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Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, Delivered January 22, 2021, Union Temple’s Final “On Our Own” Friday Night Shabbat Service

It’s the dark of night. The Israelites are in their homes, awake, alert, quiet, waiting for word from Moses. They can hardly believe that this day has come. By morning, they might be free. The past few weeks have been awful, every day worse than the one before it with Pharaoh getting even more erratic in his behavior, trying to hold onto his power. But now, they think, after all this time, they might be on the brink of their freedom. About to cross the threshold from their darkest days to an unwritten, but expansive future. And now they wait in their homes, alert, for word of what’s next.

Perhaps this feels like a familiar scenario this week. We held our breath to see if our former president would indeed let go of power, if our newly elected president would indeed take the oath of office. Like it was for our ancestors on the precipice of their release, the weeks leading up to this one moved at a feverish pace. Destructive orders were made quickly, death sentences were expedited, insurrection was attempted in a fury of chaos. And we waited, at the edge of our seats. Would our democracy hold? Would we make it to the other side? Would the world of possibility awaiting us on the other side remain dangerously out of reach?

But, like it was for our ancestors, morning did come. They and we turned the corner from their dark and tight places into a new chapter. They and we set a course for the future. They and we took a first step into a light we had almost forgotten was there. And Pharaoh faded into the distance.

It is, in fact, in this very Torah portion, right here, in Parshat Bo, in which our ancestors take their first steps out of the land of their oppression and toward what would come next.

And here, Torah offers us two verbs to describe the two things they do. Vayisu—they began their journey. Vayofu—And they baked! In this case, it was the bread, which would be the matzah. Vayisu, vayofu. Two verbs that are instructive for us in this moment. They left. And then they made sustenance. They produced nourishment. They created the warm food of productivity and creativity to feed their bodies, their children, their souls.

The first footprint they made on the sand was not the end of their journey. Leaving that night, stepping out into the crisp open air, was just the very beginning. What would come next was the heart of the work. Was the stuff of heroes. Now, they needed vayofu—to bake. To take raw ingredients and work them and turn them and rise them into sustenance and nourishment.

Next, as the work really began, they would need to ask the big questions that require great imagination: How do we live as free people? What are just and fair laws? What does it mean to be part of a covenant with people and God? What are we capable of? They had closed the door on one chapter and began a journey into the next. And now, the work continued.

So it is for us as a country today. We have crossed a critically important threshold. And now, the work continues. Vayisu, we have set off, and now vayofu, it is time to bake and cook up with these raw ingredients the country we want to live in. Now, we get to ask the big questions that require great imagination—What does a moral country really look like? How does a society that does not hinge on white supremacy act? Can we create that? How do we have a real reckoning for the sin of slavery? What would true reparations and truth and reconciliations look like? How should we govern if we truly believe that all people are created in the image of God? Could we take our raw ingredients and imagine a country that is not addicted to incarcerating its people? That does not simply accept that poverty must exist?

We’ve taken just one step forward. The journey of possibility now unfolds before us. But it is on us to dare to ask the questions that would really make us a new country. One chapter closes, one opens, and the work continues.

Union Temple, we, also can learn from this exquisite moment of threshold and chapter turning in our Torah and in our country. Now…in our tradition, when you make a comparison that has a very very opposite aspect to it, the word we say is l’hefech.

We are ending one chapter tonight and beginning a new chapter as well. L’hefech, though, on the obvious contrary…we are not leaving oppression and darkness. We are ending a glorious chapter. We don’t wait, afraid, with bated breath…we breathe deeply the sweet air of years of community and love and joy and grit that Union Temple has merited over the past many decades. We are moving from kodesh l’kodesh, from one holy place to the next holy place.

But this moment of transition, this heartbeat of time and space that is tonight, this service, reflects this moment in Torah, as well. The end of one chapter, the beginning of the next, and now the work continues. Vayisu…vayofu. We take a step forward, we make our first footprint in the sand, and the journey has begun. We exhale, we nod at one another with knowing looks about all that this moment is. And as soon as tomorrow, we find that it is time to begin the baking. To take our raw ingredients and to turn them into the next stages of nourishment and sustenance—the food that will feed our hearts and our minds for generations to come.

And like our ancestors and like our country, now, we now get to ask the big questions which require great imagination. We’ll join the ranks of our CBE family who are grappling with them, too. What does Jewish community mean today? Need today? How do we feed our thirsty souls and minds? How do we educate our children to love themselves and their neighbor, to care for this world, and to live their lives through the lens of Jewish tradition? What is our call to make this world a better place and how do we do it in ways that are healing? What do art and culture and poetry and food and dance and theater have to do with our spiritual lives and how can we weave together the beauty of this natural world into the prayer of our beating hearts. What does it mean to belong? Even as we take each other’s hands, squeeze hard, agree to not let go, and close the metaphorical door on this chapter of Union Temple’s story, vayofu…the next chapter already begins and we are its bakers, it’s architects, and writers, in loving partnership with our new family. We have big questions to ask and big answers to find. Our journey, and the work, continue, now with new breath, as we navigate the path ahead.

(On this evening, we then participated in Break-out groups with this question to discuss: What is the biggest question you have about our country right now and what is the biggest question you have about Jewish community right now.)

Thank you for participating in that. As we take our first step forward, we pause. We honor. We love. We celebrate. We gather up our ingredients, our recipes, we ready ourselves to be creators of new ideas and worlds, nourishment and sustenance. And now we step forth.

Blessing shared with the Union Temple community by Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, on the occasion of Union Temple’s last “on our own” Friday night Service, January 22, 2021:

Together now, we will offer a blessing for this moment of leaving and becoming. Of ending and of beginning. Of old family joining new. This blessing that we are about to say is a gift that has been given to us by Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus. She wrote it in 1998, for a merger of two congregations that she was part of. Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, as we know, is the daughter of Union Temple Rabbi Emeritus, and shaper of this holy community, Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, alav hashalom. Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus offered this prayer to us tonight as a gift, adding to it her wish for us that we be strong and form a wonderful and thriving union with CBE. (Just to note: I’ve adapted it a bit to fit our unique experience.)

Mah Tovu Ohalaecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places O Israel.

As we close this chapter in the story of our congregation,

Our memories go with us.

We recall at this time those joyous events we celebrated within these walls, and remember the smiles, the pride, the laughter, the tears.

Our memories go with us.

We remember baby namings, Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, Confirmations, weddings, anniversaries, and special occasions.

Our memories go with us.

We recall the cycle of Torah readings, Sabbaths of rest and learning, festive days, Purim costumes, kiddush in the Sukkah, Chanukah lights.

Our memories go with us.

We remember the solemnity of the High Holy Days, the music, the sound of the shofar, the grandeur of the liturgy, the reunions of family and friends.

Our memories go with us.

We recall the learning we did at tables of Torah, singing with our student cantors and delighting in being part of their journeys just beginning, the justice we have done with our hands and our hearts and our feet planted firmly for a better world.

Our memories go with us.

Just as we tuck into our hearts the precious recollections of all we have experienced as Union Temple, so we begin to prepare them immediately for use in a new day, a new way. We gather up all that is familiar, all that has shaped us and grown us and held us when we needed it most. We wear them as garments as we set our course for what’s next.

And our memories go with us.