Returning to Community with Covenantal Purpose

7 Sep

Rosh HaShanah, Day 1, September 7, 2021

Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA

Shanah Tovah.

My daughter Esther, whom I mentioned last night, celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah in January of this year. Like many families, we scheduled the date years in advance. Being  a good father who happens to be a rabbi, I trained Esther for well over a year. I don’t know if she’d agree, but a benefit of having a parent as a rabbi is free in-house bat mitzvah tutoring. We assumed that her bat mitzvah would resemble her two older brothers’ in that we would be surrounded by hundreds of our dearest relatives and friends. When the pandemic lockdown started in March, 2020, my wife and I figured that the bat mitzvah was 10 months away. Everything will be fine by then. By the summer, we were thinking it would be a smaller affair but still fairly normal. By the fall it was clear that we either postpone it indefinitely or hold our simcha online. By that point, we had gotten used to online services, and Esther had mastered her Torah reading and Haftarah. We opted to celebrate her bat mitzvah as originally scheduled online. Our family was in the sanctuary of our synagogue where we are members in Boca Raton, Florida, along with the rabbi, cantor and synagogue president. Everyone else was online. We made it work. And it was beautiful. 

Once we decided to celebrate the simcha online, we chose to go all in. We wanted our Zoom bat mitzvah to be infused with the sacred purpose of helping Esther cross the threshold into Jewish adulthood and to do so surrounded by relatives and friends from near and far. My parents had an aliyah from their home in Chicago. Friends from Europe and Israel, who would never have been expected to attend in person, logged on and took part virtually. At our virtual party after Shabbat, friends and family from around the country lit candles for a virtual candle lighting ceremony and were spotlighted on cue as each paid tribute to Esther. Our goal was to create a simcha that included the community and provided Esther with her deserved recognition for this milestone.

I was and continue to be an advocate for online worship as an emergency measure throughout the pandemic. We suffered great losses to be sure, but we figured out how to come together online for life’s events: funerals, shiva minyanim. Passover seders, Thanksgiving dinners, b’nai mitzvah, birthday parties, and even weddings  And, of course, services. Among my heroes are the rabbis of the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards who rose to the moment to enable online worship for our community.

Life online has not been easy. Raise your hand if on a Zoom call you thought you were muted but in fact were unmuted. Raise your hand if the last 18 months were the most difficult of your career. Raise your hand if during the last 18 months you were reminded of the things that are most important to you. 

I think what the Jewish community accomplished online in the last year and a half was miraculous and saved the Jewish people in the midst of a crisis. At the same time we all have greater appreciation than ever before for the power of face-to-face contact. When my home synagogue opened for in-person worship in April, I was at that Shabbat service, and I have been there every week since.  

As long as it is safe for us to gather in person, we need to be more mindful than ever on how we gather and what we hope to get out of our time together.  

Priya Parker is a writer, consultant and podcaster who wrote the book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. She wrote this book in 2018, but has been a prominent consultant to group leaders and organizations on how to foster meaningful gatherings online and in person during the pandemic and eventual post-pandemic era. Earlier this year, she addressed the online convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. She is not Jewish but is well familiar with Jewish communal norms such as the Passover seder and shiva gatherings, and she often cites these as examples of purposeful gatherings. 

Parker notes that we spend our lives gathering – first in our families, with friends, in playgroups and at schools. Then, with adult life, come weddings, business meetings, religious worship, class reunions and dinner parties. And at the end of life, our families and loved ones gather at funerals. Gatherings are a huge part of life, and they’re a part of the human experience. But the time we spend in them is often underwhelming and uninspiring. Too often gatherings are lackluster and lacking in purpose. Parker teaches that successful gatherings have a well defined purpose. She provides guidance to leaders on how to plan carefully every stage of an event towards achieving that purpose.  Gatherings that are purposeful are also meaningful and memorable. 

Our Jewish tradition incorporates purposeful gathering in the term B’rit, or covenant. In studying today’s Torah portion. Genesis 21, I find it striking that the reading begins and ends with purposeful, covenantal gatherings. As our reading opens, we experience the birth, brit milah and weaning of Isaac. These are very key milestones for Abraham and Sarah as they confirm the fulfillment of their dream of progeny. At the end of Genesis 21, Abraham and Avimelekh, a rival chieftain, come together to preserve water rights and communal peace. The chapter is bookended by these two covenantal gatherings:  Abraham’s family celebration of Isaac’s birth and Abraham’s pact with Avimelekh. The first is for Abraham and his family. The second widens the circle between the family and their broader community.  

