Community High Holidays

This evening begins the High Holidays, the beginning of the new year. While we all look forward to reuniting after summer, eating apples and honey, and listening to the grand and special music of the season, it is a time that makes both the child and adult uneasy. This child doesn’t quite understand mixture of solemnity and joy that distinguishes the Jewish new year from the secular one. No noisemakers or football games mark Rosh Hashanah. When our children come to us for answers about this introspective Jewish holiday that neither celebrates a season nor a historical event, we grow uncomfortable, because their questions awaken us to our own questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want?

The High Holidays celebrate a human being’s ability to grow and change. How do we talk about such an intensely personal experience? How do we describe a time that asks for deep thought, self-examination, and prayer, all of which are hard for everyone to do? Most deeply, do we believe that no matter how much we try, that we will be able to grow and change?

When I was small my mother told me that I should listen to my conscience and make resolutions to be good. I imagined Jiminy Cricket as my conscience, embedded somewhere between my heart and stomach, telling me when I did the wrong thing. When I grew up I learned that this process was called teshuvah, sometimes translated as repentence, which relates to the concept of sin, a stain on the soul. But the word in Hebrew for wrongdoing is chet, which means missing the mark. There is no stain, only misdirection, missteps, mistakes. The shofar is our wake up call–Look at your life! Look at your direction. Teshuvah is asking ourselves to judge the way our lives are going, to evaluate how we spend our resources, to examine our relationships to other people, to the natural world, and to that which we cannot see.

Teshuvah means to turn, to turn from the unthinking, unfeeling place and to turn toward life. We do this by turning within, by looking and listening to ourselves in an intensely private and concentrated way. Sometimes we are horrified by what we discover, deny what we see or drown in self-hatred. This is the true chet for which we need teshuvah. We must rid ourselves of self-importance, understand that mistakes are part of the plan. The Midrash says that teshuvah came before the world was created. Without a way to correct ourselves, we couldn’t even begin to contemplate living. So we must forgive ourselves, having faith that we can do better. How do we know that we’ve done teshuvah? By not making the same mistake again.

All creative process, every problem we solve, every sentence we craft, every plan we make, requires a withdrawing and turning within to make something. The Kabbalah says the world was created this way, with God withdrawing and concentrating energy to birth the world. When a woman is in the labor of childbirth, there may be lots of people in the room coaching her, but she knows that she is on her own journey, within the mystery of her self, when she gives birth. So it is with us when we, at this time of turning within, attempt to birth a new self with new self-knowledge. Those who meditate and listen to the chaos of the mind and those who undergo psychoanalysis and sweat through murky dreams recognize this process.

But the turning is not complete until we travel full circle. Our purpose in self-examination is not to find an isolated shelter within ourselves. Introspection and insight is only partial teshuvah; alone it leaves us in a place of boring self absorption and provincial egoism. Teshuvah also means “answer.” Teshuvah answers the question of why we need to know and judge ourselves. We take the journey to know what it means to be in the divine image. This is the the way we allow God in. Our goal is to return to the world renewed and reconnected from our teshuvah, and with our new selves bring renewal and reconnection to the world.

We need more than our selves to become whole–we need each other. Rosh Hashanah bridges the tension between particularity and universality, between the self and the world. While each of us labors in private teshuvah during Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate something beyond ourselves. Tonight we celebrate the cosmic birthday, the day the world was created and the births of Adam and Eve.

We are together tonight to catch each other in our fall, to reassure each other that the struggle to perfect ourselves is worth it, that we matter to each other. We cannot do full teshuvah alone. We need to be together because we need to see that we are not alone in this work. We need each other’s response to know how we are doing. If I’ve wronged you, the tradition teaches that before I can ask God’s forgiveness I need yours.

Each of us is a discrete, unique cell in the great organism which is the world. “Let’s make a world,” God said to the angels. This world began with collaboration and relationship. Not even God operates alone. I begin with myself, but who am I alone? When I look beyond myself , to my family, to the Jewish community, and to the world, I see more of who I am, and discover each relationship offers me a special link to God. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook describes how spiritual identity expands as we look wider:

“There is one who sings the songs of his own self, and in himself finds everything. Then there is the one who sings the song of her people and cleaves with a tender love to Israel. And there is one whose spirit is in all worlds, and with all of them does he join in his song. The song of the self, the song of one’s people, the song of humanity, the song of the world–they all merge within him continually. And this song in its completeness and fullness, rises to become the song of holiness.”

