Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


James was the front office guy at Temple Israel in Boston—the first congregation that I served as a rabbi. He was the first person you’d see when you walked in the door and he was just about the kindest person you could ever meet. For example, he had worked there for about a week when he heard that another staff member’s daughter needed a kidney transplant to save her life. He decided that he was definitely going to be a match, and then he donated his kidney to her, and then he saved her life. Save for our own Harriet, you want James at the front desk of every synagogue across the nation. So one day, I witnessed a conversation between James and a woman who was considering joining Temple Israel. I was a distance away, so at first all I saw were two very confused faces looking at each other and gesticulating…Jewishly.

As I got closer to see if I could help, I heard their exchange. She was saying: No, I understand how much the temple dues are, that’s fine, but what do I get for them? How many funerals? How many bar mitzvahs? And James was looking back at her…just lost.

We get it, though, right? She was relating to her soon-to-be-synagogue as if it were every single other entity that we relate to on a given day. And why shouldn’t she expect that it would be the same? We pay money, we get to see one movie. We pay money, we get a month of working out at our gym.

We pay money, we get an hour with our therapist. We pay money, we get our Pumpkin Spiced Latte. Do not judge me, those are delicious.

So why wouldn’t it be—You pay money, you get two funerals and one bat mitzvah and 10% off on a bris? If it appears as if James and this woman were speaking different languages—I think it’s because they were.

Most of the world functions just as this woman had proposed—a fee for service model based on a transaction. But the itty bitty corner of this world that we insist on occupying, is a response and a remedy to the idea that that such a transaction is all we need or all we want or all we are.

Your sitting here today with a prayer book in your hands, near other people doing the same, talking about things like God, praying about things like our souls, singing about things like the impact of our actions on one another is an answer to this woman’s sincere question. Your decision to be here together, to begin a new year with purpose, is the spark of resistance that says that we want to be part of something different.

And it is why I am so unbelievably honored to take my place on this bima, to stand as your rabbi where great rabbis and leaders have stood, including our rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman, and such historic figures as Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus.

Because you already know that sacred community is more than a transaction and it is ours to wrest that vision from the grips and gravitational pull of the transactional culture that insists that I am worth what I am able to buy, and that I walk this world alone, rather than as part of something greater than myself.

There are very few institutions today whose primary “business” is the state of our souls and whose currency is the building of real relationships in community. Very few institutions that care about whether we’ve recently lost our parent and are now feeling untethered, like we don’t know where to turn. Very few institutions who hold us in our heartbreak when our kids are struggling or when we’ve lost our job or lost our way. Who are so serious about experiencing joy. Who place value on dancing with us at our wedding, coming together to repair our world, and making meaning out of life’s transitions.

This world we live in can be lonely, painful, and exhausting. A recent study shows that loneliness takes as big a toll on our lives as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. Being in primarily transactional relationships is literally killing us.

So what’s the alternative?

I think the first time I was part of something I could call a sacred community was in college. See, I went to college with my emotional armor on, and my walls up. And that served me for awhile. It served me all through freshman year, and through those classy frat parties with the giant garbage cans full of funny punch. I was a bit numb, but I thought I felt mostly fine. And then I became friends with a group of people—there were six of us—and everything changed for me. I remember one night having a long conversation with one of them and we finished speaking and she said “I love you.” It bounced right off my protective armor and I felt awkward and confused by this easy way she spoke these words. So I laughed it off and said: “okay.” I know, it’s charming—who doesn’t want to have their “I love you” returned with an “okay,” but it felt very vulnerable and I liked my protective armor—or I thought I did.

And they could have, I suppose, just let me live with my walls up—but they didn’t. They had an “I love you” intervention with me. They told me, that no, this was not how this friendship was going to go. They would say I love you, and I would say it back. We would talk about real things and I was going to emote. And they introduced me to things like the Indigo Girls, and the moon, and the smell of lilacs.

And this process—it wasn’t easy. I cried because I knew I had been seen—like really me, not that me that I had put on to protect my soft middle. But this is when I learned to live without my armor. It was quite terrifying. I highly recommend it.

We let each other be our whole selves. We helped each other become more of the people that we were meant to be. And it was very clear to me that we were greater than the sum of our parts. This was, in fact, the first time that I could recognize what made a sacred community.

