In a little known, yet uncommonly provocative book called Gesher Hachaim, the Bridge of Life, the author, Yechiel Tucazinsky, z"l, writes that Life on this earth begins with man being transported from the womb of his mother and ends with his restoration to the earth from which he was formed and to which he must return. This life on earth constitutes no more than a bridge between two basic forms of life - the past and the future. Although both are the essential forms of life, they are completely separate and distinct; the past being a completely passive life, while the future depends upon the individual, and is determined by the nature of what he has gained by his own choice during his life on earth.
To demonstrate this thesis, Tucazinsky, who died in 1955, describes the following case:
Imagine twins lying together in the womb. (Since Tucazinsky assumes that both are males, I will use his language). They are having a discussion about what happens once they leave the womb. One of them (the more 'rational'), only accepts as much as his own intelligence, his mind can grasp - and is prepared only to acknowledge the existence of that which he can ready experience; i.e., this world alone. This is what he has learned from his own experience and his past. Just as twins often do, [and being the father of twin, I have direct evidence], they argue - lovingly, of course. This one believing that there is no life beyond the womb; the other believing the opposite. The "believer" twin repeats what he has learned from the sources; namely, that they both would, upon birth, enter a new and more spacious realm, that they would eat with their mouths, see distant objects with their eyes, and hear with their ears; that their legs would straighten, that they would stand erect and transverse vast distances on a gigantic nurturing earth, replete with oceans, rivers and lakes. Above them would stretch a starry sky. The other twin, who believes only in that which he can sense, jeers at the other's naivete and fantasies. "Only a fool," he might say, "could believe all this nonsense. It makes no sense to the rational mind. The more the "believer" would go on and elaborate and describe in detail the features of this new existence, the more the "rational" one would mock and ridicule him. So the "believer" asks: "For you, my twin, my enlightened one, what do you believe is in store for us when we leave the womb?" "Simple and obvious," comes the reply. "Once the enclosure opens and you are torn way from this world where your food and drink and shelter are provided, you fall into an abyss from which there is no return. You might as well never have existed at all."
In the heat of the argument, the womb opens. The "naïve" twin slips and falls outside. The remaining twin is shattered by this "tragedy" that has befallen his mate. All that is heard are loud noises and shouting and flashes of bright light. Exactly - Birth!
A remarkable image - twins in utero - struggling to determine what lies ahead for each of them. Both rely on their past for insight; both have the same environment in which they were nurtured; both anxious about their destiny; both dreaming of worlds yet to be.
Each of us here this evening possesses a part of each of these twins. We rely on our past for insight; we share the same environment from which we are nurtured; we are all anxious about our destiny; and we all dream dreams of what could be. Like those twins, each of us is both a believer and a skeptic.
I came across this story by Tucazinsky in my work with our Chevra Kadisha and in my research while writing a booklet which would help those of us who perform taharah for those who have died. I have been waiting for a few years to creatively use this amazing story. No, this is not a drash about death; nor is it about the afterlife (which parenthetically, is making a comeback, so to speak. I refer you to a book by a friend and colleague, Eli Spitz, Does the Soul Survive?). And no, this is not a drash about Yom Kippur. Even though Yom Kippur is primarily about us as individuals, I want to talk about us as a community.
I want to speak this evening, as I have on previous Yom Kippurs, about my vision of us as a Jewish community here in Berkeley, because I truly believe that we, our Netivot Shalom community, and, in fact, our extended Berkeley Jewish community stand at the "ninth month", in utero, so to speak. Birth, to carry my metaphor further, is imminent!
For the last few years, I've urged us to create a synagogue which is a place that makes it possible for us as individuals and in the collective, to do mitzvot. For me, that is the definition of a synagogue. I believe that Netivot Shalom has a mission - one that is taken directly from the Talmud. Hopefully, you all know it by now! It is found on pages 8 and 9 in our Shabbat siddur, Sim Shalom and reads:
These are the things/deeds (devarim) which yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; attending the house of study punctually, morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and the next; and between man and wife; and the study of Torah is the most basic of all (why? Because it leads to the others). (Shabbat 127a)
In order to accomplish this mission, synagogues create sub-structures which enable them to fulfill their goals. My list of these sub-structures or institutions is generated from a wonderful diorama of a shtetl at Beit Hatefutzot. In that diorama, there are descriptions of:
We are poised at this time of our rebirth to become the center of our own and perhaps even the larger Berkeley Jewish community. We have a dream, one based on substantial, traditional Jewish values. No, we can not now define it exactly, with the precision one might hope for or what this place will be like, because none of us, least of all me, can predict the future, and because it will be the place that all of us make together. But we can hold an incomplete vision in our minds even as we create and actualize this dream in our community.
