Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev told the following story. Once there was a beloved king, whose court musicians played beautiful music before him. The king loved the music, and the musicians loved to play together for him. Every day for many years, the musicians played with passion and zeal, and the king and the musicians developed a deep love for one another. But eventually, after years of dedicated service, all of the musicians died. Their children were called into the king’s court and were asked to take their parents’ place. Out of loyalty to their parents, the children came to play each morning. But unlike their parents, the children did not love the music. While they could play the basic tunes, they did not understand the hidden power of their instruments, and played with little enthusiasm. Their resentment grew each day they played. And each day the king also became more and more frustrated – as much by their dismissive attitude as by their cacophony.
But after some time, a few of the children developed a renewed interest in serving the king. They realized that playing beautiful music was not simply a way to connect with the king and bring him joy, but they found that making music kindled a fire in their own souls they had never before experienced.
So these children set out to remember what their parents had known so well. They began to experiment with sound, composed new melodies, rediscovered harmony, and produced a music inspired by their own sense of devotion and love.
The king witnessed their efforts and was deeply moved. Their music was different from their parents’, but like them, it came from a place deep within, from a compelling need to give of their spirit to each other and to him.
On this Yom Kippur, I feel like a musician’s child. Like the musicians, and their children, I am seeking. I am seeking to figure out the answers to life’s basic and most important questions: What is the best way for me to choose to use the gift of life? What is my mission and my purpose? How can I determine what is right and what is wrong? What are my obligations to myself, and what are my obligations to the larger world in which I live, my community, my country, my people, humankind?
In the Torah portion we read today/tomorrow God gives us a choice. “I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you and your descendants may live. (Deut. 30:19)”
We are seekers. We all are trying to answer that fundamental question – how do we choose life? We all are looking to find our place and our purpose. We are trying to find what will kindle our inner fire, what will ignite our passion to live the lives both God and we would want us to live. We are, as Rabbi Sidney Schwartz notes in his new book Jewish Megatrends, seekers of wisdom, of community, of meaning and holiness.
When we find what we are seeking, something amazing happens. You hear someone speak and what they say just hits you as so dead on; you get involved in a project where you can really feel like you’re making a difference; you spend time with people you love the most; or you feel like you have touched or witnessed something sacred – it creates an excitement, an energy, a fire in the belly, a burning deep inside. In Hebrew, it’s called Hitlahavut – an inner burning of passion, excitement, desire.
It is Hitlahavut, that inner burning, that the musicians felt when they played for the king. It is that Hitlahavut, that inner burning that inspired their children to make their own music, as their own gift to the king.
Isn’t that what we’re searching for? We want to be inspired, to be awestruck, to have our passions ignited and our hearts filled with wonder. But the music of one generation does not always speak to the next.
The High Holy Days are a paradox. Last week, we celebrated the New Year – Rosh HaShanah. The word “Shanah” means year, as for example, to wish someone a good New Year, we say L’Shana Tova! The word Shanah is formed from a three letter root – Shin-Nun-Heh, which means to repeat. Thus a year is something that occurs in a repetitive fashion. The first compendium of Jewish law is called the Mishna – same root – since it is a repetition of the oral law and interpretations of the Torah.
Interestingly, however, the same three-letter root – Shin-Nun-Heh, also means change. If I say, “I change my mind – I say in Hebrew, Ani Eshaneh et Da’ati.” It’s amazing to think that the same three-letter root means both repetition and change at the same time.
Our lives are bounded by two poles. On one side a compulsion to try something different, to build a new reality and change. On the other side, we feel a need to hold fast to the way things were, to cleave to tradition, stay the course. Sometimes the answers we seek are found in the music played by generations that came before us. As we stand together today in prayer, the echos of ancient melody and rhythm touch a place deep within that grounds and inspires. And yet at the same time there is a melody unique to us individually, a music that resonates especially in our own souls and spirits, distinctive for this day and age.
