David Lerner

Leading us back together closely

For the last 15 months, I have been making the same jokes on Zoom. Some of these are getting a little tired. For example, as I start a Zoom Bat-Mitzvah rehearsal, I invite all the participants who are sitting in their living rooms, “Please be comfortable; make yourselves at home.”

Right now, as the pandemic has slowed and vaccination rates are climbing, things are changing. In our area and especially in our community, it is assumed that adults have received their vaccinations and now, most of our kids aged 12-15 have received at least one dose.

This bodes well for ALL of us and for our plans to reopen. That said, we find ourselves bein hashmashot, at the dawning, in the in-between time as we figure out how to come together safely again.

And it is not just safety, we are trying to determine what forms we should fill out, how much masking is required and how we can eat food together again. This is what a shul, a beit knesset, is all about. Beit Knesset means a house of gathering – and we need to gather, especially with food, again. We all know our kiddush luncheons are where we deepen the relationships in our community.

Dinner for Graduating Seniors
Zimriyah 5781

And we are working on this – hopefully, in two weeks we will gather outside for our BBQ and Barekhu – it might be a bit different, as it will have a maximum number of participants, it will be catered so fewer people will handle the food, and it will need to be outside and food will be served in individual boxes – no buffet. But, we have tested this over the last two weeks in smaller groups – having outdoor dinners celebrating our High School seniors, our Gimmel/third graders as they received their Siddurim (their first prayer books), and 7th graders as they came together with their parents for their transition to our YAD – teen program. Not to mention our Religious School end-of-the-year outdoor concert celebration with Mo’s Ice Cream Truck. That’s always a hit!

Kitah Zayin Tekes Hitkadmut
Mo’s Ice Cream Truck






But, I will have to admit there is some confusion as we come together. When will our Shabbat services be in person? Hopefully, that will begin on June 19 with regulations including that all adults must be vaccinated, limits on numbers, and all participants will be masked.

It’s exciting and a bit strange. How do we shake hands? Who is comfortable with what type of interaction? I usually ask people: “Elbow?” And if they are OK with that, we touch elbows. Certainly, it’s not the same as a traditional Shabbat handshake or a hug, but it is something.

It’s weird out in the streets as well — who is vaccinated and who is not outside our community? Tricky.

Our amazing Covid Committee has kept us safe even as we have gathered and they deserve incredible praise. And they have dealt with challenges from those who would like us to open up more quickly and those who prefer more braking. That’s hard.

But they have led from a place within the center of the community. And that is real leadership.

* * *

This week’s Torah reading: Parashat B’ha’alotkha offers some insights. The people are kvetching — it turns out this is something that Jews have been doing for millennia — even long before kvetch was a word — and not just in shul! They want the meat and salads they had in Egypt; even though they are provided with a seemingly endless supply of manna — a rich, tasty cream as the Torah describes it, they have become sick of its sameness and want their old menu. Who knew they had it so good as slaves in Egypt? But, in fairness, we all look at the past through rose-colored glasses.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Image in Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

According to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, there is a difference in the people in this portion; perhaps their perspective has changed or a new generation is coming onto the scene with unmet needs. Riskin writes that the people needed a new type of leadership — one that is more attuned to the needs of individuals and does not speak from on high as Moses did on Sinai.

He speaks to them from the Ohel Mo’eid — the Tent of Meeting — which was distant from the people. One needs to be close to the people they are leading. One cannot lead from a place too far ahead, behind, or far away from the community.

At the beginning of the reading, we find the same notion. The Levites are being inducted into their roles as spiritual assistants for the Kohanim and the entire Israelites.

וְהִקְרַבְתָּ֥ אֶת־הַלְוִיִּ֖ם לִפְנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה וְסָמְכ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־הַלְוִיִּֽם׃ and bring the Levites forward before the God. Let the Israelites lay their hands upon the Levites. (Numbers 8:11)

This describes a model where the leaders, the Levites are close to the people, which is emphasized from the word וְהִקְרַבְתָּ֥, coming from the root karov, meaning close. 

And the people place their hands on the Levites heads, an act of conveying authority, but also intimacy as parents place their hands on their children’s heads on Friday nights to bless them.

Hizkuni, a commentary by a French rabbi from the 13th century emphasizes this, pointing out that this is similar to when Jacob blessed his grandson Ephrayim, conveying warmth and love as he elevated him.

Leaders must feel the love of their community as they should lead from within the people.

* * *

What does this teach us about the return from Covid? Leaders have to assist in uniting our shul so we can feel comfortable coming back together again. This will not be simple — it is easy to Zoom into minyan; I myself have appreciated the convenience of hopping into minyan from wherever I am. I have been able to say Kaddish for my father, z”l, without changing my location. 

But this is not a real minyan, a 3-dimensional minyan where we can actually see each other as whole persons, not just as boxed faces. Thus, we will be asking to come back to in-person minyan and support it as we add more evenings and then mornings to our in-person schedule. There will still be a Zoom option so that those who are homebound or differently-abled, or far away can attend through technology. That said, we will need people to return to making the drive or bike or walk back to Temple Emunah as in the “olden days.”

We will be celebrating this over the summer into the High Holy Days, as we create Hanukkat Habayit — a rededication of our sacred space and in-person community just as the Maccabees did twenty-two hundred years ago. More information will come soon.

Real leadership comes from leading the people with intimacy and closeness, helping us grow and move forward at a pace and place that reflects where we all are.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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