We can look to the visions of those who have come before us for inspiration. Early in the last century, Mordechai M. Kaplan, one of the most influential leaders in the Conservative Movement (who later became the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement), articulated the following vision of a synagogue:
"To live Judaism as a civilization is not only to pray as a Jew but to work and to play as a Jew, that is, to carry on, as a Jew, activities which answer to fundamental human wants. Work and play answer needs. The character of a civilization expresses itself through both." Kaplan speaks often of a Kehillah, of creating a bet am, a social structure, whose primary function "must be to combat individualism and to weld Jews who live in the neighborhood into a conscious communal unity."
Each of us finds ourselves besieged by elements in our own lives which compete for our leisure time. If this sounds very much like the Hellenistic period in our history, the overtones and similarities have certainly been spelled out by historians and sociologists alike. And who here has not been confronted by our society's rampant self-centeredness? I want to state categorically that the synagogue, this synagogue, seems to me to be the antidote to both of this modern blessing and curse.
Active Jewish life today is located within religious communities. Just look at the vibrant synagogue life here in Berkeley. All our synagogues are thriving and each has staked out its ideological position. We here at Netivot Shalom, have defined ourselves as a religious community linked, unapologetically, to the practices of the Conservative movement. All over America, there seems to be momentum gathering recognizing the belief (which many of us have always believed) that the synagogue stands at the center of American Jewish life. American Judaism is now coming to the realization that the future of Jewish life in this country lies in the hands of the synagogues - but they need to be "transformed". There are at least three major, national synagogue initiatives: STAR; Synagogue 2000, and locally, the Koret Synagogue Initiative. Every one of these is predicated on the principle that there is something wrong with the synagogue as it currently exists, and so these initiatives are set to "transform the synagogue." I am happy to report, that we already, to a very large extent, ARE transformed. We are there!! I can not tell you how many times I have been told by people around North America and even abroad: I wish we could do what you're doing in Berkeley at Netivot Shalom. Obviously, I exaggerate a bit! I feel entitled to because of you! We are doing very well, indeed.
Imagine, if you will, a locus, yes, a building, to which people of all ages, all beliefs, all walks of life, even varying levels of Jewish practice could enter - at their own risk of finding others who are also seekers! It is a place in which to feed the hungry; a place in which the old and the young can touch; a place which houses Jewish learning of all kinds; a place in which there are different ways in which one can worship the Kadosh Baruch Hu (The Holy One); a place for joy; a place of celebration; a place in which disputes can be settled [a beit din]; a place which dispenses tzedakah; a place in which battered souls can find respite; a place which takes care of those in all kinds of need - physical; spiritual; social; physical - a place where the Kadosh Baruch Hu resides. It is a place where those who have retired can come to learn during the day (perhaps something like an extension of the Fromm Institute in San Francisco). It is a place which has rooms for infant care (3 months to preschool); a place that has a pre-school; a place that has a supplementary school of excellence (perhaps even an laboratory school something like the one John Dewey established at the University of Chicago); a place where Camp Ramah, that wonderful day-camp program which we established this year can operate throughout the year linking summers to vacations and holidays and youth groups; a place that provides counseling; a place that guarantees the right for everyone (young and old) to have a Jewish education regardless of their financial ability; a place in which the norm in the Jewish community is life-long learning; a place which can make it possible for all sectors of our Jewish population to participate in retreats; a place where the elderly can live; a place where those in need can find food; a place where we can prepare food; a place which is welcoming to both Jews and fellow-travelers; a place where distance learning is available not to replace teachers but to bring us the best from afar. This is the vision that we need to seek - and to pursue together!
I must confess, and this is a good day to do it, that this is not the vision of Netivot Shalom that many of us had when we first stared. Then, it was a place where we could doven and learn. Zehu! That's it! Those were our original goals. We have achieved them!!! And in splendid fashion!!! Our success has brought forth a greater demand for a wholly new kind of institution. We now need to rethink our institution so we can create a true kehilla kedosha (to extend Kaplan's familiar term.) I call on each of you to join in the creation of this kehilla kedosha. Talk about it in neighborhoods, at the Break-the Fast gatherings; over Shabbat and holiday tables; in open forums, tomorrow afternoon during the break. Explore the vision! We won't all agree on all parts of it and we certainly will need to forge new partnerships. We need to foster opportunities to think about just how we want to live our lives.
