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Gathering With Purpose, Then and Now – Vayaqhel-Pequdei 5781

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle published a fascinating piece this week about the history of Beth Shalom by Rauh Jewish Archives director Eric Lidji, and it is truly a great read. It is about the oldest part of this building, the central piece that is now where the Helfant Chapel is located, and the few floors above it. Drawing on a Beth Shalom yearbook from Rosh Hashanah 5685 (that’s 1924!), Mr. Lidji reports that the building was called the “Community House,” and featured spaces for learning, prayer, physical exercise, and of course preparing and eating food. You should check out the article yourself (there is also a link to it on our Facebook page, and it will be in next week’s print edition), but what caught my eye was a wonderful statement by the congregation’s second rabbi, Rabbi Goodman Rose:

We… are laying the foundations for a new Jewish community, distinctive, and in certain respects different from those from which we had come. We must organize our Judaism and mould our spiritual structures. What plans have we to follow? No set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents are available for our guidance. We must think out our way step by step and act by act — this only being our unswerving principle, that not an iota of our Judaism is to be sacrificed.

I read that and I had one of those moments that remind me of bad ‘80s television, in particular, the George Peppard character on The A-Team, which I must concede that I watched and enjoyed when I was in junior high school. When the team’s solution to the crisis of the week was falling into place, Hannibal would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” So as a rabbi, I love it when a sermon comes together.

When Rabbi Rose wrote those words, he was thinking, arguably “outside the box,” about the ways in which we use our spaces to gather. And when this article landed in my inbox, I was thinking about that as well. I was considering the opening line of Parashat Vayaqhel, and also about the keynote lecture that the author and conflict-resolution expert Priya Parker gave to the membership of the Rabbinical Assembly at our annual convention last week. Ms. Parker spoke on the subject of gathering, particularly in the context of the pandemic. She has written a book on this topic, titled, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

I’ll come back to Priya Parker in a moment, but first, it is worth remembering that the Hebrew term for synagogue is “beit kenesset,” which literally means, “house of gathering.” That is what this building is for. We, the Jews, are a communal people. You can’t be Jewish alone, and the essence of “doing Jewish” is doing it in the context of community, in Hebrew, “qehillah.” Even here on Zoom, in this virtual space, we are making qehillah happen, but I must say that I am thinking about gathering in the same physical space again.

It has certainly been a year that has been challenging for many reasons, and from where I stand, the challenge is exceptionally great. For an entire year, beginning on this Shabbat, Shabbat HaHodesh last year, we have been gathering mostly not in person, mostly online. I am of course very proud of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement for giving us a rabbinic hekhsher (permission) to do so, and I am also particularly proud of Beth Shalom as a congregation for keeping the momentum of gathering up over the last year. We have maintained a morning and evening service every single day of the last year, and our attendance has actually been better than prior to the pandemic. Our tradition has developed over centuries, and our response to the pandemic is on the continuum of ways in which Judaism has grown and changed with time.

But think for a moment about the situations in which we gather:

Certainly, we gather for tefillah / prayer. Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community, says Pirqei Avot (2:4). Rambam takes this even a step further; in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Tefillah 8:1), he reports that one who does NOT go to a synagogue in his neighborhood is called a bad neighbor! So of course we gather for tefillah.

And did you know that you have to have a minyan, a quorum of ten people at a wedding?

We of course gather for funerals. For shiv’ah. For supporting those of us who mourn.

We gather for benei mitzvah, as we see our young people called to the Torah

We gather for meals – Shabbat, Yom Tov, breaking the fast, etc. You do not need a minyan to eat, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

We gather to learn. We gather to schmooze. We gather to support those in need, and to bring holiday cheer to one another, and to argue over bylaws and synagogue budgets and current events. We gather to toss our sins away on Rosh Hashanah, and to confess them together in public on Yom Kippur.

In short, almost everything in Jewish life involves gathering.

The beginning of Vayaqhel, which we read from this morning, includes an ancient imperative to gather (Shemot / Exodus 35:1):

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃

Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do…

Gathering has a purpose: here, God needed to tell our ancestors about the essence of Shabbat and the building of the mishkan, their new center of worship. The verb, vayaqhel, comes from the same shoresh / Hebrew root as qehillah, community. We have been gathering as a people since ancient times.

Among the principles that Priya Parker spoke about is the fact that good gathering includes storytelling, and understanding why the gathering is taking place, and is not about the form and the details of the room or the furniture or the food, but rather about the purpose therein.

(BTW, although she is not Jewish, she complimented us, the Jews, heavily, saying that she could have written her book drawing exclusively on anecdotes from the Jewish world! All cultures have forms of gathering, but we do it especially well.)

The bottom line, says Ms. Parker, is that we should not gather because we have to; rather, we gather because it meets a certain need. Tefillah, schmoozing, grieving, celebrating – those are the needs; we gather as Jews because we need to, as individuals and as a qehillah.

And when I read that quote from Rabbi Rose, my predecessor of many decades, I understood completely his description of the Community House: no set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents for how Beth Shalom came together in our first building; a new, distinctive Jewish community, an opportunity to “mould our spiritual structures.” In short, purpose over form.

And we are there again, just as we are poised to re-emerge from a year of hibernation.

Over the past year, I know that I have lamented our lack of gathering. I have advocated for us to gather whenever possible; our coronavirus task force has put the kibosh on some ideas. But I am certain that many of you are longing for us to gather once again, in all the ways that we do so.

And so, as more of us are vaccinated, as more of us can safely gather, let’s not just return to where we were, but rather take time (א) to savor our gratitude for being able to be safely in each others’ presence again, but also (ב) to ensure that our gathering is good, that it is meaningful, that it meets the need of molding our spiritual structure.

To that end, let me suggest just a few things that we can consider, inspired by the wisdom of Priya Parker, while we are still in pandemic mode, perhaps to be implemented when we return:

  1. Consider defining your own personal ritual as you enter the synagogue building or our prayer space. Is it to recite, “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov,” the words that are traditionally said upon entering a synagogue? Is it to wrap yourself up in your tallit for a minute, for a moment of solitude? Is it to greet everybody in the room?
  2. Consider what we might do as a qehillah to re-establish our presence in this space, in each other’s presence. Should we have a ceremony? Should we spend a moment sitting in utter silence together, or sing songs together, or dance together in one huge, non-socially-distanced circle?
  3. Consider the ways in which we can, moving forward, ensure that all of our gatherings have a shared sense of purpose. Will that require an addition to our service, a moment of focus? Will it necessitate discussions or classes or a revised approach to what we do? Our Board meetings always begin with a devar Torah; maybe all our other gatherings should include a little thought from our tradition as well?  

Every morning of the year, just before the end of Pesuqei deZimra, we recite Psalm 149. It is one of those that we mumble through, without any particular songs or particularly quotable lines. But the first verse reads as follows:

 שִׁ֣ירוּ לה’ שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ בִּקְהַ֥ל חֲסִידִֽים׃

Sing to God a new song, praise of God in the gathering of the faithful.

How can it be a new song every day, particularly when we chant the same ancient words? By ensuring that the gathering of the faithful is endowed with purpose.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/13/2021.)

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