I am often asked why I became a rabbi. I always reply, "I became a rabbi because I treasure relationships." One of my favorite rabbinic texts teaches that when two people are together and share words of Torah, the Shechinah, God's presence, is suddenly in that room with them. When I think about this teaching, I translate Torah as personal stories or teachings that guide our lives. That is, when we are together and truly connecting with one another, sharing our stories, our most precious wisdom, in relationship, then God is there too.
When we were in Jerusalem recently, our congregational group created our own service for Shabbat in our hotel. Instead of a sermon that evening, I asked people to share some wisdom or realization that they had gleaned in small moments on our journey. One man shared what it meant to him to be in Israel during the yahrtzeit of his father. He was remembering his parents and thinking about how much it might have meant to them to know that their son had finally made it home. Another woman was raised in another faith, married a Jewish man and raised her son Jewish. For her, a trip to the Western Wall helped her to understand that the difficult sacrifice she had made was the right decision. Needless to say there was not a dry eye in the room by the end of the service. Many remarked afterward that the open exchange and hearts confirmed that God was in that place that Shabbat.
This is the reason I love Judaism. It is a faith tradition most authentically realized in relationship. Consider the concept of the minyan. We need 10 people in order to say kaddish for a loved one. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b'zeh, we are taught. As members of the covenant of Israel, we are responsible for one another. We have an obligation to know one another and to take care of one another.
This is why I was delighted to read David Brooks' recent column "How Covenants Make Us" (New York Times, April 5, 2016). In it Brooks acknowledges that we live in a society that venerates the individual, but that we pay a price for our autonomy. He writes about the forces that lead some alienated young men to join terrorist organizations like ISIS just to feel a sense of belonging. All too often, we feel powerless, according to Brooks. "The liberation of the individual was supposed to lead to mass empowerment. But it turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are - when they have firm identities."
As a congregational rabbi, helping members of my community firm up their identity is what I do every day. Brooks writes that "people in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts." That service in Jerusalem took place towards the end of our trip. We had ridden planes, and busses with one another. We had woken up early and navigated culture shock and jet lag, but what we were forging was a stronger relationship with one another. Through those relationships we were also safe to share the truths which began to emerge, through shared experience about our own personal identities. Out of these covenantal moments came incredible gifts, like the tender truths which were revealed during that service.
Brooks again, "These days the social fabric will be repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants - widening the circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides."
Forging and deepening relationships, creating and forming covenants, caring for one another, sharing intimate truths, inviting God's presence to dwell in our midst, and repairing our world....What an incredible and unique value proposition synagogue life has to offer. That is why, for me, the joy of Judaism is here at Beth Chaim. It truly is all in the relationships.
Please join us this Sunday at 2pm when we welcome Dr. Ron Wolfson to Beth Chaim to speak about his incredible book Relational Judaism. Dr. Wolfson is an inspiring teacher and his wisdom guides my rabbinate. We are fortunate to present this program because of our relationships with many partner organizations in Chester County. This is truly a community event that should not be missed.