Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur Sermon 2: We Belong Together

Rabbi Yair Robinson
Yom Kippur Morning 5773

Once upon a time there was a town with a tiny synagogue. They had no rabbi, a small building, and only enough Jewish adults that if everyone came to services, they could make minyan. So every Friday, every Shabbat morning, every Holiday, each adult would come to services, because they knew they were needed. They taught each other’s’ children, they celebrated together, said Kaddish together, broke bread together. Then one day, a new family moved to town, bringing up the number of eligible members of the minyan to 13. The community rejoiced—they hadn’t had a new family in years. They celebrated the new family together with a special Shabbat dinner and service. Everyone was full of joy. The following day, at Shabbat morning services, only eight people came.
What are we to learn from this story? There are many—an entire generation—that remember a time when, while the synagogue wasn’t 10 people, it was pretty close to this ideal. Everyone was the same generation, had the same experiences, and worked together intimately to create a sacred community. Everyone was needed, and everyone participated. Ask someone about the brotherhood breakfasts, the meetings in people’s living rooms, the marches, the favorite teachers, and you get the idea.
It’s easy to say, “Oh, we’re such a big congregation now. It doesn’t matter. We have staff, we have Clergy. We don’t count. Therefore, I don’t have any responsibility toward this. It’s someone else’s problem.”
Everyone in a congregation counts. Every dollar donated, every person who teaches, who volunteers his or her time, who shares the history of a congregation and preserves it for the next generation, who sings, who plays an instrument, who trains up new leaders, who even just brings a friend or a new family to a program or service. Everyone who contributes of his or her wealth wisdom or work moves this congregation forward. Everyone counts.
How do we count? We all contribute in different ways; Yehuda Leib of Ger reminds us that each person has a unique knowledge of God's greatness, and only that person can share that spark of holiness with the world. To withhold that talent, that ability, that spark from the congregation would be the equivalent of what happened in that story. We cannot assume someone else will do it; it is our task, all of us, to our ability and blessing.
I have spoken with people who describe themselves as spiritual, who talk about studying Judaism for themselves without any interest in participating in the larger community. I’ve spoken to people whose connection is through their chavurah, or their small circle of friends, but as a result now don’t know more than half the congregation, and feel less and less of a connection. There is a reason Judaism insists on a minyan for worship, especially the most critical prayers. Ours is a religion of community, not individuality. Jewish values fly in the face of American ideals of the rugged individual, all on their own. In Judaism, you didn’t build that—not on your own. You don’t suffer alone, in the dark, no matter what the joke about the light bulb says. In Judaism we come together, we share together. We cling to one another. And in fact, we don’t just count each other as a number; we recognize the specific holiness, the specific quality of the person before us. There is a tradition in Judaism that when we count a minyan, we don't count by number, we use the first line of Ma Tovu, the verses from Torah and the morning service, each syllable of the first verse = 10. We do this to remind ourselves that people aren't just numbers. We do this to remind ourselves that our house is fair only when everyone counts and everyone does the work.
If that’s the goal, if that’s how it’s supposed to be, then why don’t we feel it? Or why don’t we feel it enough? What’s missing? Last night I talked about how too often we have that sense that our kishkes aren’t being nourished. We come to services (or not), come to programs (or don’t) and too often feel alone in the crowd. I mentioned that there is much work for me and leadership to do to help alleviate this, but there’s another ingredient, another crucial piece: YOU.
 Ask yourself: what is your gift, your talent, your unique knowledge of God you could be sharing with this place. Then ask the question: Why aren’t you sharing it? Maybe it’s because no one asked. An officer of the Federation told me that he was at a congregational meeting, and a longtime leader of the community confided in him that he had wanted to get involved in Federation, but no one asked. Perhaps no one knew to ask, but it didn’t matter—that officer immediately asked for the leaders’ help. Perhaps it’s because you didn’t think this was a place where your talents would be valued, or perhaps you had a great idea in the past and were rebuffed. Perhaps you shared it in the past, and after a while, you got tired. No shame in that. But it’s time to share, or share again, Knowing that you are the one who allows us to make blessings together.
This past summer we had a gathering on a Saturday afternoon to talk about trends in the Reform Movement. In our discussion, we talked about what we should expect from a synagogue: that it is caring, respectful of our individual needs, a place where Jews could gather to worship, study, and be with one another, that it be a place that was part of the greater community. But we also spoke of what the congregation should expect from us. The list—generated by laypeople of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of engagement—ranged from the expected: fiscal participation, for example, to the unexpected. What I learned from that experience is that people want to feel needed, want to know that they matter, want to know that this place isn’t just a place of convenient Jewish experience, but meaningful Jewish experience.
So let me then, respectfully, tell you what is needed of us—ALL of us. And it’s very simple. We need to be here.
That’s it. We need to be here. We need to be present in each other’s lives. Don’t tell me “I have enough friends.” Don’t tell me “it’s inconvenient.” Don’t tell me “I can never make it anyway, I don’t use it anyway.” We need to be here. Being part of a congregation is not the same as joining a gym, or a country club. It’s a promise, a covenant. When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think to myself, “I wonder if I’ll be a husband today?” “I wonder if I’ll be father today?” or even “I wonder if I’ll be a rabbi today?” Why? Because I promised. When I married Marisa, when Elishai came into this world, when I stood on the bimah of the Plum Street Temple, I swore an oath; I made a promise, one that changed my identity radically and permanently. I made a commitment to something larger than myself—marriage, fatherhood, the rabbinate.

