A Progressive Jewish Congregation in Portland, Oregon
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Rabbi Ariel’s Kol Nidre 5776 Drash

Kol Nidre 5776: Where We Stand

One of my favorite poems is by an Israeli author named Zelda. I like to use it for baby-naming rituals. In part, it reads:

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

What is our name? When we were created, we were named Congregation Shir Tikvah, “song of hope”. But what is the name given by the stars – and what is the name given by our neighbors? On erev Rosh HaShanah I asked us to consider where we stand as a congregation, and who is standing – who are we, and what are we about in the greater Jewish community. What is our reputation? What is our impact?

One way to judge one’s impact is by listening for the name “given by our neighbors”. Years ago, I arrived at a reserved pavilion at Skidmore Park one summer morning when our congregation was gathering for a picnic. A few volunteers were already there, and they told me this story: (punch line: “Oh, no, they’re not the intermarried congregation, they’re the gay congregation.”)

We can’t always know what names others give us. But what name would we give ourselves, as a congregation? In other words, how would we ourselves name what it is we stand for? Above the Ark in some synagogues you can find this phrase: da’ lifne mi atah omeyd, “know before Whom you stand”.
And if as individuals we are bidden “know before whom you stand,” how much more so, as a congregation.
And while it is important to consider our reputation when we answer the question, on this Kol Nidre evening I am asking: what is our stand as we see it, and as we mean to express it through our acts? What is the name of the place where we deliberately, and mindfully, mean to stand?

Zelda’s poem goes on like this:

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

This evening I want to explore the name we give ourselves by our acts as a congregation – by our celebrations, and by our work.

The Hebrew term for a shul is beit knesset, “gathering place.” It has been the center of Jewish community since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire and we were exiled, two millennia ago. It was our place to be together, to check on each other, and to hear the latest news, as well as pray and learn Torah. Indeed, the Jewish community as we know it today was shaped by, and out of, the shul (our term for it comes from the Yiddish word for “school”). You can see the guiding principles that shape all Jewish community organizations in the daily morning prayers created by the Rabbis all those years ago, to keep us focused as we wandered in Exile. (Makhzor p. 36, passage from BT Kiddushin)

These principles turned from a list of mitzvot recited in our daily prayers into a collection of organizations that express these words as acts. All of this comes from the shul, the “mother ship” of the Jewish community. Any Jewish organization is a kehillah, a “community” – but a shul is supposed to be a kehillah kedoshah, a “holy community.” The word kedoshah, “holy”, means “set apart” in ancient Hebrew language. By cultural definition, there is no other place meant to be like a shul. This place is meant to be holy – different – or it has no reason to be at all.

I. What is a Kehillah Kedoshah?

A shul has one mission, and that is to carefully safeguard and to honestly transmit the teachings, the values, and the ethics of Jewish religious tradition. There are three primary paths for that mission. A shul must find a way to support meaningful Torah study in all its forms for all ages; it must support spiritual inquiry through all the possible promising venues; and it must insist upon human kindness, without embarrassment and without retreat.

The shul provided the Jewish people with a haven and a gathering place when we weren’t welcome elsewhere. That much is clear. What isn’t as clear is why we moderns and post-moderns, some of us avowed agnostics or atheists, are still drawn here.

Perhaps you have tried to explain why you belong to a shul to some of your mystified friends. I haven’t forgotten having coffee with one of your fellow members a few years ago who asked to see me because he didn’t know what to say to his friends. “You go to this place, you said, every week?” they ask him, incredulous. “Are you becoming… religious?”

Joining the organized Jewish community through becoming part of a shul is, indeed, an entirely voluntary act. One might choose to belong to Shir Tikvah, feeling that it was a personal, free choice – only to hear me talk over and over about mitzvah and halakhah, the path of Jewish obligation. How incongruous it is for me to speak to you, you who voluntarily come here, and say to you that you should consider that which is not voluntary, but required of you.

What does it mean to be part of this deliberately constructed community, anyway, and why one with such tangled connections to peoplehood, history, a homeland, a state?

II. Meaningful, intentional community

Why not just join a bowling league? In his study of baby boomers, the eminent sociologist Robert Putnam described modern American society as composed of 3 levels of community…shallow, medium, and deep…..

Deep, meaningful community makes demands of us, and the reward is that such a community can support our need of it. It is the place where, as Robert Frost’s poem put it, “‘when you have to go there / they have to take you in.” It is a place that still compels us to be present. At least sometimes. (Story of people dropping by Temple Israel of Greater Miami on Rosh HaShanah for ten minutes, standing by back door, and then disappearing.)

