Friday, July 5, 2013

Summer Sermon Series #2: Elevating Ourselves Through Words of Welcome - Mattot/Mas'ei 5773

Shabbat shalom! We are into the second topic of the seven-part summer sermon series about the most essential parts of Temple Israel’s vision: being a welcoming congregation. Here is a brief sketch of the series:

1. Telling our narrative (6/29 - Pinehas)
2. Welcoming (7/6 - Mattot-Mas’ei)
3. Learning / Torah (7/13 - Devarim)
4. Egalitarianism (7/20 - Va-ethannan)
5. Israel (7/27 - Eqev)
6. Repairing the World (8/3 - Re’eh)
7. Tradition and Change (8/10 - Shofetim)

Considering the list of topics above, you might think that Torah comes before welcoming. Let me tell you why we are addressing welcoming first. Consider the following mishnah from Pirqei Avot, the collection of rabbinic wisdom which is traditionally studied in the summer months (3:21):
אם אין תורה, אין דרך ארץ; אם אין דרך ארץ, אין תורה.
Im ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Im ein derekh eretz, ein Torah.
One possible translation: “If there is no Torah, there is no respect. If there is no respect, there is no Torah.”

Derekh eretz,” while often translated idiomatically as “respect,” is more literally rendered as “the way of the land.” It refers to how we treat others as we go through life, and suggests to me, from an ancient Middle Eastern perspective (arguably the most important one when interpreting Jewish text), how strangers are treated when they are passing through your village, or how you might be treated when passing through somebody else’s territory. The point, of course, is that in the desert, you pay it forward: this time, I’ll give you food, water, and shelter; next time, you’ll give some to me.

Our patriarch Abraham is an exemplar of derekh eretz when he welcomes traveling strangers (acutally angels) into his tent and gives them food and water at the beginning of Parashat Vayyera. But even in today’s world, derekh eretz still carries a traditional sense among desert-dwellers, and it refers specifically to welcoming others into your tent.

When I was studying at the WUJS Institute in Arad, Israel in 1999, I did a lot of hiking in the desert around Arad, which is located not far from the Dead Sea in the southern Judean Hills. One day, a friend of mine and I were hiking nearby, and we wandered into a Bedouin camp - there were a few tents (well, temporary structures made of corrugated iron) surrounding a pen with a few horses and other animals. And there was a dog, which, when it spotted us, started barking and raising a ruckus. A middle-aged Bedouin gentlemen in contemporary Israeli clothes came out of his tent, spotted us, and beckoned to us to come in. We obliged, and sit on his poured concrete floor (this was a fancy tent) covered with rugs and pillows, alongside his Japanese SUV, and chatted in Hebrew about his work in the construction business as he gave us tea and water. A few other men in kaffiyas joined us, and we sat politely and soaked up the derekh eretz, and schmoozed with these Bedouin, whom we would otherwise never have met.

Without welcoming others into our tent, we will never get to the Torah. Without derekh eretz, there can be no Torah, no Israel, no community. Welcoming others in is the foundation of Judaism, and it is time for us to take it to the next level.

We read today at the beginning of Parashat Mattot about the power and significance of our words. We are able, through vows, to make a binding commitment that cannot be violated. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught, a vow is “self-imposed legislation.” Vows are so important that there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Massekhet Nedarim, devoted to the particulars of what constitutes a vow and its implications.

This is just one example of how our tradition elevates words, and how words can elevate us; our lips can praise and curse, heal and wound, impose a vow and break it. Jewish ritual is always accompanied by powerful words.

I would like to suggest the following: We as individual members of this congregation should all take the following vow: to work as hard as possible at welcoming others into this community.

Now, I am not suggesting that we are not friendly. On the contrary, as synagogues go, we are pretty good. In fact, we were roundly complimented by the Board of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which met here about a month ago. (United Synagogue is, of course, the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations.) Our member Marty Werber, who serves on the USCJ Board, reported back to us that many members of the Board came away from their visit to Temple Israel with the impression that they were made to feel welcome here, and that is a strong statement; these guys see a lot of congregations, so they have what to compare us to. And we came up pretty well. So Kol Hakavod.

Here is another example: at Tot Shabbat two weeks ago, the first held in the Blue Room, a guest parent exclaimed to my wife Judy, not aware that she is the rebbetzin, how friendly our congregation is. That’s another nice compliment.