Music is found in vibration, in moving back and forth between two poles. The music of our lives, like the music in Levi Yitzchak’s story, is found in the vibration between tradition and change. The answers we seek to answer this Yom Kippur are ultimately to be found in the music of Jewish rhythm and Jewish life.
We are seekers, as were our ancestors before us. When the Israelites left Egypt, and embarked on their own journey to discover life’s meaning and purpose, where did they go? They went to Sinai. It was there, at Sinai, where our people were touched to the core with Hitlahavut. It was there that we found ourselves bonded together as a people, bonded together with God, a unity coursing with holy energy and life and light.
And throughout the ages, throughout our wanderings, we have constantly sought to return to Sinai, to that ultimate moment where we found what we were looking for. And we built ourselves a portal that we thought would take us there. We built ourselves a synagogue.
The synagogue emerged out of our people’s need to connect to God once the Temple was destroyed. In ancient times, when festivals were celebrated with pilgrimage to Jerusalem, only a small delegation from a particular town would go. Those who remained behind would gather together on the day they knew their offering would be presented in the Temple. Since they could not participate in the actual offering, they would offer their prayers instead, praying that God would accept the sacrifice that was being offered on their behalf.
These groups were called Ma’amadim – standing groups. As the Israelites had stood together at the foot of Mount Sinai, so we would stand together, and seek a new path to a connection to God. It was these Ma’amadim – standing groups, that became the foundation of a Judaism that would rise from the ashes of the smoldering Temple in Jerusalem.
There is something very powerful when people come and stand together. Moses begins the Torah portion we read Tomorrow/Today by calling out to the people: “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem, Lifnei Adonai Eloheichem – you stand here this day, all of you, before Adonai your God…(Deut. 29:9)” We stood together at Sinai to hear God call to us, and we stood together to hear Moses’ instruction. Standing together is big in Jewish tradition. For it is when we come together to be one with each other that we begin to kindle that Divine spark within.
Think of the energy that comes from sharing just a moment of real openness, of connection and understanding with someone you love. Imagine you could add a third person to that connection, and a fourth. Imagine how powerful the energy would be from a whole community bound up in that web of relationship. Think too of how alienating and painful is the experience of loneliness – how we yearn for that energy that comes from giving and receiving love.
That’s why the synagogue is called not simply a Mikdash Me’at – a little Temple, but a Beit Knesset, a house of gathering. The synagogue is where a community gathers to kindle their passion and discover their purpose. It is where we gather to worship, to learn, to celebrate, to grieve, to bond with each other, and with God, and set out to make the world a better place.
Dr. Ron Wolfson in his new book Relational Judaism, teaches that we need to rethink what the mission of the synagogue really is. For years, synagogues grew to be program factories. Lay leadership and staff would spend countless hours trying to put together the right menu of programs that would draw people into the synagogue – pre-school, religious school, alternative worship services, adult education, social events, community service projects – big events, small events. But that really is not enough.
Like the musicians that came before us, we need to build a synagogue that reverberates with the music we need to hear today. It needs to be a music that blends the tradition from which we rise with the world we share today. It must vibrate between holding fast to what we’ve been and the dreams of what we might create.
Over the last two years, hundreds of you, in focus groups and town halls, in committee meetings and individual conversations, helped create our newly adopted strategic plan, in which we set forth a vision of what we hoped Temple Beth El should be and become.
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton seeks to be a deeply compelling center of Reform Judaism, integrating the wisdom of Torah and tradition with the modern world in which we live. Our congregation will:
- Welcome, involve and inspire all who enter, embracing the unique contributions of every individual.
- Reach out to the larger community to encourage participation in synagogue life.
- Celebrate, grieve, heal and grow together through all seasons of life.
- Strive to be a learned community that questions, studies, and honors the gift of Torah and our covenant with God.
- Engage in inspiring worship and transformative experiences of Jewish spirituality.
- Share a love and responsibility for each other, our community and country, for Israel, and for the future of the Jewish people.
