Rabbi Yohanan said: If the Torah had not been given, we could learn modesty from a cat, not stealing from ants, fidelity from a pigeon and proper sexual relations from a rooster who appeases its partner before engaging in sexual relations (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 100b).
I am always fascinated by the way our rabbinic texts juxtapose the transcendent power of accepting Torah into our lives with the ordinary moments where Torah’s power is immanent if we stop and take a look. Tu B’Shevat is identified by the Mishnah as one of the four Jewish new years in part to remind us that the natural world is as much a divine creation as anything produced by human hands, and ignoring that sanctity is tantamount to losing an opportunity to learn more Torah.
Martin Buber’s I and Thou includes a metaphor comparing the I-It relationship and the I-Thou relationship to ways of contemplating a tree. Buber writes that it is possible to contemplate a tree “so rigorously that I can recognize it only as an expression of law” or “dissolve it [a tree] into a number,” only thinking about the tree in terms of that which can be measured and quantified (57-58). On the other hand, Buber argues that we can also “draw into a relation” with the tree, and cease treating the tree as an object of abstraction, but an object of concern.
No aspect of Judaism is immune from becoming an abstraction, and that includes the synagogue. The Talmud famously refers to the synagogue as a Mikdash M’at, or a “little sanctuary,” a place where God can be found even in the absence of a temple in Jerusalem (BT Megillah 29a), the antithesis of something that should be treated as an abstraction. At the same time, synagogues today are also places of executive boards, budgets, bylaws, newsletters, insurance policies and any number of components that are essential to a synagogue’s functionality, but not to its spiritual essence. Of course, Buber does not deny that a tree can be examined as a law or a number, only that there is a danger in reducing a tree to nothing more than that, and the same can be said for synagogues.
My colleagues at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) frequently experience the same obstacle when traveling around the continent to train synagogue leaders. The situation will go something like this: One of our staff will be leading a training session with a synagogue board, encouraging the individuals present to stop thinking about the crisis of the moment, and focus on certain key questions regarding mission, vision, and strategy. Most of the time, the synagogue leaders are eager to ask questions like “Who are we?” and “Where are we thriving?,” yet sometimes there are one or two people sitting in the corner who refuse to participate and object to wasting time on a pointless exercise. “We do not have time to waste on this tonight,” the objectors will say. “There are a real issues that we have to discuss!”
In fairness to the objectors, it is not unreasonable to be concerned about spending too much time focusing on impractical dreams with little hope of implementation. At the same time, if synagogue leaders cannot recognize that a synagogue is more than a profit-and-loss statement, then it’s reasonable to ask what is the point of leading synagogues at all. This does not mean that we ignore the incremental maintenance required to ensure that synagogues thrive in future generations, only that we strive to ensure that every aspect of synagogue life be imbued with sanctity.
Every leader needs to spend much of their time in the management realm, ensuring that the day-to-day business of the synagogue is tended to with efficiency and professionalism. And to be clear, keeping one’s position as a professional or lay leader largely depends on how well that management is done. At the same time, John Robertson writes that real leadership involves knowing the right moments to force the prescient pause. He writes:
“You have the capacity to think and see a better way; you need only to pause and practice. The problems and opportunities we face as a species–more important, as a planet–are simply too great to decline being a participant in resolving them…Act as though you have “no choice” except to make the world better” (A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human Progress, 310).
Our planet is in peril today for many reasons, and one of those reasons is that humanity’s capacity to control our environment led us to forget the wonder, awe, and majesty of the beautiful world given to us, and reawakening that wonder is the first step in being proper stewards of God’s creation. Similarly, synagogues are wondrous places, yet when we lose sight of the inspirational purpose and possibility, we find ourselves doing work that is important, but far from sacred.
Every Tu B’Shevat, we must ask ourselves whether or not we are treating our world as God’s precious creation or as a series of resources to be plundered. Similarly, our leaders need to ask whether or not our synagogues are led as God’s little sanctuaries on earth, or as a discrete series of spreadsheets to be completed and numbers to be crunched. How we answer that question may not determine whether or not synagogues will continue to exist, but whether or not their existence will continue to matter.