Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rosh Hashana Evening Sermon 2011: Finding the Innermost Point in the soul of the Synagogue

Rosh Hashana Evening

A rabbi assumed the pulpit of his new congregation. As he was speaking with the leaders of the congregation he was asking questions regarding the congregation’s minhagim or customs on the High Holy Days such as blowing the Shofar during the preceding month of Elul after the morning minyan. This custom is about helping the congregants to prepare for their prayers and getting ready for the penitential season. The Rabbi commented to the leaders, “We have to have everything in place. The synagogue must be ready too. All the chairs and tables must be set in their place. The building committee must oversee all the details to make sure it all runs smoothly as Rosh Hashana arrives. “But even with that kind of preparation”, the Rabbi continued, “there comes Satan into the congregation and he extracts from the soul of the community, the innermost point. Everything remains as it was and the wheel keeps on turning only that the innermost point is missing.”   The rabbi spoke passionately when he raised his voice and exclaimed, “But, so help us God, we cannot ever let that happen here!”
Who knew that Judaism had its own character of Satan? Yes we do and while Satan, as defined by Jewish tradition, does not resemble the Christian concept of Satan,  yet, the Jewish view of Satan can upset the spiritual equilibrium not only of a person but of an entire community on multiple levels. We know of and quite possibility belonged to such congregations in our lifetime. A beautiful edifice and talented clergy with capable and savvy leadership should be all that it takes to make a synagogue successful. Yet quite often it is not that simple because a synagogue or temple can be dragged into matters that can distract and move the community away from ever touching souls.
 So what does the term ‘innermost point’ mean and how does it directly affect us as a congregation? How can we hold onto to that point in our congregation especially as we celebrate Beth Yam’s 30th anniversary? What I see here is that there is a spirit in this congregation of great talent and devotion. Our challenge is to tap into the souls of people in ways that bring us to experience Judaism in ways we would never have imagined. We should be creating an environment that says stretch ourselves educationally and spiritually and don’t be afraid to grow in our feeling towards Judaism and its people. We are doing this already by producing our new Torah Shelanu book. We have other projects that keep our hand on the pulse of the innermost point. It requires us to understand how heart, memory and conscience work together and balance the normal focus on the upkeep of our congregation. We want to continue to help our congregants to have choices to grow themselves educationally and spiritually.
Judaism typically portrays the High Holy Days as people making choices between behavior that is either good or not. God opens three books and we, through our prayers and actions, will determine whether or not God will inscribe and seal us into the Book of Life. But think about a different set of choices. Suppose the issue is not about good versus bad behavior. Let’s imagine that the innermost point that Satan would steal from a community was forgetting about the spirit or the values that makes for a healthy and vibrant temple. Maybe the synagogue where the temple organization works but the spirit is dormant is exactly what the rabbi in the story was afraid could happen to his new community. It is possible that the story is teaching us that we need and want stability in our lives and in our temple too. But when we focus exclusively on the structure and lose perspective about what makes a community sacred then the innermost point the rabbi referred to is missing and then we may remain in a limbo rather than being sealed in the book of life.
I feel confident that that this past year our temple made great strides in keeping that Satan from stealing the innermost point from us at Beth Yam. We commissioned the writing of a brand new Scroll of Esther as well as purchasing and refurbishing a beautiful Torah. We had learning sessions with our scribe Neil Yerman and we dedicated it and wrote the holy letters in the Torah.  We also embarked upon a special project which you have received tonight. It began with about 18 adult writers and we learned for three sessions engaging in creative writing exercises based upon a theme in the Torah. It was an intense and for some mystifying experience, particularly  for those who had no prior experience in studying Jewish texts let alone trying their hand at  creative or spiritual writing. The group of truly faithful students created a momentum and produced a collection of poems, memoirs, essays and even a recipe. They were amazed at the effort that they could never have imagined doing in their lives. But the circle grew and we invited visual artist in the temple and they began to create their art. The circle widened even further and we engaged teachers and children in the religious school to do their writing and behold we now present you with the “Torah Shelanu” Our Torah representing Congregation Beth Yam’s efforts to capture and hold onto the innermost point of the Temple Community.
