By Rabbi Woodward
Abram and Sarai were old. Their entire lives had been spent in their homeland, their birthplace, their father’s house, the land of Ur.
But one day, God spoke to Abram, and told him, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s land, to the place that I will show you.” And Abram and Sarai packed up and left, and started Judaism.
This moment – the “Lech Lecha / Go forth” moment – has a huge number of resonances in our tradition. One, in the Hasidic tradition, is a play on words. God says, “Lech Lecha me’artzecha,” “go forth from your land,” and rather than reading, “your land,” we should read, according to this mystical teaching, “me’artziutcha,” “go forth from your worldliness.” That is, God is telling us to focus on matters of the spirit, and to leave our regular worldly lives.
Another reading of this asks – what was it about Abram and Sarai that caused God to call to them? A midrash is brought, which says that Abram was once walking in the desert, when he saw a “birah doleket,” a palace in flames, and came to the conclusion that the palace must have a King. This is powerful – seeing a world of flame and violence led him to imagine that there must be a Source or a Mystery of Divine empathy. If there is suffering, there must be Divine Care, and it is this insight to which God responded by saying, “Lech Lecha.”
We as a synagogue are encountering our own Lech Lecha moment, as we begin a new phase of our strategic planning process, moving from study of our community to visioning.
In the course of surveys, interviews, conversations, and more, we have discovered two truths about TBI, one positive and one negative.
The negative: A huge percentage of our community cannot say what TBI stands for. What are our ideals, our goals, our values? The overwhelming percentage of our community does not know them or think we have them.
The positive: A huge percentage of our community is happy with TBI. They would recommend it to friends, they love the school, and more. The overwhelming percentage of our community feels very or somewhat positive toward TBI.
What I take from this is that very often, we are a community that is quite good at community-building – but community building for what, we do not know. We notice in the survey that one of the most common touch-points with the community is through committee meetings. I think we have all experienced this – we have a lot of meetings here. Often, and to our detriment, those meetings eclipse the meaningful and spiritual products of this community (education and prayer tend to be thought of very positively here according to the survey).
It is very important that we be a community that worships God, rather than a community that worships itself. This is a sharp and pointed challenge. We must be a community for something, or perhaps better, a community for Someone. Oftentimes, it seems that we get in our own way.
Indeed, I wrote about this topic in my Kol Nidre Sermon of Yom Kippur 2016:
“We Jews are challenged to make visions and values a part of our life. On our mezuzot, at all of our doorways, we write out our most central vision and values, the Shema. Every morning, as tefillin, we attach our vision and values to our head and hands and heart. Every day, we're obligated to teach our vision and values to Jewish adults and children.
Too many Jewish communities are simply social clubs. Too many synagogues are simply gathering spaces – there's a line in the Talmud that says, a curse on anyone who calls a synagogue a beit ha-am, a "house of the people." Because it’s actually a house of God. Too many Jewish occasions – and what Pirke Avot tells us, is that even two sitting together, even three having a meal, is a Jewish occasion – too many Jewish occasions are devoid of vision, values, and Torah.”
The process of become a mission- and vision-driven community is critical for us, if we are to be a synagogue, a house of God rather than a beit ha-am. But I am deeply optimistic. I am optimistic because we are the religion of Abraham and Sarah. We are the religion of making serious life choices based on mission and vision. We are the religion of walking across the desert to the Promised Land because we believe in God’s promise.
The Torah is not an appendage. It is not a prop to pass on as we say, “l’dor v’dor.” On the contrary, the Torah is what gives the “dor,” the “generation,” its meaning. The Torah is what guides us toward God in a complicated world.
Mission and vision? We’ve got that. That’s what Torah is.
Our process now is uncovering what the Torah of TBI is. This year, in my 2017 Kol Nidre Sermon, I wrote: “This work is parallel to the soul work we do around the high holidays. If your high holiday goals are just to be better, stronger, faster, richer, happier, that's not what the holidays are about. And likewise, many of us are inclined to think of goals for the synagogue as: what will make us better, stronger, faster, richer, happier? But that's not what it's about. The real work is saying: who actually are we, and who actually are we becoming, and what is this all for? Asking the tough questions, the big questions, the deep questions.”
We have before us a great and beautiful challenge. The challenge of meaning, and the challenge of living Jewish lives. In the coming year, it will be on all of us to live this strategic planning process, and to go with it to places of meaning and depth. It’s a challenge to which we must rise. Rise, and then go forth.