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Erev Rosh Hashsanah 5779

09/11/2018 09:44:10 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

“The Walls Demand It of Us”

You can learn a great deal about a community, including a sacred community, by the space they call home. You can learn a great deal about a community’s history, about its values, about its loves and relationship with the surrounding neighborhood. Space is not merely space, after all; it tells a story and projects a message about who the community is and who it wants to be.

Once I went to a church for a social justice event. This church, like many houses of worship, had many doors. I walked up to the main door to find it locked. So I walked around the side to what looked like the office door, and found it locked as well. I walked around the building for several minutes trying each one in turn, until finally I found one that would open. Later, I found out that this door—which was a real back door—was the one that ‘everyone’ used to get in. Everyone who knew, at least.

Similarly, I recall a story I head about a congregation far from this community, a synagogue, where to get from the rabbi’s office to the religious school office, you had to go through several doors, down several hallways, and up a flight of stairs. Perhaps it was because of geography, or just the way the congregation’s building evolved? Nope. Apparently, the rabbi and the educator at that congregation hated each other, and they worked to put as much space and as many barriers between them as possible.

I love our space, our building. I’ve gotten to know it well over the last 10 years, and it feels homey to me. I love showing people where the staircase to the rabbi’s office used to be, both because it’s a neat little bit of trivia, but also because it demonstrates how the values of the congregation changed. As I’ve shared with many of you, I love the long corridor from the main entrance to the sanctuary as a sacred space. You come in, feeling whatever you felt based on the drive over here, and as you walk down, you see the pictures of generations of our confirmands, you hang up your coat and see your friends, you have a chance to get a drink of water, go use the rest room, and by the time you enter the sanctuary, the troubles you carried in with you—the stress of the drive, from work—are all left behind. I love this sanctuary, especially when it’s filled with people. You know I love the parking lot. And I especially love the words we have inscribed on our wall, outside the synagogue. If you go out onto Lea Boulevard and look past the spotlights, you’ll see the words of the prophet Micah inscribed on the outside walls of the sanctuary. Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly With Thy God. Those words, along with the two tablets of the commandments positioned way up high in the corner, and the sign with our name, are the only ways you can tell that this is a synagogue. That’s it.

What do those words say about us? What do those words teach us about ourselves as a community, or as individuals who choose to be a part of this community? Certainly the words are attractively carved, in a font that was very much of the era. But it can’t just be mere decoration, could it? Synagogues often have quotes from scripture or other sources, but not always this quote, and not always in English so that everyone can read them. Certainly, as Reform Jews, we have embraced the idea of the prophetic message, especially in the era this building was built, with an eye toward proclaiming what is right and just in our community. So there’s a sense of history and connectivity there, too, that these words make this place feel like a reform synagogue, and a historic one at that. But I’d like to suggest another possibility. I’d like to put forward the idea that, in the same way that the yahrzeit plaques and the portraits on the wall and the ark behind me, that these words tell us something about the who we are and what we’re about. Even more than that, that the very fact that the words are written OUTSIDE the building are also meant to say something to those around us.

First, what does it say about us? Let as assume that these words are not merely decorative. It says that, as a congregation, these words matter. More than that, that these words get to the very fiber of who we are. That if you enter this congregation, and speak to its membership and clergy and staff, its active volunteers and less active occasional worshippers, you will find these words: To do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God, lived. Lived by our youngest toddler to our oldest grand and everyone in between. Of course, that raises an important question: are we? Are we really living these words? Can each of us say that these words are our words? Is this how we’re living our Judaism, how we’re living our lives? So let me ask, what are we doing for justice? What are we doing in mercy, or goodness? Do we see ourselves walking modestly after God, or going through life modestly at all?

