Parashat Bamidbar

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, May 18, 2018

The view from the bima gives one a broad perspective on community.  From the chairs, you see the backs of each other’s heads and you are looking at me, or the cantor or Rabbi Mintz or at Barbara.   But from up here, I am looking at your faces, and from here, I can see that God is in the room.

I’ve been listening to a great podcast Judaism Unbound on my drives up and down highway 5 to school.  Judaism Unbound asks the BIG QUESTIONS facing Jewish life in America.  Does the “religion” of Judaism in America in its current synagogue-based form speak to most Jews?  Can this current form survive?  What about Judaism attracts people, young and old?  Are innovations springing up and if yes, what are they and why do they appeal?  Are there lessons to be learned from the broader world that can be applied to Jewish life?

Last week the hosts of Judaism Unbound interviewed Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, from Harvard Divinity School, who are interested in structures that provide people meaning, some would say “religious” experiences in unexpected settings.  They explored the idea that there are there deep human needs that humans have and so we develop systems to meet these needs… Religions are just the most developed of the systems which meet them.

Thurston and Kuile identified 6 themes that these systems possess.

  1. Personal transformation – sense of wanting to transform who I am – physically, ethically
  2. Social transformation -justice making, creating beauty
  3. Purpose finding – what I want to do with my life?
  4. Accountability – You must show up
  5. Creativity – participating in creating something
  6. Community – to be part of something more, something greater

In addition to overtly religious communities, the hosts gave the examples like Crossfit Gym.  At Crossfit, when you sign up, you are expected to be there 3 – 4 days a week to work out.  Everyone who joins shares the common goal of wanting to work out and to get into shape.   The expectation of membership is that you have joined a community where the other participants will know you well enough to cheer you on to your goals. If you don’t show up, someone calls you and check on you, which shows they care, as well as holding you accountable. People at Crossfit know each other so well they gather for meals outside of the gym, their social circle revolves around Crossfit, and some people have even moved to be closer to their gyms.

You can see the same thing in sports fandom.  Sports fans of the Vegas Golden Knights function similarly.  People gather regularly at bars or homes to watch the games, wear the outward signs of affiliation and unity (like jerseys, jackets and t-shirts).  These groupings/gathering foster community and bring people together in community and friendship with the shared goals of VICTORY for their beloved team… there is a sense of unity and community, but all of this is over something besides religious creed.

So why do I bring this up?  Tomorrow night we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot.  One of the things we celebrate is the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt.  In receiving this Torah, the Jewish people accepted a way of life that would make them “a holy people” and keep us in covenant with God.   To my modern sensibilities, it laid out the path to a life filled with ethics, community and a sense of belonging.

When I look out from the bima here at our P’nai Tikvah community, I see that we are following the path that God set out for us on Mt. Sinai, to be an ethical and holy people, to build and belong to community; and in P’nai Tikvah, I see the elements that Thurston and Kuile identified.  I see that P’nai Tikvah has helped to transform lives, to pursue justice, to answer the question for some of “what I want to do with my life?” It has allowed people to participate in creating something, to be a part of something more, something greater than we are as individuals.  I see the power that nurtures the world in love of parents for their newborn child, I see pain of the pain of loss on the faces of those in grief, and I see the warmth of the long, loving meaningful friendships that you/we have created.

People are searching for meaning in their lives and when they find something that has the secret sauce of these magic six ingredients, they stick with it.  Thurston and Kuile are describing P’nai Tikvah and why so many of us feel such a profound and meaningful connection here.

May we continue to nurture our community, to follow the path laid out for us at Shavuot and to grow from strength to strength.