The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 18, 2018 at Kol Nidre, erev Yom Kippur.
I am about to exercise my rabbinic privilege on this the holiest night of the year, and I am going to do so by telling you a corny joke.
This joke recently came to mind when I was talking with a member of our shul about why we come to shul. The joke goes like this:
A child is talking to her father, and says: Dad, how come you go to shul? Her father says, “What kind of a question is that?” The child says, “ I know you are a non-believer, an atheist, an agnostic, or whatever; so why would you go to shul?”
The child’s father says, “Goldberg goes to shul.” The child says, “So what? What kind of an answer is that?” The father says, “Goldberg goes to shul to talk to God; I go to shul to talk to Goldberg!”
See, I love this joke. I love this joke because its not really even that big a joke. Some of us come to shul to talk to God. Some of us come to shul to talk to Goldberg. As you’ve heard me say by now, hopefully, there is nothing older than a Jewish atheist! There is nothing more Jewish than a Jewish athiest. And I’m not convinced that coming to shul just to talk to Goldberg is much of a problem, honestly.
This is the moment to say that when we are called to pray, called to sing our hearts out and vocalize through ancient words our hearts deepest yearnings, find our stories in the stories of our claimed collective forebears, that we need each other to do so. We do need each other to pray, to really yearn, seek, ask, and allow ourselves to find the answers we so need. Your prayers in the shower, or after near misses from what could have been major traffic accidents, those prayers are just as holy. But there is something we are all getting to know a bit better this year about what it can mean to pray in loving community. It resonates louder off the walls, flows easier from our lips, allows us to spend less energy bobbing and weaving out of fear for what painful message might be said to us, and just be able to show up.
There are so many elements that make up a community, but just one of them is prayer. Many elements that turn us from a group of people into a sanctified, beloved congregation. I love that phrase, “beloved community.” I use it all the time, b’shem, in the name of Dr. MLK Jr. Beloved community, and its connections to the concept of covenantal community, is as Rabbi Sid Schwartz describes is:
A group of people who intentionally enter into a mutual obligatory relationship in which they commit to: a) a common mission; and b) give of their time and psychic energy to support the viability of the group and the material and spiritual needs of the members of the group.
The goal--what we are building toward, is not VICTORY. Is not ABSOLUTE POWER. The end is dwelling in beloved community, supporting the material and spiritual needs of the members of our group. If that is not an image of the world to come…
It is not enough to come to shul to just pray--but oh, the praying can sure be sweeter in beloved community.
But it is not enough to come to shul to pray. Honestly. You could davven at home, or join a minyan and never stay for the oneg, never go to a study session, be an anonymous prayer at the back of the room. It is not enough to come to shul to pray. You may cross off your daily obligation from the list, but you’re not yotzei, complete. What, then does it mean to attend shul?
The answer for us is at the intersection of religious obligation and beloved community. One example:
The kaddish prayer is written in Aramaic, and comes in four forms. You’ve heard it-- yitkadal vyitkadash shmei rabah…The kaddish is said as a doorway between parts of the service. To sanctify the end of learning, the Kaddish d’Rabanan. To sanctify one part of a service and entering into another, the hatzi kaddish. To mark the end of the amidah prayer, kaddish titkabal, that our prayers should be received. To mark the end of a reading of scriptural texts, or to be recited by mourners, the Kaddish Shalem, also known as the Kaddish Yatom, mourner’s kaddish. Almost exactly similar, save a paragraph or two, these prayers are paradoxically identical translations. How could the mourner’s kaddish say the same things as a prayer said to distinguish between parts of a service? A prayer that holds the heartbreak of generations upon generations, to be said at other times and mean other things?
Due to the importance of the words of the kaddish, sanctifying the holiness of God, we must extend extreme care when saying the words the congregation calls in response, yehei shmei rabbah mevorach l’olam v’ed. The Shulchan Aruch, codex of law and practice, tells us it is because of this we must be careful to not let our minds wander or chatter. In the Talmud (Shabbat 119b,) says that anyone who answers "Amen, Yehei Shemei rabba…" with complete concentration, that a harsh decree of seventy years of judgment against them is torn up. Not bad.
Why is that? Perhaps its the merit of declaring “May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.” Perhaps, in the context of the mourner’s kaddish, that the communal response comes out of love for the mourner. Where religious obligation and beloved community meet. If you have ever said the mourner’s kaddish, you know what i feels like to stumble, or coast, through the words, and know to wait for the chorus of hearing your community chime in with the right phrase, you know a phrase as simple as one that declares “may His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity” can say a lot more, when you hear your community call it out.
When I was sitting with so many of you for the past 2 years over coffees, asking “what is it you need in a synagogue community,” I heard this one idea over and over again.
“I don’t need anymore friends.”
“I don’t need anymore friends! What I need is people that I can be accountable to. That are accountable to me.”
What I heard from you again and again over countless lattes was this idea that there is friendship, and then there is communityship. Covenantal, beloved community, that not only checks in, but shows up. Shows out. Is present, consistent, and reliable.
What does this mean?
This means when we are missing, we will be noticed.
