This is the time of year when things tend to slow down. People go away on vacation. Rabbis go away on vacation. It’s hot. Everyone moves a little more slowly. We’re looking ahead to the High Holidays and the beginning of the school year, but in the here and now, we look forward to little more than a tall glass of lemonade and a functioning air conditioning system.
But for some of us, this isn’t time off. For some of us, for the community of Congregation Eilat, this is a time to regroup, to envision, to imagine the future, and to begin to work toward making the vision a reality.
Torah study in most supplementary schools focuses on the stories of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus – the stories of our ancestors, the beginnings of our people and the defining moments of liberation and revelation. Not much is studied after Sinai. And yet, three full books of Torah are devoted to the wanderings in the wilderness, the consideration of holiness, and the transference of authority from Moses to Joshua as the Israelites prepare to enter and conquer the Land. It’s interesting that we talk about our people’s roots in our homeland, but we never make it back by the time we reach the end of Deuteronomy. We are still on the other side of the Jordan, looking in and preparing for battle.
Most of Torah, then, is the journey. Most of Torah is spent outside the Land, the Israelites either in bondage or wandering across the desolate landscape of Sinai and the Arava. They had an idea of what their destination would be like because scouts had gone in and come back filled with stories of its lushness. What remained for the newly freed slaves, or their descendants, was to keep that image of lushness before them and to find the courage to move into the Land and make it theirs once again. Holding on to the dream was no less difficult than finding the courage to make it reality. We have only to read of the many times the Israelites complained that life was so much better in Egypt. Food was plentiful. Life was predictable. Would that we had stayed, they kvetched.
You may already be aware that the metaphor of imagined past comfort to idealized future through difficult journey has become standard when talking to individuals about upheaval in their lives. People who have been in comfortable places – good work situations, happy home life, predictability – have sometimes found themselves thrust out into a cold, hard world where nothing is predictable. Marriages end. People we love die. Natural disasters devastate neighborhoods and whole cities. The economy hits a downturn. We find ourselves, to quote a friend, confronting a new normal, life as it has not been before, but as it is going to be from now on. We struggle to find meaning within this new normal, and after grieving for our loss, we begin to imagine how life should be, might be. And we begin to rebuild. It’s in that space between defining our future and realizing it that we speak of being in the midbar, the wilderness where we know we have not yet arrived, but we know as well that this is not where we would ever choose to be permanently. The midbar, the journey, and how we make our way, is as important to our survival as our ultimate arrival on the other side of the Jordan.
Such is the use of the metaphor of journey in individual lives. But the metaphor applies as well, I think, to organizations, and in particular to synagogues. We all know of congregations that began small, grew either slowly or quickly, but consistently, and while they may have had to survive a few small setbacks, they continue to flourish. But others have journeys not quite so easy. They began with high hopes, had several years of growth and vitality, and then Stuff happened. The details are irrelevant, but once strong congregations find themselves in a new normal, facing diminishing membership and financial difficulty. For some, the downturn will never be reversed. But for others, many others, including Congregation Eilat, the difficulties challenge us – they will not define us.
Tomorrow morning, in this book of Numbers, this book of contentiousness, we will find the tribes of Gad and Reuven and the half tribe of Menashe telling Moses that their cattle need the rich pasture land of the other side of the Jordan. The land that God promised us may indeed be beautiful, they acknowledge, but they must look out for their herds. Moses is furious. How can these tribes separate themselves from the rest of the community? How can they keep their fighting forces safe on the other side of the Jordan when there is a battle to be fought? He tells them that they may indeed settle where they wish, but when the battle is joined to conquer the Land, they must leave their wives and children and elderly and bring their strength to help their brothers in the war against the indigenous nations of Canaan. Once the conquest is complete, they may return to their families and their herds. In other words, live where you want, Moses tells them, but you have a responsibility to your people.
In any congregation, Jewish or not, there are several populations of members. There are those who are paper members but who never attend services or programs. They may live far away and belong out of a sense of loyalty, and their commitment is important. There are those who attend services occasionally, but not adult education. There are those who sit on a committee but are hesitant to take leadership roles in the community. And there are the leaders, who make the difficult decisions, chair committees, and play a central role in defining the mission of the community. Every community has every one of these groups, and every group is important to the survival of the community.
But today, here in Congregation Eilat, I would like to invite everyone to move further toward the core. Whatever your comfort level has been in the past, for the next year, make a conscious decision to raise that level. Commit to an hour a week, even an hour a month, to bringing your ideas, your energy, your dreams for our congregation, to the table. Volunteer to make a few phone calls. Stuff envelopes. Maybe bring someone to synagogue who otherwise might not be able to get out. Share your dreams for what this community could be. As we begin a new chapter in the history of this congregation, we are like the Israelites poised to enter the Land and conquer it. We need the efforts of everyone associated with Congregation Eilat.
Tell your unaffiliated and formerly affiliated friends that a new chapter has begun here. You should come. Check it out. Is there a social action project you’ve always wanted to see pursued? Tell the leadership. Better yet, help organize it. To bring in yet another metaphor, I’m thinking about the barn raising days of pioneer days. Communities would get together and literally raise the roof of the new barn. Every strong back was needed for that effort. When the roof was secure, the builders could go home.
We need a new symbolic roof raised over our congregation, a roof of security and vitality and potential. And we need everyone here to help.
When the task has been completed, as Moses told the two and a half tribes in tomorrow’s reading, if you really want to go back to your former comfort level, that’s your privilege. After all, Gad, Reuven, and Menashe went back to their herds after the conquest. If you really want to go back to an occasional Friday night service, we’ll be thrilled to see you when you’re here. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if you got used to being involved and decided to stay? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you found that bringing your own energy to the Congregation Eilat enterprise made you look at the congregation as truly yours? And you got used to having your voice heard? How exciting our new normal would be then!