Rosh Hashanah, the start of a new Jewish year, should be a time of joy and celebration. Yes, the weeks leading up to this holy day, those of the month of Elul, slowly invite us to begin the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, that introspective task of taking an inventory of our thoughts and actions that will culminate days from now on Yom Kippur. Our Slichot service held this past Saturday evening formally ushered in our season of repentance and Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the most intense period of that season, the ten Yamim Noraim, the ten Days of Awe and Reflection; but, Rosh Hashanah is also a celebration of new beginnings. The apples and honey, the sweet cakes and kugels that will be served at our holiday tables, they remind us that this day is to be celebrated with sweetness and delight.
I have always loved Rosh Hashanah and as a child eagerly awaited its arrival each year. Getting “back to shul” outfits to replace outgrown clothes, going to services where I met up with friends in the youth lounge; singing along to the music of the liturgy; enjoying the Kiddush in our synagogue’s courtyard, and then heading home for a festive meal with grandparents and lots of honey, challah, apples, and my grandmom’s chocolate chip oatmeal squares.
My holiday looks different now than my childhood one did. The places where my grandparents sat, all born in the first 5 years of the 20th-century, have long been filled with children of my own. New clothes now mean an occasional update (perhaps new shoes) to a well-worn suit or dress. Singing along has been replaced with my taking a formal leadership role in worship, and I now make the chocolate chip bars; but still, always, I have found simple and sweet joy in Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the shofar, and the opportunity to start a new year. The Jewish calendar has it right: Fall is the perfect time to stop and take a moment to celebrate the possibilities for renewal.
I must confess, however, that the joyous anticipation I normally feel this time of year has been elusive. One could argue that national and global events have dampened the sweetness of this holiday. Indeed, there has been much in our world that could weigh heavily on our hearts and minds. Just since this past spring, our world has witnessed:
The kidnapping of hundreds of school girls in Nigeria by the extremist Islamic faction, Boko Haram, a group that has been wreaking havoc generally in Nigeria. We have witnessed the erosion of a woman’s right to access complete healthcare in this country. We continue to bare witness to a seemingly unrelenting and intractable conflict in the Middle East. Earlier this week, we watched and listened as our country and its allies began a proactive military response to the recent increase in volatility (and inhumanity) of ISIS. And, this past summer, we witnessed racial tension in our own country that elicited a response that mirrors all too vividly other images from my early childhood that are not nearly as sweet as my Rosh Hashanah memories.
But, as difficult as such events as these are to comprehend and digest, what weighs perhaps most significantly upon my heart and mind as we usher in 5775 are the challenges and tensions we are feeling here in our own small congregation. Thankfully, our challenge is not a bloody one (let’s keep it that way, please), but nonetheless, it weighs heavily on my heart, and I expect on yours as well.
Deciding to sell this building evokes genuine and legitimate feelings of loss and disappointment even as it is clear that it is a good and thoroughly considered decision, arguably the best in the face of our current circumstances. This sanctuary and building have been Temple Emanuel’s home for 18 years. We can talk all we want about how community is defined by people, not space (and I assure you, I will continue to do so), but it is this physical space that has enabled us – the people of this place - to gather easily for worship, for study, for lifecycle events – baby namings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals.
We have gathered here to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events; we have gathered here to watch our kids master skills; we’ve gathered here for the most simplest of needs: for food, for solace, for compassion. Indeed, the building has served as a physical residence, a home, for our congregation. So, sadness is warranted. We – perhaps especially those who were involved in building this space – have every right to name that sadness and to mourn that this building didn’t house and will not house the future imagined when it was envisioned and built.
At the same time, let us be sure to mourn only the loss of the physical plant and the specific vision that went into building it. Let us be sure that we are not prematurely mourning the loss of Temple Emanuel. The building must not become our sole identity.
We are far from the first Jews to be in a position where we may lose our beloved building. Recall, the Jewish people of the first century not only lost a physical plant that was their beloved Temple, but lost it for good. This was a traumatic period for that generation of Jews, far more traumatic than ours, but they were able to seize upon a working vision – one painstaking worked upon by leaders in the community – a vision that transcended space. A vision that created a future that was no longer dependent on that building that they knew so well, that building that had housed their worship for generations.
Our prayer book and our holidays spend a good amount of time and energy reflecting upon that Temple of old, but if we look carefully at those prayers and the festive days that call us back to the Temple, it is to the goings on within, not the structure itself that is deemed significant.
For example, the Yom Kippur Avodah. The Avodah is a lengthy rubric of prayer that we recite every year on Yom Kippur afternoon It recalls, replays in a sense, the ritual of Yom Kippur worship as it took place in the Temple that stood in Jerusalem and sets it poetically into the context of Jewish history. One could argue that the Avodah is long, even tedious (it certainly has its repetitive moments); but as poetry, it’s brilliant. For, this Avodah worship narrative of Yom Kippur provides a literary vehicle that has sustained itself for over a millennium – even as it has evolved – while telling us about the worship in which the community engaged inside the walls of the Temple. It doesn’t tell us much at all about the structure. It tells us a great deal about how the community functioned and what was valued. Versions of the Yom Kippur Avodah have been written in most every era of Jewish history, and they continue to tell us not about our buildings, but about us – the folks who make up the community. This worship narrative tells us about how we act and pray.
Maybe we should write our own Avodah about our Temple. What would it tell us of ourselves?
18 years of Torah
Have taken place here,
In these rooms
Did the walls learn?
Did the rafters sing?
Can the emotions felt
Can they be infused into concrete, dry wall,
If they could, which would laugh?
Which would cry?
Maybe that was it!
our roof emoting
Tears rushing in
During every rain?
The inquiry absurd
The building doesn’t care
Even as it has proudly stood
At our bequest.
The rabbis insist
Al shelosha devarim,
These are the legs that sustain us.
For all the yearning for a Temple
I don’t ever recall
for any ceiling,
A structure – even Jerusalem’s Wall –
Such a human call
That requires us,
to the values
passed down through time.
Yet, still we need
A place to call home,
A place for Emanuel
A place for us to gather
and fill more rooms
And lots more Chai
Proverbs reminds us
How to build
With pursuit of
They are the gems
For length of day,
And years of chai.
Can we grasp
Can we comprehend?
These are the tools
That we must hold on to --
As we strive
To keep Emanuel
And its legacy
Considering our congregation’s next steps into the future raises tensions among us that have the potential to divide. We must remind ourselves that these tensions reflect loyalty and love for our congregation. They are evidence that we care. As we begin this New Year, 5775, I challenge all of us to refuse to let difference of opinion about our future to divide us.
Our congregation’s, Temple Emanuel’s, identity can survive without this particular building. It can’t survive without its people – without you. I believe that the almost 60 years of this congregation’s history can be sustained into the future. But, in order for it to do so, we must be open minded and willing to change our tightly held views about just how it can do so. We must guard against being too inwardly focused in our thoughts about what a synagogue, what this synagogue, must be while remaining committed to imagining what it can be. And perhaps, what it can be a part of.
This is the season for renewal. This is the season when we can commit ourselves to seeing things differently. In order to move forward, we must mourn the past. We must let go of unrealized goals and vision. That is, for sure, a difficult and critical part of cheshbon hanefesh, of taking that internal tally that is so much a part of the process of teshuvah. But, it is required; for only then, can we move forward embracing a revised vision that benefits us, that benefits those who come after us seeking a place to nurture their Jewish identities, and that benefits the broader Jewish community that this synagogue was founded to serve.
Copies of my Avodah for Emanuel are available in the lobby. I invite you to take one and consider what you would add to it.