That is a form of meaning, and perhaps we offer that service for some, but I know that Shir Tikvah can also support a deeper level of demand, of social connectedness, from us, even as this holy community has needs we must meet.

The first and last commandment of shul life is this: help make the minyan. Show up to make the minyan, and it will be there for you. Our best example of this is the traditional requirement of ten to make a minyan for the recitation of Kaddish.

The reward is in the doing, according to traditional teaching (s’khar mitzvah mitzvah), but there is another reward: in the doing we discover why it is important to us.

Example: lighting erev Shabbat candles. Tell me what it means to you in the abstract. Then do it fifty-two times and then miss one, or for five years and then stop, or surrounded by family and then alone – and see what it means now.

You cannot know why before you know how.

If we can understand why we are drawn to this community, we will be able to articulate what we want to keep as we grow and change – since change is, after all, inevitable. And we will know what we are not when we see it. And if that helps us look more deeply into our own hearts, we may begin to see the greater truth, which will tell us something about why we are drawn to community, at all.

One of our members, when asked by her friends if she was getting religious, responded this way:

I came home Friday night and wrote this poem:

It’s Hocus Pocus, you say.
Kneeling, standing, bowing
in the swirling smoke.
Singing in Hebrew, wrapped in fringed scarves.
Reading ancient myths out loud when we could be
feeding the hungry or standing on a mountainside.

I see what you mean.
But can you cry at work?
Sing in the grocery store?
Our regular world has no time for that.

It’s not just nonsense.
How do you get better at loving all people without practicing on
a community a little larger than your family?
When does your joy have a place to emerge?
Where do you not have to hide your grief in solitude?
Who’s helping you raise your children?
When do you reflect on how you can be who you wish to be?

In that sense, fine, I agree, it’s magic.
Out of this ancient hat, I pull a real life.

Bev Guttag

III. How we are rooted in this place

Shir Tikvah was founded out of Torah study, and it something we do well for ourselves and for the children in our midst. I have felt pretty good about the Jewish learning we are able to offer. The learning has helped to create social connections, as people who came for Torah study go to lunch, or as parents at the Nashira Education Project find out how much they have in common.

But there is more that comes from Torah study. We have also discovered that learning will sometimes lead you to a confrontation with yourself or with your community. In our learning, just recently, a group of us at Talmud study came across a challenging teaching:

One who has more wisdom than acts is like a tree with many branches but few roots – it will blow away when the winds come. (Pirke Avot 3.17)

The point is that we need them both. Torah-learning alone is not enough; there must also be Torah-doing. (Announce social justice havurah, and also hopes to work with SURJ.)

The pursuit of wisdom alone will not, in the end, be enough to draw us and keep us as individuals to this place of community. Wisdom can be gained on many mountain-tops and in many valleys. And the pursuit of wisdom alone will not nurture our shul’s strong roots. It is, rather, the acts that are meant to grow out of that wisdom which will help us hold on in the face of the winds of time, of growth, and of change. They will help us hold on because what we will be holding on to, through our acts, is each other.
A final note
Back to the bat mitzvah metaphor: I swore we would never be hypocritical by the (high) standards of a 13 year old. I love that Shir Tikvah is a place where that can be a realistic goal, and one that I believe we meet regularly.

But the goal of honesty and integrity is a constant challenge. One of the problems is our tendency to allow ourselves to get away with certain actions when we think no one is watching us. In those moments we might bring to mind the traditional story of a Rabbi who, on his deathbed, was asked by his students, gathered around him, for his blessing. “May you fear G-d as you fear human beings”, he said. “What kind of blessing is that?” they protested. “The most honest kind,” he answered. “We watch our behavior when we think that someone might be watching us. Just imagine how we would behave if we realized that Someone is always watching us.”

That’s what’s called the Messianic test….remember that the person sitting next to you could be Elijah. Because no matter how many mitzvot we learn to do, none of them will matter unless we are also showing courtesy to each other, and the stranger in our midst. Other people may call us many things, only some of which we can control. A holy congregation is one that, amidst growth and change and the strong winds that do blow from time to time, remembers that essential part of its name: kehillah kedoshah, something separate, special, with which we are very careful. Something holy to us, which, G-d willing, we will show through honesty and integrity in our celebrations and in our work.

ken yehi ratzon

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