In between these covenantal gatherings, we see incidents of conflict and strife. First there is the tension in the House of Abraham. The rivalry between Sarah and Hagar leads to the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. They ultimately survive with God’s help, but the conflict scars Abraham and his family.  Next, we see conflict between Abraham and Avimelekh over water rights. This is not a small family squabble. There is potential for a regional war. 

What we learn from the structure of our Torah reading is that with covenant we thrive; without covenant we falter. A covenant is very different from a contract. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. A covenant creates a moral community. It binds people together in a bond of mutual responsibility and care.”

The Torah as a great work of literature has distinctive literary and poetic features. Parallelism is a literary device used here in Chapter 21 to spotlight the covenants in our Torah reading. In parallelism, different words or phrases that express similar ideas are placed in close proximity to emphasize a particular theme. The words might not rhyme in sound, but they rhyme in theme. We often see a particular kind of parallelism called chiasm that takes the structure A-B-B-A.  Your handout illustrates the chiasm that I believe is the scaffolding of Genesis 21. 

A. Birth, brit milah, weaning of Isaac—family celebration, festive gathering

B. Expulsion of Ishmael—family tension, strife, 

B’ Abraham reprimands Avimelekh for stealing water—communal tension, strife

A’ Covenant between Abraham and Avimelekh—festive, covenantal gathering of community

I am honored that I can serve as a guest rabbi for Beth Emeth during this time of transition for the congregation. As the congregation heads into a new year with the wise guidance of Rabbi Aft, I invite the community to consider the meaning of Brit, covenant, and what it would mean for the congregation to be mindful of covenant in all gatherings going forward. Based on Priya Parker’s work, I’ve prepared questions for each of you to think about individually and together for renewing the covenant of a sacred community as a guiding purpose for gatherings. 

Looking Back to the Before Times…

  • During the past 16-20 months, what did you miss and long for that you couldn’t do with others? 
  • What activities or ways of spending time with other people did you not miss? What might you want to discard for good? 

Reflecting on Pandemic Era inventions…

  • What did we learn, create or try anew during the pandemic that we want to bring with us? 

For me, these included shiva gatherings on Zoom in which every person who wished got to speak and share memories. My own family began the practice of gathering on Zoom to mark the yahrzeits of my grandparents in which my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins around the country came together on Zoom to remember our departed. We never thought to do this before COVID-19, and now we don’t want to give it up. 

Imagining Forward…

  • What might we invent going forward? 
  • How might our future inventions strengthen the covenantal purpose of our community? 

I leave that as an open question for the congregation to ponder and wrestle with on Beth Emeth’s journey forward. 

In closing, I want to return to the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, who died last November shortly after publishing his last book: “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times”.  He wrote the book prior to the pandemic but practically stopped the presses to add an epilogue that takes into account the early weeks of the lockdown in Spring 2020. His closing words are a charge to us all to renew our covenantal relationship post-pandemic. He writes: “I hope that we will retain the spirit of kindness and neighborliness that humanized our fate during the months of lockdown and isolation when people thought of others, not themselves…Those who did these acts discovered, as we almost always do, that in lifting others, we ourselves are lifted.” Rabbi Sacks continues:  “I hope we will emerge from this time of distance and isolation with an enhanced sense of what most of us have missed—the ‘We’ that happens whenever two or more people come together face-to-face and soul touches soul, the ‘We’ that is at the heart of our being as social animals and that can never be fully replicated by electronic media, however brilliant and effective they are…” And Rabbi Sacks says further: “As the world recovers from the pandemic, we can work to rebuild our societies the way they were, or we can use this rare moment to enhance the structures of our togetherness, a togetherness that had been weakened by too much pursuit of self. The choice is ours, and the time is now.”

I offer a blessing to Congregation Beth Emeth that the New Year will bring about opportunities  to reflect on when, how, why and around what the community gathers for the sake of 

renewal of the covenantal purpose of this sacred community. May this noble effort to renew our brit be a blessing to the Jewish people and to our world. 

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