The One Heart of Community

Now that we have survived the Oscars on Sunday, I want to go a bit further back in movie history to Raiders of the Lost Ark or any of the Indiana Jones movies.

Not only were the films filled with awesome action and adventure mixed in with some quasi-historical archaeological pieces, but they also were filmed in incredible locations.

The 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was partially filmed in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan and our Temple Emunah Israel Adventure included an optional excursion there last week.  It is a magnificent canyon carved by water over millions of years that Nabataean traders over 2,000 years ago used as hidden city that was shielded from invaders.

The Nabataeans carved incredible structures out of the cliff walls including the remarkable Treasury building that was highlighted in the film.  

After Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan in the mid-1990’s, I visited Petra and was awed by its incredible beauty.  

Take a look at this picture of the Treasury building: can you imagine the carving work that must have taken years and years?

I have always wanted to bring an Emunah group to see this site: one of the seven wonders of the world.  

And last week, we did just that leaving Eilat early in the morning, crossing the border and travelling.  As luck would have it, it snowed for the first time in 15 years in Petra that day and the entire area was coated in a beautiful blanket of white. Something we’re a bit more accustomed to in these parts.

The snow turned to rain and then heavy rain when we got to the Treasury building.  Suddenly, the local population – mostly young men who were leading horses and small carriages to take people who were unable to walk so far or did not want to.  They started screaming.  One of them knocked over the large sign telling people not to climb up onto this archaeological wonder. At first, I thought it was a joke – the young men playing around or that we were on some sort of Petra Candid Camera.

But it was real.

Flash floods in a narrow canyon can kill people and have done so.  There had been one recently. So we all climbed up just to be safe.  Fortunately, we were never in any actual danger as no flood occurred and we headed back in the rain.

After a very late lunch and long drive, we made it back to the border.  We were grateful and I felt safer to be back in Israel.  

The group went through passport control; I was the last one.  The agent asked me questions and when I answered in Hebrew, she asked me more and more.  Suddenly, she was suspicious – perhaps I was really an Israeli who was trying to get out of the army or paying taxes or whatever.

Perhaps she was suspicious because our children all have Israeli Hebrew names.

Perhaps she was having a bad day.

I liked to think she thought my Hebrew was just that good….

She handed me back four of our five passports, telling me that my family could enter Israel, but she kept mine and told me to sit down.  For the next twenty minutes, I sweated – and felt badly that I was holding up the group.

I thought about what others who need to cross borders must feel.  

The fear.  

The anxiety.  

The not knowing.  

The lack of control – I could do nothing.

Our Israeli guide who pleaded on my behalf could not do anything.  

And I was not excited about spending the night at the border….

* * *

This Shabbat has many blessings – it is Shabbat Shekalim as we learned from the maftir portion and haftarah.  

It is also Mevarkhim Hahodesh, the blessing of the new month, as we welcome the joyous second month of Adar with the festival of Purim.

Our central reading this morning was from the book of Exodus: Parashat Va-yak·hel that opens with Moses bringing the entire Israelite community together.  After the challenges of the breaking of the first set of the Ten Commandments, why does Moses bring everyone together?

And what is his big announcement: Shabbat!


Now, don’t get me wrong – I am a big fan of Shabbat!  It is my spiritual anchor, my weekly pause to connect with friends and family, but the Israelites were already told about Shabbat a few weeks ago at Sinai, as well as, when they were given the manna that was to sustain them through their years in the wilderness.

So, why announce Shabbat yet again?

And what does it have to do with the major theme of the reading: the building of a sacred space, the Mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sanctuary for their wanderings in the wilderness?  

What does Shabbat have to do with that?

* * *

Abravanel, a 15th century Portuguese Jewish statesman and commentator, explains that we learn from this juxtaposition that Shabbat takes precedence over even other important acts like building the Mishkan.  

Shabbat is paramount.

In addition, the return to the Shabbat command here is critical.  The Israelites have just experienced the sin of building the Golden Calf; there was deep division and disruption among the people.

Moses brings the people together as one with the word: Va-yak·hel  – Moses convoked them, he brought them together as one united community again.  Rashi explains that the people were of “one heart” when they received the Ten Commandments at Sinai and Moses wants to return to that state.

So, how can he do that?

He turns to our most tried and true tradition: Shabbat.  

And explains that we all need to come together, creating transformative, sacred time, a Cathedral in Time, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote.

The words Moses uses are critical – he gathers the people: Va-yak·hel – from the words kehillah, a congregation, a community that comes together.  He is bringing them together to repair the wounds they has just experienced.

And then Moses adds something new: Lo tiv’aru eish b’khol moshvoteikhem b’yom HaShabbat – do not kindle any fire in any of our settlements on Shabbat.  No lighting fires on Shabbat – this feels both literal and metaphoric – this is a day that is supposed to be without strife.  Don’t start lighting fires, starting fights with each other – simply experience the joy of being together.

Now, there are many ways to do that – here, at Emunah, that happens each week on Shabbat, especially on Shabbat morning, as we pray, learn, sing and eat lunch together.  We are truly transformed by each other’s presence.  

You can see that embedded in our Shabbat rituals – we begin on Friday night by lighting candles, at least two separate flames and then, we end our Shabbat with one flame with at least two wicks, usually with a havdalah candle.  

This symbolizes that Shabbat has transformed us – moved us closer to each other.

* * *

When I think back to our trip, there were many amazing experiences, but perhaps the most powerful was on Shabbat, when we were studying Torah, and we went around and reflected on our highlights.  We shared how we were moved by our experiences, the places, but most of all by each other.  

The most significant part of Shabbat is that we are supposed to experience it in community.  And through that, we became one group with one heart – just as our ancestors were at Sinai.

When I think about what we do here in our community, what is the most significant experience we provide? It is community.  Every minyan, every meal, every festival, class, act of kindness brings us together, weaving an interconnected tapestry of interactions.  The most powerful elements for me are the sharing – when each of us shares of ourselves.

And that happens most powerfully on Shabbat.

Moses then reminds the people that we are supposed to bring our gifts to the community – physical gifts, yes, but also, ourselves.  The gift of our presence, our opening up to each other, that is the most cherished gift.

* * *

And in case you were wondering, I did finally make it back from Jordan.  After waiting twenty minutes, I was allowed to cross, rejoining our group which had waited patiently for me; and, as they welcomed me back, I felt the caring and unity that one feels in community.

May we all be blessed to continue to bring ourselves to this sacred community each and every Shabbat, experiencing the unity, the sense of having one heart.

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.