Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Campaign to Kindle Community

In Jewish tradition, the lighting of candles is an exceptional blessing.  It’s a backwards blessing: With the other blessings we BLESS and then DO.  With our candles however we DO (light) and then BLESS.  Doing and then blessing.  But we're beginning a new book-- a book that is filled with oddity and anomaly-- so the "backwardsness" of lighting Shabbat candles seems almost natural when beginning this book.

The book we began was B’midbar.  A complicated, peculiar beginning— from the very first sentence, which plunks us down in the Wilderness with Torah.  As always, the midrashist was keenly attuned to the problems of this wilderness:  

Numbers Rabbah 1:7
" . . . The Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai . . . " (Num. 1:1). Why "in the wilderness of Sinai?" Our Sages taught that the Torah was given in three ways: through fire, through water, and through wilderness. 
Why was the Torah given in these three ways? Just as these are free to all creatures, so too are the words of the Torah free, as it is said, "Let all who are thirsty, come for water, [even if you have no money . . . .]" (Isa. 55:1)
Another interpretation of  "The Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai . . . ": Anyone who does not make oneself open like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah; This is why it says, "in the wilderness of Sinai."

It’s not every day we stumble upon a midrashic voice like this, which is so utterly challenging to the orientation of our - or any - fixed Jewish community.  And by “fixed Jewish community” I mean an institution.  Institutions, like the federation, the synagogue, the community center, are by their very nature wired to be, in some sense, anti-wilderness.  We “institute” because of the threat of change, be it the horrid extremes of large scale annihilation (God forbid) or assimilation, or smaller-scale retraction from purpose and mission.  We institute because we want to ensure continuity, sameness over time.  We want our same heritage, our values, or culture; to last longer than we each do individually.
This text challenges the notion of a fixed Jewish community, on a variety of levels. It tells us that the Torah wasn’t given in the Promised Land, nor in the Temple. It was given in a dessert, a wilderness.  Second, the midrash tells us that Torah speaks in a variety of ways and places.  And most destabilizing, perhaps, it tells us to make Torah “free,” even using the Hebrew word “liknot,” to purchase or acquire.

Synagogues are the primary houses of Torah— and they can’t survive without contributions. We know that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” so how can there be such a thing as a “free Torah”?  The midrash is clear: Torah grows in the wild; it demands an organic attitude.  And as part-2 of our midrash reinforces, our ability to acquire it demands that we ourselves are “b’midbar,” free, open.  Where in our lives are we experiencing Wilderness?  Where is our community in Wilderness?  How do we make ourselves, individually and collectively “wilderness-ish.”
We can’t answer any of these questions without looking at the ever-changing ELEMENTS in our lives— the fire, the water, the wilderness.  
How do we “kindle” the natural and wild elements in our tradition?  We have a word for this, a ritual in fact.  The very beginning of the Torah, our first chapter, suggests to us that the most difficult and wild element in our universe is actually not physical at all, its temporal— time.  We organize time by carving out one day, Shabbat.  Time runs wild, like fire, like water, like wilderness— and that’s why when we enter Shabbat we do so by KINDLING fire. We give it a wick to burn, and wax to stay calm, and a spark, with our own hands.
Right now our community is engaging in the practice of Wilderness-Dwelling.  We took a congregation-wide survey called Shaping Our Future, the Temple Israel Project.  We learned a lot about who we are and what we need in order to endure— we learned, in fact, that Torah IS given in a variety of ways— fire, water, and wilderness.  Our community members seek a variety of ways of entering sacred space.  And similarly what the broader PEW study on the Jewish community, the largest of its kind to date, taught us was that institutions need to become less institutional if they are to adapt— institutions need to be more “b’midbar—wildernessy.”
Our midrash gives us a clue how to do so:  if we want to acquire Torah, OSEH ATZMO KA-MIDBAR HEFKER: make yourself a like a wilderness— open yourselves up, hefker, this word connotes being ownerless and open to encountering anyone who comes your way.  This is about relationship, learning about each other, and discovering the Torah within our souls.
Therefore,Ohel Tzedek, our tent of justice, is complementing our survey work by engaging the congregation in a relational campaign—in order to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our community— face to face.  Ohel Tzedek kindles the flame of Relational Judaism in our community.  So we’re calling this campaign, MADLIK.  
Madlik means kindle.  It’s the word we say when we say, “l’hadlik neir” - when we kindle the lights that usher in holy time. And then bless.  In this place the real way that “anachnu MADLIKIM neirot” - that we kindle lights and find blessing - is through relationships.  That’s why every Shabbat after we light the candles and sing l’cha dodi, we meet each other. When we took our survey we had a more successful response rate than any other congregation.  That’s because what we really yearn for is relationship, what we yearn for is connection. That’s our challah and butter!   So this campaign is community-wide and completely open—like a wilderness.

And what we’re asking people to ask each other is quite simple: Who are you? How are you? What is this community to you, and what could it be? This is the “Wilderness” question, we’re just asking it in real ways.  This campaign will have 3 stages and it'll go into next year:
11)   The first is individual connections, 1:1 meetings.  
22)   The second is group gatherings, house meetings in the fall.
33)   And then the third phase is discerning: What are hearing and what do we want to do about it?

If you’re comfortable being a part of this wilderness, ask me about it; drop me a note to sign up.  I know I speak not just for myself but also our Madlik Co-Chairs, Ted Greenwood and Sally Mechur, and our Madlik Leadership Team—all of whom are eager to connect. 

Perhaps most exciting part of this campaign is that we are not alone: more than 40 other congregations throughout the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) are doing it as well. We will get a chance to mix it up with other people of faith. If we hear something at TI that resonates elsewhere, our ability to “do something about it,” if we want, is exponentially greater.  
We are supported in this campaign by the professional organizers that our communities invests in— individuals like Larry Gordon, GBIO’s senior organizer— experts who help us hear each other and do something about it.  
So we are beginning a new book, B’midbar.  The book that tells us that Torah is given in the Wilderness.  And if we want it, we have to make ourselves open and new.  We have to make ourselves like fire, like water, b’midbar-like wilderness.  So we will.  And after doing so, after kindling the light of our community, we will find blessing.  
Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik neir shel ha-tzibur
Blessed are you Eternal our God Sovereign of the universe who commands us to kindle the light of the community.  


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