Yom Kippur 5770

The Blessings of Partnership: Creating a Kehillah Kedoshah Together

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5770

My fervent prayer for the New Year might seem a bit strange to you when you first hear it, but please know that it comes straight from my heart, and I hope you will receive it in the spirit in which it is shared.  This is what I wish:  that none of you will be members of Bet Haverim in this new year! (pause)  Now, before you grab your tallis and head for the door, please understand that I don’t want to push you away!  On the contrary, I am welcoming you to come even closer, to engage with your Jewish community on a deeper level; with your head, your heart and your hands.  (And, for our UC students, I invite you to hear the references to “Bet Haverim” and “congregation” in my teaching tonight as “Hillel” and your own student Jewish community.)  I am asking you to revoke your membership mentality and, instead, enter into a, brit, a sacred covenant of partnership with us!  A partnership with me, with those who serve our community in a myriad of leadership roles; a partnership with everyone who makes up our congregation, a partnership with God, the Source of All Loving Connections.

A brand new committee, aptly named, the Partnership Committee, has been formed this year by our Board of Directors, to be chaired by Steven Folb and Jan Newman, to explore how we as a community can enhance our sense of connection to the congregation and one another.  This includes how we welcome people new to Bet Haverim as well as strengthen our bonds with those who have long been associated with the synagogue.  It is our hope that we will be able to foster diverse and exciting approaches to celebrating what it means to be a partner, a haver, from the Hebrew word meaning someone truly connected, at Bet Haverim.

True partnership, however, requires more than a change in name.  I am not merely suggesting that we now simply call all members:  partners.  “Once you were a member, now, ‘voila,’ you are a partner!”  Indeed, I am inviting all of us to make a fundamental  paradigm shift in the way that we think about our relationship to our Bet Haverim community, to transform the way we relate to the congregation and each other.

Let us imagine together how a life may change when we begin to live with a sense of partnership, not just at home or work, but when we join our hearts and hands to build a holy community, a Kehillah Kedoshah.   When we become partners with one another and with God, we become a source of profound blessing in the world, as this chassidic tale illustrates.

There once was a miracle-working rebbe who could look into people’s souls and see what it was that they really needed–not just what they wanted, but what was lacking.  And he would give them a blessing and, because his connection with the Source of All was so deep and powerful, his words would be fulfilled.
One day some of the rebbe’s students came to him and said, “You know, rebbe, there is someone else in town  who has the same power that you have.  He gives blessings, and the blessings come true!”  “Nu?  Who is that?” the rebbe asked.  “It is the bartender at the inn,” the students told him.  The rebbe was surprised because the bartender showed no outward signs of learning, piety or deep spiritual practice.  “This I have to see for myself,” he thought.

He removed his rebbe garb and, dressed in ordinary clothes so as not to be recognized, set out for the inn.  He observed the bartender for a week and was only further convinced that he possessed no deep knowledge or great spiritual insights.  He was an exceedingly simple man.  The rebbe was surprised, however, to learn that the bartender did, in fact, pronounce blessings of great power.  Each blessing spoke to the need of the person at the moment and would ascend to the highest heavens and produce the changes necessary in the fabric of the universe so that the blessings would come true.  Even after watching the bartender during Shabbat, the rebbe was as perplexed as ever.  There was no inner light to be seen.
So, after Havdallah, the rebbe approached the bartender and revealed himself.  “I have been watching you all week,” the rebbe told him.  “Rebbe!” proclaimed the bartender.  “If I had know it was you…”  “But I didn’t want you to know that it was me,” interrupted the rebbe.  “Did you know that you have the power to give blessings and the blessings come true?”  The bartender did not.  “I didn’t think so, but you do.  Are you one of the hidden righteous ones?  Are you a great scholar in secret sent to redeem the world?  Is there any great deed you have done to deserve such merit?”  To each question the bartender shook his head no.  “Do you pray secretly with great devotion?  Have you ever talked intimately with God?”  Again the bartender was shaking his head, but stopped.  “Well, maybe once,” he said.  “Tell me about the once.”
“A few years ago, my business was about to go under.  You see, I have a terrible temper.  Someone comes into the inn, I don’t like the way he looks, I jump over the bar and punch him out.  That’s not good for business.  But what could I do?  I have such a terrible temper, and I didn’t know how to control it.  Things got so bad, we were almost starving.  And my wife, she tells me to get a partner.  In my heart, I know she’s right.  I need a partner.  But I also know me.  With my terrible temper, how could I have a partner?  The first time I get angry, I punch him out, and poof!–there goes the partnership!  But I had to do something.  So I went into the backyard and my heart broke open and I cried out to God.  I said, ’God!  Listen to me please.  My business is in awful condition.  My wife says I need a partner.  I know she is right, but I can’t take a partner of flesh and blood.  My temper is to great for that, and I can’t control it.  So look, I’m making you my partner.  From this moment on, fifty percent of the profit is yours, and ten percent of my share as well, because, after all, you are God.’    So ever since, God has been my partner, and business has gotten better and better.  Even after giving over God’s share, I still make 3 times what I used to make, even in the best years.”

