Marching Orders: A Tale of Order and Anarchy
Parshat Beha'alotecha 5773
By Rabbi Mark B Greenspan
An airliner was in-flight when its navigation equipment failed. Wanting to reassure his anxious passengers, the pilot made the following announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen: I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that we have plenty of gas, a great tail wind and we're making terrific time. The bad news is, we have no idea where we are heading!"
This story, it seems to me, captures this week's Torah portion in a nutshell. The Book of Numbers as a whole, todayâ€™s parashah in particular, contain a story of order and anarchy. Like the ill-fated flight in my story, it describes a nation that was well organized and ready to travel but not sure where they were going or if they even wanted to reach their destination.
The first several chapters of Numbers contain a description of military-like order and discipline. Every tribe, every clan and every family knew its place and designation in the camp of Israel. It had been a year since the Exodus and the people had faced their share of trials and tribulations. They also stood at Sinai, received the Torah, built the Tabernacle and ordered their military units to defend the nation and conquer the Promised Land. God now commands Moses to fashion two silver trumpets with which to call the people to assembly. At long last they are ready to travel to the land of Canaan.
But like a family leaving on vacation, five minutes into the trip the people of Israel begin whining: "Are we there yet? I'm thirsty!" All 'heck' breaks loose. The people begin complaining: about their food, water, about one another and even about their leaders. Moses throws his hands up in desperation. Even Aaron and Miriam complain about their brother, Moses, Israel's revered leader.
And then, if we look ahead to the following Torah portion, we discover that the people are not even sure they want to go to the Promised Land. "Itâ€™s a land that devours its inhabitants," their leaders tell them, "We cannot attack those people for they are stronger than us!" I believe all the discord in this week's Torah portion must be read in light of next week's story of the spies.
So what went wrong? How could a people move, in a single breath, from order to anarchy? How was it possible for a nation that heard the voice of God, witnessed God's presence in the Tabernacle, and received the Torah to fall apart so quickly?
I believe that the Israelites faced two serious problems on their journey through the wilderness. First, the people werenâ€™t sure where they were going. After all, the Promised Land was a pipe dream. The people had lived for generations as slaves in Egypt. No one could remember what the land was like. The Israelites were used to depending on others for all their basic needs. The Promised Land was just that - a promise but not reality.
And second, while they sort-of knew their destination, the people of Israel weren't really sure they wanted to get there. A successful journey must have a goal, but if the goal is not shared by the travelers, then order is going to break down and fail.
Sadly, contemporary synagogues tend to be a lot like my ill-fated flight and the people of Israel. They are not sure where we're going and they are not even sure that they want to get there. But theyâ€™re 're making great time!
This is especially true of Conservative congregations today. For generations American Jews successfully built synagogues and communities on Long Island. Every town had its own congregation, each with a Rabbi and Cantor, a vibrant religious school, and a beautiful sanctuary. In many cases the synagogue had a caterer who brought opulence and elegance to the building.
As long as there was a regular stream of people moving from the New York City to the Island there was no problem - new members would replace the ones that dropped out as soon as the youngest child finished his or her Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies. If you donâ€™t believe me, consider a statistic our president made me aware of: the average membership of a family that drops out of our synagogue is about 15 years - the amount of time from shortly after the birth of their first child through their last child's rite of passage.
In recent years, however, we have faced a serious crisis like many synagogues. The stream of new members turned to a trickle, but the flow of people out of our synagogues has continued. In the sixteen years I have been the rabbi of OJC, our membership has dropped from over 600 to 360 families. When I came our religious school had 250 children; today we have about 70.
Congregational leaders and professionals wring their hands and ask, "What went wrong?" "Why donâ€™t people support their local synagogues anymore?" The truth is, they never did.
The answer to these questions is actually quite simple. While we've been great at creating Conservative synagogues, we've been less than successful at inspiring people to become Conservative Jews - real Conservative Jews. Our destination, "our goal," should never have been to build large institutions; it should have been - to inspire people to make Jewish tradition, learning and community part of their lives. I am sad to say that rabbis and leaders of synagogues have failed. Those few congregants who become more committed to Jewish tradition tend to go elsewhere in search of a shared community, committed to Shabbat and Kashrut. The graduates of Camp Ramah and Conservative Days schools find more meaning in attending independent minyanim rather than affiliating with Conservative synagogues.
It's not that we donâ€™t care about these values - we do. The problem is that we havenâ€™t been willing or able to make these values our first priority - our goal and destination as a congregation. We continue to talk about affiliation rather than Jewish commitment. Part of the problem, of course, is cultural and social. American Jews consider words like commitment and obligation, dirty words. But there is an argument to be made for how making a commitment to Jewish tradition can enrich one's life.
I am sad to say but the recent discussion in United Synagogue has only furthered this failure. Today United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is saying that its primary goal as a religious movement is to create kehillot, communities. It seems to me that our primary goal should be to create Yehudim, religiously observant and committed Jews. But we either donâ€™t know how to reach that goal, or we simply donâ€™t believe that it is doable.
I believe that OJC will solve its financial problems. We are still a vibrant congregation with a healthy nursery and religious school, many young families, a continuing daily minyan, and meaningful Shabbat and holiday services. The real question is whether we will address the spiritual problems we are facing as American Jews. Our challenge is whether we will put all our energies into saving a building or saving Judaism. What is our ultimate destination?
In recent weeks, we have been given marching orders. We have begun a discussion about the future of our congregation. Now it is up to us to ask: where does Judaism fit into our lives? How can we deepen our commitment to God, to Torah and to Israel? Are we Conservative Jews because we are affiliated with a Conservative synagogue or are we Conservative Jews because Conservative Judaism represents our aspirations as individuals?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have good news for you. First, OJC is not going away. Second: Do you know where you wish your synagogue to take you?