Rosh Hashanah 2014: Vision, Action, Celebration

The modern Hasidic master Netivot Shalom writes: “There are multiple gates in a person’s life. Each new day is an opening, and each month—a larger portal. Then there is the grand gateway of Rosh Hashanah, the threshold of an entire year. What is a gateway? It’s the border between past and future; a place to pause and contemplate where it is you are about to enter and why you are going there.” On a global level, the world may feel more turbulent than ever before, but here at Beth Shalom we are enjoying a period of stability. Our lay leaders and staff are conscientious and devoted. Gan Shalom and our religious school are thriving. Our committees—Adult Programming, Till and Tend, Mitzvah, Chevra Kadisha, the Gathering, and many more—are providing us all with rich resources, support and guidance. Our membership is expanding vigorously; we are approaching two hundred families for the first time in years, and they include beloved friends who are returning. Just take a look around at the most tangible, recent symbol of our prosperity—our beautifully remodeled sanctuary, the product of strong vision, committed volunteers, and successful fundraising to which many of us contributed. Today, we can afford to pause on the threshold of the new year and take stock of who we are as a community and where we are heading.

Every summer, the Board and Rabbi set overlapping goals for our endeavors. This year, our primary objectives are threefold: to envision the future of Beth Shalom, to reinvigorate social action, and to celebrate our community. The priorities can be summarized under the headline: “see! do! party!” Now is the time to examine our future, strengthen the work in which we are engaged in the present, and celebrate the achievements of the past (because those successes made us into this thriving congregation). The triple framework corresponds to the fundamental activities that the High Holidays enjoin upon us—teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.

Let’s look first at teshuvah, which pairs with vision. Teshuvah entails reminding ourselves of our true intentions and correcting course when we have deviated. But there’s more to it. As Ron Wolfson writes in his book Relational Judaism: “Most of us look at others and see [only the mask]. Great people see through the mask and see others for who they are. The greatest of the great see others for who they are capable of becoming.” (p. 95) Wolfson’s observation on leadership applies equally well to each of us as individuals. Although the first stage of repentance requires breaking through layers of denial and returning to our true selves, a higher level of repentance involves “returning” (in quotes) to our augmented selves. To come back merely to the person we recognize today would be to sell ourselves short; a loftier goal is to envision the one we might yet become. We shift the baseline from present reality to an exalted reality that we haven’t realized yet. Vision is not the same thing as seeing. Seeing is descriptive; it describes things as they are Vision is prescriptive; it describes things the way they should be.

How do you envision Beth Shalom fifty years from now? Here’s a simple exercise for which, if you wish, you can close your eyes… Consider your ideal congregation, the synagogue of your hopes and dreams, the community that would make you feel proud to be part of, or else would make you want to join…. What are the three words that immediately come to mind to describe it?... Focus on the first word. What can you specifically do, what action can you take, to help bring Beth Shalom into alignment with this attribute?... I invite you to email me after the holiday your three-word list to describe the image of your ideal community. In the coming months, conversations are to be organized among all Beth Shalom members so that we may formulate a joint vision of our future together. Expect to be contacted and engaged. Like the great prophets of old, we seek a community that embodies and upholds the basic values of our tradition—tzedek u-mishpat, chesed ve-rachamim, justice and righteousness, compassion and caring.

Vision leads to action. As soon as we articulate of our noblest aspirations for Beth Shalom, we place upon ourselves the obligation to work toward fulfilling them. As private citizens, many of us already give our time and money generously to worthy local and global causes. We also donate freely to Jewish philanthropies, such as the Jewish Federations of North America, Hadassah, New Israel Fund, and others. Furthermore, Beth Shalom currently offers an array of volunteer opportunities throughout the year: participating in the CROP Walk (coming up in a few weeks), staffing the interfaith winter homeless shelter, serving Christmas lunch at the Shalom Center, the Homeward Bound walk in April, the Habitat for Humanity Women’s Build in May, and so on. What’s new for the coming year is that our recently formed Tikkun Olam “think tank” is developing social action initiatives that are focused, systemic, and embrace all members of the congregation. Just as the High Holiday liturgy places tzedakah at the fore of our consciousness (along with teshuvah and tefillah), we will be integrating social justice into every aspect of Beth Shalom programming (and, by the way, following the lead of the Till and Tend Committee, which has already raised awareness and successfully changed our patters of energy consumption community-wide).

Here’s another bit of introspection. Please answer the following question to yourself: “what is it that keeps you up at night the most?” The worry that preoccupies you—you don’t have to exit the Beth Shalom community in order to address it. Again, I’d like to hear from you. Email me your top concern, and together let’s find like-minded members who want to undertake the same challenge. Lest you consider the thought exercise academic and the invitation pro forma—just a few weeks ago, Deb Myerson asked me and Didi, our education director, to investigate Jewish resources for allowing pupils with special needs to participate fully in religious school life. With our encouragement, her request expanded into a proposal that the Board has quickly embraced, to form a new Beth Shalom Inclusion Committee charged with making our community welcoming and accessible to members and visitors of every age group, regardless of physical, mental or emotional limitations and challenges. If a member of Beth Shalom cares passionately about a cause and approaches me with her vision, then it is my job to help her find a way to develop and implement it as part of her Jewish practice.

