Rosh Hashana 5780: Rabbi Greg Wolfe
The Power of Community: Tending to the Tent of Meaning
Have you ever climbed a pole stretching 30 feet into the air in the midst of a forest with something akin to a wobbly, wooden dinner plate attached to the top? I have! I invite you, then, to join me and imagine climbing to the tippy-top of this pole, standing on the wobbly plate and then turning 180 degrees around, with nothing to hold on to but air (OK, I was wearing a harness and somebody far, far below was holding on to a rope that I was attached to, but that didn’t inspire a lot of confidence!) And then, perched on this precipice, I hear: “Jump!” What?! That’s right, I am being told to jump from that wooden plate into the abyss to catch a trapeze dangling 10 feet away, which could just as well have been 10 miles away. And, I definitely don’t do well with heights! Now, I don’t know about you, but I was thinking to myself, even before I reached the top, “You have got to be kidding me! How did I get roped into this crazy endeavor?!”
While this experience occurred over 25 years ago when I was the director of our URJ Camp Swig (now, Newman!), it remains, until this day, indelibly imprinted in my memory as one of the most powerful experiences that I have ever undergone. Camp was hosting a ropes course weekend for youth at risk. While visiting, I was kindly invited to join in and try one of the ropes course elements. Completely unaware of what I was getting into, I embarked on my ascent up the pole, which had little wooden slats nailed to the pole every so often to provide hand and foot holds along the way. Doubt, however, quickly crept into my heart. I will never make it. There was no way, I thought to myself! There was only one thing that kept me going; one thing that allowed me to keep moving forward.
This feat was something that I could only have achieved because of the gathering of people cheering me on, with great gusto—I might add—none of whom I knew at all! They were just a random collection of participants who knew the power of support and encouragement to confront and overcome the challenges that face us all. They called me by name, assuring me that I could do it. I don’t now why but I believed them. I hung on their every word, climbed with their determination lifting me up, and I was able to stand up at the very top only due to their faith in me when I had none in myself. I can guarantee you that if I had ben alone I would have chickened out and climbed back down long before ever reaching the top. Somehow, I felt that I was being held in an invisible yet forceful embrace by my new community that had gathered around me and I could not let them down. And, then, teetering on the verge, I leaped! I don’t know how or why, but I did, and I managed to grasp the bar of the trapeze by my white knuckles, swinging back and forth in the tree canopy until I slowly came to a stop and was lowered safely to the terra firma, once again. Believe me, I was relieved! But I also felt an incredible rush of awe! I was filled with a sense of empowerment that I could do anything. I had taken a leap of faith that instilled within me a deep sense of my own capabilities. I discovered within me a resolve and courage that I didn’t even know I had. If I could take that leap and grab that trapeze, what couldn’t I do? How was this accomplishment possible? Through the power of community!
That pole, in my mind, has become a metaphor for our lives in community, and my story of climbing up it illustrates, for me, and hopefully for you, as well, the power of community, especially our Jewish community, to bring us support and strength, and to enable us, and ennoble us, to take great leaps in our lives. I discovered that, through our Jewish community, we don’t lose ourselves and our unique individuality, rather we are offered a profound opportunity to discover our own inner-resources and reveal our innate abilities. Through our community, we can achieve so much more than we ever could all on our own. Through our community, we are lifted up. We are challenged. We are held to account. We are seen and valued. And when each of us comes to a place where we have to make a leap in our lives into the unknown—dealing with a loss, or any transition, happy or sad, or simply making a decision or taking an action—we know that our community will be there to hold us, to love and support us into whatever comes next.
