The Importance of Communing

I want to ask two questions:

[1] What brought us here, to Temple?

And [2] what keeps us here?

I’ll go first.

[1] What brought my family to Temple? Politics.

[2] And what kept us? Meaningful relationships.

Why politics? In the 90s, language politics in Quebec were awful to the point where it became hard for English-speakers to find work in French businesses. Like many others, my family was affected and after searching, my father found work outside of Toronto, bringing us to English-speaking Ontario and our first synagogue community. In Montreal, though we occasionally showed up to synagogue for Purim carnivals and Chanukah parties, we never affiliated because all we sought was a sense of Jewishness. Montreal, in addition to being a French city, is a Jewish city. To feel Jewish, we ate bagels and lox, and spent time with our English-speaking friends, many of whom happened to be Jewish. And not knowing how much more there could be, this was all the meaningful connection we needed.

Then we moved to Mississauga. The bagel quality dropped, and there weren’t many Jews around. So my parents decided to bring us to shul, and joined Solel Congregation. Though politics had brought us there, something greater kept us. We showed up and showed up and showed up again, and we worked to form meaningful relationships with others in our Jewish community. But more than that, we learned what it was to have meaningful religious relationships, where we did more than just hang out. We learned, engaged in higher conversation, and felt connected to something greater than ourselves. We supported each other for our simchas and sadnesses, and we worked together to better this world through many different tikkun olam projects. Though we never actually said it out loud, God was very much in our lives. The bottom line is that becoming active members of our congregation and the Jewish community made our lives better. This is why, with my siblings and me out of the house, my parents are still active synagogue members.

What brought you here? Was it spiritual seeking? Was it guilt? A parenting decision, to make sure your kids got a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? Was it philosophical, believing that you should be part of the local Jewish community? Or was it social? These are all reasons a person might join a synagogue community, but chances are, if you are here this morning, there’s something more that has kept you.

This more, I argue, is meaningful Jewish relationships, with others and with God, which come from active engagement in a synagogue community.

When we think of the word Temple, perhaps Temple Emanu-El comes to mind, or perhaps, the Temple– that place in ancient Jerusalem that served as the central axis of life for ancient Israelites. There, Jews would make sacrifices for their community and God, and in return, they would feel lightened and connected.

Later, when the capital-T Temple was destroyed, and we moved to the lower-case-t temple— the synagogē, in Greek meaning ‘assembly,’ or the beit k’nesset in Hebrew, meaning ‘house of Assembly.’ And though we could no longer make animal sacrifices to God, we could still make offerings, through giving up a part of ourselves to make room in our souls for others.

Temple, Synagogue, House of Assembly – these are not the only terms used for a community. There are actually three primary terms in Hebrew: beit k’nesset is one, but also beit t’fillah, house of prayer, and beit midrash, house of learning.

We are all three: a house of prayer, a house of study, and a house of gathering, and all three serve to bring us together. We are a Beit T’fillah because we are joining in heartfelt prayer throughout Shabbat and the holidays. And in this mode, we indeed serve as that Temple on high, reaching out to God, alongside our peers, friends, and family, who all struggle at the same time, in the same boat, to reach God together.

In this sanctuary, when we need to say Kaddish for a loved one, or wish to celebrate our birthdays with a special blessing, or mark the coming of age of our children, it’s not just our connection with God that makes it special, it’s having everyone in this sanctuary who showed up to celebrate with us. That makes things more meaningful. We may not all be close friends. But we have that special Temple relationship, and that elevates who we are from being a place of t’fillah— a place of prayer — to a Beit T’fillah — a home of prayer.

We are also a Beit Midrash — a house of learning. We come to learn what to do with our lives when we have too much time on our hands, or not enough, to make sure that we’re not just struggling to live from moment to moment, but that we are actually dwelling in purposeful structures in time for meaning and change. Which is why we offer not only courses for children, but grown-ups too— in Torah and Israel of course, but also in food, history, spirituality, and practical ethics, to name a few. You could always look a topic up online and learn on your own without ever setting foot here, but learning in community is just so much more fun, and it’s more effective too. It means that we get social time, but also, that our learning is sharper, because we bounce and test ideas with each other. In Judaism we call this partner-based learning chevruta. My best learning, as a rabbi, is in teaching, when all of you push me to grow and sharpen my knowledge. And I try to facilitate the same for all of you.

Last, as I shared before, we are that house of gathering, the Beit K’nesset. While some Jews come to learn, and some to pray, others come to gather. In the old joke the shul-going Jew says, “while Garfinkel comes talk to God, I come to talk to Garfinkel.” One reason for coming together here is to engage in joint projects and efforts. We have all sorts of affinity gatherings and projects here at the Temple—sisterhood, our men’s group, youth groups, social action, choir, book club, film appreciation. Learning and sacred work is involved in most of these efforts, and this sacred work is vital. But equally vital is our connecting with others in this sacred house. And those who do, come back again and again and again.

