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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah

The old joke goes that Jewish history and holidays can be summed up like this: "They tried to kill us. We beat them. Let's eat." Based upon years of rabbinical study and training, I believe I can simplify that analysis even further, by describing the essence of the Jewish experience in a single word: "Exile." The Torah begins with a tale of exile, when Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden of Eden. Our core narrative describes an extended exile in Egypt, first out of necessity to escape the famine in the land of Canaan, then under duress as slaves, and finally for forty years in the wilderness. The Torah itself was compiled by a committee of scribes working in exile in Babylon. Time after time the exiles returned to their homeland, only to be forced into exile, time and again, as a consequence of their inability to maintain holiness.

Why have we made exile such a central part of our identity? We could just say, "OK, here we are in Babylonia, or New York, or even Michigan. This is our home. We're happy here and our lives are good." But the Torah keeps reminding us of our brokenness, our separateness. As long as an angel with a flaming sword guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden, we are never fully home.

Let me be clear that the Torah is using geographical exile as a metaphor for spiritual exile. When we are unable to relate to our children, or get along with our employer, or pursue our life's purpose, then we find ourselves in exile.

It is this sober message that brings us back, year after year, to fill this sanctuary, to acknowledge how we each missed the mark in the past year, and to wipe the slate clean and lessen the likelihood of repeating our errors in the year to come.

When the rabbis designed the High Holiday observance, they selected a Torah reading about exile, but it is not an exile of the Jewish people, but rather an exile inflicted by the Jewish people. It is Sarah, the matriarch of the Jewish tribe, who banishes Hagar, her Egyptian handmaid and rival, along with Hagar's son Ishmael, the progenitor of the Arab people. The motives for this exile appear to be political rather than punitive. Sarah and God, each for their own reasons, wanted to make sure that Sarah's son Isaac, rather than his older half-brother Ishmael, would carry on the line of Abraham. Abraham himself opposed the banishment, but was outvoted two to one. So Hagar and Ishmael found themselves stranded in the wilderness. In its typically abbreviated style, the Torah narrative eloquently conveys their agony:

Hagar wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes and went and sat down at a distance, for she thought, "Let me not look on as the child dies." And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy.

The story continues: "And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink." The Midrash on Genesis claims that the reason Hagar filled the skin was because she didn't have faith in God and therefore was afraid that the well would run dry, just as Abraham's devotion to her had run dry. This loss of faith tells us something important about the nature of exile: hardship breeds lack of trust, and with lack of trust we cannot appreciate the gifts that are right in front of our eyes.

The sequence of this story is perfect for Rosh Hashanah. No sooner does the narrative describe the anguish of exile than it shifts into the blessings that the exiles are about to enjoy: Divine protection and an auspicious destiny as the father of a great nation. We are assured that there is light at the end of the tunnel for us as well. Like adolescence, graduate school, or even the long years of elementary Jewish education, the seemingly endless period of aimless wandering is there for a good purpose; it is preparing us to meet our ultimate goals; it's a necessary phase before attaining a desired outcome. Amidst all the tzorus, there is also hope.

Our ancestors, when wandering to strange new places, responded by forming kehillot, communities in exile. Even before the last Temple was destroyed, Jews scattered in the far corners of the known world built synagogues, set up administrative and judicial systems, and established facilities providing the full range of social and religious services. In the Diaspora, we continued to build kehillot. This synagogue model of the kehillah persisted in the shtetls of Eastern Europe until their destruction in the Shoah. We may have been in exile, and life was hard in so many ways, but the kehillah did much to raise the quality of life, to enable a Jewish civilization to flourish in exile, and to keep our hopes high for a new era of justice and peace.

Hagar's story dramatizes the need for creating a kehillah. Adrift in strange lands, struggling to survive, we cannot help but embrace the benefits of banding together as a community and helping one another to meet the full range of needs. In Diaspora, we build kehillah.

Which is what happened here in 1970. I don't know how the name "Kehillat Israel" was selected, but I do know that the founders were committed to quality Jewish education for their children, to full participation and responsibility for women, to empowering members to develop ritual skills and take on Jewish leadership, and to make the community's resources available regardless of anyone's ability to pay. These goals clearly suggest a commitment to meeting religious, cultural, and educational needs by creating a community of the Jewish people, a "Kehillat Israel."

So what is this kehillah we've built? It's different things for different people. It's a place to meet old friends and make new ones, to network for a job, to seek support in tough times. It's people who are there for you at a time of loss, sickness, or celebration. It's where we eat royally at every imaginable occasion. It's a long hallway that has been the favorite running track of generations of kids. And speaking of running tracks...

Rabbis and synagogue presidents sometimes point to expensive gym memberships as a way of reminding people that they really do have the disposable income to support their shuls with increased dues. But I prefer to compare us to those health clubs in a different way. Just as we may pay a healthy club fee and then not use all the great facilities for keeping fit and strong—on those occasions when we show up there at all—we may also treat synagogue or kehillah as an underutilized resource.

I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that this sanctuary is not quite as full on a typical Shabbat as it is this morning. But I suspect many are not even aware of other aspects of life in kehillah they could be taking advantage of, like our amazing Judaica library, our great website, our clubs, classes, and special interest groups. Then there's pastoral support. I'm available to meet with any of our members to deal with the full range of life issues, and can usually set up a meeting within a couple of days after you call; or on the spot in case of emergency. KI members will spring into action in times of need as well, in many ways both practical and otherwise. Because in Diaspora, we build kehillah.

