This week’s sedra, Balak, contains an image echoed throughout congregational life. Standing above the Israelite encampment, the prophet Bil’am is ready to curse the Israelites. Instead, because of a decree from God that he can only speak the truth, words of praise flow from his lips. Our liturgy borrows his words, ‘How great are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, o Israel’ and puts them into the mouths of communities at prayer, allowing us to express anew each time we gather the sense of wonder at the sight of community.
This week also marks the final dvar torah of this cycle, and our last as students at Leo Baeck College. Over the past five years we have travelled to communities across the UK and beyond, and spoken and sung Bil’am’s words from bimahs, from circles of chairs, and latterly to webcams.
What does it mean to bless a community in this way? What is it about community life that provokes such a reaction of awe? Here, we have chosen four texts from the Jewish canon that enable each of us to articulate the unique blessings of community. Bil’am’s blessing is powerful because of its truthfulness, it lasts the test of time because it is heartfelt. We offer these texts as a way of thanking the communities and individuals who have taught us the best of shared Jewish life.
הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ
Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy
One of the blessings of community is the power of the presence of a group of others who accompany each other throughout life’s journey. The cycle of simchas, shivas, and everything in between, forges a sense of solidarity between people; a deep understanding of the significance of one moment in relation both to that which came before, and that which is yet to come. Communal frameworks for visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and challenging injustices are counter-cultural. They constantly put us in a position where we face difficulty together. In sharing these moments, the boundaries of community and family overlap. Preserved in the stories of each congregation are people’s quirks and foibles, their brilliance and their imperfection, and it’s the gathering of these that makes up the identity of a community. My understanding of what it means to live Jewishly has been profoundly impacted by sharing lifecycle moments in congregational life, and by knowing that it is the way that people invest in each other with such deep love and caring in times of anguish and loss that makes the joy of simchas so abundant.
הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ
Turn it, turn it, for everything is inside it
Pirkei Avot 5
In my placements over the last five years, I have served in tiny communities and enormous ones; some that had to build their prayer space from scratch every time we assembled in the church hall, others that had grand buildings and a whole staff team . A member of one of the smaller communities once commented how much better he thought it was to have to construct the ark anew every Shabbat – for him, it was all sacred work. And, indeed, if there is anything I have learnt, both from my studies at Leo Baeck College and in my experience of working with communities up and down the UK, is that the possibilities of Torah are more or less endless. But not only this. That every act of community is an act of Torah, whether it is leading services and teaching the community, reaching out to someone who is bereaved, or straightening the chairs before a service begins. It is easy to forget, for rabbis particularly, but all we need to do is turn – both ourselves and Torah.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the corner-stone itself
אֶבֶן, מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים הָיְתָה, לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה
After the destruction of the Temple, Sages ‘rebuilt’ Judaism as a religion of scholars. Sadly, rabbinic Judaism limited full religious rights to cis-gendered heterosexual men. When I sing Ma Tovu, I marvel at the potential that Progressive communities in Europe were able to unlock by including women, the LGBTQ+ individuals and Jews by choice. I feel that the communities I served are doing their best to be spaces in which everyone is welcome. The diversity of their congregants turned each of these ‘tents of Jacob’ into a broad tent of opinions on what it means to live Jewishly. It is not always an easy task to reconcile disparate perspectives, but European Progressive communities (mostly) make it work. I believe that successful Progressive communities thrive because they turned the respect for their congregants’ diverse needs and life journeys into their corner-stone, the foundation of all their actions. As a future rabbi, I hope to build my community on such a foundation.
דַע לִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עוֹמד
Know before whom you stand
As new rabbis emerging from the College we have had the privilege of spending time in a multitude of different communities all over the country, to be taught and mentored by those who have been doing this work for a long time and to walk in the footsteps of those who have come before us. I am greatly aware as a female rabbi, with a female partner that I could not be here today were it not for the rejections, fights and victories of those female and gay rabbis who came before me. What is more, as we enter our rabbinate we find ourselves in communities with rich and varied histories. Each community has within it, its minhag, its experts, its stories and its vision. In every community I have entered I have had the pleasure to get a glimpse of the magical way each community functions. In order to do the work we plan to do we must know before whom we stand.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.