Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sermon on Chukat: Seeking Relationships

Shavua Tov Friends. Here's this week's sermon:

This past week I had one of the most gratifying and at the same time the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had.
Last Sunday I sat down with a family about a baby naming. The mom-to-be had grown up at Beth Emeth, her parents are still members of the congregation, while dad grew up in a Conservative congregation, and over a cup of coffee I walked the expectant grandparents and parents through the ritual. I know the family a little, the younger couple less well than the older couple, but as I could tell the husband was uncomfortable in our meeting.
A few hours later I got an email from the young man—can we meet? Of course! I replied, and added that I could tell something was bothering him.
We sat down yesterday and this fellow shared his experience with me, and it wasn’t good. His Jewish upbringing was, to say the least, forced. He went to religious school and high holiday services without any sense of purpose. In fact, the opposite, whenever he asked ‘why do we do this? What’s the meaning behind that?’ he was told ‘because that’s what good Jews do’.
Sadly, his experience isn’t unusual. All he knew from Judaism was boring services that failed to inspire, Hebrew School teachers who were burned out and wanted to be somewhere else, and parents who didn’t practice, and didn’t know how to answer his questions.
Now he was going to be a parent. He wanted to raise his children Jewishly, but he was struggling with his own negative experiences. He wanted to spare his soon-to-emerge daughter what he went through. More than that, he said that while his experience was so profoundly negative, he could see value in meaningful Jewish engagement, but he didn’t know how to get there. He came to me not to blame, not to complain, but to ask for help.
So we talked. He asked questions about the Torah—who wrote it, how old was it? We talked about God, about the seeming meaninglessness of prayers and what happens when services bore rather than inspire. We talked about when he has felt engaged, about exploration and ownership. We discussed Judaism as process—not as a cluster of answers but a means to explore and come to your own engagement, how to read the text deeply, and how to read the text as metaphor. We talked about how Reform can seem like a cop-out or the ‘easy way out’ when you don’t take it seriously. We talked about Shabbat and the need to unplug. We talked about the purpose of the synagogue All this in an hour and fifteen minutes.
I don’t share this to toot my own horn as a rabbi. I mean, “yay me!”; that’s nice and all, but not the point. The point, in fact for too many of our people, for too many of us, this is reality. Instead of being presented a religion based on questions, we were given answers that were patronizing. Instead of experiencing the power of ritual, inspirational worship, we grappled with archaic and ill-understood or explained ceremonies. Instead of wrestling with difficult passages of Scripture, we dismiss it as hokum. Instead of feeling challenged and engaging, we give up. And as a result, fewer and fewer young Jews are following the paths of their parents—they don’t join automatically. They don’t affiliate naturally. Those days are gone.
We see this in our Torah portion as well; we read “vayarev Moshe”: the people quarreled with Moses. And later, “Vayidabeir ha-am bay’lohim u’v’Moshe”—The people spoke out against God and Moses. The quarrel and the argument take the form that they all have in Numbers—why did you take us out into the wilderness to die?—and we might be as sick as Moses, Aaron and God are of the kvetching. But there’s another way to look at what they’re saying. Why are we meandering around, aimless, without mission? Why do you keep giving us rituals and not explaining their purpose? What are we supposed to do now that Miriam and Aaron are dead? What does all of this mean? The people are frustrated, they’re bored, they’re tired, they’re disconnected.
It would be easy for us who affiliate to blow folks like this off, despite our experiences. You join a community anyway, because that’s what Jews do. But that would be like Moses’ words to the people: “come you rebels! Shall we get water from this rock?” that would be us responding from our anger and fear and lack of sympathy. Or we could listen carefully and hear their desire for meaningful engagement. It’s not that they don’t want to affiliate—they don’t want to MERELY affiliate. They want a real connection, they want it to mean something. They want help.
This is a room full of passionate, engaged, committed Reform Jews. Those words mean something different to each of us, but that doesn’t make them an less true. We can help. We can share our passion, our stories, our engagement with seekers like this young man. When someone asks why belong to Beth Emeth, we could share our enthusiasm for this place and each other.  As we talked, the young man asked, with a sly grin on his face, “So what’s in it for me? Why should I connect?” While we hate to admit it, many of us have asked that question ourselves, and I could have talked about programs and events.  Instead, I asked him about the positive experiences he’d had, and what resonated for him. As he described them, he answered his own question. He talked about his desire, his need to engage with committed Jews, with a faith, with a sense of purpose and mission. He talked about relationships. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about? He came seeking a relationship—not a program, not a service, but a relationship—with God, Torah and Israel. If we can do that, my friends, the rest takes care of itself.

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