This past Pesach, I recited Yizkor for the first time as an orphan. My father died several years ago, but my mother passed away two days after Thanksgiving this past fall. I pray daily with a commitment to hallow my mother’s memory with the recitation of Kaddish and often as the prayer leader of our small minyan.
When I returned to my community after being away for Shiva, our morning and evening “minyanim” were well supported and attended by a congregation that wanted to show its support and share its heart; but five months later, the struggle of securing a worship quorum for weekday services has returned.
I am the very proud rabbi of a comparatively small Orthodox synagogue with a membership that could be described as a mixed multitude. The shul has members devoutly dedicated to halachic observances as best as they are able; and there are members who try their best, some years unsuccessfully, to be at High Holiday services. The interior of the sanctuary has been compared architecturally to a rendering of Noah’s ark; and if personality types and levels of spiritual commitment might respectfully be viewed as a self-selected assemblage of different kinds of Jews, our shul is genuinely as diverse as the collection of animals that rode out the flood with Noah and his family.
It is a model that makes me happy. I awaken every morning knowing that I have work to do. My tasks include keeping this assemblage unified. Call it Modern Orthodoxy, open or progressive, it is this rabbi’s dream come true to be able to be associated daily with people who value the congregation and who support its programs as best they are able.
Outside the rose tinted lens, though, there is a challenge that still befuddles me; and despite decades as the spiritual leader of this congregation, it is a nut I have not yet been able to crack, a message I have failed to successfully deliver. Along with modern thinking and progressive theology is a strain of liberalism that justifies as genuine and legitimate the rights of individuals to make personally satisfying choices. I count myself among those who celebrate the freedoms and liberties guaranteed by the premises upon which the United States was founded. Yet, within the structure of a synagogue, there are times when individual choices force uncomfortable realities upon neighbors and friends.
It should be a source of pain and shame to every member of a shul when a mourner attends a worship service (tefilah) with the expectation of being able to recite Kaddish, and Kaddish cannot be recited due to the lack of a minyan. It should not be about the rabbi. It should be about the community.
When a child or grandchild is in a school play or a recital, we strive to be in our seats with time to spare. When planning on attending a movie, a show or a sporting event, no one intentionally plans on arriving late. Sometimes it happens, but not usually with intent. Yet, barely a quorum of members prioritize being in the sanctuary or the chapel in time for the scheduled commencement of tefilah. Sometimes, we are forced to delay the start of our prayers; and when we do, communal as well as individual kavannah is sacrificed as eyes turn to the creak of the opening door hoping for the next attendee to arrive.
There are people who are selective about which days of a holiday are personally the most meaningful, and those are value assessments that every person is entitled to make. I truly understand the chafe of observing a two-day festival when in Torah text and in Israel the observance is but one day. Yet when those choices impede the synagogue’s ability to provide the most meaningful possible worship celebrations for the balance of the congregation and its members, those personal choices cast their pall on the legitimate expectations of friends and neighbors. Sometimes, it is our best readers and best singers who refuse to accede to the precepts of tradition; and as a direct consequence, the quality of the services in the sanctuary is compromised and the attendance is small.
These are three limited examples as observed from the perch of the pulpit, but the tension of the dynamic can be impacting beyond prayer and sanctuary-based experiences. In truth, we have all experienced both sides of the tension – being an individual as well as being a member of an impacted group.
From the perspective of ancient spiritual scholarship, the day that Israel received Torah at Mount Sinai might be descriptive of Israel at its best, its strongest and its most resilient. The Oral Tradition wants us to believe that the assemblage of souls amassed before that mountain was “k’ish echad, b’lev echad – akin to a single person with a singular purpose”. Let us not be fooled by simple thinking, though. Surely there were ancient relatives of ours who were not fully pleased or comfortable with what was being asked of them. Did they universally and uniformly embrace with equal fervor and favor all of the commandments? I am sure there were weavers who were not happy with the restrictions of ‘shatnez’ prohibiting the intermingling of wool and linen fibers. I am sure there were animal rights advocates who were disappointed with the ritualization of slaughter and animal sacrifices. Yet, they all stood together as one and pledged support to a covenant with God and to an alliance with each other.
A strength of most congregations, if not the virtue by which they are most commonly acknowledged and praised, is the spirit of community. Therefore, let us all use these days between Pesach (which celebrates freedom) and Shavuot (which commemorates a commitment to a covenant) to think about how each member of every similarly eclectic community can individually revisit and strengthen the spirit of dedication to the synagogues we call our spiritual homes. We know that a community is larger than the sum of its parts; another way of saying the same thing is that the value of one is increased when it partners with others. What we do for each other adds value to who we are as individuals.