I do not believe that if we had never done this project our temple would have been any worse for it. No one would have missed it. We would be carrying along with the same momentum we are used to doing here at the Temple. But this project did happen and it involved many generations of people from all over the world that belong to our Temple. I hope you will peruse and eventually read the book. We had participants who spoke of their experiences immigrating to this country, the aftermath of the Holocaust growing up in the Bronx, mourning an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon, straddling between living Jewish life in New York vs. the low country. The project involved tapping into people’s memory and trying to make sense of their lives in the here and now. We know these people, but, did we realize what was in their souls. Did they themselves understand what they would find? That sense of reaching inward and discovering not only what we could write or what visual art we could produce is exactly what the rabbi was talking about when he spoke of the innermost point in the temple. It is the spark, the creative spirit the ability to surprise ourselves by what heart, memory and  conscience can reveal to us.
This project also taught us that it takes an ability to remember how small things often reconnect us to the big picture of the temple and preserving Judaism. I think we need more opportunities to stretch our vision and give people the chance to shine and to learn new skills no matter their age. We also should be more in tune with sustaining our temple’s reputation with doing new and creative activities that are outside the box. Our work in social action and Outreach to the interfaith and the national awards we have received should be a continuation of a culture at Beth Yam that is building a spiritual infrastructure that is as beautiful as the physical infrastructure that envelops us when we enter this temple.
If any temple or our congregation focused only on the mechanics of operating a congregation and that became the center of our focus then, symbolically speaking, the presence of Satan has prevailed. Satan, in rabbinical thought, does not challenge God for supremacy, but, likes to dislodge us and distract us from fulfilling the commandments of the Eternal. We see many rabbinical stories about Satan. Even one of the most famous has Satan trying to prevent Abraham from taking Isaac to Mount Moriah when God commands him to sacrifice him. Satan represents not the personification of evil or the devil but rather a malaise, a single minded conformity, the resistance to grow in knowledge and spirit not just for a person but for a community. That is what the rabbi was thinking about when he exclaimed, “But we will not let that happen here!”
If we take out the Torah Shelanu book and examine the verse that we chose to inscribe on the front cover, we will see its message for this day of Rosh Hashana. We chose Genesis 2:9 When God exposed Adam and Eve for violating his command of eating from the fruit of the forbidden tree. God goes directly to Adam and asks him, “Ayechah” where are you?” Did God mean to ask if Adam knew where he was literally? What did God mean from that question, Where are You?”  Scholars have been interpreting that question since the beginning of Torah.
But I will give you one story that exemplifies that “Where are You, “applies to each of us. Almost two hundred years ago Rabbi Schner Zalman was arrested and jailed in St. Petersburg. Actually his own people accused him of instigating Jews to more spiritual growth and it threatened the Orthodox authorities who went to the gentile authorities and had him arrested. 
While the rabbi was sitting in his cell, the guard spoke with him. The rabbi could see the distress in the face of the guard and how he was afflicted with many concerns. The guard started to ask the rabbi questions that he had always wanted to understand about Scriptures. Finally he asked the Rabbi, “Why did God ask Adam, “Where are You’ in the garden of Eden?”
“Do you believe,” answered the rabbi, “that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation, and every person is included in them?”
“I believe this,” said the guard.
“Well then,” said the rabbi, “in every era, God calls to every person:  “Where are you in your world?  So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’
The guard smiled and said, “Bravo Rabbi! Then his heart trembled.”
This story can speak to us because ‘Rosh Hashanah is challenges us to ask this question ‘, Where are You?’ And to ask this question that God asked Adam is to admit we need to make a change and think carefully about how we are living. It is the same question that the writers of the Torah Shelanu project asked themselves. It is the question that every temple should pose when evaluating how well we are doing as a congregation.

And as we celebrate our temple’s 30th  anniversary we can ask this question of ourselves. I am personally happy and pleased to be continuing with you in the years to come and I look forward to joining you in the continuing saga of finding, and preserving that innermost point of this congregation. It brings us all great satisfaction when we can embark on projects that brings out the best in people, when our members who are sure what the end is but have faith believing that the vision will become clear. And that is what happened in Torah Shelanu and often times in life that kind of faith is necessary to meet life’s challenges.
Thirty years old means a person who is old enough to make it on their own and reflect upon their past enough to understand how they want to live in the future. So to it is with us. Where are We? How do we want to go into our thirties and build the congregational family that will bring us nachas and preserve the innermost point of the congregation’s soul?  This congregation has so much to give to itself and to the community, locally and nationally. We have already done so. Now we move forward seeking a deeper understanding of who we are and ultimately securing the attention of god and being sealed in the book of life. May it be God’s will that we find that innermost point for us and for the future of Jewish life in the low country.
Shana Tova.

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