Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Relational Judaism and Israel - Rosh Hashanah 2 2013 sermon

I thought long and hard about this morning’s sermon. ‘To speak, or not to speak’... that was the question. Rabbi Melissa Weintraub writes, ‘In rabbinic circles, one increasingly hears sentiments like, “I’m not going to get fired for my politics on gun control or health care, but I could get fired for just about anything I say about Israel.” Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this, the “Death by Israel Sermon.” So perhaps I should have waited until after my contract is renewed but… but…

Last week, there was a vigorous debate on the email listserv of the ‘Rabbis Without Borders’ Fellowship of which I am a part as to whether to broach the subject of Israel during these High Holydays or not. It was largely recognized that, just because we have a large, captive audience before us during this season, that our congregants don’t come at this time of year to hear politically-charged position papers. That doesn’t mean that we can never speak of anything that also occupies space in the political realm, but that we must choose our approach and our timing with thought. What do we seek to achieve? Who will feel ostracized or left out of the one-way conversation in which we hold court?

First, let me say something about what I won’t be talking about. I won’t be talking about the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East. As a Rabbi, I take a keen interest in the unfolding of events. Like you, I am concerned about the unrest in Egypt and Syria. The images we have seen reflecting the effects of chemical weapons in Syria are horrific, and our hearts are surely feeling enormous pain at seeing the suffering of children and hopelessness of a situation that has no easy solutions and seems unlikely to be calming any time soon.

While the situation may provide an opening for Israel and the Palestinians to work on making progress toward peace with less interference from nearby Arab countries, the possibility of violence spreading or being redirected, possibly with encouragement from Iran, also makes this a very uncertain time for Israel. The one thing we can say with any certainty is that we are witnessing change on a scale that we might never have imagined just a few years ago. And so, far from feeling that this round of peace talks is just the ‘same old, same old’, we should be heartened by the possibility of change there too, just as we have witnessed such enormous change in the region in a relatively short period of time.

I do not have the expertise to offer you a better analysis of the current situation than any you can read for yourself in the Jerusalem Report, Ha’aretz, or any other source penned by reporters or expert analysts. So that is not what I’m going to focus on this morning, important though it is.

This entire period of the High Holydays my focus is on Relational Judaism. In the book with this title, Rabbi Ron Wolfson outlines many aspects of the relational work that we should be doing in Jewish community: at the level of Self (developing personal spirituality), family, with friends, a sense of relationship with Jewish living, with Jewish community, connection to a sense of peoplehood, a relationship to Israel, a sense of global connections and, ultimately, our relationship with God. So it is evident to me that there is a relational way to talk about Israel and that, in the context of the work that I want us to do together as a community, this is an important conversation to have. And I believe that if we truly think about Israel, talk about Israel, and engage with each other on Israel from a relational perspective, we can go an awful lot further with the conversation than might otherwise be the case.

So this morning I’d like to share some stories to exemplify what I mean by a relational approach to Israel. These are stories about hope and about possibility. They don’t in and of themselves bring us peace in the Middle East. They don’t necessarily give us the answers that have eluded so many for so long. But, at a time when dialogue about peace between Israel and the Middle East often comes with the declaration ‘no preconditions,’ I believe that the relational approach is a precondition for true peace.

In his book, ‘Relational Judaism’, Rabbi Ron Wolfson discusses our relationship with Israel as one of the vital aspects of relationship building that needs to be deepened in Jewish communal life. He reports on the impact of ten years of programming in one congregation in St. Louis that sent their 15 year olds on a Summer-long program to live with Israeli youth in a Moshav in the 1970s. At the 30th reunion of those who had participated in the program, they surveyed the more than 300 people who had participated over the years. This revealed that the experience had created a ‘reference relationship’ with Israel that many respondents claimed was one of the most important influences in their lives, evidenced by many of the now-adult participants maintaining regular contact with their Israeli ‘families’.

