Monday, October 10, 2011

[Shefa] Community, Kehillah and Kippur


I dont usually share my sermons on Shefa but I thought this one might be relevant to the Shefa discussions. Best wishes to one and all for a healthy and meaningful new year!

A Day of At-One-ment:
Rediscovering Community
Kol Nidre 5772
By Rabbi Mark Greenspan

There was once a rabbi who served his congregation for many years. He was a wonderful pastor and a great teacher. There was only one problem: every year he would give the same sermon on Kol Nidre night every year. After twenty years, the people would roll their eyes, take a deep breath and half listen as he delivered his sermon.
After much discussion, the board finally decided to address this matter. It was decided that they would ask the rabbi to deliver a new sermon the following year. So as not to embarrass the rabbi, they decided to wait before raising this issue with him. Two months later, the officers made an appointment with their spiritual leader and said: "Listen Rabbi, you know how much we respect and care about you. We hope you'll be with us for many years to come. We only have one complaint: you've given the same sermon at Kol Nidre every year for twenty years! Don’t you think it's time for a new sermon?" The Rabbi stroked his beard and thought about it for a moment, and said: You know, you're right; it's time for a new sermon; by the way, what did I say at Kol Nidre this year?" After a long embarrassed silence, the rabbi said: "I see that you've forgotten; maybe I should give the sermon one more time so you'll remember!"
Not to worry: I'm not going to repeat my sermon this evening. But I'd like to deliver a sequel to the one I gave on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. And why not? In an age of sequels in movies, television and even in novels, why can't a sermon have a 'sequel' too?
Do you remember what I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah? I spoke about our 'aloneness' on the Jewish New Years. Rosh Hashanah is a time when we stand alone in the presence of God. " We have no one to turn to but ourselves on Rosh Hashanah. In the words of the U'netaneh Tokef, each of us passes before God, like sheep beneath the shepherd's staff. Our individual judgment is written in the Book of Remembrance and there is no one for us to blame but ourselves; "for each person has signed it with his own deeds." That's why we refer to this season as "the Days of Awe.
I'm not sure that this is how most of us think of Rosh Hashanah. After all, Rosh Hashanah is one of those rare occasions when we crowd into the pews of the sanctuary and together as a community. Despite being together, tradition emphasizes our existential 'loneliness' on this holiday. Rosh Hashanah is meant to be a time for self-reflection, personal judgment, and individual accountability.
What I'd like to suggest this evening is that if Rosh Hashanah is all about the individual, then Yom Kippur is all about community. I suspect we don’t think of Yom Kippur that way either. After all, we come here to atone for our sins. We bring our own shame and secrets with us that no one else can know. But when we look at the liturgy for this fast day, we discover that we are not alone on this day. We stand together as a congregation. We cannot face God alone. We do so in the company of family, friends and community.
We see this in the very first words of the Kol Nidre service. In the opening moments of Kol Nidre, flanked by two people holding sifrei Torah, the cantor declares: "By the authority of the court on high and the court below, with divine consent and the consent of this congregation, we declare that it is permitted to pray with those who have transgressed."
We begin this ceremony by declaring that we're in the company of a bunch of sinners - but it's OK to daven here. What a strange way to begin a day of fasting and repentance! Actually, the origin of Kol Nidre is unknown. One theory is that it goes back to a time when Jews were forced to declare their allegiance to other faiths. Secretly they would come to synagogue on Yom Kippur, feeling guilty about having made vain oaths. In the thirteenth century, Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg introduced the practice of convening a beit din, a court of three, and giving those who had made such oaths permission to join the congregation in prayer. While this practice preceded the inquisition, I think that it is more than a coincidence that the word used for transgressors, abaryanim, sounds a lot like 'Iberians.'
Whatever the reason for this strange practice, what we see here is an emphasis on our presence as a congregation. We do not stand alone on Yom Kippur. We don't confess our own sins as individuals. We say, Ashamnu, "We have sinned," and Al hayt sh'hatanu lifanekha, "For the sins WE have committed before you!" Yom Kippur, then, is all about community.