Of course, a kehillah is a place for giving as well as receiving, and both can happen at the same time. Those who give their time and skills as volunteers typically receive the gifts of satisfaction for a job well done, an enriched social network, a chance to refine old skills and acquire new knowledge, and the recognition that your efforts, large or small, contribute to the overall well-being of the kehillah and its members. In contrast with the biblical power struggles of Sarah and Hagar, of Jacob and Esau, you are likely to find our kehillah open to embrace your sincere offer to take leadership, whether in hosting a kiddush, organizing a one-time initiative, or serving on our executive board. The primary theme of the book of Genesis is the passing down of the mantle of leadership from generation to generation. With our 40th anniversary coming up in just one year, this is a critical time for our younger members to step forward, to learn from our senior members and sustain what they have worked so hard to build up. And also to lead us in the changes that will assure that KI remains relevant and vital for the next generation. Because the kehillah we build in Diaspora must grow and adapt to meet new challenges.

The midrash praises Abraham for his kindness in providing generous provisions for Hagar and Ishmael on their journey. It's an especially relevant lesson in these tough economic times. We are called to assure that basic human needs are met. Thus we bring our offerings to synagogue for the Food Bank, much as our ancestors brought offerings to the Temple. We post notices of members seeking employment. Through your contributions the Rabbi's Discretionary Fund is able to offer a little bit of assistance to those in economic distress. And together, we provide support and comfort for those who are struggling, that they find the faith to persevere in hard times and never lose hope that a better day will come.

Beyond our synagogue community and the Lansing area, of course, there is the state, the nation, and the world. And here we may respectfully disagree about the best way to exercise our responsibility to provide for others. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the foremost ethicist and halakhist in the Conservative movement, wrote in his 2002 essay, "Substantive Justice: A Jewish Approach to Poverty," "Because the best type of aid by far is prevention of poverty in the first place, the clear mandate of the Jewish tradition is to support governmental and private programs of education in general and job training in particular." While personally I believe that our Jewish responsibility includes supporting a government that uses our tax dollars to help those in need, I respect that others that believe societal needs are better handled through private donations alone. But either way, as Jews we cannot ignore our collective responsibility to address the survival needs of the most vulnerable members of society. This includes the moral imperative that people in our society have access to adequate, affordable health care, for, again quoting Elliot Dorff, the priorities set by Jewish law begin with seeking "first to save life and health."

I won't delve further into the political ramifications of this imperative. I know many believe that discussions of political issues do not belong in the synagogue, and especially not in the sanctuary, regardless of what our texts have to teach us on these issues. Let me only say that as a rabbi, a Jew, and a twenty-first-century human being I pray for an end to poverty, homelessness, and starvation, that war and bloodshed cease, that no government or quasi-governmental power or terrorist group inflict mass cruelty on its citizens or its neighbors, that our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael can finally enjoy security and peace, and that the scourge of anti-semitism, along with all forms of prejudice and blind hatred, no longer pollute our planet.

I do want to mention some small ways in which KI members are working towards these goals. In addition to our contributions to the food bank, in the past year members have continued to volunteer regularly to serve meals to the hungry at Advent House. We have also participated in an interfaith initiative through Habitat for Humanity. And our religious school children have engaged in a number of activities to serve those in need as part of their "Heart Art" program. I'm pleased to say that this year the benefits of these activities are resonating beyond the local community, and perhaps may even make an indirect contribution to security in Israel. That may sound like wishful thinking, but it was this kind of wishful thinking that inspired the making of an unusual documentary film, aimed primarily at Arab communities in the West Bank, showing Jews, Christians, and Muslims living and working harmoniously together in the Greater Lansing area. The goal is to demonstrate that there are ways other than violence and terrorism to settle disputes, and to counter the propaganda of religious fanatics by showing the decency and intrinsic humanity of people of all faiths. KI's volunteer initiatives at Advent House and with Habitat for Humanity are featured prominently in the documentary. I would like to imagine that your image or that of your child on screen, smiling, helping, and interacting respectfully with Muslims and Christians just might be the catalyst that alters the perception of Jews for a single Palestinian youth; that this youth would otherwise have joined forces with Hamas; and that his refraining from participating in a terrorist attack just might save the life of at least one Jewish child in Israel. I would like to believe that our simple example of menschlichkeit can contribute to Israel's survival and bring her one step closer to living in peace with her neighbors. Abraham provided a loaf of bread and a sack of water for Hagar and Ishmael. When Abraham died, Ishmael returned to join his brother Isaac to bury their father. It may have been Abraham's small gesture of kindness that enabled the rival brothers to find peace together.

This brings us to the deeper, spiritual meaning of exile. Susan King, the founder of the genealogical network, describes "exile" as living in bondage to habitual patterns of selfishness, hatred, and delusion, patterns that have been passed on for generations and are tough to break. But in that spiritual exile too we build kehillah—a haven in a harsh world, where we can reflect on those patterns and loosen their grip. As the kehillah comes together every year at this time, we examine the consequences of the old ways of thinking and acting, we seek forgiveness from one another, we practice teshuvah to reverse these behaviors in the year to come, and we pray for atonement to lift the weight of patterned responses from our souls.

In ten days, when we close our observance of Yom Kippur with l'shanah ha'ba'ah birushalayim, "next year in Jerusalem," we are actually praying for an end to our spiritual exile, for the hope that we, as individuals and as a community, can live together in peace and harmony, in mutual trust and cooperation. If you take a moment and look around this room, you can acknowledge with deep gratitude everyone who has come together in this place, at this season, to make this dream into a reality.

L'shanah tovah.

September 2009

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