Even with all of the options available today for teens, families and adults, 59% of adult American Jews have never been to Israel. Of the 41% who have made the trip, 19% have only been once. Only 36% of Reform Jews have visited Israel. 31% of American Jews say they have no interest in visiting Israel.

And yet, the same survey that produced these numbers found that 71% of those surveyed agreed that ‘caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.’ I know that a trip to Israel is expensive. But for those who are able to take other kinds of expensive trips, putting Israel on the priority list is one of the most transformative things you can do. The Federation is running a trip this November, and I would love to gather enough congregants together to lead our own trip in the next 2-3 years.  
Short of a trip to Israel, it is not easy to create opportunities for meaningful relationship-building with Israel located here in the US, but it is certainly possible. Our Israeli emissary program is one example of success – our kids build genuine relationships with the two young adults who come and serve our community every year. Many keep in touch with them once they have left via Facebook. For our younger kids, this is often the first time that some of their stereotypes about Israel and Israelis are challenged as they come face-to-face with a real-life Israeli who brings their love of their country with them.

When we ‘know’ Israel only through the cable news stories, and the politics of the peace process, it can be polarizing and complex. We want it all to be nice and neat. Only knowing Israel in this way is not an easy way to feel connected. For some, through their involvement in organizations such as AIPAC or J-Street, the connection can be made, and that is largely because of the conventions that both organizations run superbly, providing many opportunities to meet and talk with others. And both organizations seek our involvement so that we do our part to ensure that a strong relationship continue to exist between the US and Israel. But those calls to action can fall on deaf ears if we haven’t yet made that connection for ourselves.

So I want to share some stories with you. Stories of conversations and experiences that I have had. For me, these have been my way into feeling connected with Israel.

Just the other week I was asking one of our Israeli congregants about her memories of Sukkot in Israel. Listening to her describe the family and neighborhood traditions, I was reminded of my own first experience of being in Israel at Sukkot, hearing singing coming from the Sukkah on the balcony of the apartment across from mine, smelling the foods, and seeing everyone out in the neighborhood to visit with each other. The conversation was a window into an experience, with smells and tastes. Its an experience we want to taste at our Israeli-style Succot celebration this year, providing opportunities for all of us to hear stories, see images, and share an experience that brings Israeli culture to the fore.

I have always made it my mission, when visiting in Israel, to find opportunities to speak with Arab Israelis and Palestinians. I spent a year in Israel, arriving there shortly after the 2nd intifada began. The old city was quiet, and the shopkeepers had plenty of time to chat. I spent extended visits over mint tea with some of them, listening to their stories of what was happening in the West Bank, and the conversations taking place in East Jerusalem. I even traveled into the West Bank and two refugee camps, led by one of those who I had befriended over time, to see things for myself. It opened my eyes to another perspective that, when we only do ‘Jewish Israel’ we can never find. And, whatever you may think of that perspective, my understanding of what the conflict is about and what both sides want was enormously deepened by having taken the time to sit down and have those conversations.

Back in the US, it also gave me access to the Arab Muslim population that was involved in interfaith work with my congregation and others in my last community in Bridgeport. They invited me to speak about the Jewish and Israeli perspective on the peace process, because they knew that I had listened to their perspective, and we had a mutual respect and, eventually, love for each other, even though we disagreed when new events in the conflict arose. The bridge building we were able to do locally was built on friendship and trust first, and is something I dearly hope to develop again over time in our larger community here.

In my own family, there is a broad range of perspective and experience. Suri’s sister made aliyah to Israel when she was 19. Her husband taught for many years at the Technion and his column is published regularly in the Jerusalem Report. For many years they have been involved with the Masorti – the Conservative – Jewish community in Haifa. They have 4 adult children. 3 are progressive and secular.

