Yom Kippur 5772: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

The Story of Our Lives, The Torah of Our Lives

Whenever the Jews were threatened with disaster, the Baal Shem Tov would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire, and say a special prayer. Always a miracle would occur, and the disaster would be averted.

In the later times when disaster threatened, the Maggid of Mezritch, his disciple, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayer.” And again the disaster would be averted.

Still later, his disciple, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Lord of the World, I do not know how to light the fire or say the prayer, but I know the place and that must suffice.” And it always did.

When Israel of Rizhyn needed intervention from heaven, he would say to G-d, “I no longer know the place, nor how to light the fire, nor to say the prayer, but I can tell the story and that must suffice.” And it did.  Sometimes, the most powerful thing that we can do to solve our dilemmas or rise to new heights in the face of a challenge is to share our stories.  For through our stories, we discover new possibilities of being, we see new ways of imagining the world, and we can gain a deeper understanding of our collective potential.

On Rosh Hashanah the Tree of Life project was announced in celebration of our 50th anniversary as a congregation.  Together we will join hands with our scribe, Jen Taylor Friedman, to write, for our generation, the ancient stories of our people in a brand new sacred scroll.  On Yom Kippur, let it be revealed that we have actually been engaged in writing a Torah together for the last 50 years:  The Torah of our lives at Bet Haverim.  This Torah is our Torah and each of you holds a precious place in this story’s unfolding.

In this year of celebrating the Torah, I envision that the stories of the Torah itself can provide an opportunity to inspire 7 different conversations in which your voice, your hands and your heart are needed to shape our story for the future. These are areas in our communal Torah where we can use focused attention and new energy to help move the story, our story, to the next level.  As you listen to the 7 themes for the conversations that I will share with you, you will note that I am not–contrary to normative rabbinic practice–prescribing a specific course of action.  I am not so much interested in particular answers.  Rather, I am searching for something else.  I am hoping that we can engender an overlapping series of holy, communal conversations where we can share our stories, the experiences of our lives, and the wisdom that we have gleaned, in a safe and nurturing environment.  In this way, we are deepening our experience of our communal Torah and interweaving our lives into the larger story of our people.  As you listen to these ‘conversation starters,’ open your hearts and see which ones resonate for you.

Together let us convene a conversation to explore the stories of our spiritual lives.  Long ago, The Voice called out to Abraham and Sarah–Lech Lecha–to set out on a spiritual journey of self-discovery.  Since that time, we Jews have been seekers searching for paths that will nourish our souls.  In recent years, our Kol HaNefesh group has assumed a prominent role in nurturing and facilitating experiences that speak to our souls through our annual shabbaton, contemplative Yom Kippur afternoon experiences, preparing for the High Holy Days workshop, and other special creative opportunities.  And, more and more, there has been greater collaboration with our Ritual committee, as well. Come let us share stories of our inner lives:  Where is your spiritual journey taking you these days?  What are the biggest challenges you face in achieving your spiritual goals?  In the best of worlds, how would you like to be nourishing your soul?  In what ways could the congregation be supporting you on this path?  Are there particular programs or experiences that would be helpful?  How might our davenning, prayer experiences, help wake up your spirit?   When we tell each other our stories, the miracle is:  it will be enough!

Together let us convene a conversation to share our stories about the place of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, in our lives.  Our commitment to fixing the world through acts of justice and kindness stands at the heart of Judaism.  Not only was Abraham a model of the spiritual life, but he also serves as an exemplar of pursuing justice, which he courageously demonstrated when he argued with God not to destroy the righteous along with the wicked in the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Our Social Action Committee has been in the forefront of our congregation’s work for justice.  They have long supported our participation in Community Meals, and more recently organized advocacy for Healthcare reform and equality in marriage, and, in the last two years, championed our involvement in the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter.  For many years now, our school has also organized our annual mitzvah day for our Bet Haverim community, celebrating our potential to make a difference. (This year’s event is October 16th)  Come let us share the stories of our life out in the world: What are the Jewish values that most inspire you?  What social justice projects have you participated in?  How has your involvement affected you?  What issues do you feel called upon to respond to these days?  How can the congregation play a role in mobilizing community support for important causes locally and around the globe?  When we tell each other our stories, the miracle is:  it will be enough!

Together let us convene a conversation to share our stories about what draws us into Jewish community.  When it was time to construct the Tabernacle in the wilderness, God told the people of Israel:  “Asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham.” (Make me a tabernacle and I will dwell among them!) Not in it, but in them.  For me, this statement is one of the most beautiful expressions of how working together in community unites us and fills with a sense of God’s presence.  One of the most uplifting experiences, we realize, can come from sharing a common dream and working towards a united goal.  One of the names for synagogue in Hebrew is Beit Kenesset, a House of Assembly.  Bet Haverim is that place that draws us together to foster friendships and share our lives.  Our Partnership Committee is actively engaged in thinking of new ways to help people connect with one another through the synagogue.  We would love to hear your ideas!  Come let us share the stories of our life with each other: What have been your most positive experiences of being a part of our community?  What has challenged you and created stumbling blocks to your feeling fully engaged? What makes being part of our Jewish community different for you from being active in a social club or your neighborhood? What kinds of activities or programs–perhaps more social and cultural events– do you feel will build a greater sense of community in our congregation and help you meet others in the synagogue?  When we tell each other our stories, the miracle is:  it will be enough!

