Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue. Part 3: A Call to Hesed

Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue. Part 3:
A Call to Hesed
Kol Nidre, 5769
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

A man comes to the Thursday morning minyan who is saying kaddish for his recently deceased father. To all of our disappointment on that particular morning, we fail to reach a minyan and he is unable to recite the kaddish for his father. He becomes upset. He complains to me that the synagogue has an obligation to provide a daily minyan, so mourners like himself can say kaddish.

I responded to him politely, “Did you ever attend the minyan before your father died?”
He said, “No, I did not have the time.”

I then asked him, “If you are not willing to help someone else say kaddish by attending the minyan, why do you expect others to do it for you?”

This story is a microcosm of our country. We have forgotten the virtue of sacrifice and service. One of the good things about this election cycle is that both candidates speak strongly to the value of sacrifice and service. They exemplify it by their personal biographies. One was a courageous war hero; the other was a fearless community organizer. Both served causes greater than themselves. Because of their example they will be better able to call on us to sacrifice and serve in ways that leaders in recent years failed to do.

The failure to lead by example is perhaps most evident after the catastrophe of 9/11. In the weeks and months after that horrible attack the most memorable message that came from the White House was to go back to shopping. The president, with the nation united behind him could have called on the country to wean itself off its oil dependency by imposing a stiff tax on gasoline and putting major government resources toward energy independence.
In the years that followed America entered two wars which were fought by a professional army that spared the country from the need to spread the heavy burden of fighting foreign wars from the bulk of the citizenry. Meanwhile at home we entered a housing bubble which caused a frenzy of greed and self dealing which we are only now beginning to see the consequences.

I believe that the peeved man at the minyan who complains about the synagogue’s failure to mount a minyan for him is an indirect result of a culture and an era in which sacrifice and service is overshadowed by selfishness and self dealing. This is not only reflected on the national level. As the story of the minyan demonstrates it is most evident on the local level in our communities, our activities, and our attitudes.

Why did we lose our way?

A prominent cultural critic reports about a survey of younger Americans. When they were asked if they would like to reserve the right to be tried by a jury of peers they all said 'of course'; then when they were asked if they would agree to serve on the jury, they said, 'no, of course not.'. They had more important things to do. We want benefits; we avoid responsibilities. This pervades all realms, politics, economics, and religion.
We lost our way because we look at our religious institutions just like we look at any other service we use in modern life.

get article about fungible property from Garret materials 2. Get Dione book on politics. 3. Get article about community from support group. 3. Read the good society by BellahI received a letter from a resigning member who expressed admiration for Beth Shalom, but then wrote in the next sentence: "Since we do not use the congregation we have decided to terminate our membership."
An astute observer of contemporary religion, Rabbi Larwence Hoffman, writes that we join organizations and hold them responsible, or liable, for a limited list of services. He calls these limited liability associations. Members see themselves as consumers of goods or "special experiences" - that is, we view the basis of our association with a synagogue in the same way we might join a health club for the exercise machines. You get what you pay for. Because market thinking and language so pervades the way we look at the world, we look now at our communities as entities that exchange value with us. They get our membership (i.e. our money and even our time) and we get their offerings and special goods. When we have no use for their services we discard community like an obsolete record player.

Institutions also treat their members as consumers. I recently read a promotion for a synagogue, which promises prospective members that by joining you can access the Rabbis for your personal and spiritual needs. The synagogue, like any business, exists to provide customer satisfaction and reinforces the perception that the community offers and provides for our needs, but does not make claims on us.

But perhaps the most devastating cause for the decline of sacrifice and service is the physical demographics of American life that weaken, even severe relationships. Americans experience change and disruption in our lives more than at any time in our history. We move an average of once every 5 years. Fewer and fewer Americans live near their parents or extended family. Every one of us knows someone (if not ourselves) whose life has been profoundly disrupted by divorce and family breakup. Economic factors wreak havoc on families who face sudden unemployment and sharp declines in the standard of living. Because of this reality people have less and less time to devote to community and volunteering.
At Beth Shalom over the years we have faced severe demographic realities that have altered our community and have weakened the ties that we have with each other. So many of our long term members no longer have children in the area. Many of our younger members are transplants whose parents and relatives live elsewhere.

The result of the trends in the culture and the demographics on the ground present us with real challenges in building community and a culture of service and sacrifice in our congregation. The single most difficult reality of our congregation is that the older generation and the younger generations do not know each other. Because we don’t know each other, it is more difficult to bring us together in common purpose.
Because of the different and disparate groups in our congregation, it is likely that someone in the congregation may feel their needs are not being met. And because we live in a culture where needs are more important than duties or sacrifice, there is a certain static of dissatisfaction which can hinder our ability to move forward to forge a stronger community.

There is a way out of this predicament.

“It was taught: Rabbi Meir used to say: What is meant by the Scriptural text, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all human beings, and the living will lay it to his heart, (Kohelet 7:2). What is meant by "and the living will lay it to his heart?" Let him realize that if a man mourns for other people others will also mourn for him; if he buries other people, others will also bury him; if he lifts up his voice to lament for others, others will lift up their voices to lament for him; if he escorts others to the grave others will also escort him; if he carries others to their last resting place others will carry him.”

