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Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5782 ~ Intentionality

Thirty-eight years ago, when I first left JTS as an ordained rabbi, I went to visit a congregation not too far from here on an interview.  They had a beautiful newer building and were looking for a young rabbi to inspire them on the next stage of their journey.  Throughout my visit, I heard from different people about how beautiful their new building was, but that they missed their old building. There were just some quirks in that building that they had been accustomed to. For example, on Shabbat morning, as the cantor began to chant the kedushah, inevitably a train rolled along the track right beside the building. Since the train was crossing over a city street, the conductor would blow the horn. You couldn’t change the time of the train, the signal, or yes, even the moment that that service happened. Moving to the new building, somewhat away from that railroad crossing, took away what was a familiar part of the service, and what became a part of a psychologically spiritual moment for the members who first established that shul. And in some ways, they wished that they could return to that makom, that place. They missed the train whistle. In many ways, they experienced what I might call “the Egypt syndrome.” What is the “Egypt syndrome?” The Torah describes how they would mutter and complain saying:  It would be better to be back in Egypt with the cucumbers and leeks that we had, than being here in this desert.  The negative memories of the past had somehow transformed into a positive sense of the past.

In the Book of Ezra, we find that the exiles from Babylon returning to Israel witness the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  The author shares with us that “Many of the priests and Levites and the chiefs of the clans, the old men who had seen the first house, wept loudly.  They had witnessed the destruction of the first Temple, and now were crying upon their return.  They were physically weeping.  The book does not tell us why. So, we must ask the question why were they crying?  Was it in joy of the sight of witnessing the rebuilding? Probably not, since the next verse describes that many others shouted joyously.  As we join with them in experiencing that moment of rebuilding, we are brought to realize that they are weeping at the same time that people that are rebuilding are joyously singing. And the text says that all of their voices came together, those that were crying and those that were joyously screaming, so that neither was recognizable. And it came together with a kol teruah, a voice of whatever the word teruah means. The text says of simcha, of joy, together with the weeping. But as we examine the blasts of the shofar, we know that is more of a staccato. So, what is that teruah or staccato?

Was it that this new house of God was lackluster in comparison to the original Temple built by Solomon? Most assuredly yes. And they wept for what was.  Might it be that after several years of exile they were disappointed simply because nothing was learned from the exile: it was the same thing built again. Hadn’t the exile taught them of the need to re-incorporate a new concept, recrafting in a new way, rather than the old? How do we intentionally build with a commitment to the new?

This past year I had the opportunity to study with Priyah Parker, who wrote both in the NY Times and in a book about the art of gathering. And she spoke about the intentionality of gathering. That every single thing we do whether it be at family dinner, at a religious service or at a lecture should have an articulated purpose. That intentionality is at the heart of the cries of those witnessing the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash.  They were saying, we now have the opportunity, to not just rebuild, to not just fall into our old habits, but we have to build a place of intentionality. Perhaps the author of the Book of Ezra is asking us to consider a question that goes one step beyond intentionality.

I think about the Pew study that indicates that within Jewish life here in America, Conservative Judaism has lost its luster.  It is no longer the religious practice or movement of choice. It served its purpose to acculturate the Eastern European Jewish community of the 20th Century into the American experience.  I read and listen to many rabbis questioning how their religious services should resume once they return to any model of service, Zoom, Hybrid, or all in person.  I am learning about the many shuls that are closing or merging. I am reading that many younger Jewish adults are either looking for authenticity in religious practice and a more meaningful and intentional realistic service. Just a few weeks ago, I spent time with one of our congregants at a bat mitzvah. She shared with me that one of her children attends the Central Synagogue in Manhattan.  She loves the services there as do her children because of the attendance, the melodies, and the participation. And then I think about what we have accomplished in our small haven on the sound during this past year. Musicians and cantors on Friday evenings; study sessions included in our Shabbat morning service, with readings by the congregation throughout. It is something that is not what any one of us might have expected for services a year ago or perhaps ever. We grew up with all in Hebrew, full seven aliyot, maftir and Haftorah. And then there was Musaf!  We continue to hold weekday services, both morning and evening. Several individuals have joined us from other communities. Some remind us that we have the only evening services in the area. And some join us to be with their families as they observe, birthdays, yahrzeits and year-long kaddish observances. Our Wednesday evening JETI programs continue to bring us all together to learn from each other.  I have enjoyed our Shabbat dinners on Zoom.  And the wonderful volunteers who have prepared so many wonderful meals and programs.  I believe in the concept of intentionality; it is how we have built our congregation into an intentionally meaningful experience.  

I know that many of us can hardly wait to go back to live and hybrid services. There is something about being in person, especially if we continue in our current form of services, that is not only hybrid in attendance, but hybrid in participation. The real issue here is not only the desire, but the intent of enough of us who are willing to be in person. Yes, the Law and Standards Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly has ruled that a hybrid count is permissible. Yet intentionality requires us to think in a more determined fashion of what that represents. That is a whole new challenge of hearing a teruah gedolah, a grand teruah, a grand staccato in Jewish life.

