There are days, maybe once a week, when I feel like, “Ah. That was a good day. I accomplished a lot. I engaged with lots of people. I taught some Torah. I helped move this institution forward.”
There are days when I feel like, “Wow. I spent the whole day in meetings and handling logistics and didn’t get anything of significance done. Ouch.”
On the whole, I would say, I feel pretty good about the direction of Beth Shalom, about my work here, about our trajectory as a community. We are building slowly, making connections between people, reaching members and non-members in new and different ways, perhaps raising the bar of qedushah, holiness, in the context of our community.
Every now and then, it’s a good idea to count your successes and acknowledge challenges. Among the successes, I would count the following:
- Our membership has grown by more than 10% in the past year and a half
- We have already raised over $700,000 in pledges from members
- We are halfway through the SULAM for Emerging Leaders program, training 14 members of the community for greater effectiveness as lay leaders
- We are about to embark on a congregational learning process and re-envisioning of our tefillah, our services, in an attempt to make sure that our tefillah offerings meet our goals in that regard
- The Shababababa and Shabbat Haverim services, which happened again last night, regularly draw 120 or more participants for joyous family davening in two services and a laid-back Shabbat dinner
- Our other youth tefillah offerings have been improved dramatically, thanks to the hard work of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz
- JJEP and the ELC are bursting with kids, energy, and innovation
- We are launching the Derekh program this summer with a Jewish learning retreat aimed at young adults that will be held in August, and we received a $5000 grant from the Federation’s SteelTree program to run it
- We have just established a team of volunteers to take responsibility for the sifrei Torah – where they are, to what parashah they are rolled, etc.
- We are training new gabbaim
- After more than a year of work and consideration, we are just about to put out a new version of the Benei Mitzvah Handbook with revised policies and information
- We now have a streamlined, contemporary mission statement
And there are more. I think we can cautiously say that things are going well.
But of course there are also challenges. In particular, there are many things that we just haven’t gotten to yet, perhaps because nobody has stepped forward to help make them happen:
- We still have no social action committee
- We still have not been able to plan a congregational trip to Israel
- We still have no official greeting team
- There are still daily services when we lack coverage and/or a minyan of attendees
- Our signage in the building is still, at best, confusing, and I continue to hear reports from people who have difficulty finding their way into the building
- We are far from implementing an Earth-friendly policy to guide us in use, reuse and recycling in the building
Anybody who would like to help us take on these challenges is welcome!
But in addition to these programming needs, there is a special kind of challenge that we face, a more thorny difficulty that often afflicts synagogues, and that is disagreement.
Not that disagreement is bad! On the contrary, it is healthy and normal. In fact, one might make the case that it is due to disagreement that we are still here as Jews. You see, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, they effectively began the process of “democratizing” Judaism – no more would the priesthood and the Sanhedrin hold all the power. Study and prayer, more personal routes to God and tradition, became the central communal features of Judaism.
But what allowed Judaism to endure and enabled it to survive to this very day, is the ability to maintain civil disagreement.
An oft-quoted Talmudic example of this comes from the two major schools of rabbinic opinion, those of the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Yet, despite the fact that their followers disagreed on many points of law and practice, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 14a). They maintained a sense of community and togetherness in the face of argument.
Disagreement is fundamental to who we are. But disagreement can be healthy or destructive, and I am more concerned about the latter.
We read in Pirqei Avot (5:19) about the mahloqet leshem shamayim – a controversy for the sake of heaven. The disagreement which furthers the goals of community, connection and qedushah / holiness is a Divine argument that will last forever. The dispute that seeks to self-aggrandize or consolidate power or disrupt the community is NOT leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. This is the destructive form of disagreement.
One of my most beloved teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us that synagogue politics are good. They indicate a thriving organization that consists of engaged members who care. The absence of political disagreements, the shul in which everybody agrees about everything, he said, is a dying shul.
I have been here now a year and a half. During the first year or so, I was aware of very little in the way of disagreements with my style or my choices or my halakhic opinions. There’s a name for that grace period that new rabbis are usually afforded: the honeymoon.
But now the honeymoon is over. And just as in any marriage it’s not a bad thing. It just signals the start of getting down to brass tacks, the sharper points of living in holy matrimony.
So I have to confess something at this point – something which I have not owned up to until now: I am not perfect. (My wife liked that line best.) While I try very hard indeed to make sure that I am serving this community as best I can, I have occasionally let myself and others down. And that is hard, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist – I want things to be right.
And yet, as the old maxim goes, you cannot please all the people all the time. And that also applies to rabbis.
It even applies, by the way, to our greatest teacher. Moshe Rabbeinu, you might say, was at the peak of his career in Parashat Yitro. He ascends Mt. Sinai to confer face-to-face with the Qodesh Barukh Hu, and takes dictation, beginning with the Aseret HaDibberot / Ten Utterances (usually referred to as the “Ten Commandments”).
And yet, Moshe fails. What happens while he’s up on the mountain, acquiring a radiant glow in the presence of God? The people doubt him. They worry. They think he’s never coming back. “This Moshe guy,” they say, “we don’t know where he went!” (Ex. 32:1, roughly). And then they build an idol. So not only has Moshe failed to deliver the monotheistic goods, but he also fails so badly that the Israelites actually do the opposite of what Moshe is about to teach them when he comes down the mountain.
And, to make matters worse, when he finds out, Moshe loses his cool. He “goes ballistic” as he smashes the tablets.
I am certain that many of us have had that Molten Calf moment, when we think things are going so well, and then everything seems to come crashing down around us. I find this passage consoling when facing my own moments of doubt.
After a year and a half of progress, I feel that together we have made Beth Shalom a more inclusive environment, a more friendly and civil place. And we have accomplished many community-building initiatives.
And yet, we still have to avoid getting sucked into that Molten Calf dynamic as a congregation. We have to agree to disagree respectfully when there are complex political issues. We have to work together to prevent rumors and anxiety from dragging us down, and instead focus on seeking the greater benefit to the community. We have to continue to work together, understanding that none of us is perfect, that we will occasionally fail to meet our objectives, that although the overall trajectory has been positive, there will sometimes be temporary setbacks.
Rather than smashing the tablets, we have to instead do what we did this morning as we read the Aseret HaDibberot: stand together as a community in solidarity, as if gathered at Mt. Sinai.
There will be contentious issues in committees and on the Board level. There will be arguments over finances. There will be personality clashes between members. And I might occasionally make a decision with which you disagree, or fail to meet your expectations. At these moments especially, we must give each other the benefit of the doubt and trust in good intentions.
These are the challenges that keep rabbis up at night. But we will face them all together, and as long as we keep before us the sense of community, connection, and qedushah, we will continue to build. It is in remembering what unites us that we will find the holiness of our intentions, illuminating the respectful way forward as we stand together.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/19/2017.)