I had a wonderful moment last week. It was the moment when this sermon came together. It was on Wednesday, my day off, and I was actually on the elliptical machine at the JCC (I sometimes do my best thinking when I’m working out). I was listening to Leonard Cohen (zikhrono livrakhah – may his memory be for a blessing), to his song “Take This Waltz,” from his 1988 album, I’m Your Man. The song is actually a loose English translation of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem, Pequeño vals vienés, (a little Viennese waltz):
Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws
This song speaks of the pain of love, the fragile beauty of life, the infinite transience of the human experience. It makes me yearn: for desire and loss, for happiness and grief, for perfection and failure, the whole continuum of what it means to be benei Adam, the descendants of Adam and Eve.
Leonard Cohen passed away nearly two weeks ago; he was suffering from cancer, although a statement released by his manager on Wednesday said that he had taken a fall in the night which hastened his death. His oeuvre – songs, poems, prose – speaks of all of the yearnings that make our lives meaningful and rich and sad and joyous.
Now if you have been listening to me speak over the past year and change, you may have noticed that I constantly talk about making Judaism meaningful – that our task as a synagogue and indeed as a community is to create meaning in a Jewish context. And let’s face it: this is not easy.
What is it about synagogue services that is meaningful? Here are some possibilities:
- Meditative moments
- Reading the Torah
But what about for people who don’t know how to pray, or do not understand Hebrew, or are unfamiliar with the Torah, or do not know anybody in the room? How will they derive meaning from what we do? What about visitors who have never been in a synagogue before? What about guests or even members of the congregation who are not Jewish? Do we want them to have a meaningful experience as well?
The answer is yes. Yes, we want everybody who enters here to appreciate what we do and how it might elevate us.
Synagogues tend to run on momentum – the momentum of “this is what we do; this is how we do it.” We have done things this way for a long time, such a long time that many of us who do it regularly cannot imagine doing it any other way, and that we have difficulty imagining that some might not appreciate it or know what to do. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has made a career of helping synagogues improve themselves by trying to make members appreciate what it’s like to those who are not “insiders.” He tells the story of the uncle of a bar mitzvah, who is called to the Torah, and he’s really nervous because he hasn’t done this in a long time. So the gabbai, trying to help him out, says to him in an undertone, “Now kiss your tzitzis.” The man is taken aback and reacts audibly, so that the whole congregation can hear, by exclaiming, “Kiss my WHAT?”
We, the synagogue regulars, often fall into the trap of assuming that everybody knows or understands what we do and why we do it. But that is, of course, far from the truth. On the contrary: even some of us who are regulars do not know what we do or why we do it. (That’s why I am offering a learners’ service once a month, starting in three weeks – the third Shabbat morning of each month.)
But one thing that should draw people to synagogues, whether they know the service or not, is the human desire to seek wholeness, to seek healing of the soul. There is no heart that is as whole, said Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, as a broken heart. That is one reason that our siddur is called Lev Shalem, a whole heart – because we enter tefillah broken-hearted with the intent to make it whole again.
We all know that this is a fractured world, one in which hopes are easily crushed, where idealism is squelched, where we sometimes find pain when we look for solace. And sometimes, when we are truly in adversity, those are the times we need God the most, however we understand God. And we want all who enter this space, regardless of their familiarity with Jewish ritual, to feel that they can satisfy this need here.
Every now and then, those solace-seekers come into a synagogue seeking to mollify the pain. And here’s the message for the day: we have to welcome them in. We have to embrace all who enter so that they may find comfort. We have to go out of our way to make this sanctuary, this respite from the cruel world that awaits outside, a place of warmth and inclusiveness and caring.
Our synagogue happens to be place where any new face will invariably be greeted by numerous people. Based on what I have seen, it’s a rare instance where newbies are not engaged in conversation during Kiddush. These are all wonderful things – you are all refreshingly friendly. But there is always room for improvement.
At my last congregation, we made an effort once to improve our lobby to make it more inviting. We bought some comfy chairs, put in a K-cup coffee machine, and encouraged people to hang around. We also put up a display of little pamphlets on Jewish topics, with the intent of helping people find easy info on topics relevant to their lives. Some of the pamphlets had to do with grief and loss, such as “Talking to Children About Death” and “Making Sacred Choices at the End of Life” and “Taking Your Sadness to God.”
A long-time member of the congregation, a former president, came up to me not long after installing this display, and waved her hand dismissively at the display. “This,” she said, shaking her head, “this is not us.” She meant that the face that the congregation should put forward is an uplifting one, not an image that reminds us of pain and suffering and loss.
But she was wrong. It was us. It is us. We all suffer. Thank God, we have moments of joy. Thank God, we have moments of life and light and ecstasy. But we also have moments of grief and pain. And it is in those times that you need a synagogue, a community, a ritual framework.
Whenever Parashat Vayyera comes up, I have to speak about hakhnasat orhim, the welcoming of guests. Any of you who have been to a parlor meeting with me over the past year know that we study the first part of today’s parashah, what we read this morning, to parse out from it the actions that Abraham performs in welcoming strangers into his home. It is an episode in the Torah that speaks very heavily to how we must conceive of ourselves today. This is our tent – Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov – how good are your tents, O Jacob – and we want people to come in. All people.
I made an observation on Thursday morning at shaharit that, while it is architecturally sensible for the door into a sanctuary to be located at the back, it might be spiritually wrong. How do you think it looks to somebody coming to synagogue for the first time to walk in and see only the backs of others?
Perhaps the entrance should be up front, near the aron haqodesh, the ark. Maybe we should rise for visitors as we do when we take out the Torah. That’s how important it is to welcome others into our tent – to acknowledge the holiness in each person who enters.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the visitor who comes in, particularly the one who needs comfort in the context of grief, is greeted at the door by somebody who can sit with that person and help her/him through the service experience? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if the regulars among us were to offer a place at a Shabbat table to all who are in need?
To return to Leonard Cohen, the bard of brokenness, I’ll remind you of a line from his 1992 song, “Anthem,” which I mentioned in the study passage last week.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Embedded in the reference to Lurianic kabbalah is the suggestion that fracture yields light; that being broken enables us to receive the goodness that God gives, the support of community, the wisdom of the generations. Brokenness, in some sense, enables us to thrive.
And that is why we as a community need to reach out to all who enter and embrace them in all of their humanity. That is why we are here, and that is why we need to keep thinking about what we can do to make Beth Shalom the place where people want to come, to bring their joy, their sorrow, and their whole heart.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/19/2016.)