One became ultra-Orthodox, is a physician and is married to a Rabbi who teaches in a yeshiva. They have 8 children. For a number of years they lived in a settlement in Gaza, until the evacuation several years ago. As you might imagine, there are many perspectives around that Shabbat dinner table. But there is respect, listening and learning, that takes place when complex issues come up for conversation.

One cannot help but emerge from these kinds of discursive and relationship-based conversations with a very different kind of personal connection to Israel and the people of Israel. One gains entry into the diversity of perspective and experience of Israel’s citizens. There can be no two-dimensional analysis or understanding of what is happening or what will happen – it is complex and multi-dimensional, and ever-changing. When one is tempted to make statements about Israel, the perspectives gained from relationship-based conversations with different people brings about a little more humility – an awareness of what we know and what we don’t.

But more than anything, taking the time to listen to Israelis and Palestinians, here, abroad, online, at conferences or Jewish learning workshops, with shopkeepers or neighbors you may know whose families come from the Middle East – opening the conversation in order to listen and get to know the other – is transformative. Here in Westborough we have neighbors from Syria – they need our concern and compassion. The JDC (Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), supported by us individually and through our Federation, is doing work on the ground to provide emergency supplies to Syrian refugees in Jordan. You need to know that the Jewish community worldwide is doing that. And so do our neighbors. We have neighbors from Palestine. We have neighbors from Lebanon. We have neighbors from Israel. Our kids are going to school with their kids. We shop in their stores. We work in offices with them. So, take a seat and make a friend in these places too.

Perhaps you can’t go to Israel this November with Federation. Perhaps you’d like to wait to travel with your congregation, or perhaps you’ll be inspired to start making plans for a family trip. In December, our Union for Reform Judaism Biennial conference will be held in San Diego. There are quite a few of us already planning to go. ARZA, the Reform Zionist Association, will be celebrating their 36th anniversary there. Ruth Calderon, an exceptional scholar who started a Talmud yeshiva for secular Israelis and is now a Member of the Knesset, will be teaching and speaking there. And other Israeli voices will be present among the keynote speakers and the musicians. Consider joining us there.

Whether with neighbors, fellow congregants, at conferences, or even reading widely online … a fully rounded and deeply grounded Jewish identity includes a relationship with Israel. So let’s not shy away from the conversations. We don’t have to debate, and we don’t have to argue. We just need to listen. Let the conversations begin.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Take a seat, make a friend - Rosh Hashanah I 2013 Sermon

Tammy[i] knew everyone. And everyone in the congregation knew that, if they wanted to know someone’s story, they could always get it from Tammy. Tammy was the first person to notice when someone new stepped into the synagogue. She’d make a beeline for them after the service. ‘Hi, I’m Tammy. What’s your name?’ ‘It’s great to have you here – how’d you find your way to us tonight?’ ‘You been in these parts long?’ And, slowly, she’d start to hear the story. Next time they came around, they’d quite likely head toward Tammy, a friendly face who’d introduce them to others and get them comfortable.

Tammy was a member of my first congregation while a student Rabbi. And when she died, this is what everyone had to say about Tammy at her funeral. This was her legacy and what people most treasured and remembered about Tammy. Tammy was an inspiration. But then I started to hear, ‘what shall we do now that Tammy isn’t around anymore? Who will be there to greet the newcomers when they enter our temple?’

Warmth, welcoming, friendliness – it is a quality that we all admire. It’s a funny paradox – making friends is one of the most rewarding and life-enriching things we do. Why don’t we do it more often? There are many answers to that question, and I’m going to explore some of them more deeply on Yom Kippur. But Rosh Hashanah is a day of new beginnings. So, the question is, how do we begin? Last night, some of us began by introducing ourselves and talking with each other. Today I’d like to share the vision of how we might do better at answering that question in the context of our spiritual community here at Congregation B’nai Shalom.

