A TREASURED PEOPLE - TREASURING PEOPLE
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
In the book of Genesis chapter 4 Cain rises up and kills his brother Abel. God punishes Cain in verse 11 “and now cursed be you from the ground which has opened her mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand; when you till the ground it shall not continue to give unto you her strength. A vagabond and a wanderer shall you be on the earth.” Cain’s response: “my punishment is greater than can be borne.
I always wondered why Cain felt this punishment was too great. It is not as if God punished him with death or incarcerated him forever, which would be the way we today handle murders. Was Cain so upset that God had punished him by making it harder for him to farm? Or, was Cain upset that he would be “community-less” a wanderer forever?
For me the answer to this question lies in Genesis chapter 2 verse 18. “It is not good that a person should be alone.” While most commentators understand that God is saying human beings need a partner to help them with the mundane tasks of the world, S’forno the great Italian Kabbalist and commentator of the 16th century, has a different understanding of the text. He says: “the end implicit in being created in God’s likeness and image would not be achieved if you would have to devote yourself on your own to supplying your daily needs.” In other words, to be a complete human being, wholly formed in the image of God, we need community. When we are without community we are alone, spiritually imperfect.
Judaism has always recognized this need to be in community in order to reach our full spiritual potential. That is why I prefer the description of Judaism as a faith-family. As much as we are a religious entity, we are also a community with deep familial ties. It is why when Jews are in trouble Israel is threatened, regardless of our differences, we unite as a single community. In my generation alone we witnessed the rescue of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry, as well as the welcoming of thousands upon thousands of Jewish refugees and immigrants into both the United States and Israel. Once these refugees landed on our shores and arrived in our communities we did not stop but rather both here in the States and in Israel we worked hard to integrate them into the very fabric of our communities.
These familial ties are why Jews rarely, almost never, live a monastic lifestyle. Instead we form congregations like this one. The Hebrew word for congregation is קהילה literally meaning community. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many congregations added the words קהילה קדושה – holy or sacred congregation before their actual name in recognition that gathering together as a community has the potential to add an extra measure of holiness we cannot find on our own.
True, some of an individual’s most powerful spiritual moments come when he or she is alone. In fact one of my great pleasures is to sit on my back porch, look at the stars and feel my small place in the universe. Many of my most sincere prayers have been uttered either when I have been alone or during silent meditation in a congregational service. But that Silent prayer occurs while being a part of, not apart from, my congregation and therefore dwarfs even the power of looking at the stars. Both Torah and the prophets bear out the importance and power of being alone. Moses at the burning bush and Elijah hearing the still small voice while alone in the desert exist to teach us: we can find God on our own. But both Moses and Elijah understood the need to be in the company of others to complete their spiritual journeys and effect the transformation of our people. Both Moses and Elijah needed others to exist fully in the image of God and in turn were able to bring their communities the opportunity to exist fully in the image of God.
Connected through a shared history and tradition, we Jews bound ourselves as a family at Sinai answering God’s call to join with God in ברית - in Covenant. ָAt that moment we accepted as a matter of faith and obligation that we exist with God in partnership. God began the creation of the world, set it in motion and gave us the free will to take up and keep up our end of the partnership, לתקין עולם במלכות שדי - to finish the work of creation and bring our world closer to perfection.
What does it mean to be a Jew in a covenantal partnership with God? To use biblical language, when God finished the work of creation on the 6th day it was only very good, not perfect. God left some “unfinished business” for us to complete. All faith traditions have their own relationship with God but partnering with God to ensure that captives know freedom, those who lack have access to the resources to meet their needs and, as the Union Prayerbook put it so eloquently, we “lift up those who sleep in the dust.”
No one of us alone can complete the sacred work. It is only by gathering together as a קהילה קדושה, a sacred community, that we have even the slightest hope of being able to fulfill our obligation to each other and to God. As we look around us and see members of our own congregation in need, growing poverty in our community and continuing oppression and environmental threats to our world we understand just how daunting the challenge of completing the unfinished business God left for us.
Tonight marks the beginning of our 115th year as a congregation. One way to express the number 115 in Hebrew is by using the letters ה ע מ. Together these letter spell the Hebrew word העם-the people. This will be a year in which we celebrate our existence as a congregation and as a community. Congregation Albert has a long and proud history of being a community. From our earliest days 115 years ago our founders understood that in forming a sacred community they brought themselves closer to fulfilling the potentiality of the divine image in each other as individuals. Coming together in prayer, in times of personal need, and in reaching out to make this community, our country, and the world a better place they left us an inheritance that challenges us to animate the divine in ourselves by doing the sacred work of God’s unfinished business.
In more recent times we have seen the development of some Chavurot and our caring community committee which reaches out to members of our Congregational family in their times of need. As I have met members of our current Chavurot I see how they have become in every sense of the word family. Even those who were strangers before they joined a Chavurah now have a sense they are members of an extended family. Since the initial development of our Chavurot many of us are new to the congregation. That is why you received a brochure with your high holy day mailing describing our effort to expand this incredible opportunity to make our congregation more of a community and our community more of a family.
In a similar vein, our caring community committee does amazing work. They visit the homebound and sick, help provide rides for the high holy days, are a support to those in morning, and touch your lives in more ways than I have time to list tonight. But they and we need more help. As hard as they work, and I am in awe of how hard they work, and as many people as they serve in our community their work only scratches the surface. If you are willing to help with their sacred task or know of members of our community who could use our help please please let us know. The members of this committee deserve our deepest thanks and need our continued commitment and help.
But as I indicated before, God’s unfinished business does not stop at the doors of the sanctuary, this building or on the doorsteps of our homes. Our obligation in continual partnership with God demands that we reach beyond ourselves into the larger community around us. IHN, Project Share, the TASTY food drive and our other projects help us partially fulfill this mission. But the needs are endless. What do you do to help complete our world? What do you want to do but cannot do alone? Do you need help fixing the broken parts that keep you up at night?
I am honored and blessed that you called me to be the rabbi of this קהילה קדושה that understands so well the inherent blessing of being a community. And so I make this commitment to you: If you come to me with an idea, a desire, a need which is appropriate for us as a Jewish congregation, and you are willing to give of your time to make it a reality, we will give you every level of support we can. Our future is limited only by our vision. Our future is limited only by our commitment to see our dreams come true. We have seen this work over and over again. Congregation Albert has a solid tradition in facilitating the fulfillment of dreams. Most recently a few people decided our congregation needed to be more environmentally friendly and thus the Green Team began to gather and has begun a process that will culminate in reducing our carbon footprint. From our recycling bins to the changing of light bulbs our transformation has begun. Whatever you see as needing fixing in this world I guarantee other members of our congregation see as well. Let us help you find them. Working together with others from our faith-family not only multiplies your impact on our world but, as S’forno points out, helps animate the divine in you. Our human and divine power resides not in ourselves alone but rather in harnessing the קדושת הקהילה – the sacred soul of our congregational community.
Our task is to help you make your Jewish dreams come true, and thus create a Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy Congregation spreading its welcoming and sheltering wings around all who choose to enter, so that all who look upon us will be able to see you spiritual growth and go beyond God's words: “It is very good!”