I confess that I often have fantasies of not needing anyone. And then I remember Zuzya, a learned man often asked for advice on matters ranging from who really owned the brown horse to whether a chicken who limped was kosher. He might have been pleased that he was so respected, but instead he resented the interruptions. One day he was deeply immersed in studying the laws of Sukkot when a woman came in carrying a chicken. “That does it!” he thought. Shooing the woman away, he immediately prayed to be left alone to pursue his work.

When the High Holidays came, Zuzya fasted and prayed harder than anyone. Right after Yom Kippur, he asked some of his neighbors to help him build a sukkah. But his prayers had been answered, so he was left entirely alone and he had to build the sukkah himself. The first night he entered alone, because even though hospitality is a key part of Sukkot, he hadn’t invited anyone. The tradition says that Abraham and Sarah come to visit everyone’s sukkah the first night of the holiday, but when Zuzya asked them, they refused. “If no one else is invited,” they said, “We don’t want to be there.” Zuzya got the message. He asked to have his prayer of permanent solitude revoked, and once again he welcomed people to his house.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, right now I’d rather be visiting a friend than sitting here.” Or you might be thinking, “How is gathering here different say, from being at the opera surrounded by fellow music lovers?” Why exactly are we here tonight? I’ve mentioned that it helps to be with others when we are working to be reflective and honest with ourselves and that maybe we’re here to see old friends that we see but once a year. And just maybe we’re here for something that cannot be seen, to enter into and create an experience together, that we cannot have alone. Some call it an altered state, a peak experience, epiphany, or simply a moment when we say with wonder, “God was in this place.”

The silence of the universe can be terrifying, depressing. I want to be known and I want to belong, I want to be loved. That is why I need you. I cannot see God’s face, but I can see yours, and between us we make a place for God. That’s one reason why we gather here tonight, to make this moment holy by our common effort to bring God’s into this house. By so doing, we become what God has asked of us, a kehillah kadoshah, a sacred community.

Last month I read an article in the Atlantic Monthly that I believe is of profound importance in helping us create a kehillah kadoshah gadolah, a great sacred community here at Temple Beth Shalom. It was called “Welcome to the Next Church.” The author, Charles Trueheart, describes churches that count 10,000 or more people in attendance on a weekend, most of whom are new to church-going. He describes a remarkable scene: on a Sunday morning, people are guided by volunteers to parking spaces; in some cases, they provide valet parking. People are dressed casually as they gather on the patio before services drinking cappuccino and listening to accessible liturgical music that has been written in the last few years–it sounds like the top 40 on the radio. Organs and robed choirs are absent. Tables surround the patio describing ministries, support groups, and fellowship opportunities, and representatives from each group are there to encourage you to come to the next meeting. The service begins with lots of music and often they use multimedia images in place of stained glass. Because the words of the music are projected high on the stage the congregants sing facing up instead of looking down into a book and their hands are free for clapping. A few people speak about something important that happened to them in the past week, maybe a lesson in the Bible group or someone in the new member group who had stopped saying that she went to the church but that now she belonged to the church. They have made the big place small through their group activities.

Megachurches are sophisticated and contemporary. They have staffs of hundreds and they are as clear about their goals as any successful business. They ask management expert Peter Drucker’s three questions: What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?

Do you think synagogues can become full-service, seven days a week, healing places? How could we ever get that many Jews to agree to belong to one place? But we have a model for this. Every one of us stood at Sinai and we all went to the Great Temple in Jerusalem. Furthermore, 60 years ago, Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, saw that Judaism would survive only if it walked in step with its people. He wanted people to bring their authentic selves to the synagogue not just for prayer. He said, “Come to the synagogue to swim, talk about books, eat, watch movies together. Come to see that all life is holy, and come to learn how to see all life through Jewish eyes.”

Eight years ago Bnai Jeshurun in New York got about six old people on a Friday night. Today it gets two thousand people for its conservative kabbalat shabbat services. Since neighboring temples still get their usual crowds of twenty five to a few hundred. It must mean BJ is getting people who otherwise wouldn’t be in temple. They are succeeding for the same reason the churches are succeeding: it feels good to be inside. These 2000 Jews temporarily meet at a Methodist church that isn’t airconditioned!