We each have our own poles to climb. And yet our poles do not stand alone. All of our individual poles, our unique lives, are joined together into a forest of poles, a community of poles, that are rooted in the soil of our shared history, culture and values. And together we nurture one another. Each has something special to contribute to the whole. Each pole is a vital post, holding up and supporting the fabric of our communal lives like a welcoming tent. The tent of our Jewish community is open to all, no matter the direction you are coming from, beckoning you to enter and find your home with us. Jewish community is an inviting mishkan, a tent of meeting, a sacred dwelling place that can become a “tent of meaning” where we are invited to discover the meaning and purpose of our lives; meaning that is experienced on four different levels in our lives or in the four worlds, as taught by the Jewish mystics—the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual realms. We tend, by our nature, to live in one of these worlds or, perhaps, two, most comfortably. Our goal in life, however, as we evolve into our fullest expression of our selves, is to develop in all four worlds. I believe that our active participation in the life of our Jewish community can help us succeed in this endeavor by inspiring us and encouraging us to grow in each of these worlds throughout out lives—the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual.
A teaching in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b) reinforces this notion that a community’s central role is to care for each person’s welfare in these four areas. The texts says: “A Torah scholar is not allowed to live in a city that’s does not have these 10 things: A court of law…; a tzedakah fund…; a synagogue; a mikvah; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a bloodletter; a butcher; and a teacher of children.” Any Jewish community worth its salt must provide these communal institutions for the physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual well-being of its residents.
So, lets begin with the benefits of our Jewish community in the physical world. In this past shabbat’s Torah reading, Nitzavim, which we will read again on Yom Kippur in the Contemporary service, the Torah teaches: “Atem nitzavim kulchem hayom” (All of you stand this very day) Our sages have wondered why the Torah uses the word ”Nitzavim” as opposed to the more common term for standing, “omdim.” Rashi, the great commentator of the 11th century France, says nitzavim means not just standing but firmly standing. Why this stronger word? Coming just after the 98 curses in the previous portion which were held over the Israelite’s heads to induce them to follow God’s commands, the people are overwhelmed and weak-kneed at their situation. They needed extra support and grounding to face this tenuous moment in their relationship with God. When we look at our world today, who is not over-whelmed and weak-kneed at some point, too! Our strength comes from physically standing firmly together, nitzavim! Not solely for ourselves—for we must also know that we are required to stand with and for others—but being in community reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. This physical sense of community weaves us into a social fabric of meaning where we can join our voices and have a greater impact on the world. Our strength comes when we stand with and for each other, even amidst our differences. Reb Zalman always liked to say that the only way we can get it together is together.
On the most basic level, our Jewish community is a sanctuary. Not a place to hide out from the world, but that place where we go to rejuvenate, to refill the batteries of our humanity, to gain clarity about our lives and our experience, and to feel that we are not so alone in this vast world of discord and confusion. Our Jewish community is that place where we go nourish and sustain ourselves so that we can go back out into the world with a focus on and passion for meaningful living. The physical sanctuary and respite that the Jewish community provides aids us in living Jewish lives more fully with all of our mind, heart and spirit. This oasis in our very hectic and complex lives allows us to sharpen our vision for ourselves and the world, reminds us of what is important to us and what we value, and inspires us to strive for lives of holiness and meaning, which we can achieve more fully, because we are humans together in the company of others. In a world where we have so many virtual experiences and virtual friends, our actual face-to-face, physical community reminds us that nothing can replace the real encounters that we can have with one another where we truly see each other and engage each other; real moments of honesty and discovery. So, come, imagine yourself spending more time on our community campus. Look for new ways to become involved, to feel connected and rejuvenated here with us. Let us know how can we better use our sacred space to support you in the various stages of your Jewish life. There are so many ways to enhance your connections to our physical Jewish home, which will also teach you something about yourself. So, I invite you to take a leap with me in this new year to fashion our future together!