And how are we going to implement that vision? How will we make Temple Beth El into a center of Hitlahavut? By being a center that builds relational Judaism. What we discovered is that synagogues need to build strong programs, but more importantly synagogues need to build strong relationships.
Wolfson teaches that we, as Jews, participate in nine levels of relationship: Self, Family, Friends, Jewish Living, Community, Peoplehood, Israel, World, and God.
First, the synagogue needs to be a place where we can get in touch with our selves. The Hebrew term for prayer, L’Hitpalel, is best translated as a verb meaning “to examine oneself.” The goal of Jewish prayer is not simply to praise God and ask for God’s blessings. The goal of Jewish prayer is to be moved, to change one’s self. The synagogue needs to be a place where we heal our selves, find a sense of spiritual refreshment and rejuvenation. The synagogue needs to invite us to share in vital worship, with a variety of settings and modes that will touch us in all our different ages and stages.
The synagogue needs to be a place where we can access Jewish wisdom. It needs to be a place where we feel inspired to dig deep into the treasure trove of Jewish sources and learn to interpret the wisdom of our ancestors to rediscover our selves, our individual missions and purpose. It needs to be a place where, as the great educator Shlomo Bardin said, “people need to be touched, not taught.”
Secondly, the synagogue needs to be a place where we celebrate family. The synagogue must be a center where we sanctify a loving commitment between two people who seek to build a Jewish household. We must constantly create opportunities to celebrate the milestones along our children’s path through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. We must provide the most compelling and accessible educational resources possible to guide families in the sacred task of passing Torah and tradition from one generation to the next.
The synagogue must be a place where we help each other find friendships and community. We must help break down the walls that keep us from building bonds of understanding and relationship, and help us to engage with each other and build real community – by telling our stories to each other, finding common interests, sharing important experiences together, being there for each other in joy and in sadness, and spending time together for simple camaraderie.
We must facilitate the exploration of Jewish living. In the Torah portion we read today/tomorrow, Moses implores the people not to be afraid of Jewish living: “this thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart that you can do it. (Deut. 30:14)” But like the Israelites who stood together in the desert before us, living a Jewish life isn’t easy. Like a musician who hasn’t practiced, performing the rituals and Jewish acts can seem extremely awkward and uncomfortable. The synagogue needs to lower the obstacles that keep us from living a Jewish life, and helps us learn how to use Jewish ritual in a way that makes sense in our minds and sense in our lives.
Our synagogue needs to be a place that inspires us to make a difference in the lives of those in our community and in our larger world. It needs to be a place that not only advocates for the moral good, but performs the moral good. It needs to be a place where we come together to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to give voice to those who have no voice, and to make the world more just and fair. It needs to be a place where we feel deeply a connection and responsibility to the land and people of Israel, and where we never neglect our responsibility to this great country that has offered a level of integration and security our people have never known.
Our synagogue needs the resources to make our dreams come true – it needs prayer spaces that inspire, whether there be 100 worshippers or 400. We need spaces that inspire us to learn, and that take full advantage of all that modern technology can bring. We need spaces that invite us to gather for real meeting, conversation, and interaction. And we need the financial resources to make it all possible.
But ultimately, what we really need is you. We need committed seekers, who want to come together and find the path in life that will set our souls on fire. Let’s transform our synagogue by tapping into the power of our relationships. Call me – let’s sit and talk. Let’s build relationships, you and I, and let’s build relationships amongst one another. Let’s build a real community, where we break down the barriers that keep us from connecting, and open our hearts and minds and mouths to each other in real meeting and connection. Let’s make new music together, music that soars from hearts ablaze with passion for Jewish life, living, love, and peace.
 Adapted from the retelling in “Synagogues: Reimagined” by Rabbi Sharon Brous in Sidney Schwartz, auth. and ed., Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2013, pp. 54-55.
 Op. Cit. Schwartz, p. 39.
 Ron Wolfson, Relational Judaism. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2013, p. 82.
 ibid, p. 50.
 ibid, p. 54.