Sermon: Our rabbinic values

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 23 March 2019

A sermon given by Rabbi Josh and Rabbi Mark together to mark Mark’s final Shabbat as an Alyth rabbi

Ma Tovu ohalecha Ya’akov mishk’notecha Yisrael (Numbers 25:5)

How good are your tents, O Jacob, and your homes, O Israel.

Rabbi Josh:
As Alyth’s rabbis, we have shared a task over the last years – working together to build a community about which those looking on from outside can say, as Balaam did of Israel, “Ma Tovu Ohalecha – how good are your tents”.
This endeavour has been built on shared values and ideals; shared understanding of how synagogues can and should work, of what is really important in communal life.
This morning we wanted to do something that we’ve never done in the years working together – a joint sermon.  To take this opportunity to share five of those core principles.

Before each one we invite you to sing with us:

Hineh ma tov u’ma naim, shevet achim gam yachad (Psalm 133:1)

How good it is and how pleasant when brothers and sisters live in unity together.

Rabbi Mark:
It is good and it can be more than pleasant when two sit down together to talk to each other.  It’s how we bring the presence of God, the Shechinah, into our community. Our shul is at its best when it is a village in the city, a big Synagogue with the feel of a local Synagogue.  Every one of us shares the delightful task of getting to know everyone in the Shul village – sharing our time and attention with each other, in our own age group, across generations, across levels of commitment, facing together the challenges that we live with, learning about each other’s delights.  We know we have not succeeded when that feeling hasn’t been felt by one of us.

This goes for our staff team too.  We talk with each other, we plan together, we delight in each other’s successes, we help when any of us feels that a challenge might overwhelm them.   We eat together, we laugh together – occasionally we even cry together.    The same underlies the best relationships between Rabbis and Synagogue staff, members of the Synagogue and our lay leaders.  When we talk together regularly, very regularly, willing to hear the tough as well as the lovely, we build the village together and create a holy community that is a light to others and a joy for British Jews.

Yom zeh l’Yisra’el ora v’simcha, shabbat m’nuchah (Isaac Luria)

This day for Israel is light and is joy, a Shabbat of rest.

Rabbi Josh:
This is a religious community.
It is a new form of one, historically – a non-dogmatic religious community, one with multiple theologies, a spectrum of diverse beliefs and none.  But it is a religious community.  Synagogues are places of meeting but not only places of meeting – they are houses of prayer and learning.  We use the language of God.

There are, of course, multiple ways of expressing Jewish identity and these must be part of any thriving community – but at the end of every week is Shabbat, and at the heart of the community is t’fillah.

Not all rabbis believe this with passion, not all communities give vast amounts of attention to prayer.  We do.  An ideal we share is that a community needs thriving prayer to be healthy.  And, so, prayer needs effort – services require thought and intent; diverse opportunities are needed in a diverse community; and, fundamentally, the shape of our week is built around Shabbat as a source of ora v’simcha.

In our shared vision for Alyth’s building we and our lay partners did not – as some shuls have done – seek to develop our home with less space for prayer but with more – a new Beit Tfillah so that all of our community can pray in a place of spirituality.
Our tagline is ‘To pray, to learn, to live together’.  To pray comes first.

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar m’od. V’ha-ikar lo l’fached k’lal (Nachman of Bratslav)

All the world is a very narrow bridge
– but the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.

Rabbi Mark:
Our Synagogue village could be lovely and snug but it must not be smug.  Our Synagogue village could be a door we cower behind or an open door to God’s world.   It’s really something when we open the doors here on Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat as we stand during L’cha Dodi, turn around and see Temple Fortune High Street.  Every Synagogue, according to Maimonides must have windows so you see the world.  We aim to have open doors.

Our shul does not stop at its blue gates.   We walk the narrow bridge with humanity and together we combat our fear.
Today’s refugees can find friendship at our Shul as yesterday’s once did.   Food leaves our building for the hungry and the homeless.  The wonderful work that our members do in community for all kinds of charities, for schools, in NGO’s and for political parties comes back through those doors to inform us of what is going on in the world.

