. Not having a grandparent in our sanctuary at a bar/bat mitzvah and not having the throng of friends at a wedding is not what any of us expected or even what Judaism urges, but health takes precedence. And so, we gathered on Zoom. This is not to make us feel even more forlorn, but to remind us of what is most important to our faith and what is most enduring about our Judaism and what will also get us through this. Things most certainly look different this year, but they will always be animated by the values that nurture us. Kehillah—community—sustains us.

In Hebrew the word for community or congregation is kehillah. It is derived from the word kol—voice. Scholars suggest this is because the community was called together. The voice gathered us. I think it is instead because our voice is only a voice when it is heard by others. You may be more comfortable singing in the shower, but you’re not heard from there. Only when you are heard does your voice have resonance and power. Only when someone responds to your pain, or joins with you in song, is your soul transported by healing or lifted even higher with joy. The best prayer is when you are with others. Sure, you can pray by yourself (although I would not recommend singing the Shema in the shower) but if you really want to pray you need a minyan. The mourner’s kaddish is only supposed to be said in the company of others. Judaism says, “Don’t mourn by yourself.” And again, although I would have preferred to wrap my arms around friends in their hour of grief, the pages and pages and pages of friends assembled on the Zoom gallery for shiva was a powerful image to behold.

There was the kehillah. There stood the congregation—standing together as one although separated and apart. That is the “we” we need to reclaim. That is the “we” we need to wrap our arms tightly around.

I still miss you. And I find myself imagining who I am going to hug when this is all over. Which of my many friends will I run to wrap my arms around? I imagine that the handshake might never return—all those articles about the many germs on the ends of our fingers will leave some lasting scars—and the kiss on the cheek may become a thing of the past as well, but the hug can return. So, who will you hug first? It does not have to be me, but it can be if you want. I just hope each of us has a similar, lengthy list of friends who we will run to wrap our arms tightly around.

When the world seems spinning out of control the best medicine is to return to our roots, to go back to the wisdom of old. One of those roots is the power of community, the Jewish value of kehllah. Let the memories of our standing together, of our singing together in one voice, of our dancing together in a whirling circle sustain us.

Michael Twitty, a proud Jew and the author of The Cooking Gene, a book that is part culinary history and part memoir, and that suggests cooking and food can help to heal our country’s racial tensions, offers insights about our community. He says, “For me the negative situations that I have incurred cannot and will never outweigh my positive experiences. When we are at our best, we look out for each other. You don’t want any Jew to be alone. To not have a place at the seder table, a place to break the fast. In Judaism, being together is more than just community building, it is human sustaining. You are part of a family.” One might expect that Twitty would feel otherwise. He converted to Judaism some fifteen years ago. And for those who don’t know as well, Twitty is Black and gay. His words take on even deeper meaning. Let his idealism and vision restore our hope. He proclaims, “Judaism is more than just community building, it is human sustaining.” Michael Twitty is right. Kehillah sustains our spirits.

Recently I read a fascinating story. Some chutzpadik Israeli scientists at the Arava Institute decided that they should plant the 2,000-year-old date seeds discovered in the ruins of Masada. I would have thrown out those shriveled, ancient seeds. Instead they planted them. And a few weeks ago, they harvested the dates from those trees. Granted it took a little modern ingenuity to help this process along. Yet this image is one that I am holding on to, and that is sustaining me through these months of struggle. I looked in amazement at these photographs. There were people enjoying the sweet dates harvested from 2,000-year-old seeds. This is the same healing balm afforded to us. We have the seeds. They need not be excavated or unearthed. Here they are.

And I promise the sweetness will likewise return. True friendships will survive without parties and hugs. Caring, warm and loving, communities will outlast setbacks.

Remember these days when we could not hug. And promise me this. Let it not scar you but instead remind of how precious friendship is, how divine human touch can be, and how stirring the power of community will always be.

Kehillah—community will carry us beyond these difficult and painful days.