Yom Kippur Morning
September 26, 2012
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis
One more story, which my dear friend Rabbi Arnie Gluck recently shared with me: Once upon a time there was an abbot of a monastery who was very good friends with the rabbi of a local synagogue. It was Europe, and times were hard . . . The abbot found his community dwindling and the faith life of his monks shallow and lifeless. Life in the monastery was dying. He went to the rabbi and wept. His friend comforted him, saying, “There is something you need to know, brother. We have long known in the Jewish community that the Messiah is one of you.” “What?” exclaimed the abbot, “the Messiah is one of us? How can that be?” But the rabbi insisted it was so. Comforted and excited the abbot returned to the monastery.
Walking the halls back in the monastery, and in the courtyard, he would pass a brother and wonder, “Is he the one?” Praying in the chapel he would hear a voice and look intently at a face and wonder, “Is he the one?” Soon he began to treat all of his brothers with respect, with increased kindness, awe, and reverence. It became noticeable. One day, one of the brothers came to him and asked him what had happened to him. After some coaxing, he related what the rabbi had told him. Soon the other monk was looking at his brothers differently and also wondering. Word spread through the monastery quickly: The messiah is one of us. In time the whole monastery was full of life, worship, kindness, and grace. The prayer life of the community became richer and more passionate than ever. The services were more alive and vibrant than anyone could remember. Soon villagers were coming to the services, listening and watching intently. In time there were many who wished to join the community. After their probationary period when they took their vows, the brothers were told the secret, the truth that their life was based upon, the source of their strength and life together: The Messiah is one of us. The monastery grew and expanded into house after house, and the monks grew in wisdom, age, and grace before the others and in the eyes of God.”
I have heard many versions of this story over the years. I love it because it reminds me of the power we have to change more than we might realize. Standing at the threshold of a New Year, what better time to think about that power, as we consider our words and deeds?
About a dozen years ago, Malcolm Gladwell published his much-heralded book The Tipping Point. Gladwell describes “The Tipping Point as a way of making sense of the world, because I’m not sure that the world always makes as much sense to us as we would hope . . . It’s a book about change. In particular, it’s a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does.” He goes on to explain how changes happen much the way epidemics spread. One or several people begin to act differently from the crowd. Soon, others are mimicking their ways, and after time, broad changes happen, often without anyone intentionally setting out to create such broad change. If enough people follow suit, the community, the institution, the society reaches a “tipping point.” The story I just told is about a community that reached its “tipping point.” It began with one individual, the abbot, focusing on his own life, words, and behavior. In the case of the community at the monastery, the change came; the “tipping point” was reached because no one wanted to be the one who prevented the Messiah from being revealed. What a powerful illustration of how an entire community can change, if the members begin acting “as if . . .” At one point or another, we have all experienced this “as if . . .” attitude in our lives. Acting “as if . . .” means that we imagine a situation “as if” it were closer to our ideal as opposed to reality. In a way, it’s not so different from the definition of emunah/faith which I shared on Rosh Hashanah morning: “To believe in something is not to say that it is true.” Rather, it means, “to adopt a position that leads to meaningful action based on the hypothesis in which we put our faith.” If we believe and, more importantly, act as if the world were the world we dream of, I believe we can move it closer to reality. It may not come in large leaps, but small steps lead to “tipping points.”
I want to challenge us as a community, to join this year in tipping our life as a community. There is much debate nowadays about the future of the Jewish community; about the future of our communal institutions, including the synagogue; and about the future of Jewish education. In some corners there is a raging debate about whether we Jews are even a people. That subject I’ll save for my Adult Learning course, which begins in November, Jewish Peoplehood and the Challenge of identity. In truth, this discussion is not so new. In 1964 Look Magazine published a highly controversial cover article entitled, “The Vanishing American Jew.” The article, by Thomas B. Morgan predicted that due to assimilation, low birth rates, and intermarriage, the American Jew would disappear by the end of the 20th century. Well, its almost half a century since the publication of that article. Look Magazine is long gone, but we’re still here. And I believe that our Hineini, our presence here during these Holy Days is a statement that we are not prepared to grant Look a posthumous victory. In spite of those who forecast doom and gloom for the synagogue, I believe that the synagogue is one of the institutions that can play a positive role in ensuring the Jewish future. Yet, that does not mean “business as usual” in my eyes. Almost half a century ago Look magazine forecast our people’s disappearance. Others are forecasting the disappearance of the synagogue. Though I don’t imagine I’ll be around to see it, I would love to see the forecasters proven wrong much as the editors of Look were proven wrong.
And for me, it goes deeper. I have devoted much of my life to building strong Jewish communities. I believe with emunah shleyma – with complete faith, in our people and our community. Through my years of youth work, in my work at Jewish summer camps and on summer Israel programs, and in each of the synagogue communities I have served I have worked to bring a stronger sense of connection to and identity with the Jewish community. But we face challenges just as every Jewish community is facing challenges. We could wait for someone else to find the magic answer and then follow (HINT: There isn’t one). So we need to create answers.
