Why? To Belong, To Do What We Do & To Be Community
Yom Kippur 5779
Imagine for a moment that you were not here, not sitting in this sacred space, in those seats, next to these people, on this Yom Kippur day, the holiest day in our Jewish calendar. Where would you be? What would you be thinking… watching… doing? Now, considering these fresh ideas and thought experiment in your mind, and ask yourself why you are here? Why have you chosen to be here? In this place? At this moment? Ponder the motivations, the inspiration and the drive for being here, in this sacred space, at this exact moment during the Jewish calendar.
When was the last time you shared that with someone? When, if ever, have you explored with others, Jews and non-Jews, the why of your Jewish identity and participation?
In asking this question, the why, we are searching for reason and purpose. The spiritual drive to plan our Fall Season with these Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe - as the anchor is for some a function of not being able to imagine being anywhere else. For others it is the realization that our heritage, our identity calls to us from deep within to be Here…Now. Maybe it is about striving to learn something new, about ourselves, about our world….about Judaism.
Earlier this month, Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, wrote a piece published in the Wall Street Journal. It was titled: Why Go to Synagogue Once a Year? The tag line of the title: Some Jews only show up for the High Holy Days. They’re still getting a lot out of it. He shares varied responses about people’s motivations. Like, “A nagging sense of obligation…”, or “…they renew their ties to family,” he reported. He was clear to point out the motivations of different age groups writing that, “Millennials who normally value their independence seem to relish the opportunity to sit in the same row of the synagogue with their parents like they did as children. For older Jews whose parents may no longer be alive, the familiar melodies of the High Holy Day liturgy and the unique rituals of the services may evoke memories of childhood.” Wertheimer shares a number of perceived benefits felt by many attending these Holy Day services. Yet, it is something in the comments that truly caught my attention. One respondent shared the following:
When I was a little girl I went to services with my dad every Shabbos. We belonged to a Conservative shul and he was their sole Torah reader. One Rosh Hashanah I noticed a larger crowd than we normally see and tugged on my dad’s Tallis. I asked, “Dad who are all these people?”
We all join in this ritual of these special days for our own reasons, for our own purposes. Some come to connect with an ancient tradition, seeking a space in time to reflect and consider. Others are here to be with you, to be with each other - our Temple family. Still others seek to carry on and perpetuate this ancient gift of our Jewish heritage. And some even are here because that God idea of a Divinity sitting in judgment on this day, however far off from our daily understanding of the world it may be, urges us to be present and live out this ritual.
So, I have to wonder what this respondent’s father said in return. Did he engage in a conversation about “why” we come to this place, these synagogues? Or perhaps this father took his daughter around to meet those she did not recognize, encouraging her to learn from them about their motivations, their ‘why’s.
I remember vividly my first high holy days away from home. In college, in Madison, WI, we had an amazing resource in our Hillel House. Yet, after that first Rosh Hashanah away from what I knew, I immediately booked a bus ticket to Chicago for the following week. I went to join my grandparents, may their memories be for a blessing, to be with them on Yom Kippur. That following week, I found myself not in the familiar confines of my home congregation, but rather seated in the second row, on the rabbi’s side - because that’s where we sat since the building was built - with my grandparents and my aunt. The magnetic pull to this place, not the physical structure of the Temple, but to being with family, in the familiar embrace of loved ones, was strong.
For many of us, the sense of community is the answer to ‘why’ we are here. We are drawn by the familiar embrace. It is the community, the prayers themselves, the words of Torah we will hear that pulls us at this time of year. It is a search for meaning, a spiritual connection to what these holy days offer us that brings us to this moment. It is the connection to the person on your left, to the person on your right - take a moment now, acknowledge those share this moment with them.
When we speak about community we recognize it as a noun. It is a ‘thing’, it is a collection of individuals with shard values, purpose, perhaps even mission. Yet, in Hebrew we can use the word for community - קהילה - as a verb too. In the Book of Exodus, as Moses is shepherding us out of Egypt, Torah teaches us that - ויקהל משה - that Moses communitied the community. When we ask the question as to ‘why’ we are here, what draws us not just at this time, but throughout the year to connect with our Jewish identity, it is a verb - it is active - we are doing community.
