Gather Us: Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

[vimeo] At the beginning of this summer, we learned of a shocking story.  One afternoon at our Reform Jewish camp in Indiana, during a game of ultimate frisbee, a rogue lightening bolt struck the athletic field.   The lightening seriously injured 3 campers.  Staff performed CPR, and the children were transported to the hospital. In the immediate wake of the havoc, everyone gathered in the dining hall, where the camp director led a Misheberach.  What happened next?  The camp broke into song.

As an emotional declaration, they belted out the contemporary Jewish rock song, called Kehillah Kedoshah, meaning, holy community.  In a scene born out of the magic of Jewish camping, their communal spirit knew no bounds.  These adolescents sang, they began to jump up and down; arms embracing each other, they danced in circles so tight no air could possibly pass through their outstretched limbs.  These kids knew how to reach out to one another in love and support, and to feel the connection of a holy community.

This morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (in a passage we did not read), teaches: “God will bring you together. Even if the scattered among you are at the ends of the sky, God will gather you from there and fetch you.” Originally, meant as a political message of Israel’s geographic return, some interpretations see the teaching as a window into communal gathering.  Mysticism scholar, Rabbi Or Rose teaches: “the scattered and detached individual can only be made whole by meeting someone else.”

Even if the scattered among us are at the ends of the sky, God will gather us.  And we, as a congregation are working to gather one another.  Our congregation’s efforts to become a Caring Community, to reach out to one another in compassion and support, are beginning to fulfill our vision, to create profound connections, as we rejoice with each other in times of joy, and comfort each other in times of sadness.

Many of you visit members who can no longer comfortably leave their homes.  You create care gifts to be delivered to them. You send get-well cards to the sick.  You support people struggling with addiction.   You connect in bereavement groups.

And then there’s the food.  (Forgive me, I know it’s Yom Kippur.).  Our congregation now has a weekly team of people in our RS kitchen, cooking food from our CSA–the community supported agriculture shares of vegetables from a local organic farm–and a team of people delivering that food to members who have returned from the hospital, are mourning a loss, or have a new baby.  These healthy, beautifully prepared meals are delicious, I’m sure; but even more significant, food symbolizes care.

We have all been in that vulnerable place, and we know what we need to hear: A message that: we are thinking of you, you matter, you are not alone, you are a part of something greater than yourself.

Think back to a time when you were vulnerable, in the middle of a transition, or facing an intense life experience.  Each of us is there at some times. Maybe for you, that time is now.  Isn’t there something unique about receiving that caring message, when you are in that unusually emotional time?

Right after I gave birth to each of my children, I received meals from members of the congregation.  I have specific memories of the dinners people cooked, and even of the kitchenware they used to pack up the meals—I remember burgundy cloth napkins with one dinner, a straight-edge white casserole dish with another.  Receiving these meals moved me, not just because I was hungry and they were delicious, which I was and which they were.  And not just because people were so thoughtful, which they were.  I think I was so deeply touched, because of where I was in my own experience.  Exhausted, in pain, scared, excited, grateful, and most of all, raw.  Anyone who stepped into my life at that intense time, left me with a unique feeling of connection, just because that moment was so vulnerable.  I know that many of you have been touched during an intense time in your life, and now share an enduring bond that was forged with an act of compassion from our Caring Community.

Now.  In our quest to support more congregants, here’s our greatest challenge.  It’s not the recruitment for cooks, deliverers or visitors, although more helping hands are always welcome.  Our greatest challenge in reaching members who have a need, is simply identifying who you are.  Some people forget to share their illness with the congregation.  Others choose to keep it to themselves.  And I understand the hesitation; I too, was reluctant to be seen in a vulnerable state, when I heard congregants wanted to bring meals to me.  We might avoid sharing our deepest concerns, for fear of pity; or our greatest joys, for fear that we are bragging.

Many of us are careful to check our vulnerabilities at the door.  But that caution can limit connections that could otherwise strengthen us.

In her article, called “The Lethality of Loneliness: How Isolation Can Kill You,” Judith Shulevitz reports the experience of gay men during the first decade of the HIV/AIDS crisis.  Researchers asked:  Why, did some people die faster than others?  They concluded: the social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man’s health would decline quickly, was whether or not he was in the closet.  Passing as someone else forced a closeted man to police every piece of information known about him, live in constant terror of exposure, impose sharp limits on friendship.