Each of us has, in one way, shape or form, reaffirmed a promise made by our ancestors. We read today, “Kedoshim Tihiyu”, you shall be holy. We assume it’s a mitzvah, a commandment, but really, it’s an affirmation by God of something we as a people had already said at Sinai. We said, “Kol diber Adonai na’asei”, all that God has said, we will do. Only by making that commitment, that promise, was God able to proclaim our holiness. By affirming and reaffirming our connection to Judaism, we are making the same promise our ancestors made on that desert morning long ago.
Likewise, each of us have sworn an oath:  to this community, to our family, to our people. It’s swearing an oath, to support others in time of trouble, to celebrate with others in times of joy. To take each other seriously, and assume the best in one another. To speak words of love and praise when we see a harried volunteer or teacher or staffer doing their best to make something work, to share words of concern when we see a fellow congregant in pain, to embrace each other fully and see the face of God in one another even—and especially—when we disagree with one another. To worship and study and gather and break bread with and party with and raise kids and grandkids with each other. Because we promised. We made a covenant.
Sounds too simple, right? That’s not how our world works, right? To join a synagogue is a consumerist activity; we choose a synagogue by going ‘synagogue shopping’. We decide that our connection is tenuous: how often we’ve heard people say, “Oh, I quit because my friends weren’t there anymore”, “we weren’t using it”, “and our kids are grown.” But we are not consumers—we are CONGREGANTS. And congregants congregate. Because we promised.

No, we can’t do everything and be everywhere, but it was the sages of the Chasidim who said: when I say I can’t do everything, let it not be in order to do nothing. Let it be, instead, merely a recognition that I don’t have to do everything, that other people too will do their part to right wrongs, just as they—and I—will try not to add to the wrongs we see done each day. And friends, your absence from one another’s lives adds to the wrongs we see done each day. Because I will tell you, when we are here only for a few state occasions, when we see each other less, when we’re in each other’s lives less, that is when we begin to see each other as non-essential, that is when we assume the worst instincts in each other, that is when this place—and its participants—becomes inconvenient, that is when our hearts grow hard and coarse and that is when we stop counting.
I began with a story about a small community that chose to make itself smaller, not only in terms of size but in terms of quality, a community of individuals who shirked their responsibilities, their promises to one another, who forgot that each was essential to the other, and that the whole was nothing without the individual. We can write a different story, you and I. We can write a story of hands touching hands, of lives and joys and gifts shared and people supported and music and prayer made together. We can write a new story this moment. We can affirm our relationship—our promise—to one another. The poet David Whyte reminds us “there is no house like the house of belonging.” In this house, with each other, we belong together. Amen.


  1. As usual, an extraordinary sermon. I am no longer a member but I read your sermons because they are so meaningful. I was once one of those people who entered the synagogue alone and left alone, and when I returned home was again alone. I came to the synagogue, not only as a Jew with an obligation, but as a way to connect; a way to bring meaning to my life and to be meaningful to others. For this, I was willing to offer the best of myself; my talents as an educator, my ability to lead ritual, my caring nature, and yes, my leadership abilities. I showed hands-on-caring, perhaps beyond all, and when the Caring Committee needed a chair I offered my time for that. I was available to everyone who had a need, but at times nobody was available to me. Nor were there opportunities for me to give of myself or be my best because of the prevailing assumption that I was not worth counting, even as “one”. There have been other synagogues who have welcomed me and have offered me the opportunity to read Torah/haftarah, lead services, teach, write articles, serve as Sisterhood president and as a board member. And I continue my efforts officially and unofficially as a caring human being, one who is respected by the clergy and congregational members. And, by the way, I am one of those who makes sure the daily minyan does not fall below 10.
    I understand what it means to be counted, to matter, and I hope at some point Beth Emeth, too, becomes that kind of a place.

  2. I also took a special liking to Beth Emeth during my kaddish year, coming on Friday night when I could count on 10 Jewish men being there at a time on the clock when I could be among them. And I was never disappointed. I still return about one Kabbalat Shabbat a month now because I like being in the sanctuary and partaking of some wisdom. I ask nothing of anyone else there, not even the kiddush which is pretty much all milchig except for the soda. Usually a conversation arises, sometimes of substance sometimes of small talk, both are valuable.

    One of the intriguing dichotomies for me has been my own perception of how valuable I have been in my medical world with patients improving from their starting points and time being set aside for me to lecture each month to the residents and to conduct residents report and to be a presence in the hospital for some of the most intricate patients that arrive. One of the essayists in Sid Schwarz' Jewish Megatrends asked semi-rhetorically, "what gets you up in the morning?" It's being of value to somebody else.

    My Jewish world has been more mixed over a very extended time frame, now of some fifty years. Young Adult Federation Leadership program of thirty years back sent a quick message that the invitation to join was predicated on my degree and earning prospects, not the intellect that brings those things about. Attrition was high. I think if my own congregational president and rabbi were asked to make a list of people they invited to do anything over the last year, neither list will fill an entire page. There are A-lists in every Jewish organizations from the classic USY cliques that reassemble at Ivy League Hillel's to macher swoops that dominate many a congregation. It is hard to break that but as the sermon attests and as Jewish Megatrends or Relational Judaism books assert, success largely depends on making people feel valued. But you have to break the A-lists before you can succeed because there is a comfort zone that comes with immersing yourself with people who will not challenge you.

    Where I would take a different position from the contents of the sermon, which I almost never do, is the sense of obligation to step forward and move oneself off the B-list. The Jewish world, like the sky, is very big. There are many captivating initiatives everywhere, there are great minds in cyberspace who will write back to you in a substantial way when you engage them in ideas and there are also institutions whose leaders have been telling each other and anyone else who would listen how wonderful they are while they pursue a relentless quest for mediocrity. The airline stewardesses got it right. You have to put your own mask on first before you can be a person of value to somebody else.