Engaging in this exercise of these High Holy Days is not only about reciting these ancient words and living out the rituals; it is not only about the reflection and introspection demanded of us at this time of year; it is not only about seeking meaning, spirituality and connection. This is also about our sense of belonging, about a passion we have for being a part of this people. In my mother’s words, we are in search of a self-identifiable sense of belonging. Mom, I asked, what does that mean? It is, she said, the drive within us to self identify as a Jew by experiencing, by experimenting with rituals, with values and with the relationships that bind us to this people.
Sure, we can explore this on our own. Many of us do. There are many here who frequent this space and engage in Jewish life, learning and practice on a regular basis. There are others who spend most of their time in other communities, like our own, engaged in our treasured Judaism. And, there are still others, who are like those flocks of people that Wertheimer is referring to in his article who come once, or a few times a year. This is not at all a condemnation of our individual choices. Let me be clear, and let me say this positively. I am honored, I am delighted, better - we are honored and delighted that each and every one of you is here, in this moment. And, I hope we’re all asking ourselves this question about why we are here, now.
When we ask this question of ‘why’, when each and every one of us asks this question we sensitize ourselves to the reality of community, to our longing for belonging. Dr. Kenneth Pelletier of the Stanford Center for Research and Disease Prevention writes, “A sense of belonging appears to be a basic human need - as basic as food and shelter. In fact, social support may be one of the critical elements distinguishing those who remain healthy from those who become ill.” The response to the why for many of us just might be this sense of belonging. We are here to be connected, to embrace and be embraced by those around us because it feels good to know we belong. We all know the entirely cliche idea of being a member of the tribe. Yet, this kind of tribe, so long as it does not breed isolation, builds us up with confidence in who each of us is as an individual, as part of a people and as part of humanity.
At the risk of breaking out in song, “Sometimes you want to go, Where everybody knows your name.” This time of year, this space, draws us to belong, to check in so that the knots holding us together are checked, tightened and re-tied. When we stand for the Kol Nidre, we do so as a community. We know that our individual moments of misdeed and wrongdoing are before us to remedy, yet we are built up even strengthened by navigating this reality with those around us, a community, a people to whom we belong. During the Vidui, our liturgical confession, we utter words in the first person plural - V’al Chet She’Chatanu - for the sin WE have committed. This is a communal, people-hood action. The exercise of these days is done in the circles of community to which we belong. Perhaps, the why for our presence here and now is because we belong.
Often, and perhaps this is many of us here now, we as Jews express our reason, our purpose for being here, engaged in this ancient, even archaic series of rituals is because it is what we Jews do. We cannot imagine being anywhere else on this Day of Atonement. This is born out of the shared history of our people and the heritage of our faith. Even more, it is the memory that is collectively ours that stirs our neshama - Jewish soul - during this extended moment of the High Holy Days.
There is a concept in our Judaism of the shalshelet hakabbalah - the chain of tradition. When we return at this time of year, when we celebrate Jewishly the cycles of life, when we study Torah, when the Jewish calendar is lived through and by us, we are solidifying our link in that chain. In his recent book, A Passion for a People, Avraham Infeld, a renowned Jewish Educator, author and thinker shares a story about this link and what binds us together through our shared story. He writes about his arrival on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem to begin his studies in Physics:
On the first day of school, I was walking towards the physics department, and all of a sudden I saw an extremely beautiful young lady walking toward the history department…. so I decided to major in Jewish history instead… and today, she is the great-grandmother of my great grandchildren! I just had to explain the change of plan to my father. I sent him a letter and, in those pre-digital days, I got a telex back, greatly annoyed. Not with me, but with the Hebrew University. “What??” he wrote, “the Hebrew University has a department of Jewish history! Are they crazy! There is no such thing as Jewish history! Jews don’t have history. We Jews have memory!”
Infeld went on writing: Today I know that my father was 100% correct. Memory and history are related but not the same, and memory is the base of Jewish identity…A Jew is a person who remembers what happened to the Jewish People in the past; a Jew is a person who is strictly forbidden from suffering long-term memory loss!
