Congregation – A Poem by Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman

Written June 10, 2021, for Temple Ohabei Shalom on the occasion of returning to our building on Beacon Street after 15 months.

When we outgrew cloud and fire
we built a place with our hands and all
that we could bring —
strong enough to hold You, and us, and
what we were to each other
but soft enough to come apart
and together
wherever we encamped.

And later, the place for us grew solid and steady.
We brought what we could — but our songs and sacrifices weren’t enough
to prevent white stone drenched in blood,
our sacred scrolls, menorahs, incense pans,
shattered, scattered, and burned.

We moved on, without cloud or fire or a dwelling place for You
except the words which began to arise in our hearts
broken open.
Light streamed in and
prayers were born.

We took our prayers
and layered them all over the world —
the four corners of the earth
and all the lands in between
offered up their languages, their landscapes,
their losses, their loves.

We wrote You song after song, and packed them neatly wherever we traveled.
If they were burned again,
we built again.
We sang them in Prague, in Shanghai, in Calcutta,
in Tehran, in St Petersburg, in Nairobi, even back in Jerusalem, and
in Boston and across the vast land of possibility
we built sanctuaries gilded and glittering,
stained glass and marble heard and echoed our praise,
our prayers.

We gathered under a dome inscribed with the wisdom we carried with us for millenia —
and generations knew You in the sound of voices joined in the hard wooden pews
and resounding from the balcony beyond.

And then we lost our place again —
such a familiar yet unexpected story.
We could not be together to say
“Help,” “Thanks,” “Wow” –
only single voices could reach across the ether.
Without voices joined
could You hear us
Could we hear You?
Our faces and arms and words and melodies
tried steadfastly to reach
the screen – across miles of ocean and land
Outward to the four corners of the earth.

Alone, and afraid,
we came together
to celebrate, to mourn, to honor the passage of time,
the holy wonder of life’s cycle.

No cloud, no fire, no desert mishkan, no Jerusalem Beit HaMikdash,
no gilded dome accompanied us-

Just our eyes, ears, hands and hearts
reaching toward
one another
and we found in them,

We sustained each other, kept each other in life, enabled each other to

this day –
returned to
this place
where we gather together

knowing that You are not above like a dome
or in front or around like a cloud or a pillar of fire
but in us, between us.

Be with us now as You were then. Chadesh yameinu kekedem.
As You were all along
as we were all along
for each other
in our time of exile
from this place.

May the memory of it be a blessing,
bringing us always close
to each other
and to You.

1 A reference to the pillar of fire and the cloud with which the divine presence accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness
2 A reference to the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE
3 A reference to the title of a book by Anne Lamott by the same name. Every prayer can fall into one of these categories.
4 “Dwelling place” – which stood at the center of the wilderness encampments
5 Literally: “The House of Holiness” – the name for the ancient Temples in Jerusalem

6 A reflexive form of the English translation of the Shehechiyanu prayer
7 “Renew our days as of old” – from the book of Lamentations (Eicha), also said throughout the High Holy Days and upon returning the Torah to the ark