The reality of a closeted life is one extreme example of emotional isolation, the ultimate loneliness from one’s true self.  Of course, you don’t need to be gay to understand isolation.  Any of us can walk around with something in our closet that may keep us detached from others, keep us from truly being seen.

The story is told of a sage who asks his students: “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”

One student replies, “Rabbi, when I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun!”  No.

A second student, “Rabbi, when I can tell that it’s my house and not the house of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun!”   No.

A third student, “Rabbi, when I see an animal in the distance and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow or a sheep, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun!”  No.

The rabbi, disappointed, says “No–you don’t understand! You are dividing, fragmenting the world into pieces.”  Finally, in a gentle voice, the rabbi insists, “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that that person is your brother or your sister, then finally the night has ended and the day has begun.”

Our day has begun.  Many of you have begun to share your need for support; and many of you have responded with compassion.  I believe this is a foundational part of synagogue life because I can see that when I call or visit, or when a congregant brings a meal or sends a card, a bond is formed.  And for every connection created among us, our community is strengthened, and made more whole.  If we were once scattered from God, or from community, or from one another, these life moments bring great potential to gather us.

Our day has begun.  This year, we have enhanced our Caring Community to respond to the needs of the congregation, neighborhood by neighborhood.  This spring, one of our members, who regularly visits elderly congregants in his neighborhood, faced his own health crisis.  When one of the women he visits learned of the man’s illness, she thought about the compassion he had shown her, and she just had to do something.  Concerned for her friend, this very elderly woman, hired a driver and went to visit the ill man at his home.  The woman was too frail to even get out of the car, so the driver knocked on the man’s door.  Soon enough, the man emerged from the house to say hello and thank you, in his driveway.  For the bond they have created, our community is more whole.

As a part of the congregation’s new Strategic Plan, we have begun to develop zip code clusters.  When a congregant is in need, we email neighbors from that zipcode who have signed up to participate in caring community.  We don’t broadcast the name of the person or the specific health challenge; we simply communicate: someone in your neighborhood could use a meal, or needs some plants watered—are you available to help this week?

Last year, one of our congregants was preparing for her husband’s impending heart surgery.  She had organized the doctor’s appointments, the leave from work, and the trip to the hospital.  Then, when she was checking out at the drug store, damaged shelving tripped her, trapped her foot, and sent her to the floor.  This freak accident became not only a painful injury, but a source of anxiety—who was going to take of everything and everyone?  She realized she needed help, and when our congregation offered, she asked if we could find someone to walk the dog.  The congregation emailed her neighbors who were RS members, and they set up a dog-walking schedule—our congregants provided practical help.

Yet it isn’t really about the dog.  And it isn’t really about the meals.  This support connects neighbors who, oftentimes, have never before met.  Through these acts, we share compassion, we say ‘you are not alone; you are a part of something greater than yourself.’  For the bond these acts create, our community is more whole.

It is my prayer that there will soon come a day when no one signs up to participate in Caring Community on the annual Get-Connected form in the membership commitment letter, because everyone of us, by virtue of being a member of this holy community, will automatically expect to be contacted when a neighbor is in need of support.  And it is my prayer that whenever any of us is in a vulnerable spot we will share it with the congregation.  Please call the synagogue when it’s you or someone you know.

Our day has begun.

May we fulfill our congregation’s vision to create profound connections, as we rejoice with each other in times of joy, and comfort each other in times of sadness.

May we look into the face of the person who is beside us and see that that person is our brother or sister.   And may we let that person see us as well.

God, bring us together, even if we are scattered at the ends of the sky, gather us.



Video: from URJ Rabbi Jonah Pesner visiting Goldman Union Camp Institute

Deut 30:3-4

Commentary from Hasidic thought as taught by Or N. Rose in Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, by Arthur Green.

Shulevitz, Judith, “The Lethality of Loneliness: How Isolation Can Kill You” in New Republic, May 13, 2013.

“Night and Day” story adapted from retelling in Capture the Moon, Edward Feinstein.