Sometimes the right question gives us the answer. The first time I conducted a seder someone asked me what I wanted to happen that evening. I remembered my grandfather’s seders and how I couldn’t wait to be there because it was so much fun racing around the house with my cousin looking for the afikomen, but the year my grandfather told me I had to recited the four questions, something big happened. Suddenly it mattered that I was there, I had a part to play. I studied hard, memorized the words and the melody, by the time I was ready, I had learned more than a little piece of the seder. I had learned that I needed to know that my presence was important to someone, and that’s what I wanted my seder to be for everyone there, an event that made them feel that without them, the seder wouldn’t be the same.
From that day on I was in search of feeling that it mattered that I was here, wherever that was, and that I was needed. It became more than a seder, it became a reason for my life. Now ever since then I’ve asked why am I here? What am I to do? What’s my purpose in my life? And tonight, I wanted to ask you this question. Why are you here? You know, when you become a rabbi, every Jew you meet outside a congregation tells you about why they don’t go to services. They say that nothing happens there, they go to feel connection to their people, to learn something maybe about themselves, but most say that it didn’t matter that they went, because they didn’t feel a belonging there.
A friend of mine, a thoughtful, sensitive woman who grew up in Puerto Rico, never goes to temple. But she told me that she remembers how her Jewish community, without a building or a rabbi, was vibrant, exciting, and a happening place, because it needed all its members and they knew it. When they hired a rabbi, it was never the same again, she told me.
Now I know that I am speaking to a havurah that has found a successful way to have a rabbi and keep its participation, and one of the reasons I’m so happy to be here is that I think you are all on to an important truth about community. People want to be needed; it answers a question about why we are here.
Some of us are not joiners, however. We are up by our own bootstraps types. We come to temple not for community but for religious experience, to get something from the service. Maybe it is nostalgia, maybe it’s to give our children Jewish identity, but belonging is not our thing, and when we look around the room, we don’t think these are our people. We are rugged individualists, we think, but deep down all of us are hard-wired to belong to each other, and if we don’t feel it, it’s because we don’t feel needed here and we are getting what we need.
But for those of us who do want to belong, who do come for the fellowship of a group, and are lucky enough to feel included and needed, we have a deeper unanswered question, too. What exactly is this group and what exactly do I want from it? Certainly we are here together to celebrate and continue our tradition, but more than that, we are together because it is hard to live. We stumble, we grope, we must live without understanding so much, and most of all, we cannot bear the silence of the universe. We listen for God, we look for God, but a lifetime might produce a glimpse now and then. So, we get together, and in our circle, we create dwelling for God.
If anyone is really listening right now, if I were listening, I’d think, hmm. Does any group or gathering create holy dwelling? the country club? my book group? Does it matter why we gather? I think that’s the whole thing. I’ve been to synagogues where I’m not sure God dwells, because I’m not sure what purpose beyond Jewish perpeturity the congregation is fulfilling.
We are here on this earth to learn one lesson: how to love. Simple but not easy, and the fewer organizations you belong to, the easier it is to imagine. But the real work in this life is to create communities of love, places where we feel we belong because we are needed. But what is it exactly that we need from each other? We need to feel connection to something outside ourselves–it’s the existential dilemma. We live between the tension of our uniqueness and our longing to belong to more than ourselves. What does the shma mean if not that we are all one, each of us cells in the great cosmic organism we call the world?
Once upon a time the Kabbalists say that there was only God, and like us, God had a creative urge, the desire to make the world. So God shrunk to make space for this world, making the world entirely the essence of God. God is the world and the world is God. But the world is a reduction of God and therefore imperfect and couldn’t hold the fierce radiance of the divine, so the vessel shattered, sending sparks all over and into everything, each of us, into every part of the earth, into every morsel of food. The trick is to retrieve the sparks to enlighten us, and the way we do that is to see everything for what it is, and when we do that, we must be amazed, radically amazed, to rephrase Heschel. When we feel our interconnection, we glimpse the spark. How do we do that?
I found the answer at an AA meeting this summer, a JACS meeting for Jewish alcoholics.