This means when we are sick, we will be supported with meals, rides to the doctor, listening ears.
This means when we are hurting, we will be surrounded with comfort, understanding.
This means when we are broke, just so, so broke, we will find our community gathering to help pay our bills.
This means when we are stuck out in the cold, we will have more than enough places to rest and sleep.
This means that when we have to move, we will have many hands packing boxes.
Do you do these things for your friends? Sure, I hope so. We help our friends pack, call them when we notice they haven’t been around much lately. Do we do this for near-strangers? Probably not as much.
“I don’t need anymore friends.”
Maybe like me, you’re new year, and actually yes do need friends--but stay with me on this. What is the category beyond friendship, that somehow brings with it a different kind, not better, but holier, value? This spot, where mutual aid and personal practice meet, is where beloved community dwells.
This discussion we land in is in the process of arguing about Moses burial, which is in some tellings done by an anonymous stranger, in some tellings, by God Godsself. So right before the part we’ll play with, Rabbi Chama bar Ḥanina asks this question: how can we truly “walk in God’s ways? God is elsewhere described as a vengeful, firey God!” Unapproachable!
So, Rabbi Chama explains to us:
He explains: Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He.
He provides several examples. Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too,should you clothe the naked.
Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: “And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick.
Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners.
Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.
Through this classic play by play device, Rabbi Chama bar Chanina shows us four instances we can learn about God’s attributes. When Adam and Eve are naked in the garden of Eden, God clothes the naked. When Abraham is recovering from his circumcision, God visits him personally, visits the sick. When Isaac is mourning his father Abraham, God comforts him. And when Moses dies, God buries him. When we behave in these ways, we are behaving like the Divine. When we do these actions, we are Godly beings. When we accept these things, accept care, comfort, we are in a Divine cycle of care.
I stand before you tonight to tell you we have had enough praying. We need to talk to Goldberg more. And more than that--when you go to shul, and see that Goldberg isn’t there, we need to follow up with Goldberg. Find out if he’s ok. Listen deeply for the answers.
It is a fact that within our congregation, even in our first year of convening, we have failed each other. We are soaring and flying and building beyond our wildest dreams, yes. But this year, we must account for the harm we have done. “This is not the fast I desire,” proclaims Isaiah in our haftorah tomorrow morning. “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers!” (Isaiah 58:4).
There are members of our congregation who have been ignored, overlooked. Members of our congregation who come to events over and over without being engaged, having their name remembered, asked after. We can talk a big talk, work on our most in-line political values statements, plan amazing parties, study beautiful texts and make sparks fly, but if we are not being KIND, extending lovingkindness and care to one another, if we are not accepting care when it is offered with a full heart, we have failed.
We can repair.
We can repair with those we have hurt. We can prove our teshuvah, complete our teshuvah, by doing better next time. Extending words of welcome. Invitations to join at your small shmoozing circle. Remembering details about the person next to you. “I don’t need anymore friends.” What we do need, what will help us survive, are covenanted relationships. Above my desk hangs a print, “Small Acts Transform the World.” It is, like Pirkei Avot teaches, that the space between two people that can transform. Sanctify.
This year it is no small act to extend care. To invite someone in our community to a service at Hinenu, or to a meal at your home. To call someone who you haven’t seen for a few weeks to check in. To reach out to a mourner not just the week of shiva, but a random night three months later, just to see how they’re doing. To follow up, to follow up again, to come knocking until you know a dear one is alright. To not just surface level check the box.
This is not straightforward stuff. It is awkward to ask for. Awkward still to offer. We live in a world in which independence is the value, and interdependence is weakness. But all of us know personally of times we have given care, and times we have received it. Over our lifetimes, may they be long, healthy, and blessed, we have and will continue to both give and receive acts of chesed, loving kindness. We are never only one role, no matter what.
If you are not familiar with the language of care work, of the holy white fire on black fire--often invisible, often feminized, always needed, take 5779 to familiarize yourself with it. Who do you expect care from, without realizing? When do niceties, or favors, happen for you without your acknowledgement? How often do you extend the same loving kindness to others, without expectation of praise? How can you care for others as you so generously are extended care?
This year it is no small act to receive care. To ask for a ride to the grocery store. To let people at shul know you’re hurting, and prayers for healing and text messages would go a long way. To ask for childcare support.
If you are not familiar with the swaddling warmth of receiving care, the ease it can bring, the knots it might undo in your chest and shoulders, take 5779 to familiarize yourself with it. How could you open up to trust it when care comes, rapping on the window like an insistent bird? How can you allow others to care for you as you so generously offer care?
This year we have another chance.
To respond with full focus and concentration to the kaddish, say “yehei shmei rabbah mevorach l’olam vaed.” To see the seventy year decree against us torn up.
This year we have another chance.
To weave networks of kinship, interdependence, vulnerability, and strength, and to weave those bonds through acts of loving kindness.
This year we have another chance.
To forgive each other when we mess up. To ask for what we need. To get proud, to get brave. To lift each other up. To behave like God--whoever She may be. To transform the world through our small actions.
May this be a year in which we see the face of God in one another, and act accordingly.