As our community moves forward in more than one dimension, I sense those same shouts of joy, and the tears, that teruah gedolah that is recorded in the book of Ezra.  In many ways it is similar to that rebuilding of the Second Temple by the returnees from Babylon. But the real question is, not how do we simply resurrect the old Beth El?  That is what those who returned from Babylon who experienced the destruction of the first Temple were weeping about.  It is intentionality versus returning to what was.  I possibly found some answers in our Torah reading for this morning.

The first takes place as Abraham and Isaac make their way on the beginning day of their journey. We join the first discussion recorded in the Torah between the father and the son. It begins with a question: Dad as a shepherd this does not make sense, you have brought with you the wood for the fire, but where is the sheep for slaughter?  What is really your intention? Most of us interpret Abraham’s answer to mean “don’t worry, son, God will show us!” But as I read it, Abraham is using the word “yirah,” not that God will show us, but God will have faith in us!” We simply need to have the “yirah,” the faith in witnessing the outcome…all it takes is faith. Today we might add faith not only in God, but in society, in science, in the people who are a part of our lives and the intentionality of those who of guiding our community beyond the past. To me, that value is most important as we build upon our future as a congregation and most hopefully as a community as well.

Aharon Halevi in Sefer Hinuch teaches us: “What is important here is the critical matter of trust among human beings. A society depends upon the faith people place in one another.  Without people feeling that they can rely upon one another – that others look out for what belongs to me and that I must look out for what belongs to them –society collapses into suspicion, selfishness, and bitter contention.” Perhaps, Abraham and Isaac only gained that trust following the experience of the Akeida, as one scholar recently coined it, the unbinding of Isaac.

But intentionality has more than one component to it.  As father and son continue along the path, the Torah states “vayelchu shneyhem yachdav,” the two walked together, father and son.  And here is the second lesson. We know the outcome…as Abraham is beginning to thrust the knife carefully and precisely towards his son, the angel of God calls out to Abraham, not once but twice, “Avraham, Avraham.” And Abraham stops and answers “hineni,” “I am here now in the present.” One has to be here…hineni, is that intentionality.

The third lesson is something that I only discovered while studying this story this year. It is an important message.  And we can only learn that message as we follow the father and son beyond our reading for today. As Isaac and Abraham, son and father descend the mountain the Torah states: “vayelchu yachdav.”  Notice that this time the word “shneyhem,” “the two of them,” is missing…they each walked yachad, as they left the area of the mountain.  I have often felt that this statement implied as the commentary in our Etz Hayim chumash states that they did not talk or walk together in life ever again.

So why does it say “yachdav” and why does it not say he walked alone. Rashi tells us that, if we really want to learn the value of this story, and the word “yachdav” then we need to look to the events that follow. Father and son, each go on their own path. Tucked away in the commentary Rashi suggests that they each intentionally departed on separate missions.  Following the death of Sarah, Abraham sets out to find a suitable wife for Isaac. He wants to comfort his son and knows that Isaac is thirty-seven years old in Torah years. And now having experienced an event that would redefine life itself in a mature way, Isaac was now ready. So much so that when he arrives at the well now having completed his mission, and is introduced to his bride to be, Rebecca, we are told that “he finds comfort.”  But that was his father’s mission.

I was fascinated by Rashi’s thought that Isaac at that moment was off on his own mission to bring comfort to his father as well.  Isaac has one goal at that moment, which is why the Torah leaves out the word, sheneyhem, the two together.

What was that mission? Remember Hagar from yesterday. She was Abraham’s mistress and Sarah’s servant.  She was banished together with her son, who was also Abraham’s son, due to Sarah’s jealousy. Rashi tells us that Isaac has gone back to Hagar, at the well where she remained, called “be’er lachai roi,” “the well of life has been “roi,” unveiled or reclaimed, to persuade Hagar to return to Abraham, and reclaim their relationship and renew it as husband and wife.  Abraham always found comfort with Hagar. And that is what caused the rift between him and Sarah. But now…Isaac wants to bring them back together. According to Rashi, it was no coincidence, that Isaac meets his new wife as she arrives upon the camel with Abraham, at the well where Isaac has just convinced Hagar to rekindle her relationship with his father, to fill the void left by Sarah’s death.

Without knowing, both father and son set out to help each other find comfort for one another and fill the void.  And that is our third lesson: Every good relationship, every good experience needs that quality of understanding. What they really wanted was to rekindle the “shneyhem.” It is that “shneyhem” that is the focus of intentionality within our congregational family for our community.

As a friend recently shared with me, intentionality is married to a need to experience and express happiness, even when at this moment our emotions might be contrary to that. Joy will evolve. Sometimes to find joy, we must find purpose and we must act upon it. That is what both Abraham and Isaac were able to achieve, by helping one another find comfort in their lives. The Book of Ezra teaches us that thought: “all of their voices came together, those that were crying and those that were joyously screaming, so that neither was recognizable.” And it came together with a kol teruah, a voice of whatever the word teruah means.

We will always sense that kol teruah, the sound of the staccato. We will always want to hear that train whistle. But it is now signaling to us that we need to adapt with a teruah gedolah experiencing the shenyhem , that intentionality, as a congregation, as a Jewish community, and simply in collegiality.

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784