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Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014 Rabbi Jill Perlman  


Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014 Rabbi Jill Perlman

Shanah tovah.

I want to begin tonight with a story, a story shared by Rabbi Chaim of Tzanz:

A person had been wandering in the forest for several days, unable to find a way out. Finally in the distance he spotted someone approaching. With a heart full of joy, he thought to himself, “Now I will surely find a way out of this forest.” When the two neared one another, the first asked the second, “Will you please tell me the way out?”

The other replied: “I also do not know the way out, for I too have been wandering here for many days, but come, let us search for the way out together.”[1]

This simple story, I believe, is the story of our season and I would offer that it is the story of our lives.

How many of us have been the wanderer in the woods? How many of us have felt lost in the forest? How many of us are there… right now? Wandering, on our own. Wondering which path is the right one for us as we make our way through a life, a forest that can feel dark and overwhelming at times.

What do we do when we encounter another along the way? Sometimes, we veer away from others in the forest of our lives, walk right past, averting our eyes – we do it for a variety of reasons. Maybe we feel determined to make it on our own or maybe there is fear, fear of asking for help, fear of the danger, the vulnerability of what it means to reach out, fear of getting hurt or led astray.

But maybe, sometimes, like in the story from Rabbi Chaim, we realize that we need not walk this path alone. There are others searching along with us. They may not have the answers either, but the gift is that at least we can walk together. Our questions, our wandering, our feelings of being lost need not be ours alone.

The meeting of those wandering souls - that is the essence of what we have the ability and, I would add, the obligation to do as a community for one another. Martin Buber once said, “All real life is meeting.”[2] That is the core of this whole enterprise that we call our synagogue community. The meeting, the walking together, that’s us as Isaiah if we so choose.

And it’s precisely us that I want to talk about tonight. I want to tackle that old buzzword, community from a new lens and how we can indeed walk together. I want to explore with you how togetherness has always been a core value of this endeavor that we call the Jewish experience – and I want to explore with you an exciting potential next step that we can take together to strengthen our community here at Isaiah.

From Genesis, the very beginning of our human journey together, we learn: It is not good for us to be alone.[3]

And it sure is easy to be alone, isn’t it? Loneliness is pervasive even for those of us constantly surrounded by people.

We exist in a mainstream society that at times seems to value nothing more than the fleeting and the ephemeral and so it is not surprising that so many of us contend with pangs of loneliness in our lives. Though technology may give us the illusion that we are connected more than ever, real relationships are becoming seemingly sparse.

Just this past week, David Brooks of the New York Times tackled the topic of friendship and its benefits. He offered that we may be able to “go without marriage or justice or honor in this life,” but friendship, “friendship is indispensable… Lovers face one another, but friends stand side-by-side, facing the world.” [4]

He also reminded us that friendship as a whole is trending down in today’s social markets. In 1985, people tended to have about three really close friends. By 2004, that number was down to two. In that same time period, the number of people who reported having no close confidantes tripled.[5]

As human beings, we need to know and be known, to see and be seen, to hear and be heard.

I believe that Judaism at its core is a response to the existential human condition of loneliness.

That response is based in relationship. As Jews, we’ve always been engaged in relationship. Relationship is at the heart of our master narrative as a people.

Covenant or brit in Hebrew defines our connection to God, a relationship steeped in promise and responsibility. God makes expectations and demands of us and we in turn do the same of God. Our very existence as the Jewish people is based on this relationship and our interpretation down the millennia of what this relationship entails.

We are in search of God and God is in search of us.[6] From the beginning of our Torah, we learn that we, humans, are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, with Godliness dwelling inside each one of us.[7] And so it is perhaps natural that we turn to one another for deep connection, seeking out what one might call God in our interactions with others.

Through relationship, we find hints to the greater meaning that’s possible for us in this life.

Synagogues are meant to foster these relationships over time, but life-long loyalty to any institution, especially a religious one can no longer be assumed. As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who was our scholar-in-residence here last fall teaches us, we as human beings, but also specifically as Jews are no longer what we are born to be, but what we decide to be.[8] Therefore synagogue communities must evolve and become more intentional as hubs for meaningful belonging.

Our community is about so much more than bricks and mortar. When we are at our best, we are about meaning and mission. We are about purpose. We are that connection in the forest, the chaos of our lives. We are –together, for one another- the hands that reach out as we make our way through.

We don’t want the following story to be our story. In the book, Relational Judaism by Ron Wolfson, a rabbi confides, “A woman who was a member of my synagogue for 20 years resigned. I was shocked because she showed up to all of our programs. So, I called her to ask why she was leaving. You know what she said? ‘I came to everything, and I never met anybody.’”[9]            

People, not programs, must be our focus.