Now, Union Temple family and friends, I’m new here—just a few months in as your rabbi, and you may be wondering why I’m telling you all this or what it has to do with you.

It’s because we are on a journey together toward experiencing, unearthing, and most critically, building sacred community. A chance to be part of something greater than ourselves, that helps us discern our purpose and make meaning in our lives, that is about being in real and deep relationship with one another, that cries with us when we’re grieving, laughs with us when we’re celebrating, helps us become more who we are meant to become in the world, and allows us to be more powerful than we are alone. A community that challenges us, needs us – sees us. And helps us navigate this very difficult world we are in today.

So how do we do something of that magnitude? Well, first—there are profound examples of it already alive here.

Ours is a religious school where families of every kind of learner feel deeply held. Children who learn differently, neurotypical children, children who feel like an outsider in other classroom settings see this place as home and know that they are so loved here. That is sacred community.

Preschool families who have come to see their classroom as extended family, helping one another to navigate what it means to raise children to be joyful, healthy, curious, and safe today. That is sacred community.

We have long time members who have served together for decades as leaders in this community, but who also have supported one another through long illnesses and pain. That is sacred community, too. You know how to do this and so we will fan the flames where this dream has already ignited.

And second, well, our tradition has something to say about this.

Immediately before and immediately after we receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, there are two different building projects that take place. One is a blueprint for us for building sacred community, and the other, well, the other is an excellent example of what not to do.

The first building project of this time was a bright, shiny, sparkle-in-the-sun Golden Calf. It was not our greatest hour. Moses, our leader, had gone up the mountain to talk to God and we had become terrified that he was not coming back and we were now alone in the wilderness.

Out of a place of deep fear, we asked his brother Aaron to help us out. Aaron told us to give him the gold jewelry from our ears, which we did. He tossed it all into the fire and, as he would tell it later, out popped this Golden Calf. We danced around it, we touched it. We ooh’d and we ahh’d, and for a short bit, we felt a little better.

Shortly thereafter, Moses and God found us out. Aaron was chastised, the people were punished, and the Calf was destroyed. That didn’t go as well as they had hoped.

But there is a second building project that comes next. And everything about it acts as a corrective for what went wrong with that calf. God instructs Moses to build the mishkan. The mishkan, or the Tabernacle, is something of a very large carrying case, and it is what we use to carry the tablets of the Ten Commandments, across the wilderness to the Promised Land. To give you a slightly different context, it’s the thing that Indiana Jones is looking for in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And it is the mishkan that teaches us how to build and be in sacred community.

First—with the calf, Aaron demands only gold earrings from everyone. In contrast, for the mishkan, God tells Moses, vayikchu li t’rumah meieit kol ish asher yidveinu libo—to accept gifts from the people, as their heart so moves them. If you have purple thread, God says, offer your purple thread. If you have acacia wood and your heart is stirred by this project, bring your acacia wood.

If you have, inexplicably, dolphin skins, or tapestries, silver or gold, and you want to be part of building this thing, excellent!—We need your unique gift in order to be whole. And unlike Aaron, Moses will not construct the mishkan alone. Artists will craft it, builders will assemble it, the skilled, the inspired, the talented, the benefactors—all participating because their heart has been tingled and they need this thing, they want to be part of this thing. And they show up as part of the team. That is sacred community.

The second difference—The calf is meant to stand still and keep us stuck in one place, feeling safe and subdued. But the mishkan is dynamic and always on the move. It travels with us through the wilderness for forty years. It’s carried by poles on either side and we actually receive these architectural instructions—b’tab’ot ha’aron y’hiyu habadim, lo yasuru mimenu, these poles are to stay in their loops, connected to the mishkan at all times, even when we stop for the night. This is weird!

It would seem like when you put a thing down, you would take out the poles and tuck them away. But no. We are built to move!  If the Golden Calf is built from a place of fear and stuckness, the mishkan is built from a place of forward looking hope. And where are we headed? Well, over those 40 years, we move ever closer to the Promised Land, a land sweet with milk and honey, whose streams are overflowing. We might be afraid—we probably are, but the mishkan helps us point our ship and go—toward the dream, our eye always on getting somewhere better than we’re at now. That is sacred community.

The third difference. V’natata el ha’aron et ha’eidut—at the center of the mishkan, God instructs us to place the tablets, the physical written words of our pact with God. Which is to say, at the center of the mishkan, the people placed their values. A guiding commitment to how they were going to treat one another on the journey. At the center of the Calf is just calf.  The mishkan’s core is their covenant with one another. That is sacred community.