When I walk in, in slacks, at 5:30 Friday evening for the first service, music is playing before the service begins, I pick up a weekly bulletin of upcoming meetings and events that also prepares me for the service. As I take my seat I am already being moved from the world outside to the world inside by the Shabbat music the hazzan softly plays on a keyboard. This music comes from the heart and reaches the heart. After a minute or two of reading the bulletin, I close my eyes and find myself at the “island in time,” to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Sabbath. from the world outside into explains that the service is a place to cross the threshold of the world outside and to enter into one’s private space.

The service begins with sweet psalms, joyful Shabbat melodies, and everything is transliterated. After about twenty minutes, a rousing lecha dodi moves the congregation to snake dance up and down the aisles. After ten minutes of holy aerobics, we are ready for the borchu, the time to take a few steps forward and move closer to the holy. Never do I feel so connected to myself and at the same time to the community around me. At six thirty we leave singing to make room for the lines of people standing outside to get in.

I often weep during the service, tears of relief that I have left my niggling concerns behind for awhile, tears of delight that I have once again connected to my best self. I wear clothes that don’t make me feel like my mother, hear music that echoes my life experience, and when I look around I see others engaged as I am.

But this isn’t a rock concert or a movie; BJ knows its business. It is selling a special community, It is uniting us not just to ourselves, not just to a fellowship of the moment but to the eternal community of Israel and to the God with whom we have an intimate, loving relationship. God experienced alone when I pray is different from the God revealed to me amidst my people. I belong not just because of the music and the fellowship; I belong because I am part of Jewish history. I am part of a people, a civilization that has its customs, rituals, and laws, and we belong to the Eternal. I cannot be a Jew without a community, because it gives me identity and a path for my life. BJ knows its customer. It is the questing, disaffected Jew who has been to the ashram, it’s the baby boomer who has everything but still doesn’t have what he wants, and it’s the ex-civil rights worker who still believes the world can be repaired. They are seekers, homesick for their family without knowing it. BJ is not a gated community. It has a high number of singles, gays, and young people, groups that traditionally feel outside the bourgeois center of most synagogues. What these customers have in common is that they yearn for an intimate encounter beyond the world they’ve known, with other people and if they’re lucky, with God.

BJ has something for everyone–poetry readings, 12-step groups, men’s groups, think of what you’d like and you’ll find it. And this is how the customer considers value, by feeling known through such groups. Twenty five years ago, Rabbi Harold Schulweis began the havurah movement within the synagogue, understanding that the small group is essential for people to feel a place of belonging in a large synagogue. By creating small groups for differing needs, the temple grows heterogeneous and pluralistic. It becomes a sukkat shalom, a tent of peace mythically made of the skin of a leviathan, a great sea monster. So our temple should be made of a skin composed of thousands of disparate cells and souls, united in our love of our history and customs, blended with a respect and place for many kinds of minds and hearts of our time.

BJ is not new-age. It provides a standard liturgy with enlivening serious music, time for silence, and a few good readings. It touches us personally, but it includes not only our God but the God of our ancestors. We believe that God is revealed every moment in every generation and that each generation transmits its wisdom to the next. We are a people of the book, and our metaphor at this time of year is to ask for inscription in the book of life. So each generation is a page in an eternal book, to be read as we read Torah, diligently with all our heart, soul, and might.

We have a rich, primordial tradition. Perhaps like the tree with long, penetrating roots that sends branches to the sky, our eternal community, with its memory of Creation, has sent roots so deeply into our collective consciousness it will bear fruit over all the world and reaching up to heaven, for countless generations. Memory is our weapon against feeling lost in the vastness of a society that offers many answers but has forgotten the question: who am I? Why am I here? Teshuvah, as a turning and an answer, is standing in the forest and trying to remember where you started and where you’re going. The tradition shows us the past as we, as a community, move forward to writing the next page of Torah.

Tremendous spiritual congregations are a symptom of our times. Social institutions such as schools, families, and governments, companies, and neighborhoods are no longer what they once were. By itself, however, community is itself no virtue. What else is a gang or a mob? The community must stand for more than fellowship and identity. At Kol Nidre I’ll talk about the other key part of what the synagague offers. We are here because we want a life change, and it is here that we discover that we want a life committed to serving others.