I feel like it’s a strange time to take a sabbatical. The Jewish community feels all at once activated and depleted and hurting. There are lifecycle events I’m sad to be missing.
These moments are significant to the people going through them and they feel very special and spiritual to me personally. There are no holier spaces than the ones where we gather to sing, cry, comfort and praise together. They are holy because we are together. It’s hard to step away from something so spiritually affirming.
But when I think about it, I guess any time would be a strange time to take a sabbatical. Given that we are a community of humans in human relationships, there will always be members of our community who are sick, loved ones to bury, and babies to name. And when it comes to this moment in time, these difficult days politically and culturally, there’s really no “stepping away,” even if you do mute the news updates.
It then becomes clear to me how essential a sabbatical is. Just like you, I am activated, depleted, and hurting. Oh, and remember how we weathered a pandemic together? I am so grateful, then, for this gift you have given me - the gift of time. Thank you for giving me space to learn, rest, reconnect, and foster my own spirituality so that I can continue to help you do the same.
All that said, while the last few years, and especially the last few months, have brought stress and turmoil, they have also brought growth. The importance and relevance of the synagogue in the 21st century has never been more clear for me.
Synagogues…our synagogue…is a spiritual meeting ground where we encourage, confront and comfort each other. It is where we endeavor to be forward-moving, moral, connected humans. When we achieve this, we not only access God, but we help one another and society to thrive.
Doing this, though, requires deep listening, cultivating our capacity to hold complexity, and trust.
We all know that operating in that way is sometimes easier said than done. It is in our nature to judge others, or misinterpret their intentions and words. Sometimes we are so driven by our own goals and anxieties that we forget to open our perspective up to others. We are often caught reading our own agenda into people’s words and actions.
When it comes to cultivating the capacity to really hear and appreciate one another’s intentions, the Chofitz Chayim, an early 20th century sage, told a parable:
“There was once a man who was visiting a small town in Europe. It was Shabbat morning, and he went to the local synagogue. Everything was just as you might expect, until unusual things started happening. There were well-dressed, obviously prosperous people seated near the front, but all the honors for the Torah-reading were given to scruffy men who stood clustered at the back of the room. When it came time for the rabbi to say a few words of wisdom, all he spoke about was the weather. After the prayers were finished, lovely food was spread on the table and nobody ate.
The man was flummoxed by all these incomprehensible goings-on. What kind of place was this? Was everyone here crazy? Finally, he pulled aside one of the locals and asked, "What's going on here? The men who got the Torah honors, the rabbi's talk, the uneaten food… nothing makes any sense!"
The man explained, "Those scruffy looking men had been unjustly imprisoned and the community worked long and hard to ransom them to freedom. Isn't it wonderful that they are now free to come to bless the Torah? The rabbi spoke only about the weather because there has been an unusual drought this season and the farmers have nothing on their minds but their crops, and the rabbi knew and cared for their concerns. Why didn't anyone eat? One Shabbat every month the community prepares its usual lunch but instead of eating it, the food is donated to the local home for the elderly."
How often do we make similar assumptions behind people’s personal decisions, or their political views? How often does this happen in our own synagogue, where we neglect to see the care, concern and thought that went into temple affairs?
The Hebrew word for trust is “bitachon.” It comes from the word “betach” which means not only to trust, but to secure, to have confidence in, to make one feel safe.
Our job, as citizens, as humans, is to make one another feel safe. I truly believe it is as simple as that. We do that by having open, honest conversations and not jumping to conclusions. We give people space when they need space and we do not make demands without room for discussion. Every human being is full of fear and worry, trying their best. Let’s assuage their fears, rather than add to them.
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph brings his father to Egypt in order to escape the famine in Canaan. God senses Jacob’s concern. Not only is Jacob old, but he is concerned about leaving the land that was promised to him, that Abraham and Isaac toiled for. He doesn’t say any of this, but God understands it.
God comes to Jacob in a dream, saying, “Al tirah mehr-dah Mitzraymah - Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation…I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back.”
Jacob’s fears are not unfounded. Torah has made it clear that the Egyptians do not like the Hebrews. Also, why would Jacob willingly leave the Promised Land? God assures him that sometimes you have to go the circuitous route in order to get to where you really need to be. God assures Jacob: even in tough times, I am with you. You may suffer, but you will survive. That is the trust I represent and the trust you must have - that you will survive this.
Not only will our ancestors survive Egypt, but the Hebrews’ time there will be instrumental in cultivating the compassionate spirit towards others that we Jews are so proud of.
But just because we cultivated it once doesn’t mean we have to continue to find it within ourselves. Here in our own synagogue community, in our personal relationships and workplaces, in our towns and across the globe.
This is the simple message of our tradition: Be good to one another. The history of your ancestors has taught you to listen deeply. You are strong enough to hold emotional complexity. Trust in God, trust in one another.
Al tirah - don’t fear what comes your way, for you have one another.