“What do you seek?”
Rabbi Yael Splansky.
It has been quite a year. There have many moments of pride along the way, many accomplishments from last November to today. Rather than list them, rather than speak in the past tense, today I’d like to speak about the future. And because I am a rabbi, I will root my words in Torah.
Father Jacob sends young Joseph to find his brothers, who are out with the flock. Joseph wanders the countryside, through the valley of Chevron, towards Shechem. He could not find them. Suddenly, an unnamed man appears. He asks simply, “Mah t’vakeish?” “What are you looking for?” And Joseph answers: “Et achai anochi m’vakeish.” “I am looking for my brothers.” “Hagida na li ayfo hem (roim)?” “Can you please tell me where they are?” The mystery man points Joseph in the direction of Dotan. The exchange ends as quickly as it began, but that interaction made ALL the difference. “Joseph went after his brothers. Vayim-tza-eim. And he found them.” (Genesis 37: 15-17)
This entire episode is told in only two verses. We never hear about this helpful stranger again, but it has been taught that not only does the course of Joseph’s life depend on this character, but all of Jewish history! Imagine if that person had not been there – at the right place and the right moment to do the right thing — Joseph may not have found his brothers that day. He may not have been thrown into the pit or sold to the Ishmaelites or brought down to Egypt. And then the entire epic of Jewish slavery and redemption might not have been. It could be said that the course of the totality of Jewish history hinges on these two little words: “Mah t’vakeish?” What are you looking for? What do you seek? For what are you searching?
Joseph was a dreamer with his head in the clouds most of the time. But this simple question – Mah t’vakeish – demanded clarity and focus from Joseph, so he could carry on with mission and purpose and yes, urgency. Wandering there in the countryside marks a pivotal moment in Joseph’s life. That simple question: “What are you looking for?” marks a critical point of transition. For the first time, he realizes that more than a fancy coat, more than his parents’ praise, even more than his dreams of glory…. he wants his brothers.
Holy Blossom Temple at this moment in time
“Ma t’vakeish?” This is our question, too. We have been asking this question in many ways, in many settings, to many, many members of our congregation over the last year. And it has been clarifying. It marks a critical point of transition in the life of our congregation, too.
Through the Campaign for Youth Engagement, the Boomer Project, through the Healing and Moving Forward stages of the Rabbinic Transition, through the Congregational Survey, through the Engagement exercises of the Renewal Project – over and over again we have asked one another: “Mah t’vakeish?” The conversations have been illuminating, instructive. A handful of answers have come through loud and clear. But the loudest and the clearest of them all is the same as Joseph’s. “Et achai anochi m’vakeish. I’m searching for my brothers. (I am searching for my community.) Hagida na li ayfo hem (roim)? Please tell me where they are.”
More than a fancy building, more than a marquee lecture series, even more than a glorious past and more than fantasy dreams for the future – we want right here and now – we are searching high and low — for our brothers and sisters, for like-minded, caring people, fellow congregants, fellow Jews who are committed to creating a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community.
It sounds simple, but if it were simple we would have done it by now. If it were simple, every synagogue in North America would have done it by now and the Pew Report would read very differently.
In Search of Sacred Community
Over my fifteen plus years with Holy Blossom Temple, I have often heard congregants speak of EXCELLENCE — our excellent programming, our excellent worship, our excellent leadership – excellent rabbis, excellent cantors, excellent lay leaders. I have heard people speak with pride about the grandeur of our sanctuary, that the excellence of that space must be preserved. The excellence of our membership is often applauded – how many people of influence and talent choose Holy Blossom Temple. Yes, these are all true. Thank God, these are true and among our blessings.
But today, since answering the question, “Mah t’vakeish” – we have articulated something new. We have articulated the need for excellence in community. The thing that we need to become expert in now is relationships. I am certain this will be the secret to our success. (And our best shot at inverting the graph shown on the screen earlier this morning.)
A name has been given to this task. It’s called: Relational Judaism. Professor Ron Wolfson of the Jewish Theological Seminary has coined the term and written a book by the same title. Relational Judaism has become required reading for our Senior Staff and for our Temple Board. And I’ll tell you why. Every complaint that comes to us is in one way or another or another about exactly this: synagogue as institution rather than sacred community.
Let me give you a few examples.
One congregant says in an exit interview: “I came to shul every Shabbat for six weeks straight and no one said a word to me.” (Raise your hand if you’ve ever had that experience.)
One elderly congregant says with a disheartened expression: “I can’t hear when I come for services and lectures. I’m starting to wonder why I bother.” (Raise your hand if you’ve had that experience. Young or old.)