Some of us need all three of these Temple roles in our life. Some of us need one or the other. And let’s be honest for moment — there are some of us in this community who feel that we don’t really need any of them. We may feel that our lives are full, and we have Jewish friends outside of these walls, and we’ve fulfilled our obligation to raising our children with that basic Jewish education.

So if we fall in this camp, why then should we continue to show up and be part of this community?

First, if we believe that there should be a synagogue so that Jews can have their religious and cultural needs met, at all points in life, then we need to support that community, because a synagogue cannot exist in a vacuum without membership and donations. Treating a synagogue like and buying services when we need them, like for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and then leaving once we’re done, makes the blunt statement, “I was interested in fulfilling my family’s needs, so I bought my services, and you can take care of yours.” But that’s not how we work. We take care of each other here. Did you know that the cost of religious schools are almost never entirely covered by religious school fees? It is a community’s job to raise its children, which means that schools run on contributions from all of us.

And now for the second reason: it may sound like a cliché, but we never know when tragedy is going to strike and we’re going to need a synagogue community. It’s a kind of Jewish insurance policy. We’ve had so many folks here at Temple tell us how wonderfully surprised they were when there was a death in the family and not only did our caring community show up to set up their homes, with food galore, but that they always had a group of folks coming for minyan every night of shiva to support them— folks who had no connection to them other than that they were part of the Temple family and they cared.

Last, at some point in our lives, we will likely feel a void—that something is missing, that we’re in need of some meaning, some connectedness. And I promise, as you decide to engage, show up, and reach out to the souls of others, maybe even to God, Jewish living will fill that void. Life will become better, and more meaningful.

At Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate God’s creation of the world, and God’s creation of humankind. We celebrate the fact that every human being—each one of us—matters. But lest we think that Rosh Hashanah is all about me and my life, we turn to the Creation story. After completing Adam, the first human, God then says, Lo Tov he’yot ha’adam l’vado. It is not good for human beings to be alone.  So God creates woman, and the first relationship. Which implies that the best part of Creation is not the human being; it is the relationship between human beings. The meaning of Rosh Hashanah may be that each one of us matters and is holy, but the message is that we have not done our spiritual work until we also realize that everyone else here matters, and is holy too. Our job as human beings, to complete God’s creation, is to meaningfully connect with others.

And this takes effort.

The Maggid of Dubno told the following story:

A local merchant lost his entire business in a fire. The merchant was worried about how he might pay his creditors since he had nothing left to sell. And in particular, he worried about his chief supplier, who had sold him most of his goods. When sharing his woes with a friend, his friend suggested that the merchant go to the supplier’s home to tell him the whole story of the fire. “After all,” he said, “you’ve been a good paying customer for years. Your credit is good. Perhaps he will have pity on you and allow you to repay your debts as you rebuild your business.” So the merchant mustered up the courage to go to his supplier’s  home. As he approached the doorstep, he broke down in tears. He could not go through with his plan. Upon hearing the merchant’s cries, the supplier opened the door and asked, “What’s the matter? Why are you here?” The merchant bared his soul, telling him the details of the fire and about how terrible he felt to not to be able to pay for the supplier’s goods. The supplier replied, “Don’t worry about your debt. You have been a good customer for years. Not only do I forgive your debt, I will also lend you the money to help you get started once again.” And then he sent the merchant on his way. As the merchant recounted the story to his friend, a neighbor overheard the exchange. He thought to himself, “Maybe if I try the same thing, I can get some money, too.” So he went to the home of the merchant’s supplier and forced his tears. When the supplier opened the door, the stranger told him a story similar to the one that the merchant had told. Yet this time, the supplier became enraged, refusing even to let him finish his story. Puzzled, the stranger said, “didn’t you listen to that merchant’s story and help him out?” The supplier replied, “I did and I know him well. I’ve had a business relationship with him for years. We’ve even become friends. But I don’t know you at all and I cannot help you.

The Maggid teaches that it’s the same thing with God. It takes time to develop relationships. We can’t expect them to be everything we want overnight. They must be nurtured throughout the year. Just as the Maggid teaches this in connection to God, his principle applies to so much more: our relationship with the Jewish people, the community, our very souls. And it applies to our relationship with Temple Emanu-El. We will all need the Temple in our lives, at many points expected and unexpected. We will all need its meaningful relationships. The question is, will we engage, and bring the Temple into our lives? And will we be here when the Temple needs us?

An incredible and meaningful life is available for the taking. Show up, connect and relate, and claim that which is already yours.


Delivered Rosh Hashanah I 5777 at Temple Emanu-El, Edison

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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