A funny thing happened a few nights ago here at Beth Shalom: a meeting. An actual, in-person, meeting of members of the congregation. And it was, in fact, a good meeting.
It was actually an open forum to inform members of the congregation regarding the process for hiring an Assistant Rabbi, a process in which we are already engaged. You may know that we held two such congregational forums – the first was Sunday evening, via Zoom, and the second on Tuesday evening, right here in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary. The Zoom meeting attracted three times as many people. But the in-person meeting was SO MUCH BETTER.
Not better in the sense that the meeting content was better – it was exactly the same material. I think Tuesday’s meeting ran a little shorter, but that’s not why it was better.
The in-person meeting was better because of the chatter beforehand, the chatter afterward, and the actual give-and-take that can happen when people are there with each other in the room, reading each other’s body language, having multiple conversations at once, enjoying a three-dimensional human experience. The incidental, unofficial parts of gathering – the pre-meeting, the post-meeting, the parking-lot meeting, are all an essential part of the picture. And those simply can’t take place on your computer screen in an organic way.
Tuesday’s meeting was, I think, the first official in-person meeting of any lay committee at Beth Shalom in about 21 months. And it felt good, because we need to be together. We need to see each other, unmediated by any technology. People in community with each other belong together.
In fact, what is it that connects people with each other? It is not merely belonging to the same institution, like a synagogue. It is not necessarily living in the same neighborhood. It is not voting for the same party, or sending your children to the same school.
What connects us one to the other is sharing stories. Being in each other’s presence, and telling our personal stories to one another.
One reason that Jewish people feel connected to each other, all over the world, is our collection of shared stories, to wit, the Torah, the Talmud, the midrash, the medieval commentaries, all of the material on the Jewish bookshelf. But that is a macro-level connection. What connects us as individuals on a local basis is our knowledge of each other’s personal stories.
In Parashat Vayyiggash, which we read from today, we are reminded of this to great effect. When Yosef is standing before his brothers, who have come to him in Egypt due to a famine in Israel, they do not yet know that the Egyptian vizier who stands before them is the brother who they sold to Ishmaelite traders many years earlier. But Yosef recognizes them, and is yearning painfully to see his father. As he finally reveals himself, you can almost hear his voice tremble in love and anticipation (Bereshit / Genesis 45:3)
אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י
Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi ḥai?
I am Yosef. Is my father still well?
Note that our translation (New JPS) says “well,” because the brothers have told him already that Ya’aqov is alive; the word “ḥai” many of us know as “life / lives.” But the suggestion is that he will not be “alive” for Yosef until he can see him once again with his own eyes.
Later (45:28), his father Ya’aqov echoes Yosef’s language:
עוֹד־יוֹסֵ֥ף בְּנִ֖י חָ֑י אֵֽלְכָ֥ה וְאֶרְאֶ֖נּוּ בְּטֶ֥רֶם אָמֽוּת׃
Od Yosef beni ḥai; elekha ve-er-enu beterem amut!
My son Yosef is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!
There is such a strong need for them to see each other, to behold each other, to be in each other’s presence. It is not enough for them to simply know that the other is alive; it is, rather, essential, for them to be physically together again. Rashi interprets Ya’aqov’s words to mean that since Yosef is alive, and they will see each other once again, that he will have so much joy and happiness. (Never mind the whole “before I die” business…)
Yosef too is overjoyed to be reunited with his family, even though they mistreated him horribly decades before. Despite his fabulous success in Egypt as the head of food distribution for the years of famine, despite his having become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, despite his fine Egyptian clothes and his successful integration into Egyptian society, signified by his having been given an Egyptian name (Tzafnat Pa’aneaḥ), he yearns for the ones with whom he shares a personal story. He yearns for his people, his family.
And we need that as well. We need the others with whom we share stories.
We have just completed the celebration of Ḥanukkah, the most observed Jewish holiday of the year. It feels to me like only a few weeks ago we were dancing with the scrolls on Simḥat Torah, and even though the 100% holiday-free month of Ḥeshvan was there in-between, my pandemic-induced time myopia has made all these holidays kind of blur together.
And now there is a long time before Pesaḥ, especially since 5782 is a leap year and there will be an extra month of Adar in there. So considering that the holidays of Yom Kippur, Ḥanukkah, and Pesaḥ are the three most-observed holy moments of the Jewish year, the coming months will be a long stretch for many of our people. Some of us may not see each other again for some time.
And so this is a good time to remind you of the following: you need your community. You need the Beth Shalom community. And we need to see more of each other.
Coming up on two years of separation and isolation and anxiety, I want to remind you of the value of community, of the power of being in deep relationship with the people around you. And the synagogue is an essential part of that picture.
This is not just a place where folks mumble prayers in an ancient language and go home. It is a place where we see each other, where we appreciate being in each other’s presence, where we share stories. This is a place where community is fashioned, and we need to behold each other and be together for that to happen.
So come back to shul! As you know, we have been very conservative in our Covid safety protocols, to make sure that everybody feels comfortable. We are meeting in-person twice every day, morning and evening. We are having kiddush – with food! – on Shabbat mornings after services. We have many things going on now; yes, some of them are still via Zoom. But as more of us are vaccinated, we will continue to gather, to build community, to share our stories with each other in-person, in real time, in glorious physical proximity.
And, while we are on the subject, let me point out that we as a community need one more thing (aside from an Assistant Rabbi). One thing that you could help us build.
We need an effective Membership Committee, and in particular a chair of that committee. If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it is that we need to work harder to fight against the isolation of these times. We need to bring people together for social purposes, not just for ritual activities, and a solid Membership Committee will help make that happen.
In Hebrew, the word for “member,” as in the member of a synagogue or a member of Knesset, is חבר / ḥaver. And, curiously enough, the same word is used to mean a friend, and can also mean a lover. That is what it means to be a member of a synagogue, a חבר בית כנסת / ḥaver beit kenesset*: that we are in deep, loving relationship with one another. And if we are to continue to build as a community, if we are to continue to be a more sustainable congregation, we need to lean into that loving feeling for the חברים / ḥaverim who are with us here in the pews today, tomorrow, and moving forward.
So, if you are ready to help build and connect synagogue membership, please let me know, or speak to our VP of Member Engagement, Mindy Shreve.
And if you’re ready to share more stories, to see your people, to behold and break bread with your ḥaverim once again, come back to shul. I hope to see you in person, maybe even before Pesaḥ, maybe even at a meeting, or in the parking lot after.
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/11/2021.)
* The literally meaning of “beit kenesset,” like the English term synagogue (derived from Greek), is “place of gathering.”