We want to exemplify a Judaism and a Jewish community that hears what is relevant to us, encourages our passions, and sanctifies each step of that walk through the woods.

We have the capacity to turn that lonely walk into a road trip with best friends. Judaism is meant to be lived and experienced with others.

Now the cynics among us may say that relationships are not required to cultivate our own strong sense of Jewish identity. And that’s true. There is much to learn and many ways to grow through study and prayer on one’s own, through meditation and mindfulness, through ritual and action. Some people prefer to be left alone and we should respect that, but it is better – as a community - to err on the side of hachnasat orchim, of invitation and welcoming with grace and open arms.

And there are some things that we can only learn and experience through relationship.

Take chevruta, the traditional Jewish study model of partnership that posits that we learn better when we are pushed by a partner.

When I was thinking about the model of chevruta for this talk tonight, Rabbi Jaffe reminded me of the story of the chevruta pair where one asks her partner, “Do you care about me?” The chevruta replies, “Of course.” The first asks, “Do you know what hurts me?” The partner says, “No” to which the first responds, “How can you say that you care about me if you don’t know what hurts me?”

At the root of chevruta is chaver meaning friend or fellow.

To be in real relationship means going beyond the surface concerns. It means that we must know each other’s stories, what hurts us and what brings us joy. Imagine if we approached all of Jewish life in this way – as friends and caring partners.

Communities allow us to act on our Jewish values. It is one thing to study and become an expert on the halachot, the laws around bikkur cholim, visiting the sick; it is quite another thing to live those laws out by actually visiting the sick.

We can hunker down in our own homes in our own modes of thinking isolated or we can accept and embrace and celebrate the notion that God made human beings in plentitude – we are not alone nor are we meant to be.

My husband, Jeff just returned from a conference in Chicago. As you might imagine, he took a plane. How many of us, when we take our own flights, just put our headphones on, which is the universal sign of “Don’t talk to me” so that we could get through our trip without having to engage in conversation?

Turns out, Jeff had an amazing two-hour conversation with someone he had never known before. He learned all about his seatmate’s career in aerospace engineering and about a childhood spent in Egypt and they connected around a common concern, what it means to be a working father of three who has to fly from time to time. If he had just plugged into his computer and tuned out the world, he would never have allowed himself to experience a connection that wasn’t readily available or apparent on the surface.

Being on a plane is one thing. A façade of community for the duration of the flight. But we are not on a plane…. are we? We’re supposedly in this community for life. Don’t you want to know who’s flying with you?

So I’m going to ask you to do something. I’m going to ask you to do what we don’t normally do during this particular part of our evening. I’m going to ask you to talk. For just a few moments.

Let’s take off our metaphorical headphones and actually talk to one another. I want you to turn to someone nearby, preferably someone you didn’t come with tonight, and after sharing your names, answer the following question:

What gets you up in the morning? And I am not talking about your alarm clock. From whom or what do you pull your energy, your motivation, your purpose? What really gets you up in the morning?

(PAUSE FOR SHARING)

Okay, come on back.

As your co-pilot for this evening, I want to invite you to take your seats again as we continue our flight or, if you will, our wandering through the forest together.

It is vital that we know who is on this spiritual journey with us. I want us to know our joys, what wakes us up in the morning and I want us to know our fears and concerns, what keeps us up at night.

As a synagogue community, we are uniquely situated to help foster conversations and connections. We believe that relationships have always been at the center of what it means to be a part of Isaiah – and now we want to be even more intentional in our communal practice of relationship.

Inspired by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s scholar-in-residence visit with us last year and study of Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism, folks from across Isaiah have been exploring exciting new models of what it means to be Jewish and in community today.

We want to truly be Isaiah – together.

And so an exciting new initiative in togetherness and connectivity called Isaiah Together was envisioned and born. Isaiah Together is an intention for all of us, an intention that we hope resonates with you tonight.

Isaiah Together is a vision. A vision where being a part of a community that has well over 850 families can still feel small and intimate, a community of communities.

What if there was an easy way to know who else among us was asking the same crucial questions as you or who else among us shared the same passions? What if there was an easy way to know who else was similarly looking to connect around that question or passion?

Isaiah Together is the mechanism, the modality to bring us together around the issues that we care the most about. It’s member-driven, bottom-up; it’s about engaging us where we are at, empowering all of us with the information that we need to make the kinds of connections that we yearn for. It’s about facilitating small groups, loads of them, communities within communities.

Let me give you an example. We have families who would love to be matched with other families with whom to spend occasional Shabbat dinners. While we could simply match those families together, we want to ask publicly through this initiative: who else?