I feel like it’s necessary to raise this question today, at the start of a new year, because we are a living in a time when we as a society and a nation are decidedly NOT doing justly, loving mercy or walking humbly with God. Just as an example or two, where is the justice in asking 2-year old asylum seekers to represent themselves in court, as many of them had to do this summer? Is there mercy in how we understand those suffering from addiction, or poverty? Or do we hold them accountable to unreasonable expectations.  And as we hurl insults at each other online or otherwise dive head first into the outrage machine that is the internet, can we really say that we are being humble in our experience of others?  I think it is safe to say that we are not as a country living these words, and our failure to do so is causing us a great deal of harm as a society. We are failing to lift up the just needs of others,  and turn instead to cynicism. We are increasingly cruel with each other, rather than gentle and kind and loving, seeing those who disagree with us as opponents or worse, enemies. And we are only satisfied with one answer, the extreme answer, with no room for forgiveness, or learning, or context. This is a rot in the moral underpinnings of American life, and it is taking its toll on us. The American Psychological Association now says that the fourth greatest stressor in American Life is politics, and it’s as much because of the outright hostility to, and erosion of, basic norms of civic and civil behavior as it is who won and who lost. Suffice to say, when Micah wrote these words, he lived in a similar time, with a similar breakdown, a similar calamity. Which makes the need to live these words all the more important.

This leads us to why it is on the outside wall, rather than inside. If it were inside, it would be clear that this is a personal, communal reflection. But by putting it on the outside, the people who created this building did something amazing. Two things, actually. First, they created inspiration for anyone who walks by. If you’re in the neighborhood, or driving to work, and you see our building, you see those words. And maybe they fade into the background, or you stop paying attention after a while, but maybe, just maybe, they inspire. They raise the kinds of questions in the passerby that we’ve been exploring together.

But our congregational forebears did more than that by putting Micah’s words outside our building. They called us out. Because now, if you are unfamiliar with us, and you see our wall, and you walk in, you might ask out loud or to yourself, whether or not we are doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly. You might look around and talk to the folks; the members and the staff and the clergy, the volunteers and the worshippers, the kids and the adults, and ask yourself, is this a place and a people that truly lives by those words on the wall? They should ask that question, and we should be prepared to answer. Because if we don’t live by those words, then this is just a building, full of empty rituals. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? By putting the words on the outside the people who built this building in the 1950s challenged us to live by these words or run the risk of making the whole enterprise nothing but hypocrisy and pablum.

So the question becomes whether we are going to choose to make these words a part of our lives. Whether in our day-to-day interactions we will be these words, so that when people speak of this congregation they will say not only that we’re nice (and we are) or that we care about education (which we do) or that we are active in our community (which I think we are but you know there’s always more to do) but will say “Oh, I know which congregation is yours. It’s the one with the words from the prophet Micah on its walls. It says, “Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God” and I can say that every person from Beth Emeth lived those words and made them real.” Because it’s not enough to be nice, to care about education or be active in the community. It’s not enough to have beautiful services and a wonderful space filled with memories. None of it is enough if we don’t make these words come alive in a world so full right now of pain and enmity.

I’m sure it seems like too much. Why should each of us, then, be responsible for those words? Isn’t it hubris to think that we are uniquely required to fulfill them? And what if we fail? What if we succumb to the bitterness, the anger, the simmering rage that we see and feel around us?

A few weeks ago I was speaking with Aaron Selkow, the director of camp Harlam, where we send many of our kids, and he said something interesting. He asked why we as institutions insist on saying that we’re either really great at something or really not? Why does it have to be either or? Because when you say you’re really great, that’s just an opinion, and it may change. And when you say you’re bad at something as an institution it kind of lets you off the hook, doesn’t it? Why can’t we say we’re experimenting? We’re trying, we’re doing our best, which means we may fail, or fall, but we’re falling forward? If that’s true for institutions—for camps and synagogues and businesses—isn’t it true for people? What right do we have to say that we can’t, or that it isn’t our strong suit, or that we’re already good enough at something that we don’t have to reexamine and continue to learn? The words on our wall do not call us to be perfect but they do call on us to TRY. We don’t get to say it’s too hard. We don’t get to say we’re doing all we can already, and it’s good enough. Yes, the words of the prophet demand a great deal from us. They push us out of our comfort zone. But they leave no room to hide in self-pity or apathy. Our wall, our very building, calls us to action. Tomorrow I’ll speak more of how, but we cannot doubt the why, only respond as our ancestors did, affirming their choices. We will try. We will step out of our comfort zones. Even when it’s hard. Especially because it’s hard. The very walls demand it of us.

Wed, December 6 2023 23 Kislev 5784