Mordechai Gafni, in his book ‘Soulprints’, shares a story of leaving on a trip to teach and, just before going, his young son hands him a box. He asks his father to look at his box while he is away. He’s all packed up and eager to get on the road – he takes the box and stuffs it into his suitcase. Once travelling, he is absorbed in his reading and his teaching and he forgets about the box. Upon returning home from the trip, his son is waiting up, eager to see his father. When it becomes apparent that his father has completely forgotten about his box, a tear runs down his cheek. Mordechai, realizing why his son is so downhearted, runs to get the box out of his case.

He sits on the edge of his son’s bed and, apologizing, suggests that they look inside the box together. As he opens the lid, he is confused. He sees an assortment of random bits and pieces, but they may no sense to him. But, to his son, each and every item in the box represents a moment, a memory, and something of significance in the life he has had so far with his family. And he is hurt. He wanted to share his box with his father, and his father didn’t know how to receive it.

When someone begins a conversation, it is an opportunity to share little pieces of ourselves with another person. Like a child who wants to give you a gift, and all they want is for it to be received, so we respond when someone receives a piece of our story from us.

Our relationships and connections with others are the most important parts of our lives. They are central to the meaning of our presence here on this earth. Giving and receiving, giving and receiving, in an endless flow.

In Jewish mystical writing, the idea of a universe that is in the constant flow of giving and receiving is what animates existence. God is not a separate being that bestows things upon us. God is the entirety of a system of giving and receiving so multifaceted, inter-layered and complex that it is impossible for any one of us to wrap our heads around it all. And we, by our actions or by our inactions, facilitate the Divine flow of this giving and receiving, or we can equally be the cause of blockages in the system. The enormity of the system can make contemplating the significance of this too difficult in the abstract. So let’s bring it down to some very small-scale concrete examples.

A middle school aged child wants to join in with a group of children playing together. But someone in the group makes a split-second decision that the newcomer doesn’t fit. They are excluded. I am pretty certain that a large percentage of people in this room has had this experience at some point in their lives. If not at school, perhaps at college, or perhaps as a parent trying to make new friends at the PTA, among the soccer moms, or in the workplace. We all know what that feels like. It hurts. It is embarrassing. It is uncomfortable.

Now, what do we do? We might like to think that such experiences would make us more likely to extend ourselves to be as welcoming and inclusive as we possibly can in any situation, dedicating ourselves to ensuring that no-one else has to feel that way. But the truth is, in the normal flow of day to day events, unless particular mindfulness is brought to these interactions, that is not what most of us do. Instead, we solidify the friendships that we have, and create our own, clearly defined groups as a kind of self-protection from encountering that feeling of hurt and exclusion for ourselves. And so this is how blockages in the Divine system of giving and receiving occur. We erect walls where there should have been unlocked gates. Whether you examine this on the level of individuals and their social groups, towns, or nation states and, yes, congregations, al cheit shechatanu – we are all guilty at some moment of this.

And so it takes a conscious act to move beyond the norms and outside of our comfort zones to create a different, more spiritual and more inclusive reality. And that is what this year’s particular focus at Congregation B’nai Shalom is all about - #takeaseatmakeafriend.

I have a vision for our congregation. And I believe from all the conversations I have had this past year and from what I have been told, that you share this vision. I don’t want our congregation to conform to how the society we live in sometimes feels, warts and all. I want the experience of being part of this congregation to be one where we strive to create a model of a better kind of community. Where the congregation becomes a lab for who we can be in our highest moments, and how relationships can form the foundation for what we are able to create together. I want this congregation to be a place where we can identify all the ways in which we are part of an ongoing Divine flow of giving and receiving more easily than we can point out to the places where we have created our own blockages.

But we all need to push past our business-as-usual comfort zones to turn that vision into a reality. And that is why we need to approach the relationship-building that we all crave and desire as a spiritual practice. I believe that it is the single most important thing we can dedicate ourselves to as a spiritual community. And it will form the foundation that will make anything else we seek to do together possible and more meaningful.

