Resilience - Rosh Hashanah Kavannah (5781)
I think that the word of this year behind us is ‘resilience’. Resilience is not only the ability to work through a difficult time, it’s the ability to maintain something in ourselves while doing so. Of course this year has changed us. It’s changed the way that we pray, the way that we learn, the way that we interact with one another. But I have been astounded and moved time and time again by experiencing the great care that is at the heart of this community.
We are of course not the first generation to live and worship through a tumultuous situation. Our history is filled with these kinds of stories. To the ancestors of our deep past, before the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, worship occurred on the road. Our forefathers built their own altars as they travelled. The generation of the Wilderness built a mishkan, a tabernacle, a portable temple for their experiences of wandering. And after we had built and experienced the Temple as a centre of Jewish worship, we found ourselves once again without it. And then came the rabbinic revolution: the ability to take a Temple-based, land-based culture, and adapt it for a wandering people once again. We brought Torah scrolls with us from country to country, we invented and developed the synagogue as a small, community-based structure for our prayer and our learning. But the community was never the walls. A community like ours is more naturally in touch with this: the walls house the community, they give us a physical space to gather, but they don’t make the community. We make the community. Our choices make the community.
This year, we are not housed by the walls of the synagogue. And it has been a challenge. It will continue to be a challenge. But knowing that the community is more than the walls, is more than the physicality, is key to our continuation. It’s what our ancestors had to learn about the Temple: the presence of the Divine is not about the drapes and pillars of the Holy Building. The presence of God follows us into exile.
There is a beautiful text about this in the Talmud, as we witness the rabbis develop this concept. This is Menachot 97a:
‘Rabbi Yoḥanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: בזמן שבית המקדש קיים מזבח מכפר על אדם - ועכשיו שאין בית המקדש קיים שולחנו של אדם מכפר עליו. In the time in which the Temple is standing, the altar effects atonement for a person. And now that the Temple is not standing, a person’s table affects atonement for him.’
This is a classic text for the understanding that the table of the Temple is replaced with our Shabbat table. But it’s actually about this time of year - the time of t’shuvah, repentance, and kippur, atonement. The reality of atonement was once brought into the world for us because of the Temple, the centralised location of Jewish worship. But now that we no longer have that Temple, we don’t assume that atonement is impossible. Instead, we shift our perspective to our table at home.
The table, and the walls, of the Temple were important. They were real. They made a difference to us. But when we could use them no longer, we shifted our focus to the home.
I’m reminded also of the tent of Abraham. There is a tradition that Abraham’s tent was open on all sides - it didn’t have walls. Apparently they didn’t have a word for ‘gazebo’. This tradition comes to teach us that Abraham was so ready for visitors that he wanted his tent to be welcoming from each direction. I’m struck by this imagery this year. Abraham’s connection to the community was based on taking away the walls. This does two things: it makes it easier for people to enter, but it also takes away the protection of the walls for those inside. You win something, and you lose something else.
These models are all part of our story this year. We’ve transitioned from a table together, to our tables at home. We’ve had our walls taken away from us, and it has been an opening and a closing. Some people are able to be with us more, and some less. We’ve won something and lost something else.
But the trick, I think, is to hold close to our hearts that the community was never the walls. It was never the table. And we are resilient enough, and kind enough, to rise to these challenges.
May next year be a simpler year. May we take what we have learnt and use it to become better. And may this be a shanah tovah um’tukah - a good and sweet year.