In community, we also experience a deep emotional connection. There once was a man who traveled a great distance each week to visit his grandma, Sophie. A friend once asked why he went to such great lengths to visit his grandma Sophie who lived so far away. After all, he reasoned, there are many elderly women who live much closer would love to have a visit from you. That may very well be true, but I visit Sophie because she is my grandma! So, too, we flock to our Jewish communities because they are ours, they are our home; they are part of who we are. My Jewish community growing up was such a touchstone for me and shaped my emotional Jewish identity and how I think about Jewish community today in so many ways. I am so grateful to my family for blessing me with the many gifts of Jewish community: an active participation in the synagogue, the temple youth group, encouraging me to work at our Jewish summer camp, Camp Swig (the best gift of all, perhaps), and so many friends and family with whom we would always celebrate the Jewish holidays.
Our Jewish community is a nurturing place to share the emotions of our life’s experiences, where our joys are doubled and our troubles are halved. A place to share and care for each other’s stories and know that our story matters and will be held in love. There is a certain amount of bravery required of us to make ourselves vulnerable, to share our lives and full selves with each other. But the payoff is well worth the risk when we reach out and build connections with others in ways that don’t often happen in other realms in our lives. People may come into the Jewish community for a program or activity, says Jewish educator, Ron Wolfson, but they only stay because of the relationships forged here. Community is a place to foster these deeper relationships with one another; to listen and to learn, to bond and to support. I invite you to imagine expanding your social circles at the synagogue. Challenge yourself to get to know more people. Maybe, host a gathering for Shabbat or another holiday or break-the-fast. Join with others in looking for opportunities to support one another and celebrate with each other. Come to say Kaddish. Sponsor an oneg. Be a Shabbat greeter. Join our Partnership Committee. Help us create opportunities for people to share their lives in new and powerful ways. There are so many paths to deepen your emotional connections with your Jewish family here. So, I invite you to take a leap with me in this new year to see what we might kindle when we join our hearts together.
We, Jews, have long been known as the People of the Book due to our commitment to learning and wrestling with ideas. So, it is probably not too surprising that many Jews feel very comfortable in this realm of the mind. We are part of a grand intellectual drama that has been going on for over 3,000 years! And if we want to keep the Jewish story going for thousands of years into the future this will require our continued intellectual curiosity, experimentation, debate and conversations across the generations. We need to create space for creative and respectful exchanges of different ideas and approaches, even with those with whom we may strongly disagree, for this is the secret of our future and will guarantee a Jewish community that is vibrant and resonant for generations to come. We have a responsibility to keep learning and growing by taking and teaching classes that will expand our understanding of our history and traditions. I want to encourage each of you to challenge yourself to learn something new this year. Imagine coming to one of our exciting programs or classes. Or gather a group of friends to learn something together. We want to support everyone in their Jewish literacy and understanding. You can also join our Adult Education committee to help develop new learning opportunities. If you don’t see something happening that is important to you come speak with me so that we can work on that together. Help us plan and implement creative and engaging programming that speaks to your heart and mind and spirit. Remember we are here to help you manifest your Jewish dreams. So, I invite you to take a leap with me in this new year to see what we might inspire when we put our heads together.
And, finally, a Jewish community is a well-spring to nourish thirsty souls. A gathering place to ponder the deepest questions of our lives: Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? How will I make a difference and what will be my legacy? We are more than our mere physical, emotional, intellectual existences. The world of the spirit is perhaps the most critical because it is the place where we make meaning out of the things that happen to us in our lives. In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s inspiring work, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, he explains that this is the major difference between science and religion: “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” Religion, ultimately, is the pursuit of meaning in our lives and the Jewish community is an important place to experience that journey of discovery. I read about a study recently that demonstrated that the one thing that has the biggest impact on our health and longevity is having a life of meaning. Yes, you should exercise as much as possible, and avoid drinking too much and smoking! But more important than any other factor is that we live a life filled with meaning. It doesn’t matter what gives our life meaning, just that we find it meaningful. It could be taking care of your grandchildren. It could be your art or music. And, I would like to suggest that taking an active role in your Jewish community would be the perfect way to support that meaningful living! (see article) But whatever gives your life meaning, Dr. Alan Rozanski, of the Icahn School of Medicine, reports that “the need for meaning and purpose [in life] is No. 1. It’s the deepest driver of well-being there is.” (ibid) So, you see, you can do yourself a big favor and live longer, too, every time you immerse yourself in the spiritual opportunities in our communal “tent of meaning.” You might imagine joining us for one of our traditional shabbats or give our Mussar or Chant Shabbat experiences a try as a path to open up to your life of the spirit. Come for our holiday experiences at Sukkot or Simchat Torah or Chanukah. Join our weeklyTorah study, a Mussar class or participate in our regular mindfulness meditation with Rabbi Seth. Get involved. Let us hear your ideas for other ways you would like to be spiritually engaged in our community. I invite you to take a leap with me in this new year into the mystery of the possible as we link our spirits together.