The rebbe closed his eyes and thought for a moment.  “I think I understand what is happening,” nodded the rabbi, “but tell me, what about your temper?”  “What about my temper?!  I have a terrible temper.  I will always have a terrible temper!  I still want to jump over the bar and punch out anybody whose looks I don’t like.  But I can’t do it.  I have a partner.  So I wait and I wait, and then I see what it is about this fellow that makes me so angry, and I say, “By God, what you need is such and such!’”  The rebbe smiled.  “Yes.  That’s a blessing, you see.  What you do is look into the soul of this person who made you angry.  What makes you angry is what is missing in this soul.  And then you say, ‘By God,’ invoking the name of your partner.  And after all, a partnership is a partnership.  If you are holding up your end of the agreement, the Holy One must hold up God’s end.  So the blessings come true.”

You don’t have to be a great rebbe, or even a simple inn keeper to be a source of powerful blessings.  Each of us possesses this profound potential that can be unlocked when we link our lives with others in partnership.  True and amazing blessings are created when we can look into the souls of our friends here and see what they need and provide it–be it, loving support when grieving a tragic loss, home-cooked, nutritious meals when in the midst of healing, honest encouragement when facing everyday challenges, the sweet and joyful embrace of sharing a simcha, our joys, and the simple blessings of friendship, belonging, listening, and compassion.   In partnership, we create and sustain something that brings meaning and purpose to so many lives through the caring and loving relationships that are fostered here.  This is the blessing of being an integral part of a kehillah kedushah, a holy, spiritual community!
The synagogue member-“ship,” I believe, has run its course and no longer speaks to the evolving reality of Jewish communal life in the 21st century, nor does it respond to the needs and yearnings of Jews themselves.  Membership is passive; things are done for you and to you.  Partnership is active; constantly engaging us to be involved and concerned. Membership may have its privileges, but partnership imbues us with a deep sense of ownership, responsibility, and pride.  Membership is about getting “what you paid for.”  Partnership is about investing in “sacred capital”– the people who make up our community, now and in the future, and the relationships we share with them .  The partner-“ship” is the sacred vessel that will carry us forward to a vibrant and rich Jewish future.

Yes!  OK, Rabbi, that sounds wonderful, you may be saying to yourselves, but wouldn’t it just  be much easier to simply remain a member.  After all, partnership seems to require so much more energy and effort.  Is it really worth it?   Rabbi David Teutsch notes in his book entitled, Spiritual Community:  The Power to Restore Hope, Commitment and Joy, that, indeed, many people would find the notion of community much more attractive if somebody else did the work for them.  But it doesn’t really work that way. (p. 21)  Teutsch concludes that, actually, “the more activities [we] do in the community, the more interpersonal connections [we] share, making each activity all the more meaningful.” (p. 21)  He also reasons that we would never develop skills and strengths in those areas where somebody else was always doing those things for us. (p. 46)  And, finally, people will only own the vision of the community if they are a part of it, and every person is essential in helping the community to fulfill its highest vision of itself.  (p. 53) Partnership blesses us with the possibility of belonging, contributing, and touching something eternal.  We aren’t partners for just today, on Rosh Hashanah, or for a few days a year; we are partners with each other and for each other every single day.  The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, has said:  What binds a community together is its collective understanding of what is ultimately important.  Like a magnet that pulls confused iron filings into a beautiful pattern of sacred orientation.  (from Teutsch, p. 75)  When we are partners, we are “part” of something that transcends our individual selves and links us to the Great Self, the Ultimate Partner.

