What Does it Mean to be a Congregation
Once the fall holidays come to a close, I find myself pondering: What is it that makes Beth Shalom a congregation? Sure, we all came out to observe the High Holy Days together. Many of us remained beyond Yom Kippur to celebrate in the Sukkah (on our beautiful new patio garden), and even to dance together on Simchat Torah. We experienced a wonderful sense of ruach and camaraderie during that sacred time. Nevertheless, I wonder, what keeps us linked together as a congregation the rest of the year?
Elie Wiesel once asked: “What does it mean to be a congregation? It means to care about each other. Pray? We can pray at home. We come together as a congregation in order to share in each other’s lives and in order to share in the life of the Jewish people — past, present and future.”
Once the Gerer Rebbe, decided to question one of his disciples: ‘How is Moshe Yaakov doing?’ The disciple didn’t know. ‘What!’ shouted the Rebbe, ‘You don’t know? You pray under the same roof’? You study the same book? You serve the same God? — yet you tell me that you don’t know how Moshe Yaakov is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?’
Here lies the essence of our way of life: every person must share in every other person’s life, and not leave anyone to themselves. Not in sorrow and not in joy.
Wiesel was right. But in our consumer-driven society, we increasingly look to the rabbi or other synagogue professionals to provide that kind of concern, instead of seeing it as a responsibility that we all share for one another.
When I visit someone in the hospital, I often learn that besides the family, I was the only one to have visited them during their illness. This should not be. Maybe it is because many people find it difficult to get intertwined with someone else’s tzuris, or we just don’t know the right words to say, but I usually find that just being there is the greatest help of all. As the rabbis teach us, when you visit someone who is ill, you take away 1/60th of their illness.
In reality, it is the duty of all Jews to perform such mitzvot. This isn’t just a “service” that we join a synagogue in order to receive, rather it should be a natural expression of being a part of a caring community and sharing concern for one another. No one person can adequately fulfill this task alone, but as a congregation we can work to make sure that nobody is ignored in their time of need.
My colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein wrote: “Ancient Greek democracy created the ‘citizen.’ Renaissance Europe invented the ‘gentleman’. Colonial America produced the ‘frontiersman’. Each human civilization, it seems, fashions its own unique character type. And ours is no exception. Contemporary America has spawned the ‘consumer’.
The consumer is a character type unique in human history. The Greek citizen saw himself as an inseparable part of an organic community. The European gentleman conceived of himself in terms of a code of obligations – chivalry and noblesse oblige – that bound him to others… By contrast, the consumer seeks absolute independence. He is sovereign, complete unto himself, and in need of no one. No unfulfilled existential need motivates him. The consumer engages the world only as a source of stimulation and satisfaction.
Henry James called America a “hotel culture.” A hotel – where you eat and sleep, but never fully unpack and move in. You never set down roots. You never really own the place. You can mess up your room knowing that while you’re out, someone else will come and straighten up. You care nothing for the people who live next door for soon you’ll be checking out and moving on. So, too, the consumer joins, but never belongs. Never will he allow the obligations that come with relationships, values or community to compromise his sovereignty. He has no attachments, only a series of limited-liability partnerships. In a moment of crisis, he’ll call for Emergency Roadside Judaism. Otherwise, he keeps his distance.”
In our religious life, we need Jews who are more than just a consumer of services. Beth Shalom is no different. And while we need people to help us build and maintain our community, we only thrive when we have real commitment and concern for one another as well. If we only pay our dues, drop off our kids, and occasionally visit, we can’t expect to be part of a genuine congregation. Yet it is precisely that sense of kehillah, or community connectedness that we all strive for and yearn to create.
God willing, with your involvement, your concern for one another, and your support, together we can make CBS into just that kind of congregation. Amen.
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