What Infeld teaches with this insight, is that we are not able to unlink that chain. While many stray from the rituals, the rites and even the visible testaments to our place in that chain, we are part of it. When we ask the question of reason and purpose, the why about our engagement in this treasured heritage, for some, the answer is: Because we remember it is our shared memory, our shared past and honor it by ensuring our link is strong.
Whether it is belonging or the simplistic response of because we are supposed to be here that draws us in and embraces us, there is more. Judaism represents for us, also, the possibility of learning, growing and becoming through our presence. Not only on these High Holy Days, but by plugging into Jewish life. This tradition of ours provides us an array of tools, of practices and even beliefs that when engaged with, can enhance our quality of life.
When we are open, and willing to explore the sense of community, the feeling of belonging, the collective memory we answer this question of why. We can eat challah and light the Hannukiyah, we can ask the Four Questions and donate to Jewish organizations. And these are crucial to this Jewish people’s existence. Yet, when we learn and engage, when we create and evolve our Judaism through our own learning we expand that answer too. We cannot only light those lights and recite those words because we belong to a people who does this and does that. We must not only taste the foods that bring a sense of nostalgia and support Jewish causes because it makes us feel we belong. We must also ask the why during those moments too. In this way, in the exploration of why, we have the potential for Judaism to not only survive but also thrive.
Simon Sinek, the personality behind the third most watched Ted Talk, provides us a paradigm shift. He explores the idea of asking this crucial question of: Why. He teaches that every organization, each person perhaps, operates on three levels: What we do, How we do it and why we do it. We are really good at knowing the what and the how, he says. What do we do? We celebrate Jewish holidays, prepare our children for B’nai Mitzvah, support one another and celebrate together. How do we do it? We have rituals and cultural foods, we use the Hebrew language to prepare our young people and we mark time and lives with celebration and support in times of grief and mourning.
Because we belong? Because its what Jews do? Yes…and there is more. If we can learn, if we can explore and if we can respond to this question on ever deeper levels, we can discover greater meaning in our Judaism.
On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Alan Rabishaw reminded his congregation: That call to Abraham to go forth was a challenge of faith that inspired him to pursue a faith we now call Judaism—a faith in which God actually needs human beings to create a world where elevating others is at the heart of life’s purpose. Torah, God, sacred journey must lead us to love each other, or it leads nowhere at all.
When Torah teaches us that Abraham and Sarah, and those inspired by their message will be a blessing, we discover part of our Why. We learn that we are to be blessings in what we do and how we do it. Using and engaging with Judaism and Jewish life enables us to realize our ‘why’ of being blessing. Rabbi Jonathan Blake wrote in a D’var Torah about the meaning of Synagogue: God migrates to and from the world of human affairs in accordance with our ethical attentiveness or inattentiveness. Behavior matters more than a building. Indeed, the fulfillment of mitzvot on behalf of others, compassionate action for people in pain, and tzedakah for people in need can all make God's Presence more noticeable in the world. And the synagogue is the primary Jewish engine for organizing people into communities of caring.
This place, the physical space we felt compelled to enter on this Holy Day is the “engine for organizing” us, the Jewish people, so that we can care…so that we can study and learn, live and celebrate, share and teach our Judaism. When we ask the question of “Why” we enable ourselves to be open to all of our possible responses. In asking others about their “Why”, we can discover what drives us forward as community, as a people. When belonging is expressed and felt, when we do Jewish because it is just what we do we are beginning to own our reason and purpose as members of this collective memory some call Jewish history.
When our ranks swell at this time of year, we recognize there are many answers to this question of “why” and something about this time of year, this particular ritual of the High Holy Days illicit such a response. Maybe it is belonging. Perhaps it is just what we do. May we allow this space, the literal space of the synagogue and the spiritual space of community and peoplehood, stir us to answer this question of why. May we respond by learning more an more to be blessing and elevate others. May we answer that call to be communitied as a community of caring. May whatever led us here, today, continue to lead us to cherish this treasured heritage to continue the journey of being the Jewish people.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May We all be Sealed for a Good Year
Good Yontif and Shanah Tovah