One recently married couple says: “We enjoyed the gift membership from HBT this year. We’ll rejoin when we have kids. There’s nothing here for us now.” (Raise your hand if you know someone in their 20s or 30s who chooses to remain shul-less.)
What are each of these people saying?… “I am here. I WANT to be here. But I fear no one cares if I’m here or not, and my time is too precious to waste.”
By contrast we know that there are many, MANY pockets of Temple life where we do “Relational Judaism” very well – even with EXCELLENCE.
Look at our Monday program for seniors. When a regular participant isn’t there, it is noticed and a phone call goes out to say: “We missed you. Are you alright?” And if they learn of illness, the expert volunteers notify our Bikur Cholim Committee and our Rabbis, so we can follow up.
Look at our Family Services. The congregants who have made Shabbat morning family services a regular destination know one another, care about one another, know one another’s kids, and help to raise them.
Our Youth Lounge on the third floor is becoming a magnet for a circle of teens, who want to linger in their synagogue even after Senior School lets out. It’s a safe place, where they can be themselves and make Jewish friends outside the pressures of their school environments. They also know there are trustworthy teachers and rabbis down the hall if they should ever need a confidante. We don’t talk about this much, but it is a critical part of what a synagogue must be for its youth.
Our Senior Staff took an inventory of 8-10 pockets of Relational Judaism alive and well at Holy Blossom Temple. Out of the Cold, Stagecraft, Sisterhood, Temple Singers, the morning minyan breakfast, to name a few. And we tested them to see if we could identify the ingredients which create their success. Here’s what we found. The recipe for Relational Judaism at HBT:
- PURPOSE DRIVEN (everyone knows why they are there)
- MEETS REGULARLY, IF NOT WEEKLY
- STRONG SENSE OF OWNERSHIP BY PARTICIPANTS, STRONG LAY LEADERSHIP
- PREDICTABLE PATTERN/STRUCTURE TO THE GATHERING
- HERE ON-SITE, 1950 BATHURST ST.
- ALLOWS FOR RELATIONSHIPS TO DEVELOP
- FOOD IS SOMEHOW INVOLVED (no surprise)
These criteria can now help us see ourselves better. Rabbi-Professor Larry Hoffman has been preaching this for a few years already. His professional advice to congregations like ours is: If we want to remain relevant we must shift from being a program-driven congregation to a purpose-driven and relationship-driven congregation. This shift must inform everything we do and how we do it.
For example, in the internet age we can hear from any expert on the planet whenever we want in the comfort of our own homes. Why should we come to synagogue for it? What could be qualitatively different about coming here for learning together? We’re trying an experiment this Wednesday evening. I hope you’ll come. Bob Rae is our expert, speaking about First Nations. After the top-notch lecture and public Q&A, there will be an option – for congregants and guests to gather for round tables discussion, so together we can reflect upon what we ‘ve heard and what we might do as a congregation to ACT upon it.
Our new Religious School model is another example. There are now more opportunities for Family Learning and relationship-building, creating Shabbat memories together, and yes, eating together, too.
Something as simple as our Board Members wearing nametags and serving as ushers and greeters during the High Holydays is part of a shift toward Relational Judaism, leveraging every moment to reach out to one another to foster relationships and create sacred community.
(So? Here we are. Do you know the person on your right and your left? Do you know the person in front of you or behind you? Take a moment. Introduce yourself and tell each other why you took the time to come this morning. ….It may feel hokey at first, but why did we come if not because we care about Holy Blossom and the good people who make it what it is today.)
“Mah T’vakeish? What do you seek? Et achai anochi m’vakeish. I’m in search of my brothers, my sisters, my family, my community, my people. Hagida na li ayfo hem (roim)?” Can you please tell me where they are?” Yes, I can. Yes, each of us can. The leading character of this week’s parasha is Joseph, but the HERO is that nameless man who asks the right question and points Joseph in the right direction to set the course of the rest of his life. Each of us can be that person. That simple, compassionate someone who notices, reaches out, asks the right question, and responds. Not only our Rabbis – although we have a special role to play. Not only our elected leadership – although they have a special role to play. But each and every member of this congregation has something to give and something to receive, something to learn and something to teach. Martin Buber taught that God is not found in buildings or even in people. God is found in between. In relationships. In moments when one person connects with another person in a meaningful way.
We are what we seek. Let our search for sacred community be interesting and enriching. Let us find like-minded seekers along the way. Let us draw strength, insight, and compassion from one another. And let the road to discovery, be for this sacred congregation an enduring blessing. Amen.