One more thing about the mishkan for now. We carry this big huge heavy thing for forty years—thanks God—and it takes all of us to shoulder the burden of its weight. Literally. Picture this big box, two poles on either side, and at the four corners, multiple people have to gather, get in place, bend their knees under it, count, and lift on three.

One, two, three—up! See, they needed to be aligned with one another, know each other’s capacity, know each other enough to trust each other to carry this thing together. They need to be in real relationship—not the utilitarian acquaintanceship of a transactional one. They are accountable to one another, knowing that together, they are much bigger than the sum of their parts. That is sacred community.

Most of our world is pretty calfy. And that’s okay. But it’s not enough. To live a life that vibrates with meaning and community that can sustain us, we need more. So how will we build something mishkanic instead?

For one—we are going to build this thing together—each of us seen and valued for the unique gifts we bring to the table. The gifts that yidvenu libo—that our hearts so move us to contribute. That’s what we are building.

Second—we will place our values at the center. Whether we are talking about raising our children or raising the sukkah, repairing the elevators, or repairing the world, we will be guided by our covenant with one another to act always with kindness, empathy, compassion, love, and respect. That is what we are building.

Third—we will build from a place of hope and point ourselves toward the future—even if we are afraid, especially when we are afraid, we will be always growing, moving, experimenting, journeying forward. That is what we are building.

And we know deep in our souls that there is no way that just one of us can carry this alone. We will work to deepen our real relationships with one another, develop our trust and become beautifully and lovingly accountable to one another. Because we are so much greater than the sum of our parts when we lift, together, on three. That is what we are building.

So what does this look like? Well, it can look like a lot of things.

When I was an organizer (and rabbi) in California, I had the honor of supporting congregations in their justice work. But we quickly discovered that of the 100 Reform congregations in the state, most felt disconnected from one another, competitive, powerless, and isolated. Pretty calfy, actually. In response to that painful truth, we decided to build ourselves a mishkan. We developed among ourselves real and deep relationships. We put our values of justice, trust, and respect, directly in the center.

We were so much stronger together than any congregation was alone, and we were most definitely moving toward somewhere better.

Our mishkan was a statewide base of the Reform Movement that could leverage our collective power for the good of the most vulnerable in California, ultimately helping to protect immigrants, win billions of dollars for affordable housing, addressing racial profiling in the criminal justice system, and more.

But before all that, we had to call the question to see if this is what we all wanted. So after months of preparation work, we asked the leaders: Should we build this statewide entity together. And Rabbi Janet Marder, a legend of a rabbi, looked at colleagues she had known for decades and answered: It finally feels like I’m part of a Movement, part of something bigger than myself. And Rabbi Mona Alfi, another rabbinic giant, said—and I’ll clean this up because well, it’s Rosh Hashanah. She said: It’s about…time!

And it taught me—we are hungry for this kind of community. We are lost without it. Human beings crave something this real and connected and the world—honestly—the world needs us to build communities that have purpose, and that care about our bodies and our souls and our families and our hearts and this broken world.

We will need all of us, whether you are sitting here a member of 40 years, or 4 years or 4 minutes. Or if you came here today for the first time because you were searching for some place to be where you could find a little of you or a little of God or a little of peoplehood, then welcome…we need all of us to build this holy thing.

I nearly don’t have the words to tell you how honored I am to build it with you, to carry it forward with you, to discover you and your dreams and your extraordinary gifts, and how we are more when we are together.

We have a road ahead of us, a lot to navigate as we figure out the next chapter of Union Temple…but ya know? The mishkan wasn’t built to travel over smooth ground. A paved walkway with street lights and stop signs and water stations. No, the mishkan was built to be carried through the wilderness. And the wilderness is a craggy, uneven, wild terrain. With obstacles to overcome and pitfalls to avoid. It is built for just this moment in our country, in the Jewish world, and in our congregation.

So we will navigate this bumpy road, a mishkan hoisted on our shoulders, the vision of a redemptive destination ahead of us, grateful for the journey – most grateful that we are not traveling it alone.

We lift on three, Union Temple. Shanah Tovah U’metukah, may this truly be a good and a sweet new year for all of us, for all the world. I’ll see you in the wilderness. Amen.