And look at all we have accomplished in this regard in the last couple of years:
  • We have pioneered the Nitzanim Family Connection, a program that brings together parents of children who are beginning their religious school experience to discuss what it means to be Jewish parents;
  • We put together a phenomenally successful pre-bar-mitzvah retreat for the Vav class families;
  • We have started a social group for empty nesters and one for parents of young children (called Temple Israel Bonds, the first event, a barbecue, is on August 1 - see Jackie Astrof for details, and there is a flyer out front);
  • We have created new offerings in the Youth House to reach out to teens more effectively;
  • We have offered adult learning programs in congregants’ homes that welcomes both TIGN members and non-members and thereby creates new connections within our wider community that synagogue-based programs do not necessarily foster.

We have also made it a point, as you may have noticed, to re-arrange the sanctuary (at least some of the time) in a way that many find more inviting, and we often have one rabbi standing at the back with the other greeters and Shabbat officers, to make sure that everybody is properly welcomed, and we have initiated a task-force discussion to talk about our religious services here, and to consider more carefully how we approach them. Focus on the welcoming aspects of our tefillah / prayer experience will surely be a part of that discussion.

However, there is always room for improvement. A few years back, a colleague and friend of mine, Rabbi Kate Palley, was visiting here at Temple Israel for Sukkot. She came early to services, and was davening quietly to herself when she realized that somebody sitting in front of her seemed somewhat agitated, and was looking and pointing at Rabbi Kate and talking to a friend in an animated fashion. At some point, the friend comes over and says, “You’re in his seat!” She moved, and was otherwise undeterred. But is that really the impression that we want to give visitors?

Furthermore, we cannot afford to welcome only those who are already in the building. We have to work a little harder, to reach beyond these walls.

Why is being welcoming so important? Because building this community, as I mentioned last week, is the central pillar of maintaining Temple Israel's strength, for supporting the egalitarian approach to Judaism that we value in an increasingly non-egalitarian community, for ensuring that modern understandings of Judaism and an open approach to the Torah are given a fair shake in the theological marketplace. And there are many people in our wider community who respond positively to our take on Jewish life when they experience it.

By inviting others in and making them feel like a part of us, we stand a chance of growing.  There is no shortage of unaffiliated Jews out there, some of whom may be amenable to finding a spiritual home in a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community such as ours. But they likely will not join unless we reach out to them and make personal connections.

I am going to frame this issue another way. We read elsewhere in Pirqei Avot the following (2:5):
הלל אומר, אל תפרוש מן הציבור
Hillel omer: Al tifrosh min hatzibbur
Hillel says, “Do not withdraw from the community.”
Well, ladies and gentlemen, we are living in a time in which many Jews have, in fact, separated themselves from their community. But I think that this statement implies that just as we personally are obligated not to separate ourselves, we are also encouraged to act on the converse of that statement: that is, not to allow others to separate from us, the Jewish community. Chabad, Aish HaTorah, and other such Orthodox organizations commit much of their energy to doing exactly that; we need to do so as well, so that those who are unaffiliated are exposed to all of the values that we cherish as modern Jews committed to traditional Judaism.

In other words, we, individual members of Temple Israel, and not just the clergy and the officers, have to reach out, to take on the personal challenge of inviting others to join us. Like Abraham and my Bedouin buddy, we have to go outside the tent and invite others in.

So that is why I want everybody here to take a “vow” today: to be an ambassador of welcoming for Temple Israel, even off the synagogue grounds. Let’s kick it up a notch - let our words of greeting and invitation elevate ourselves and this community. To that end, here are a few action items:  

  1. Whenever you are in the building, take Maimonides’ advice and greet everybody with a smile (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot De’ot 2:7).
  2. If you have a friend who is unaffiliated but may be open to visiting, let Rabbi Stecker or I know and we might be able to suggest a point of entry best suited to her or him.
  3. Find one person whom you do not know at kiddush each week with whom to strike up a conversation. Likewise, you might even want to introduce members of this community who may not know each other.
  4. If you bring a guest to TIGN, introduce him or her to me and to a member of the Board or the Membership committee. If you do not know any board members, ask me, and I’ll hook you up.
  5. If you have a tech-savvy young person in your orbit, ask them to “like” our Facebook page, and/or to follow @TempleIsraelGN on Twitter. Spreading information far and wide is easy today if you’re connected to the Internet, which we are.

Shabbat shalom! Next week, we’ll talk about the value of learning Torah.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, July 6, 2013.)

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