So, for those who haven’t caught on to what has been happening this past month to prepare for this work, first a quick review. At the start of the month of Elul – the month leading up to this day of Rosh Hashanah – I sent out an email communication to every congregant. ‘Take a seat, make a friend,’ it said.

‘Take a seat, make a friend’ is all about creating a relational community, inspired, informed and shaped by the relationship-building that we all commit to doing together.

I shared a video of a street project in which strangers were invited to take a seat with another stranger in a big ball pit. Questions were written on some of the balls, to facilitate the start of a conversation. As you might expect, at first some of the exchanges were a little awkward and somewhat superficial. That’s usually how we begin to feel out the territory with someone new. But then, after a little while, we go a little deeper. We find out about each other’s families and backgrounds. We start to learn about commonalities and differences. And then, if entered in the spirit of caring and community, we have the potential to go further than the strangers in the ballpit – we get past the small talk and engage in the big talk – sharing hopes and dreams, fears and pains. And relationships begin to form.

Over this past month, I’ve been posting regular ideas, short videos, and other materials on our congregational face book page to inspire reflection on how we connect and build relationships. I’ve been sharing more extended reflections on each of those postings on my blog to make them available to our non-face book members. I invited everyone to reflect on a short list of questions and send their responses to me – these are some of the responses that you have been hearing and will continue to hear, woven into our prayerful experience together these High Holydays. Thank you to all who shared so deeply with me. This, along with opportunities for congregants to continue to co-create worship throughout the year, with a new project to train lead singers, involve lay musicians, encourage more lay leaders to read Torah, and continue our creative Ritual Lab services at the end of each month is what Relational worship can look like.

What will happen next? Following Yom Kippur you will start to see and hear about many different kinds of opportunities for relationship building. I was advised that, with nearly 300 children passing through our lobby on a Sunday morning, that erecting a ball pit wasn’t the most practical way to get our congregants talking with each other. But one of our coffee tables in the lobby will feature some special elements to make it easy to take a seat with someone else and, in a fun and non-threatening way, to start a conversation. Think for a moment how lovely it would be if someone invited you. Then commit yourself to making someone else feel that good by inviting them to take a seat with you.

As we hear from members who tell us, ‘I’d love to sit down with a group of ‘fill in the blank’ and get to know each other better’, we’ll be working on finding groups of like-minded people to get together for those living room conversations. ‘Parents of teenagers’ is already one group that I’ve heard from. If you’d like to help gather fellow congregants who might share some commonalities with you, let me know and we’ll do all we can to help bring that group together. From those initial conversations, I hope, will come friendships and, eventually, new kinds of community activity created together. This is what Relational community can look like.

Rabbi Eiduson has been working on transforming our family time at Religious school. Instead of family ed. programming, parents of our students will be invited, by grade, to attend lab days to gain greater insight into the learning activities of their children, and to sit down in a facilitated conversation with each other and Rabbi Eiduson to share their visions of what they hope this community can be for themselves and for their children. We imagine and expect that, over a year or two, these conversations will inform how we evolve what we do in our Religious school and in our congregation as a whole to enable all that we do to align with these visions. This is what a Relational congregation can achieve together.

And, finally, we are looking at everything that we do as a congregation as an opportunity to connect and begin to build more meaningful relationships. Members of our board have committed to having a series of small group and one-to-one conversations with congregants over the year.

Everything that we do - our worship and festival celebrations, our social events and fundraisers, our social action, our caring community, and our brotherhood and sisterhood gatherings – provide opportunities for genuine relational experiences. So a festival like Succot is not just another worship service to attend right after we’ve spent so much time in worship on Yom Kippur. It is a celebratory party and social gathering, where we can meaningfully connect to Israel via our new emissary and the spirit of Succot as originally celebrated in Israel. Our social action committee will continue to offer opportunities for ‘manageable mitzvahs’ – one time opportunities to work with others in the congregation on projects where a few hours of your time can make a difference. But they also want to hear from you about things that you are involved in and care about, where we might help you connect with other congregants who would like to join your cause. A relational community is one where we should be able to do that for each other, and our members would want to, I hope, respond when a fellow congregant asks for your support.

