Awareness in Exile: Taking an exodus to bring you closer to home
Clergy have the most interesting lives. Last Saturday night, with no college football game of note, I watched what I’d call a fascinating three hour “documentary.” Five thousand people singing and dancing. Over a hundred choral members leading a congregation in soulful harmony. Inventive prayer services. Bibliodramas, dramatic sermons, rock stars and rock star clergy teaching and preaching the bible to the masses in a relevant and deep manner. This wasn’t a mega-church. It was the URJ (Union or Reform Judaism) Biennial Convention in San Diego, CA.
The alternative service WAS the service. On Friday night, the entire clergy team from Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA led the 5k crowd in a musical Kabbalat Shabbat Service. My best takeaway was a one line zinger from Senior Rabbi Joel Sisenwine: “The goal is not to get through the service but for the service to get through us.” It doesn’t matter if it is a 1 hour service or a 4 hour experience: if a service flows, it can flow through us, allowing us to imagine a time when on Shabbat, the period where time is supposed to stand still, we can enjoy the moment rather than peak at our watch to see if the bell has rung high noon.
There were a lot of great takeaways from seeing how services were conducted. One difficult aspect of the pulpit world is that it rarely affords you the opportunity to visit shuls with “best practices.” As clergy, we may hear of what Rabbi X or Cantor Z did in their shul, but until we experience it live (or virtually), it is hard to see it’s truest strengths. As a student, I was able to travel to different communities, to see what was out there in other pews. Even as congregants, we may remain in one service never seeing what other communities are doing- not because we want to trade in our team colors, but because we want to improve our community.
We don’t know what to work on, as a prayer community, until we see what we might be missing. We don’t know what to improve for we are blinded by complacency and the stagnant and even degenerative norm. It is as if we are “unaware” of the potential of our community.
Rabbi Art Green, in channeling the great Hassidic masters in his most recent work, asks the following question about this week’s torah portion, “Where was the Torah cast down at the time? It fell into the “shell” of Egypt. That is awareness in exile, for the Torah represents awareness. And this is why Israel had to go down into Egypt. To raise up fallen Torah…”
We use this term “light of Torah” because there are times in our lives when darkness can run rampant and other times when our eyes have become so accustomed to the light that we devalue its importance.
In our torah Portion, Shemot, we have 3 examples of individuals or groups acting complacently, as awareness in exile takes form:
Example 1: When Moses encounters an Israelite slave in harm’s way, he looks “Ko Vacho”- this way and that way, not because he was necessarily looking to see if anyone would catch what he was doing, but because there were people there who did not come to this Israelite’s aid. Blinded was the responsibility and need for action.
Examples 2 and 3 go hand in hand. Our opening section of Parshat Shemot states, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.”
What does this mean “A new king arose over Egypt.” The Talmudic sages Rab and Samuel battled it out to determine whether this was a new king, literally, or if the king had just forgotten all that Joseph had done for him. One could go even further to suggest that it was only through the memory of Joseph’s worthwhile contributions that kept Egyptian hatred below the surface. In any case, both Egypt and her leader were no longer “aware” of Joseph.
The same lack of awareness can be submitted in the case for the Israelites themselves. Would they fall into slavery if they had remembered the hard work of Joseph, the committed partnership he had created within the Egyptian political system? Israel forgot Joseph as much as Egypt! The community separated itself from Joseph, as Moses had been born separated from the community. It would take both Moses and the Israelite nation a generation to realize the phrase: Al tifrosh min Hatzibor– Do not separate from the community. We assume this means that in order to NOT separate from our community, we must live in a bubble, when in fact we realize we can serve our community better by keeping our eyes open to the outside. It is easy to be complacent, it is much harder to remain alert and aware of the different tools we can use to better ourselves and our community.
How can we avoid “awareness in exile”? It’s an active conversation within our community- shabbat regulars, lay leaders, and professional staff talking about what we are missing. We assume that everything the needs of our core.
We must be aware of the myriad of individuals our community serves. We must be aware of the fact that no two individuals come to worship here for the same reason. We must be aware that while Shabbat is a day of rest, we must push ourselves spiritually and emotionally. We must be aware of the idea of stepping out of our normal routine in order to grow as community.
Take an exodus from your own needs for a second. Explore what makes you come to services. Why are you here? Maybe it’s for social reasons, maybe its because a life cycle event brought you closer to community, maybe its the cantor! We all come for different reasons. May we find awareness of ourselves and our community, so that we can answer the greater questions: Why is that seat next to you empty? Where is your friend who used to come? You know why you come today, but what will get you here tomorrow?