I truly believe in our community. I believe in my colleagues. I believe in our lay leaders and our members. I especially believe in our young people. I want us, as a community, to challenge ourselves to dream, and then act to create the synagogue that this 21st century calls for. I am not talking about the synagogue of 5773, though I am calling for intensified action in this New Year. I am calling us to dream big and think forward as we create the synagogue that our children will lead as they take our place in the decades to come. Our Campaign for Youth Engagement; our Shalom Y’All (okay, the Rabbi from Texas named this one) efforts at engaging our 20s and 30s; our efforts at engaging families with young children are all taking off. Last year, we launched Project Honi, to invite a growing circle of members into the conversation about our congregation and its future; and Honi 2.0 will launch in the coming months. If you are interested in joining the conversation, please let me know. Our Officers and Board of Trustees are devoting this year to conversations and thinking forward about our congregation in key strategic areas. We have launched a Task Force that is looking at our programs of Education, top to bottom, so that we can move the education we offer, from our youngest children through the age-span into this second decade of the 21st century and beyond.
Why am I telling you this? Because it would be easy for each person here to sit back and act as if . . . as if any and all of these critical questions will be solved by someone else, just as the members of that monastery community could have all left their tasks to those around them. But we are a community, and we are also part of a larger entity, the Jewish community, and I believe, the Jewish people. If there is a newer, revitalized, and sustainable future for the synagogue, for our synagogue, for the Jewish people – for our people, whether by birth or by having chosen to join the journey of this community and people, the future rests in all of our hands. That does not mean we will all play the same roles in moving forward. But it does not mean we can leave it all to someone else. Like the brothers in that monastery, it takes each of us examining our own words and deeds, our own commitment, our actions and engagement in this year ahead. If we each do our part, whatever that may be, we can build the future we dream of – together.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we do this. I have been reading, and have been learning from our own community, my colleagues, as well as others.
During our House Meeting campaign in the Winter of 2011 the hundreds of you who participated told us that there were many things that matter to you: You want us to become an even more welcoming and engaging community than we already are. You want our worship to lift you up, with fantastic music and meaningful engagement that draws the generations together. You are concerned about the lack of civility in our society and world today. You are concerned about the economy, and about economic justice; and more. Over the past year scores of devoted Temple Shalom members have been working on how we take what we heard and bring it to life right here, in the life of our Temple Shalom community. One Task Force has been working on how we welcome and engage, not only newcomers, but also those who are already members. The group is about to reconvene and redouble its efforts, building on the progress of last year. There’s plenty of room for new ideas and new energy within the Task Force. Our Worship Initiative Task Force spent last year studying our worship practices here at Temple Shalom along with those of sister congregations around the Greater Boston area. In the Spring they came to the clergy, the Religious Practices Committee, the Executive Committee and the Board with a number of recommendations. Some are already in the process of being incorporated into our worship life as a community. The Board adopted one recommendation, that we standardize our Friday evening worship time at 6:30 pm as an experiment for this year. We will be looking to you for feedback. Other ideas will be discussed at the Religious Practices Committee through the year – come join us.
A Working Group has grappled with how we can address the subject of Civil Discourse within our community through much of last winter and spring. It was decided that rather than talk “about civility” as a community, we should wrestle with a challenging subject with an eye towards guiding our conversations with respect and a commitment to civil discourse. After much discussion the group settled on an easy topic for us to experiment with: Israel. I chose not to discuss Israel in one of my sermons this High Holy Days. Rather, as a community, we will have ample opportunity for discussion during the year ahead, including presentation by outstanding speakers who represent differing points of view, and smaller group conversations where we will not only share our questions and thoughts, but wrestle with what it means to listen to differing points of view, and discuss tough subjects in community. Stay tuned for more information. It is our hope, it is my hope, that we will learn much from one another as we make even a small dent in what I believe is one of the most challenging realities of our time. Whether it’s discourse on Israel within the Jewish community; or the distasteful chants at sporting events; the infuriating gridlock of our leaders in Washington; or the tone of political campaigning which hinges on character assassination rather than discussion of the challenges we face as a nation, I truly believe that how we live together as a community, and as a society is a huge challenge. We are teaching our children the wrong lessons when we allow hatred and incivility to reign. I truly believe we can make a dent in this one by starting right here in our synagogue home.
So whether it’s the future of the synagogue, the Jewish people; the way we welcome and engage one another; the way we worship together; or the way in which we engage in discussing tough subjects on which there are passionate and divergent disagreements, I believe we have much work to do – not to mention the ever-present tikkun olam work that is our responsibility.
Friends, none of this is the province of the few – neither the professional staff, nor the elected leaders of our community. If it’s important – and it is all important, it is our responsibility to shoulder the tasks together. It’s not about all in on everything. Choose your place, or if you like, places. But be in. It starts on this day when we focus intensely on our responsibilities – to one another, to our families, to our community, to our world, and if you will, to God. This day will end, and then the real work begins, as we must move into action to bring the words we have spoken and the nedarim –the commitments we have uttered to life.
Here’s a way to begin right here, right now, and through the year ahead: Some of you may remember our Scholar-in-Residence from several years’ back, teacher and activist Danny Siegel. Danny is also a poet. For years I had this poem of his hanging over my desk – it’s always on my mind. As we step fully into this New Year, I pray it will be on all of our minds – and reflected in our words and deeds throughout the year ahead:
“If you always assume
the person sitting next to you
is the Messiah
for some simple human kindness,
you will soon come to weigh your words
and watch your hands.
And if he chooses not to be revealed in your time,
it will not matter.”
G’mar Hatimah tovah – may you be inscribed and sealed for a year of good health, of loving relationships, of meaningful engagement and action here, within our community; a year of sweet blessings, and let us all pray, for us, for our people, and for all the world, a year of peace.