A relational community is one where we offer to be part of Yad b’Yad – our network of congregants who help those in need behind the scenes – and we attend a shiva when we see a condolence notice go out because these become ways of making new connections and forging new relationships when we meet someone at their time of need for the first time.

We’ll know when we’ve arrived at a new place along our journey: we’ll know because we’ll be able to share stories of what we have learned from another when we came together for a Jewish community event; we’ll know because we’ll feel that others in our congregation understand us, the struggles and the joys in our lives, a little bit better; we’ll know because we’ll look forward to the next holiday or the next meeting, knowing that we’ll come away enriched by the experience we created with others; we’ll know because anyone who steps through our doors will start talking about what an incredible feeling it is to be a part of this community.

When we start being a community that does these things together, living up to our own visions of what we can be at our highest moments – this is a vision of what a Relational Jewish community can be. This is the New Year – the time to begin again. So let us build on all that is good, but also reach beyond our individual and communal comfort zones, and take the next steps to turn our vision into reality together. Please – take a seat, and make a friend.

[i] Tammy is not the real name

Why relationships are all about meaning-making - Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2013

A man named Honi the Circle Drawer appears in several stories in the Talmud. One of these stories is particularly famous, or at least the first part of the story is, and you might recognize it. Here is the original story as told in the Talmud:

R. Yohanan said: This righteous man [Honi] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, "A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream. (Psalm 126:1)" [This verse is talking about the exile of the Jews after the destruction of the 1st temple. The elite were exiled in Babylonia for 70 years, and then permitted to return to Jerusalem.]

Honi wondered, ‘Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years?’ One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted this tree? The man replied: I am his grandson.

Now, that is the famous part of the story, and many times when we tell the story, it ends there. There are children’s picture books that tell this story. If I wanted to give a sermon about sustainability or the environment, or other aspects of preparing our world for future generations, this would be a fine story, and a fine place to end the story. However, the story in the Talmud does not end here. The next part of the story does not belong in the children’s picture books.

After the exchange with the grandson of the carob tree planter, Honi exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his ass who had given birth to several generations of mules and he returned home. He there inquired, ‘Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?’ The people answered him, ‘His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.’ Thereupon he said to them: ‘I am Honi the Circle Drawer’, but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the Beit Hamidrash – the House of Study and there he overheard the scholars say, ‘The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle Drawer for whenever he came to the Beit Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had.’ Whereupon Honi called out, ‘I am he!’. But the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died. Raba said: Hence the saying, ‘Either companionship or death.’ (B. Taanit 23a)

What an intensely sad story. I feel a knot in my stomach every time I read this story.

Honi seems to be saying…

Either give me companionship – connection and relationship with other human beings who know me and see me for who I am – or I might as well be dead. I catch my breath as it taps into a very deep place for me. It takes me to the lonely moments of my life, when I have felt isolated and invisible.

I think that more than anything else in the world, when I enter into the emotional sphere of thinking about broken relationships, or times when I have felt alienated, I find myself being dragged down into a dark place. The place from which Honi felt so desperate and alone that he prayed for death. I think of the Beatles lyrics from ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – ‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?’

At Rosh Hashanah we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life – the antithesis of Honi’s prayer for death. I have often taught that our prayer to be inscribed in the Book of Life is, in fact, an inner call to ourselves – that we rededicate ourselves to living each day as fully as we can, being as much of our essential selves as we can be.

But if alienation and a life without relationship to others is a kind of death, then perhaps our prayer to be inscribed in the Book of Life is also an inner call to ourselves to live a life that prioritizes our relationships and connections to others. Relationship and connection are the themes that I will be exploring throughout this entire High Holyday season, and which I wish to begin examining more deeply this evening.