We are all magnificent trees rooted together in a sacred grove of community, like the towering redwoods that stand at the heart of our campus, intertwined with one another, providing vital support and stability. Like our redwoods, our history and destiny are bound together at our roots as our branches reach ever higher into the sky. Our Jewish community flourishes: When we all flourish. When we see that we are all connected. When we celebrate what we have in common and cherish the opportunity to learn from those who are different. Jewish community thrives: When we foster many different ways of connecting to and participating in our community. When we experience Judaism as a natural and organic part of our lives. When we create multiple ways of entering the community. When we invite others to feel that this is their home and they have a voice. When we help everyone feel that they belong. In this way, we are creating a Jewish community for ourselves that speaks powerfully to our lives and adds meaning. Together, we are creating a Jewish community that inspires us to commit our time, energy, passions and resources to help our community grow and excel. Together, we are creating a Jewish community that will not only bring us together but hold us here with a gravitational force that will transcend time and generations.
As we begin our 25th year together, I am inspired by the tremendous Jewish community that we have created here with a talented staff and dedicated lay leaders. How many communities our size can boast 4 rabbis and a cantor in their midst? (Me, Rabbis David Aladjem, Seth Castleman, and Cynthia Hoffman, who also grew up in Davis and recently returned, and Cantor Shayndel Adler Eldridge!) In addition, as a congregation, we have “birthed” an Orthodox rabbi, Garth Silberstein, who grew up at Bet Haverim, 2 renewal rabbis, David and Cynthia, and 2 rabbinic students at HUC, the Reform seminary—Leah Julian, who grew up here, and Aria Caliguieri, who was a teacher with us while she studied at UCD and was nurtured here on her path in the warm embrace of Bet Haverim. I think this concentration of Jewish leaders says something amazing about the nature of our community! We have experienced first-hand the impact a Jewish community can have. The power of our community to foster Jewish life and leaders highlights some of the very best of what a Jewish community can be and is something of which we can all be enormously proud.
What will the Jewish community of the future look like? We will never know for sure for we are part of a grand, ever-evolving process that continues to change in every generation. But I can guarantee that it will not look like it does today. And that is the way it should be. The Jewish community is dynamic; by necessity, it continues to grow and respond to the world around us. What I do know is that what we do today, through our active involvement and support of our community, will ensure that there will be a Jewish community here tomorrow. Whatever shape and form that community will come to take, it will arise to best meet the needs of the Jews at that time. May our Jewish community always be a place that is a healing, nurturing space in a world that can often feel tumultuous and overwhelming. A place that encourages us to hope and dream and work for a world that we can only imagine. A place that instills within us a daring to stand together amidst our differences. A place that gives us the courage to do the things that we could never accomplish alone! In this new year, let us aspire to new heights: to touch people’s hearts and inspire their souls, to envision new possibilities of connecting with Jews (and those who love them!) of all ages and demographics in our diverse community, and to explore new ways of sharing our ancient treasure trove of Jewish wisdom in an ever-changing world. Let us not just climb to new heights, let us also have the courage to leap!
Ken y’hi ratzon
Rabbi Greg Wolfe
Congregation Bet Haverim
1715 Anderson Rd.
Davis, CA 95616