Together let us convene a conversation to share our stories about what has been most significant to us in our own Jewish education.  When Moses prepares the next generation–the children of those who escaped from slavery–to go into the land of Israel, he tells them: “You stand today–all of you–before Adonai your God….  But it is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, it is  with you who are here and those who are not here with us today.”  (Deut. 29:9-14)  This scene evokes a thrilling sense of continuity from one generation to the next.  We, who are alive today, were already anticipated in the words of the Torah.  We participated in and were symbolically present for the renewal of that sacred covenant.  We are a part of a rich chain of tradition and yet recent studies show that among Reform synagogues nationally 50% of our kids don’t continue their Jewish studies after they become bar or bat mitzvah.  Such stark statistics threaten to undermine our ability to keep the Jewish story going.  Come let us share the stories of teaching our children:  Who were and are your Jewish role models?  How have you attempted to pass on a positive Jewish identity and sense of Jewish connection to your kids and grandkids?  What have been the biggest challenges in keeping your kids and grandkids Jewishly connected?  What Jewish experience has had the greatest impact on them? On you? What can our religious school and youth programs do to further support our quest to keep our kids Jewishly engaged into adulthood?  When we tell each other our stories, the miracle is:  it will be enough!

Together let us convene a conversation to share our stories about what it means to us to be a life-long learner.  Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is a rare example in the Torah of a non-Jewish hero.  He even gets a Torah portion names after him!  Jethro’s great claim to fame is how he instructs Moses in the important lesson of engaging and empowering the people to take charge of their lives.  Jethro sets up a system so that many can be actively involved instead of waiting passively for Moses to solve their problems.  Moses models for us the important quality of being a life-long learner as he incorporates Jethro’s advice and Jethro teaches us the value of taking responsibility for teaching others.  Come let us share the stories of being teachers and learners: What Jewish studies have most inspired you as adults?  What Jewish topics are you most excited to learn about next?  Are there Jewish subjects you feel called to teach?  How might we engage and empower people to be more involved in their on-going Jewish learning as adults?  How might we better meet the learning needs of parents with young children? Young couples? Senior learners?,  all of whom are newly growing demographics in the congregation.  When we tell each other our stories, the miracle is:  it will be enough!

Together let us convene a conversation to share our stories about what it means to be a caring community.  At the very center of our Jewish communal experience stands the challenge, Kedoshim T’hiyu, be holy!, by emulating God’s ways. (Lev. 19)  As a congregation, we strive to be a holy and caring community.  We have long had generous responses as we provide meals to those who need them through our Mitzvah Meals program.  And recently a new initiative has been implemented to focus on providing meals to new parents, in particular.  We have also been incredibly loving and supportive as a congregation to those in our community who have suffered a loss in their family.  Come let us share our stories of being caretakers and being comforted: Was there a time when you felt truly held by the community? What do you receive when you give to others?  How have your experiences of giving and receiving stayed with you? Are there ways that the congregation could better support you at your time of need?  What types of support and assistance do you feel would be the most helpful and appreciated?  In what ways do you feel called to provide for the care of others in the synagogue?  Who are the populations that we are and aren’t caring for sufficiently in the congregation?  When we tell each other our stories, the miracle is:  it will be enough!

Together let us convene a conversation to share our stories about being part of the diverse mix of our community. The Rabbis of the midrash imagined that an infinite God could speak in an infinite number of ways all at the same time, and that what is heard by each person from God would depend upon who was listening.  The rabbis expressed this idea in their description of the experience of the revelation at Sinai: “When the Holy One spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, “The Divine Word is addressing me.”  Scripture does not say, “I am the Lord your God.” [in the plural] but “I am the Lord thy God” (Ex. 20:2) [in the singular]  Each and every person heard it according to his own particular capacity.”  (Based on midrash Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12:25) Thus an older person might hear something different from a younger person, a man a distinct message from a woman.  I would hear one thing and you another.  One of the qualities that makes our congregation so rich is the diversity of our partners, each of whom can find his or her particular way of connecting with the synagogue.  We have among us:  born Jews, non-Jews and Jews by Choice.  We have gay families, straight families, single parents, and individuals and couples with no children.  We have partners who are Asian, African-American, Hispanic, Sephardic and Ashkenazic.  We find ourselves among people who span the economic and political spectrum, as well.  We pride ourselves on being a warm and Hamish congregation.  How have we measured up to the story that we tell ourselves?  Come let us share our stories of being included: What was your experience of being welcomed in the congregation?  When have you felt most and least connected to our community? How might we increase the respect for diversity and build greater understanding among ourselves?  How has the congregation fostered or hindered your openness to those who are different from you?  What are some ideas that would help create a community that listens empathetically to divergent points of view?  When we tell each other our stories, the miracle is:  it will be enough!

In that meeting place, where our stories commingle and are heard, a greater and more powerful story begins to emerge. You will have an opportunity to participate in these conversations later this fall.  If you would like to join in on any particular conversation please let me know so we can be sure to include you.  We will also be publicizing when these conversations will take place.

As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, everyone has a chance to participate in creating the Torah that is unfolding, the ongoing story of our community.  This is a holy conversation and everyone contributes his/her own story, sharing in the legacy that is being created.  This Torah, this record of our history, will also be passed on to future generations as a guide and inspiration.  Our children and grandchildren will read of our deeds and what we did to foster and support a robust Jewish life in Yolo County.  Our lives are scrolls, taught the Spanish Jewish philosopher, Bachya ibn Pakuda:  write what you want to be remembered.  This communal Torah that we are writing with our lives will surely stand as a legacy and blessing for future generations.  Ken Y’hi Ratzon!