Sermon — Doing the Work of “Doing Jewish”

Written by Cantor Tamara Wolfson — 14 February 2022

Last night, Rabbi Josh spoke about nostalgia and how powerful a force it is in our lives. His reflection on the final episodes of the TV show “Neighbours”, and the impact that the show’s ending might have on its viewers, was about much more than just a beloved TV show. It was about the sense of community and togetherness it encouraged, the sacred routine that so many families embraced as they gathered together at the same time and place each week to watch the show together. The feeling of nostalgia, therefore, was perhaps for the connections, relationships, and the feelings around the show, rather than about the show itself.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but at some point over the last two years there has been a huge surge in nostalgia for the 90’s. Cultural references from fashion to music and beyond all point towards a longing to return to a slightly romanticized view of the world, as seen through the lens of VHS and cassette tapes, the Spice Girls, mobile phones that flipped open, and maybe even reading the Harry Potter books for the very first time. Nostalgia has always been a compelling influence in our lives, but in recent years we have taken a particular comfort in reminiscing about how life used to be.

Looking backwards at bygone eras is bittersweet. We might grieve for simpler times, and for the people we knew and loved years ago. We might also come to appreciate how far we’ve evolved to get us where we are today, and the obstacles that no longer exist for us because things have changed so drastically around us.

But sometimes there are periods of time that feel so far away from our reality that we feel emotionally disconnected from them, and our distance from them makes it harder to appreciate that we are intrinsically linked. This week’s parashah is one such example: a point in time in our shared Jewish history that feels distant from our reality, but that our Torah reminds us is very much a part of our story.

This week’s parashah introduces us to the ancient Israelite Priests and the important role they played in Biblical society. Their main responsibility centered around the rites and rituals of the Temple; they were in charge of the ritual sacrifices, matters of ritual purity and impurity, and even certain legal proceedings. But their most important role was to act on the behalf of the entire Israelite community, carrying the prayers of the people into the mishkan, the Holy of Holies, and acting as a conduit between God and God’s people. The Priests were also responsible for discerning God’s will through Torah, and communicating these messages to the Israelites.

Essentially, the ancient Israelite Priest enacted Judaism on behalf of the entire Jewish community. They were a sacred and revered class; not just anyone could be ordained a Biblical Priest. So they carried a weighty responsibility, and the Israelites relied heavily on them to ensure that through them, their Jewish lives were well-handled and well-represented. The ancient Israelites did participate in their own Jewish lives, to an extent. But they understood that the vast majority of what it meant to be Jewish would be carried out by a Priest on their behalf, and that their role within early Biblical Judaism was to passively receive their tradition and trust the Priests with the “doing”.

It may be hard for us to envision the task of the ancient Israelite Priest because our understanding of Jewish engagement is so far removed from the world in which they worked and lived. We approach our Jewish lives fundamentally differently, because we are the caretakers of a Jewish tradition that we own. 

Your clergy do not “do Judaism” for you; that’s your job. We are here to support you, to celebrate and to grieve with you, to facilitate ritual and commemoration for your family and community, to teach Torah and music and text and Jewish values. We co-create alongside you as you encounter meaningful Jewish moments at every stage of your lives. 

But you are not the passive recipients of these moments. You are active participants in a Jewish tradition that encourages each of you to engage with Judaism in your own way. Your clergy can not make that happen for you. We can not force you to connect or engage, nor would we ever want to. We open the door for you to walk through and explore the multiple avenues to cultivate and connect with Judaism.

As we find ourselves in the 23rd month of this period of pandemic, many of us are reacquainting ourselves with what it means to reconnect to that with which we had actively engaged before. Many of us are still at home, continuing to pray, sing, and learn together from a distance that feels safe. Some have begun to come back into the building in whatever capacity feels comfortable. 

And still others of us are experiencing for the very first time some extremely gradual glimmers of a return to an Alyth that looks and feels “normal”. Over the pandemic, there were over 100 new member households that have joined our Alyth community. For them, as for me and for Rabbi Elliott, the Alyth that feels “normal” to others will actually feel quite new. 

Wherever we may find ourselves along the spectrum of our Alyth experience, we have an opportunity to determine that experience and to shape our roles within it – whether through volunteer endeavors such as singing in our choir or welcoming on the door, or through taking advantage of our many adult learning offerings throughout each month, or simply by continuing to show up – both online and in person – and continuing to be a present and valued part of our community. 

However we choose to act, we are a community that acts. We do not wait for our tradition to be handed down to us passively. We do not rely on others to enact that tradition on our behalf. The strength of this community is in the many pathways that so many of us choose to travel in order to claim our Judaism as our own and, indeed, to make this place our own as well. As we continue, as individuals and as a community, to navigate whatever this new normal brings, let us not lose sight of the incredible potential of this moment in time: the opportunity to act upon our tradition rather than receive it, to live out our Jewish values, and to harness the strength within our community to continue the work of repairing our world.