There are as many reasons as there are Jews for why people choose to become a part of the Jewish community.  For some it is about educating themselves and their children; deepening their understanding of what it means to be a Jew.  For others, the bonds of communal fellowship and shared history are most compelling.  Still, there are those on a spiritual journey, searching for intimate connections to the holy, and those committed to putting Jewish values into practice in order to mend the world.  All of these paths are valid and important, and you may even find yourself on multiple paths.  But wherever you find your entry point into communal life, you can be an active partner with us in creating and shaping a wide variety of Jewish experiences for yourself and others.  What a blessing it would be if every partner at Bet Haverim would commit to looking deep into his or her own soul or the soul of another haver and see what was missing, what was really needed this year, and responding, “By God, I am going to do something about this!”

Each one of us can be a beautiful beacon of blessing drawing others towards the light.  Rabbi Teutsch imagines that a thriving community will be suffused by numerous “radiant centers” and not just one.  A radiant center is anything that moves people from the periphery to the center.  A radiant center is any opportunity in the community that connects people to each other.  A radiant center is what builds community.  As a partner, a haver, at Bet Haverim, you hold a vital stake in the future and success of our community.  Therefore, we empower you  to generate your own radiant centers, to be the light for others, to own your Judaism and to facilitate its creative expression within our community.

New Radiant Centers, the source of our strength, are forming all the time.  I am excited to tell you about just a few of the many new shining lights in the congregation that offer meaningful opportunities to connect to the community as a partner.

A perfect example of a radiant center emerging to respond to an unmet need in the community is a brand new group called Gesher, which means “bridge” in Hebrew.  Gesher is building intergenerational bridges, linking the seniors in our community with the youth.  Jan Meisel is working with Malka Sansani, our director of Youth and Education, to create an oral history project conducted by the students in our Keshet, post-b’nai mitzvah, program.  Elaine Last and her dad, Arthur Zimelis, have initiated a beautiful photography project with the children of Gan Haverim, our pre-school.  Other projects are in formation, too.  We are looking to discern how we can better reach out and help the older members of our community, especially those facing challenges, feel more connected and welcome.  If you have blessings to share in this area you can speak with Neil Levine to get involved.

Our Ritual Committee, under the leadership of David Aladjem and Jane Rabin, will be initiating “Conversations of the Heart” this fall, a series of Shabbat lunch gatherings in which we can share with one another our hopes and dreams about prayer and our spiritual lives.  We feel that these conversations will stimulate another radiant center, whose emanations will inspire new possibilities in this realm. We hope that you will participate in as many “Conversations of the Heart” as possible.  (Especially if you are not a regular participant in Shabbat services!!)  Our topics may range from, What might engage you in participating more deeply in the prayer life of the community?  To What has kept you away?  We want to know what is in your heart.  What does prayer mean to you?  What moves you and inspires you?  The first lunch will be Saturday, November 14, at 12:15, in the Sukkah.  Your participation will be blessing.

One of the most exciting developments from the Partnership Committee is the Mentor Menschen program, creating a personal, face to face connection for those who are new to our community.  Even a hamish congregation like ours can be overwhelming when you are new and don‘t know anyone else.  Now, when you are new, maybe your Mentor Mensch will arrange to meet you for coffee, or invite you over for a Shabbat or Holiday meal, or join you at services or for other synagogue program, or simply give you a tour around Davis.  What a blessing it is to share the gift of feeling welcomed!  To become one of our Mentor Menschen, speak with Steven Folb, Jan Newman, or look for one of the information sheets describing the program.

There are innumerable other ways you might choose to realize the blessings of your partnership, limited only by your imagination.  In the interest of exploring this topic further, I will be hosting a monthly discussion group starting in the fall called Circles of Transformation.  In this gathering we will read a number of books that explore the themes of creating a spiritual community so that we can begin to envision how we might apply these insights at Bet Haverim.

Together, in all of these many ways, we will create radiant centers of blessing for our community.  Let us start right now by blessing each other.

Take a moment to turn to someone sitting next to you.  Ask your partner what blessing s/he seeks in the new year.  Then, taking turns, place your hands on their shoulders and give them the blessing that they are yearning for.  (You can use the formula:  May God give you… and put the blessing in your own words.)  May you be blessed as you go on your way into a year of great promise and abiding joy, and may every partnership give birth to new opportunities for growth and connection.

Sing T’fillat Haderech
Ken Y’hi Ratzon