This emphasis on community over individual is also present in the Torah reading and the recitation of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur afternoon. In the Avodah we recall the elaborate rite of atonement which took place in the Temple in Jerusalem. This rite was all about community and not the individual. The high priest would atone first for his family, then for the other kohanim, and finally for the people of Israel as a whole. The people stood outside the temple gates anxiously awaiting a sign that the high priest had atoned for their corporate sins. Nothing is said in the Avodah service about the individual beating his breasts or asking God for personal forgiveness.
Yom Kippur is a day of AT-ONE-MENT. It is not simply a matter of saying 'I'm sorry' and resolving not to sin anymore. It's a day on which we're challenged to reconnect with God, with family, and with one another. It is a day on when we become a community, united by our weaknesses and strengths. In prayer and confession, we become each other's advocates. We do not seek forgiveness for our own sins but for the sins and failings of those sitting around us. The most common word in the Yom Kippur liturgy is "WE."
But we've forgotten how to be a community. There was a time, not so long ago, when the emphasis in Jewish life was on peoplehood. Our parents and grandparents may have had doubts about faith and observance but they knew who they were and to what community they belonged. They didn’t just build houses of worship - they built "community centers" like the "Oceanside," or the "South Baldwin" Jewish Center. There was a sense that Jews around the world shared a common destiny, or at least a common enemy. In December, 1987, over a quarter million Jews descended on Washington, DC for a rally calling on the Soviet Union to allow unrestricted emigration of Jews. Two days later, when Mihkail Gorbachev came to Washington, Ronald Regan spent several minutes telling the premier of the Soviet Union how impressed he was with the ethnic solidarity of American Jews in the name of democracy. That was the last thing Gorbachev wanted to hear!
I don’t believe such a gathering would happen today even if there was a crisis in the Jewish world. For a whole variety of reasons, young Jews no longer feel a sense of ethnic solidarity with other Jews. Our success has been our demise. Young American Jews feel so at home in America that they no longer get why belonging to the Jewish community is important. The majority of their friends are not Jewish. Young Jews no longer see a connection between coming to synagogue and ethnic identity. They are so much a part of American society that they no longer feel a sense of connection to the Jewish people. If synagogues are shrinking today, at least one of the reasons is that communal identity has become less and less important to Jews under forty. It's not that these young Jews don’t value being Jewish; it's just that being Jewish has less and less to do with being part of a people for them.
The problem is not uniquely Jewish; it's an American problem. Despite Facebook, My Space, and Linked-In â€" or maybe because of them, we're are a generation without 'social ties' and meaningful relationships. In his seminal book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam, argues that there has been a break-down in the ties that help to create a richer society. Putnam writes "Social connections are also important for the rules of conduct that they sustain. Networks involve mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere "contacts." Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity; 'I'll do this for you now, in expectation that you (or perhaps someone else) will return the favor... It was Yogi Berra who offered the most succinct definition of reciprocity: 'If you don't go to somebody's funeral, they won't come to yours.'
'Bowling Alone' is a metaphor for this breakdown. Bowling used to be a way of creating community. Today, more people 'bowl alone.' They would rather spend time on the internet than in face to face contact with others. They plug in their I-pod and tune out rather than connect with others. People would rather pray alone than join a minyan (if they pray at all). They'd rather hire a tutor than send their children to religious school. Bar Mitzvahs have become family affairs rather than communal celebrations. People belong to congregations not for what they will give but how much they’ll get. It's purely a consumer relationship. This breakdown affects every aspect of society, but has been most detrimental to synagogues and churches.
The High Holy Days are the last bastion of communal solidarity. We come here to be with others on a day of AT-ONE-MENT. There's something powerful that happens when we come together in prayer and celebration during the Yamim Noraim. We see old friends. We reconnect with something larger than ourselves. We feel a sense of warmth and community as we raise our voices in song and prayer together. We speak of shared values and visions.
But community can't exist once or twice a year, or only when it's convenient. Communities don’t work that way. You have to sign on and be part of the community for the community to be part of you. Either you're an active member of the community or not, either you're a member of the Jewish people or you're not. There must be give and take.