I truly believe that it ultimately comes down to nothing less than the meaning of life itself. The meaning of life lies in something we deeply know -- in connection and in relationship. But if we know that – why is it so difficult to pull off? Why are there so many of us sitting here who can relate to that dark, painful place within because of a relationship with a member of family or an old friend that has become broken? Or because we don’t have as rich a network of connections with others as we would like? Perhaps we’ve had a hard time making meaningful connections with others in this congregation? Perhaps most of the time we push it far from our minds as we get on with the task of living, remaining connected to others whose interactions with us are less messy and complicated. But it only takes a moment to let those damaged or broken relationships come to the forefront of our minds, or those times when we’ve walked into a room full of people and haven’t found a group of people with whom it’s easy and comfortable to join the conversation, than we immediately feel the pain again.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, Co-President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL),
has produced a series of TV segments called ‘Simple Wisdom’. They are all available online. In sharing his ‘simple wisdom’ on relationships, he quotes Robert Wuthnow, who teaches at Princeton, explaining how it is that we experience the meaning of life as rooted in connection and relationship:

“If you listen to this, I promise you – you will never forget what meaning is again. I want you to think of cooking. Think of yourself cooking. By the way, for some of you the very idea of cooking may actually be meaningful. But just cooking. Now I want you to think of yourself cooking for your family or some close friends. Which is more meaningful – just cooking or cooking for your family or friends? Now think about this – you’re cooking for your family – using a recipe from your grandmother and you’re remembering her as you’re cooking. Again, which is more meaningful … cooking any old - or new – recipe or cooking bubbe’s recipe? Now think about this. You’re cooking – you’re cooking for your family – using a recipe from your grandmother as you remember her and, while you’re cooking, you’re also making some extra food for your neighbor who is sick and homebound. Do you see how each level is more meaningful?

That’s what meaning is, what Wuthnow calls spheres of relevance – how many spheres of relevance, how many frameworks can any individual act have? And the more spheres of relevance, the more connections to other people, the deeper the meaning of the act is, and that’s true with any act – whether it’s exercise, whether it’s walking in the park, whether it’s going to work, or whether it’s cooking – every act, if you can use your imagination, begins to connect to more and more spheres of relevance and the more spheres, the more meaning.”

The Presbyterian minister and writer, Frederick Buechner, writes: “You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” Relationships with family and friends are the pathways to a world of meaning. To live a meaningful life, therefore, we must do all that we can to tend and care for these pathways.

We Jews don’t have the conventional picture of heaven and hell in our tradition (if you’d like to know more about that, please do join me for my adult ed course this Fall on Death and the afterlife in Jewish thought). But I am sure many of you are familiar with the popular parable about the man who dies and, before entering heaven, asks if he may see what hell looks like. He is taken to a banqueting hall with a long table laid out with a sumptuous feast. But then he notices that the people at the table have long forks strapped to their arms such that, even though they can put food on the forks, they cannot reach their mouths to enjoy the feast. The man is then taken up to heaven and he enters a room that looks identical to hell. He cannot understand – the same banqueting table and the same feast, and the people here also have long forks strapped to their arms. But then he looks closer and he realizes that, in heaven, the people have learnt that they can enjoy the feast together when, instead of trying to get the fork into their own mouth, they turn and feed each other.

The only difference between heaven and hell is that, in heaven, the people have learnt how to live in relationship with each other. Honi calls to us, ‘Give me companionship and connection!’

That is what it means to live in relationship. We do not want life to be a living hell. So we must do all that we can to nourish each other. May this New Year bring healing to our relationships with family and friends, and open up new possibilities and new connections. And may these renewed connections also be inscribed in our Book of Life.