The contemplation of humanity’s endless list of intractable problems—violence, bigotry, genocide, poverty, environmental degradation, and on and on—could easily paralyze us with despair. Why set out to perform tikkun olam, to repair the world, when the needs are so vast? It turns out that this Rosh Hashanah, 5775, ushers in the so-called shmitah year, literally, “the year of release.” The Torah redresses the environmental and economic evils of society once every seven years with two, sweeping stipulations: all land shall lie fallow, and all debts shall be cancelled. These commandments promote a conception of human beings living in harmony with each other and with the Earth. But are they realistic? How could the most basic economic system function, let alone today’s complex global economy, if agriculture and commerce ceased for even a single day? Indeed, many Biblical scholars believe that ancient Israel never actually enacted the utopian provisions of shmitah. Rather, like Shabbat, upon which it is modeled, shmitah serves to curb the innately human drive to “wrestle with the world and wring profit from the Earth.” (Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 13) Shabbat and shmitah teach us that because only God holds ultimate dominion over the human being and the Earth, we may exploit neither.

Why does the Torah demand that we pursue the unachievable goal of absolute social and environmental justice? Recently, in her drash entitled “something is better than nothing,” Aviva Orenstein quoted the Rabbinic adage: “it is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to be idle from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) One can turn the saying around: “to be free, you must be engaged in the task.” Our continual efforts to improve the world, even when we know our impact will be limited, are the mark of human agency and endurance—characteristics that set us part from all other living creatures. Besides, sometimes we do make a difference. For example, the Bloomington Friends of Israel recently met to plan fundraising for Israelis who suffered under this summer’s Hamas rockets. Rather than donating to a large philanthropy such as Magen David Adom, for which the proceeds amount to a drop in the bucket, they are researching and identifying a specific school, hospital, or township for which the contribution can satisfy a particular need.

The story of the starfish will have this evening’s final word on Tikkun Olam: “Once a man was walking along a beach littered with thousands of starfish stranded by the low tide, when he came upon a child throwing them back into the sea, one by one. ‘What are you doing?’ the man asked. ‘I'm saving the starfish,’ the child replied. ‘Why waste your time? There are so many you can't possibly rescue them all, so what does it matter?’ The child picked up another starfish and tossed it back into the water. ‘It mattered to this one,’ he said.”

We should measure our progress not by the number of starfish still lying in front of us but by the expanse of clean beach stretching behind. From time to time, we ought to pause on our journey to celebrate how far we’ve come. The coming year marks a conspicuous milestone. In May 1965, 43 Bloomington families and six individuals voted to establish the University Jewish Community. In the decades since, hundreds of others joined them to develop it into the thriving Congregation Beth Shalom that exists today. Two of the original four UJC officers are among us this evening: Joe Belth, vice-president, and Fran Weinberg, secretary. The Fiftieth Anniversary Planning Group has begun organizing and coordinating a variety of programs and activities, which will culminate in a gala dinner currently scheduled for May 16, 2015. Besides—of course—creating a grand opportunity to simply have fun, our goals include: to honor our ancestors, promote our history, strengthen existing relationships among us, build our community for the future, and recognize that Beth Shalom is bigger than any one of us. The last point—that each person takes part in, and benefits from, relations that transcend the individual—aligns celebration with tefillah, worship (the other element among the three High Holiday prescriptions). Both prayer and celebration are forms of praise, in which we express gratitude for our blessings. So, let’s take a moment for a final bit of introspection. This time, please identify one idea for our festive semi-centennial commemoration that you consider essential. What, in your mind, does every good party need? You guessed it: please send me your suggestion after the holidays. There’s nothing that I’d rather see more than my inbox flooded with emails.

If the ideals of shemitah, the seventh “year of release,” can animate social action at Beth Shalom, then the yovel, the fiftieth “year of the Jubilee,” can frame our anniversary celebration. The Jubilee features the same laws as for shemitah, plus one additional provision: all indentured servants are set free and return to their original landholdings. You just heard it! All Beth Shalom volunteers: go home! Actually, no—quite the opposite.

The primary concern of the Jubilee year is encapsulated in its ringing rejoinder: “proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof”—literally, ringing, because these words are inscribed upon the Liberty Bell. The Hebrew term for “liberty,” deror, occurs in only two other instances in the entire Bible, in contrast to the much more common words, chofesh and cheirut. Scholar Nechama Leibowitz sums up the difference. Chofesh and cheirut are negative attributes in relation to some obstacle—such as freedom from oppression, or freedom from work and obligations. Deror is a positive state of being that does not depend upon external circumstances. When we take a vacation (chofesh in modern Hebrew), going for long walks on the beach with no worries and no responsibilities—that’s not freedom, that’s escape. When we voluntarily give of ourselves to others, devoting our time and energy to worthy causes, even with their concomitant worries and responsibilities—that’s the true freedom of deror.

Celebration entails obligation. The recognition of past accomplishments motivates us to build upon them for the future. Thus, celebration leads full circle back to vision. Celebration, action, and vision are the intertwined practices that continuously link past, present, and future. No sooner do we achieve one goal than we are on to the next. In the words of Israeli songwriter Yoram Taharlev: “In this place toward which I am walking, there were people long before me.
They left a path;
they left a tree;
they left a stone for my feet. And what about me?
Shall I leave anything behind?” Here is my prayer for the shmitah year commencing this evening throughout the Jewish world and for the Jubilee year within our own community: may the age-old prophetic visions of a just society, the accomplishments of our Jewish forebears throughout the generations, and the devotion of Beth Shalom members since the day of the incorporation of the Bloomington Jewish community until today guide, sustain and inspire our efforts, so that at the centennial, may our successors celebrate with pride Congregation Beth Shalom’s continued strength and endurance, and remember us with gratitude.