Do you know the parable of the two seas? It goes like this: "There are two seas in the Land of Israel. One is fresh and fish are in it. Splashes of green adorn its banks. Trees spread their branches over it, and stretch out their thirsty roots to sip its healing waters. Children play on its shores. The River Jordan makes this sea with sparkling water from the hills. And people build their homes near to it, birds their nests; and every kind of life is happier because it is here.
The River Jordan flows on south into another sea. Here there is no splash of fish, no fluttering leaf, no song of birds, and no children’s laughter. The air hangs heavy above its waters and neither people nor animals will drink here. What makes this mighty difference in these seas? Not the River Jordan. It empties the same good water into both. Not the soil on which they lie; not the country “round about.” This is the difference: The Sea of Galilee receives but does not keep the Jordan. For every drop that flows into the Galilee another drop flows out. The giving and receiving go on in equal measure. The other sea is shrewder, hoarding its income jealously. It will not be tempted into any generous impulse. Every drop it gets, it keeps. The Sea of Galilee gives and lives. This other sea cannot sustain life. It is called the Dead Sea."
I believe that we can learn what it is that makes us a community from this parable. Communities are made up of people who both give and receive. They are built from people who are not afraid to nurture their connections with others. They take pleasure in the simple joys of participating in the lives of the people around them.
We're fortunate to have such a community. On any given Shabbat morning, you can be part of that community which joins together in celebration and study. We enjoy one another's company and care about one another. When someone gets up to read Torah for the congregation, everyone comes over to congratulate the person afterwards - even if their reading wasn’t sterling. And when someone is absent, others will ask, "where's so and so?" Of course, sometimes we miss the mark and aren’t as attentive to one another as we should be - but there's a sense of mutual concern and love that unites us. That community is not a clique either - it's open to anyone who wants to join. You don’t need a ticket and you don’t even need to belong to the congregation.
We need to rediscover Kehillah. Recently United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has begun using this term to describe what congregations should be. Defined most simply, a Kehillah is a community, a group of people who come together with shared purpose and in fellowship. In Jewish life, a Kehillah is a sacred community, a group formed by people who have joined with each other to seek God, to explore and live out their understanding of Jewishness, to offer and to get support, to share joy and sorrow, to learn and grow together, to explore the meaning of their lives and the wisdom of their ancestors. Such a community doesn’t just 'happen.' And you can't buy your way into such a community. It takes more than dues to be part of a Kehillah. You have to make yourself part of it by building it with others.
We've forgotten the simple pleasure of feeling connected to one another, of building memories together, and laughing and crying together. That is why we join congregations. Rosh Hashanah reminds us about the loneliness of human existence - Yom Kippur teaches us that we never need be alone, that we can find strength and life in one another. That is the true ATONEMENT that we seek on this sacred day of fasting and prayer.
And you know what - I believe that's all God really wants from us - nothing more and nothing less! Most of our transgressions are forgivable or at least fixable - but when we fail to live together as a community, when we fail to love and care for one another, we fail God and we fail ourselves. Before we stood at Mount Sinai, God asked us to become a Kehillah - a community: His charge was that we should become a mamlechet kohanim v'goy kadosh, a nation of priests and a holy people. Through our shared heritage and history, we were charged with changing the world but doing it as a community. Toward that goal, God wants us to love one another and care about one another and work together toward this goal.
My hope is that we become a Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy community: a caring, loving and engaged community that is part of the greater community of the Jewish people. It must be a community that knows its shared history as well as its shared aspirations. And it is a community in which people care deeply about one another.
If we can do that, then Yom Kippur will truly have been a meaningful day through which we can find not only God but ourselves as well!

Shanah Tovah

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