This year, deepening relationships and creating connections form not only the themes of my High Holyday sermons and services, but also the beginning of a prolonged effort within the context of our congregation to create opportunities for members to connect and get to know each other better. But I don’t want to spend our worship time talking about this as an idea, a vision, and a hope, important though those things are. Today, tomorrow, on Yom Kippur, Succot and Simchat Torah, the largest number of our congregation pass through this building and spend time together. And yet, especially if you do not avail yourself of the opportunities to sit together for one of the community meals that we are offering on each of these days, you can easily sit through services and leave and not have connected with a single soul. I don’t want that to be your experience this High Holydays. If we’re going to commit ourselves to creating more opportunities for meaningful connection with each other, what are we waiting for?

So, tonight is your first invitation. You may have to turn behind you or in front. You may have to get up and switch seats for a few moments. But please, take the time to find someone that you don’t already know, or don’t know well. Think back to the example of cooking, and Wuthnow’s spheres of relevance. Think of an everyday activity – it might be cooking, or it could be driving, reading, listening to music, going out to a show, watching sports, taking a walk, going to the beach …. Think about how that activity becomes more meaningful because of the people you are with, a story about a specific occasion you were doing this activity, a memory of this activity with a family member in year’s past. Introduce yourself to the person you have turned to, share your example and, in doing so, let them learn a little bit about you, your family, your background, where you’ve come from, what and who you love …

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

#BlogElul: Writing the story of your life #takeaseatmakeafriend

One of the images found in the High Holyday liturgy is 'The Book of Life'. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we've enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holydays may be falling on resistant ears.

A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn't correlate with an 'idea' of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of Rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too 'other' to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.

And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the 'Book of Life' and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.

We cannot decide how the next chapter will go if we are not willing to read what we've written so far. Now is the time.

Monday, September 2, 2013

#BlogElul: What is my purpose? #takeaseatmakeafriend

Every time I officiate at a funeral, and every time I hear a eulogy, the question of purpose in life arises for me. At each of those funerals and in each of those eulogies, I hear different answers to the question. What I have learned is that there is not 'an answer' to our existence. The meaning-making comes from the specific choices that each of us has made and the specific paths that each of us have travelled.

When you ask yourself the question, don't expect to arrive at 'the' answer. But to live without regrets, to live mindfully, choosing your path in each and every moment, requires that we carry the question in our hearts at all times.  Only this can ensure that we don't sleep-walk our way through life.

The sound of the shofar is our wake up call. Where are you? What are you here to do in this very moment?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

#BlogElul: If we could see inside other people's hearts #takeaseatmakeafriend

One of the most powerful and thought-provoking sermons I ever heard was delivered by a friend while we were students at Hebrew Union College. It was her 'Senior Sermon' - the sermon we all give before we graduate in one of the weekday services at the college. She shared an experience she'd had on the train during her commute into the city. One day there was a passenger seated nearby whose music was playing objectionably loudly through his headphones. It was clearly a distraction to all seated nearby, but no-one was doing anything. My friend politely tapped the man on the shoulder and asked if he wouldn't mind turning down the music a bit. He responded furiously, cursing her and telling her to 'watch it', threatening to make trouble for her when they left the train.  She was terrified and unsure what to do next.  No-one nearby on the train spoke up or came to her aid. She'd recently been reading the book 'Tuesdays with Morrie' by Mitch Albom, a book that I drew from just this past Friday for a creative service where Morrie's words inspired us to do our own spiritual preparations for the High Holydays.

'What would Morrie do?' she asked herself. A little further into the trip, before they reached their destination and departed, she saw that she had an opportunity to speak to the man again. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I didn't realize how much your music meant to you.' The anger in his face dissipated. He started to tell her that he'd lost everything - his girlfriend, his job... his music was all he had left. In that brief moment he felt seen by someone who cared about him more than they cared about the volume on his iPod. They both left the train in peace. The moment was brief, but there was no question that it was transformative for both of them.

The powerful video above asks us to contemplate how much we don't know about people. What would it take to uncover just a little of what lies beneath the surface? In the context of community, how transformative could that be?