Maybe there is a particular area of Jewish study that you want to explore. Odds are that you are not the only one. We want to ask publicly through this initiative: who else?

We have heard from individuals who have experienced recent loss who would like to sit down with others specifically from their precious community here at Isaiah.

We have heard from those who count themselves among the “sandwich” generation caring for aging parents while also caring for young children who could benefit from speaking with others in this same stage of life.

Perhaps our gardeners want to get together. Perhaps our runners. The possibilities are endless.

While certainly there are plenty of other places and modalities for gardeners and runners to get together, the added benefit here is building relationships within our community.

We want to make sure there are familiar faces for all of us when we come to celebrate Shabbat or Rosh HaShanah. We want to be held close by folks that truly know us in our community in times of joy and times of sorrow. To get there, we need to reach out and connect.

Right now, think to yourself, what in your life is deserving of your time and attention? If you were able to, would you want to explore it with others from our sacred community? Could Isaiah be a central meeting place for our core concerns and interests?

Synagogues across the country are acting on this same vision, each in their own way - and this model is not unique to the Jewish world. For years now, mega-churches have relied on this relational small-group approach to transform their mega-communities into a web of inter-locking and overlapping mini-ones. Grace Chapel just down the street literally facilitates hundreds of small groups, each led by a member of their congregational family so that everyone is connected.[10] We will forge our own path ahead, one that will be uniquely Isaiah while gleaning best practices from those engaging in similar sacred work.

How will we form these small groups? How will we make these matches? How will we know who shares similar passions?

We will listen. Shema Yisrael[11] – Listen, Israel, let us listen to one another.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be hosting conversations meant to elicit our stories and to articulate those core questions and interests for each one of us. Beginning in October, we’ll be listening in a series of large group gatherings here at the Temple as well as in small group gatherings that will meet in members’ homes. If this excites you, let us know so that we can get you involved as quickly as possible.

In addition, we have an open website (you can link to it now from our temple website: http://together.templeisaiah.net/ ) where we will be able to share and see our communal concerns.

On an on-going basis, members of our Isaiah Together planning team will look at the results of all of our listening and when we have about a minyan, make appropriate matches to get groups launched.

This is not about listing all of your interests, hobbies, and life experiences. In fact, it is precisely not that. It is about figuring out whether or not there is an issue inside of you that needs your attention for which you are willing to set aside your time and that you want to explore with your sacred community.

No one can make relationships for us – that is up to each and every one of us. But if we can help make it easier, if we can introduce you to an enduring friend, if we can play the old and oh-so-sacred role of match-makers so-to-speak, if we can provide a forum for the compelling issues of your life, then I believe that we are indeed doing the holy work of what it means to be a community.

We are embarking on this journey because while we know that we are already a thriving community where so many of you are deeply involved and spiritually nourished, we acknowledge that there are simply too many of us who live on the periphery. And we can do better.

I learned early on that ingrained in Isaiah is a drive to innovate. Isaiah Together is indeed innovative and new. And that is exciting, but it must be said that new things always carry with them the very real possibility of failure or at least serious course correction.

This will not be a perfect process. We cannot anticipate everything, there will be mistakes along the way, and so I ask you to go on this journey with us. Let us give ourselves the permission to try new things and let us give ourselves the permission to experiment and take risks. Let us dream big and bold about what it means to be a community as we play with new models so that we can be the synagogue community that is required of us in the twenty-first century.

We’re taught in the Holiness Code in Leviticus, Kedoshim t’hiyu – you will be holy.[12] Will be. We are always working and progressing and reaching toward holiness.

The imperative of Kedoshim t’hiyu reminds me of Pablo Casals who even though he was among the world’s greatest cellists was still practicing at least three hours a day at age 95. When asked why, he responded, “Because I think I’m making progress.”[13]

We, too, are works in progress, always practicing, always refining who and what we want to be. Just as this season encourages us to be better individuals, so, too, must we try to be a better congregation.

We are out wandering in the forest, all of us as individuals, unable to find a way out. Finally in the distance we spot one another and with a heart full of joy, we extend a hand and say, “Come, let us not walk in the dark alone… let us search for the way out together.”

We don’t have all of the answers. But what we do have are precious hands to hold.

And that is the blessing that we gift to one another.

Thank you God for hands to hold as we walk on our way – together.

Shanah tovah.


[1] Parable adapted from Agnon, S.Y., The Days of Awe.

[2] Buber, Martin, I and Thou, page 11.

[3] Adapted from Genesis 2:18.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ideas from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

[7] Idea from Genesis 1:27.

[8] Wolfson, Ron, Relational Judaism. page 160.

[9] Ibid, page 17.

[10] Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

[11] Deutereonomy 6:4.

[12] Leviticus 19:2.