Is this the right time?
Happily, our tradition is blessed with true ambivalence in response to this question! On the one hand, we have the famous quote (albeit about individuals) taken from Pirke Avot: Ayzehu sameach? Who is happy? Hasameach bechelko. The one who is satisfied with his or her current portion in life. True happiness, this particular mishna tells us, is when one or, if I may be permitted to interpolate, a community is satisfied with its current status. Things are good; goes the argument. Why spoil it and "go for the gold" (to be timely!!).
Listen, though, to the words of another source:
Song of Songs Rabbah 2.16 states: When the persecutions of Hadrian were over, our Sages gathered at Usha. Rav Yehuda and Rav Nehemiah and R. Meir, R. Yose and R Simeon ben Yohai and Reb Eliezer the son of Rebbi Yose Hagelili and Rebbi Eliezer ben Yaakov. They sent a message to the elders of Galilee saying: "Let who ever has learned come and teach, and whoever has not learned come and learn." They gathered together, learned and taught, and did as the times required - and did as the times required! After one of the most difficult of times in our history, these hachamim gathered together and said very boldly: the time has arrived - all the conditions are in order. We live in a time of relative freedom, we are now free to learn and to study and to teach. There are now enough people gathered together in one location, the Galil, to make conditions ripe for a renewal, a rekindling of the light of Torah and mitzvot. The leadership in these Roman times were convinced that Jewish life could recover and thrive only through a renewed dedication to the ideals and practices of a living Torah. They did as the times required.
We, too, must do as the times require. It is a leap of faith (to use Kieerkegard's term, since, truth to tell, we're not wholly sure of the outcome.) We're ready to take the next step in our evolution as a vibrant synagogue that stands at the center of our community.
Do we need a building in order to realize the vision I just articulated? The board of this congregation has voted in the affirmative. I absolutely agree! The way the JCC is currently physically constructed, is simply inadequate - and we are renters for only part of one day each week. Similar conditions apply to 1841. We need to find ourselves a location, and build our first home [possibly not our last]. It is time to move, metaphorically, from our adolescence to our maturity. It is time for us to create a makom kadosh, our own sacred space. This is what adults and institutions do when they grow up. They build themselves a permanent home, a bayit. We are homeless - we've been wandering around in the Berkeley desert, so to speak for 11 years (I just hope it doesn't take 40 years to get where we need to be). We need to be a baal habayit - where bayit means both a home and a sanctuary where God resides. Bayit is a synonym for The Temple. We need to do just that. To build ourselves a Holy Home so that we can all celebrate holydays and more together (well, maybe not RH and YK).
We've pretty much reached our limit right now. Yes, we need more staff because the time it takes to create all this is too much for volunteers to do. Yes, we need to be extraordinarily vigilant that the focus on a building does not interfere or even overtake our desire for program to achieve our mission. Yes, we need to make sure that every single one of you who wants to join this effort, must have the opportunity to do so. Just how is it you want to live your life? Just what kind of a kehilla kedosha do you want? Exactly what are the sacrifices each of us must offer in order to build this kehilla kedosha? Just to complete the earlier metaphor, we are ready to emerge from the "birth canal.".
I want to be able to stand before you at this same time next year and say two things: First, that we have located a building, a piece of property, a place where we can make our vision a reality, a place where we can mature and grow as a congregation. Second: that every one of you has participated somehow in the creation of this vision.
This is a remarkable time in the history of the East Bay. By my count, 6 institutions are now in the midst of major capital campaigns. Six (including a much needed Jewish high school day school). We will be the seventh. 7 is a magic number in Judaism. It is a lucky number, if you will.
So, I end where I began. With the story of the twins in utero. We stand here tonight, blessed - blessed with the possibilities that lie before us as individuals and blessed with the possibilities that lie before us as a community. Doubly blessed. Birth happens because by the Grand Designer, mothers' bodies were constructed so that nine months marks the end of pregnancy and the beginning of a new life. May we have the wisdom to seize this opportunity and be blessed with a community that cares, that shares and that wants to create an exciting, meaningful Jewish world in which to live. May future generations who reflect back on all of us in 5761, say with certainty: they built more than a building; they built a kehillah kedosha. G'mar chatimah tova.
Copyright 2000 by Congregation Netivot Shalom