This is the first step toward creating community. The foundation of community is the importance of relationships. When we give to someone else, it creates a chain reaction of mutuality. Note that the text does not say. “Let him realize that if a man mourns for his friends, his friends will mourn for him.” The text clearly says “other people”. The key to mutuality, sacrifice, and service in a community is the continual building of relationships between people where they have opportunities to help each other and to serve others. A community must constantly open new opportunities for new or renewed relationships that cut across generations, families, and groups and bind all of them together in common purpose and meaning.

It is in the context of relationships that we can make claims on others and that others make claims on us. The challenge for a congregation like ourselves is to find a common meeting ground for relationships to form and for people to have real opportunities to help each other.

As you may recall, the theme of my High Holiday sermons this year is to “Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue.” Syn, spelled, S-Y-N means to bring together. Our goal this year is to create both joyful and meaningful ways for relationships to form in our congregation. On Rosh Hashannah I spoke about our new approach to Shabbat which encourages people to celebrate Shabbat at home with friends and guests with the help of Shabbat Animators provided by our congregation. On the second day of Rosh Hashannah I spoke about new approaches to invigorate worship at Beth Shalom. The underlying thread to everything we do is to foster an environment where people meet each other, bridges are crossed, new relationships are forged. This is the precondition for a community where there is mutuality, sacrifice, and service.

Today I ask the congregation to step forward on the most important piece of our effort at communal renewal. We want to build community by inviting everyone in our community to engage in Gemilut Hasadim-acts of loving kindness within our community.

What is Gemilut Hasadim?

Gemilut Hasadim translates as acts of loving kindness. The Rabbi’s teach that we engage in Gemilut Hasadim because it is what God does.

"To walk in all His ways" (Deuteronomy 11:22). These are the ways of the Holy One: "gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon. . . ." (Exodus 34:6). This means that just as God is gracious and compas­sionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate. "The Lord is faithful in all His ways and loving in all His deeds" (Psalm 145:17). As the Holy One is faithful, you too must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving, you too must be loving.

The task of human beings is to imitate God. The Jewish conception of God as compassionate is even more important than the idea that God is One. Our notion is that God is good and that God’s goodness makes a claim on us to commit ourselves in every aspect of our lives to being good. We have a transcendent responsibility to act with loving kindness.

Gemilut Hasadim is greater than Tzedaka-a gift of money to the poor.

Our Rabbis taught: Deeds of loving kindness are superior to tzedaka in three respects. Tzedaka can be accomplished only with money; deeds of loving kindness can be accomplished through personal involve­ment as well as with money. Tzedaka can be given only to the poor; deeds of loving kindness can be done for both rich and poor. Tzedaka applies only to the living; deeds of loving kindness apply to both the living and the dead.

In other words, Gemilut Hasadim creates an arena of generosity and mutuality which enables people to help each other regardless of their income, or their age, or their standing in the community. It concentrates our acts of sacrifice and service on real people, creating relationships that bind each of us to another. And it is these acts more than prayer or ritual that bind us to God, whether we believe in God or not.

Our tradition even teaches us that if we don’t believe in God, we should act as if we did by engaging in acts of loving kindness. Gemilut Hasadim is an equal opportunity mitzvah. You don’t have to know Hebrew, be versed in Talmud, be a Jew by birth, or even believe in God. Yet our tradition sees a life built around Gemilut Hasadim as the most authentic Jewish way of living.

Today we introduce to the congregation the Temple Beth Shalom Hesed Society. (I ask Michele Sztraicher and Amanda Rudman who are chairing the Hesed Society to come forward). Michele, Amanda, and I invite members of TBS to join us as we strive to create a congregation wide commitment to gemilut hasadim. Our efforts initially will focus on 4 areas:

We need people to help prepare dishes and food, run errands and deliver meals, attend a shivah minyan, or serve as an occasional greeter at Shabbat services.

To succeed we will need people to volunteer on two levels. We ask every member to sign up to be on our help list when there is a need. We ask a smaller number of members to give a greater commitment to serve as neighborhood captains as we divide the congregation into at least 6 neighborhood groupings. The job of the neighborhood captains will be to coordinate neighborhood help for a member who is in need. Our coordinators will also ask people to serve as greeters at services to welcome members and guests to foster a more welcoming environment at our congregation.

More important is our call to all of you to let us know when you are in need. If you have a loss, or you are sick or injured, or you have a new baby, or you are going through a rough spot, please let us know. We ask you to make room for your congregation to help you in your time of need. By doing so you give opportunity for people to help you and to create a more caring community for everyone.

I hope in the future that you will be able to come to synagogue on this holiest day of the year and you will see people who came to your home to make it possible for you to say kaddish when you lost someone special, or you will see that person who visited you at the hospital when you were sick, or brought you a meal after your baby was born. I hope you will encounter people will come to you to express their gratitude for the kindness you extended to them in their time of need. We can then look at each other and truly revel in the sense of having fulfilled our purpose as a holy community. For in truly caring and sacrificing for each other we become a holy congregation.

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