We look out and get involved in our borough, with our Christian, Muslim and Hindu neighbours, our city, our Reform movement, our nation, Jewish communities worldwide, Israel especially and the world – full of debates for the sake of heaven.
We hope that on High it is possible to see that we are trying, experimenting as we must, with repairing the world as well as we can.

Lo alecha ha-m’lachah ligmor v’lo attah ben chorin l’hibateil mi’menah – Pirkei Avot 2:21

It is not your duty to finish the work but you are not free to neglect it.

Rabbi Josh:
It is not your duty to finish the work, but nor are you free to neglect it.
The insight of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot is that we can never finish the work.  For some this might be a disincentive, hence his next line, the reminder that this is not a reason not to start.  But it is also the articulation of a shared task.

Fundamental to the Alyth journey is graft, willingness to work – to work at building community, to work at Judaism.

Work because we have been – and remain – ambitious.
Ambitious for Alyth, and ambitious for Progressive Judaism in this country.  We believe that what we do matters – that the form of religious life that we offer is important, that if we can get it right then we can help more people to have more joyful, flourishing Jewish lives.
This drives a desire to innovate, to try things; a need to do everything as well as possible – every sermon written, every study session prepared, every event thought through… bringing the best of ourselves to our communal work.
Which isn’t to say we know it all.  We are also willing to learn – to go out and see how others are doing the task of building community in different ways.

We rarely talk about mission in this part of the Jewish world – it is perhaps hard to talk of mission if you don’t have concepts of salvationism, if you are not dogmatic.  But there is a mission, and I think it is this: to share something that we love and find inspiring in as rewarding a way as possible.
Lo Alecha haml’cha ligmor: That task never ends.

Adonai s’fatai tiftach u’fi yaggid t’hilatecha (Psalm 51:17)

My God, open my lips and my mouth shall declare Your praise

Rabbi Mark:
No-one’s lips will open if no-one will hear.  We ask God to open our lips, we in the image of God help each other to open our lips to speak.  Our synagogue, it’s members, lay leaders, Rabbis, caring staff team are with each other on their individual journey through life.   We are called to support each other through the ups and downs.  But how can we if we don’t know each other?

That’s why we are always involved in Kiruv – drawing in – creating spaces in members homes and in the Synagogue where we can just talk to each other, spend time with each other support each other through times of transition, Baby naming through B’nei Mitzvah to Bereavement.

We know each other’s names and what is so beautiful after a period of years here for anyone who is part of our Kiruv, is that we know a part of each other’s journeys.  We challenge Kafka and his horse – It is not away from here for us – it’s a journey closer in, person by person, experience by experience.

Ma Tovu ohalecha Ya’akov mishk’notecha Yisrael (Numbers 25:5)

How good are your tents, O Jacob, and your homes, O Israel.

Rabbi Josh:
The task we have shared has been creating a community of which others, and we, can say, ‘Ma Tovu ohalecha’.
I have been blessed to work with a colleague, together dedicated to that task, with a shared understanding of what it is to build sacred community.  Ten, eleven, years is a long time to share an endeavour, to share a vision, to share an office.  Even though we will still see each other a great deal in our broader task of Reform Judaism, Mark, I will miss sharing the day to day leadership of this community with you.

But now we share the task across two communities.

It is important to recognise that the verse is not ‘Ma tov ahol’cha’ but ‘Ma Tovu ohalecha’.  Not ‘how good is your tent’ singular, but ‘your tents’, plural.  The task is to create multiple tents which are places of blessing: many places of talking to one another, of prayer and Shabbat, of looking out into the world; many synagogues of ambition; communities of individual care and search for personal meaning.

As you take these ideas and ideals to another place, we pray that you have every success and joy, and that you will build another community of which it can be sung:

Ma Tovu ohalecha Ya’akov mishk’notecha Yisrael (Numbers 25:5)

How good are your tents, O Jacob, and your homes, O Israel.