Rabbi Berkman’s Invocation – Annual Meeting 2018

by Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman

Invocation and Reflections:

Almost exactly one year ago, I stood here before you as your new Associate Rabbi, excited to partner with all of you and with Rabbi Sonia in a new chapter for this beloved community. From the time I first entered the sanctuary to meet with the Search Committee in November of 2017, I have felt at ease and at home with all of you. I feel a sense of shared values and purpose, and as I said last Friday as we bid farewell to Rabbi Sonia, this place is truly menschy – kindness, and generosity of spirit, and an openness of heart and mind, an intellectual curiosity, abound here. This evening, knowing how much you care about this congregation, how dedicated you are to its welfare and its future,  I stand before you humbled, honored, and awed by the responsibility and trust you have placed in me as I take on my new role as spiritual leader of this kehilah kedoshah, this holy community.

We “stand” in the cycle of Torah readings right now in the book of Numbers, BaMidbar – which actually means “in the desert, the wilderness.” At this time in our history, we’re a free people, with all of the blessings and challenges and responsibility of that freedom – we’ve left the ties that bound us physically and spiritually, and we’ve yet to enter the land in which we will be rooted as a nation…we’re bamidbar – in the wilderness…we’re in the in-between….we’re in transition…but we, the people with the eternal belief in potential, in transformation, in possibility – we, the Jews, the “people of hope,” recognize that even with the uncertainties and insecurities and anxieties of the wide expanse, the very essence of life is transition….as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “the only constant is change…”

In this week’s Torah portion/parashah, Sh’lach, we see that human nature from Torah times through the present certainly has some constants…when confronted with an unknown future, standing in bamidbar, we will complain, kvetch, blame our leaders, behave in self-destructive ways, and even long to go back to what came before – so frightened by the unknown that we long for the familiar, even if that means losing our freedom…  We can easily lose sight of possibility, potential, and promise, and long to go back to the familiar rather than continue our marching into the unknown even if we have a clear goal in mind…self-doubt reigns, as we see in the story of the spies, who report that the land is wonderful, but the people are powerful and stronger than they “”All the people that we saw in (the land) are men of great size…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Ah, self-doubt. Always powerful especially in moments of uncertainty and upheaval….and as we see here, when we see ourselves as powerless, small, when we don’t believe in ourselves….we project that out into the world and that is how others see us…Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, the early 19th century Hasidic rebbe, interpreted that God responded “Why are you so concerned about how you look in the eyes of the Canaanites, to the point that it distracts you from your sacred task?”

Sacred task. We are here tonight as individuals involved in the sacred task of building and sustaining community. Whether we have been here for a lifetime or have recently joined our congregation, whether we are stepping on or off the board, or don’t have an official position as a lay leader, we care enough to be here tonight when there are lots of other demands on our time and energy. In being here we are exemplifying our tradition’s deeply held value of community being so important as to supercede nearly everything else.

A midrash teaches that to remove oneself from the community is equivalent to destroying the world! “If one makes oneself like terumah (the portion of produce set aside as an offering) set aside in the corner of the house and says “why should i trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine without this…this person destroys the world.” !!! Participation in communal affairs is a religious obligation. Another story, from the Talmud, asks whether one who is taking care of a communal need must stop what they are doing to pray (fulfill the mitzvah of daily prayer). At least one modern authority, the Mishnah Berurah (19th century), concludes that one does not need to stop to pray.

So I urge you to remember that God “kidshanu b’mitzvotav vehtzivanu laasok b’tzorchei tzibbur” – sanctifies us with sacred obligations and commanded us to engage with the needs of the community…”

Source of all Life, Holy one of Blessing, Adonai, Elohei Avoteinu veh’imoteinu….God of our ancestors….guide us in our holy work of sustaining, nurturing, building and growing this beloved community….help us to remember that we are not alone….on this evening, in this room, we are surrounded by our chevra – our group of fellow travelers who share a care and concern for our congregation, and for whom this community is a place from which to be rooted….

So too we are connected to those who have come before us and those who will come after us – we are not the first group of Jews to struggle with all that comes with the work of maintaining a synagogue community, and in our historic, now 176 year old congregation, we aren’t the first group of leaders of TOS to navigate the challenges and to reap the blessings of this work…

As I was preparing the bookshelves in my new office to move my books in, I sorted through dozens of books and came across so much history–huge binders of notes from board meetings from the 19th century! If you want to get perspective…Booklets from the mid 20th century on synagogue leadership, avoiding burnout, how to have a successful synagogue administration…

We are not alone. Not horizontally – Jews alive today – nor vertically – before and after. We are bound up together in a sacred story – the story of a people whom, as I spoke about on Erev Rosh Hashanah, always believe that where we are is not where we will always be….that the future is not pre-determined, but ours to create…that it is up to us, that we are a partner in a sacred partnership, active partners in a covenant, bound to continue the ongoing work of the building, sustaining, and healing of our world.

Though change, transformation, moving along a journey, are all central to our identity as Jews and as a community, and we will continue to evolve – as a synagogue community is like a living organism….my hope is that we will all feel on more stable ground after many years of many transitions….that we can feel a sense of coherence as a team working for the common good of this community, hearts and minds and hands working together for a sacred purpose – cultivating connection, compassion, and community as we join together and live out our holy obligation as Jews (and fellow travelers) to be as the Talmud describes the people of Israel: “aravim zeh la’zeh” – responsible for one another.