Thursday, December 5, 2013

I'll Take The Challenge.

So I'm not preaching a traditional sermon tomorrow, it being New Member Shabbat, but in the course of preparing to bless those who commit to synagogue life, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to commit to Jewish communal life. Of course, there's a lot of stuff out there to encourage thinking on that subject. The Pew Report, which has caused much gnashing of teeth. The study I do with a few non-Jewish clergy, who have been helping me understand the question of where we locate authority, and the sacred. The book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which I highly recommend, which talks about people as social beings, and most recently Donna Schwartz's excellent blog (and not only excellent because she cites my sermon!). Each one of these pieces deserves more than a sentence or two devoted to them, and I believe each helps us answer the question of why we seek out and join spiritual communities, but I want to reflect on one piece: the idea of challenge.

We don't like to be challenged. Oh, sure, every self-help book and leadership guide talks about growth and development, but the reality is, we like to feel good. We're designed, environmentally and evolutionarily, to respond to positive, not negative, reinforcement. We want to protect ourselves and our loved ones from difficulty and hardship. Indeed, it can be one of our nobler impulses. But it is ONLY through challenge that growth can occur. One of my favorite Chasidic stories is one told of the Kotzker Rebbe that, when he was a student, he answered a question correctly, his teacher rewarded him with a kiss on the head, whereupon he left his study. When asked why, he said, "I need a teacher who will rend the flesh from my bones, not kiss me on the head." It's a dramatic image, and it's true. I learned more from the teachers who challenged me, pushed me, cornered me and stripped me of my armor and dragged me, kicking and screaming, out of my safe zone, than the teachers who coddled and protected me. We rise to the occasion, but only when given the opportunity.

In synagogue life, we've been told that belonging should be easy, that being Jewish should be easy--even converting to Judaism should be easy! I have been told that we shouldn't ask too much of laypeople, either in terms of time, expertise, or finances; because we don't want to scare them off, because we don't want them to do it 'wrong', because we are afraid they won't follow through or truly engage. I believe it should be challenging. I believe that through the challenge comes engagement, ownership, and transformation; that is, when we know the stakes are high, when we're being counted on, when the task requires real spiritual and intellectual effort on our part, the experience is much more meaningful, and much more beneficial to the community and ourselves. As I remind the b'nai mitzvah , becoming part of the minyan (the quorum of prayer) means that you may not only participate, but lead. Not only study Torah, but lead the study of Torah. That in performing mitzvot--commands--we are living up to the expectations of our Divine Commander. Or, if you prefer, by fulfilling our mitzvot--Sacred Obligations--we are reminding ourselves of our commitments and meeting them.

We've been told that joining a spiritual community is about meeting our needs; I believe more and more each day that this is true, partially. But it's also about connecting ourselves to something greater, and through that connection seeing ourselves differently, perhaps even as God intends us to be.

I close with one of my favorite prayers from Mishkan T'fillah, adapted from Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher (z'l). May our challenges lead us ever higher, and into deeper and richer connections to one another. And may this Shabbat be a call to action.



Disturb Us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;
Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,
The quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,
The bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us
The delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us
From the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by
Half-forgotten`` melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears;

Make us know that the border of the sanctuary
Is not the border of the living
And the walls of Your temples are not shelters
From the winds of truth, justice and reality.

Disturb us, O God, and vex us;
Let not your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber;
Let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.



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