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Vayigash 5782              December 11, 2021

Shabbat Shalom

     What does it mean to be a family?

     I know, it is an odd question. We all know what a family is. We all know what families do. But if we are a member of a family, what effect does it have on our life? Do we have to financially bail out our siblings? Do we have to care for aged parents? Do we have to teach our children difficult lessons? The answers to all these questions are “certainly.” Being a family means being responsible for each other in ways that go far beyond “friendship” and “co-workers.”

     Joseph’s brother really crossed the line. They contemplated killing Joseph when he was young. The sold him into slavery. They made it impossible for anyone to go looking for him later by claiming that he was killed by a wild animal. The guilt of this has plagued them ever since. They blame the trouble they are in, with Benjamin accused and convicted of stealing a silver cup from a harsh high ranking Egyptian official, as a result of what they did to Joseph some 21 years earlier.

     But just when they are about to be forced to leave Benjamin as a slave to this Egyptian and must go back to Jacob and say that he has lost another son, the harsh Egyptian turns out to be long lost Joseph. And in an unexpected turn, he forgives his brothers for selling him because, even though they were happy to get rid of him, Joseph tells them that God had planned the whole thing in order to save the family from the famine. Joseph understands that to have his family back, he has to be forgiving. That too is what it means to be a family. Joseph is so forgiving that to keep his brothers from being banished by their father, Joseph will never tell Jacob what happened. Jacob never knows how Joseph came to be in Egypt in the first place. It was all part of God’s plan. That is all he says. This is what you do to preserve a family.

     I spent some time this week with other Rabbis asking a similar question. What does it mean to be a synagogue? Is it about attending services on Shabbat and holidays? Is it about creating a space where we are free to exercise our Judaism? Is a synagogue the place where we learn and practice Jewish law? All of this is true, but the meaning of synagogue goes even further.

     This pandemic has challenged everything we believe about synagogue life. Our conception of what it means to “show up” for worship or meetings is now quite different. One Rabbi noted that before COVID, he stood ten feet or more away from his congregation. Now, on Zoom, he sees them close up on the screen. Shabbat morning davening can now be done at home, with a cup of coffee and a muffin. One can listen to the Shema and read email at the same time. We do not have to worry about the weather and driving to the synagogue.

     But is this all it means to belong to a synagogue? Does a synagogue mean being welcomed into a room by friends and fellow worshippers? Does it mean singing the prayers along with everyone else in one united chorus? Does it mean sharing a piece of cake with someone while we catch up on what happed this week? Does being in synagogue mean we have made the space to learn, to gather and to pray? These too are part of what it means to be a community, but they are also not the whole story.

     Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine before there was a State of Israel. He was a Rabbi, Mystic, and a philosopher. This is what he wrote about his time that has an interesting application to this moment in our lives. He wrote: “As long as the world moves along accustomed paths, as long as there are no wild catastrophes, man can find sufficient substance for his life by contemplating surface events, theories and movements of society. He can acquire his inner richness from this external kind of “property.” But this is not the case when life encounters fiery forces of evil and chaos. This is when the “revealed” world begins to totter. The man who tries to sustain himself only from the surface aspects of existence will suffer terrible impoverishment, begin to stagger… then he will feel welling up within himself a burning thirst for that inner substance and vision which transcends the obvious surfaces of existence and remains unaffected by world catastrophes. From such inner sources he will seek the waters of joy.”

     As long as life was uncomplicated, we could come to synagogue, meet our friends, say some prayers, attend meetings and share a cookie with friends. But when a pandemic hits, suddenly those things are not enough. Our perceptions are revealed as trivial and common. What we need is something more. We need to look deeper. We need to examine exactly why we are here and what we need to find to help us through this difficult time.

     This pandemic is calling us to see things in a deeper way.

     These are not easy questions to answer. In some ways, a time of crisis means that each of us might need something different. Beth Sholom Bnai Israel needed to reach out to each member in diverse ways. I admit that at first, we were all a bit disoriented, but we all worked hard to find our way. We have prayed together on Zoom now for almost two years. But just praying was not enough. We would open the Zoom channel early and keep it open late so people could talk to friends much like they would if they were here in person. Some people saw our synagogue as their way to connect with friends. When we closed our doors, we cut off that connection, so I began to call those who found themselves isolated by the pandemic, to keep them connected and to let them know we cared. We moved our learning online and brought in scholars and lessons from all over the world. We had a chance to learn in ways we never thought possible.

     I would love to think that this pandemic is waning, that soon, masks and distancing will no longer be needed. The fact is we still have no idea when our health worries will be over. But I also have no idea what we will need from our synagogue in the future, since the one thing we do know is that we will never return to “normal.” Our normal has changed forever. We are all different from what we may have been two years ago when this plague started. What will we need from our synagogue that is deeper? What is the substance of the synagogue that we will thirst for in the future? Where must we look for the “waters or joy”?

     There are hidden spiritual resources in a synagogue that go beyond Kedusha and Kiddush. A synagogue is more than a place to meet friends and study Torah. As important as prayer and community may be, underneath the surface, there is a spiritual substance that can nourish us and help us grow in challenging times.

    One of these things is a sense of vision about the future. When it is difficult to see where we are going, our synagogue can help us envision our destination. When we read Torah and recite our prayers, they point us to a faith in our future. We do not always know what will happen to us in life, and that can be frightening. But to know, as we see in this week’s parsha, things not only work out in the end, as they did for Joseph and his brothers, but in the end, they see meaning in all that has happened. We too need to know that while our future may be in suspense, still there will meaning that we can discover in the end.

     Another aspect of this spiritual well we can draw on is that here we can find a storehouse of faith to give us the strength to face whatever may come. We can learn from Judaism that no matter what may happen in life, we can overcome all obstacles, if we believe in ourselves and in the community that surrounds us. Jews do not face the future alone, we have each other, we support each other, we comfort each other, and we even celebrate together. Jews have survived all challenges because we work together and strengthen each other so that we can emerge triumphant in the end.

     Finally, synagogues can help us find God in our lives, to let us know that when our lives seem to be out of control, we can turn to God and follow whatever divine path is before us. We have to trust that the lessons we are learning will not only prepare us for whatever may come next, but they will also set the stage for future generations who may need our example to succeed.

     Joseph understands, in our parsha, that God sent the young Joseph into slavery to position him to save his family from a famine. What Joseph does not know that by bringing his family to Egypt to avoid the famine, he is stetting up the family and the Jewish people for an even bigger challenge, one that would demonstrate the power of God in the world and would change the course of all of western civilization. We are part of something bigger. Some of it requires us to endure tough times and difficult circumstances, but we are making history each and every day, and showing even future generations how they can endure whatever they may have to face by following our example. Just as we rely on the faith of our ancestors to help us on our path, so too our descendants will rely on our faith to see them through whatever difficulties they will encounter.

     We are so comfortable with our Judaism of prayer, study, and friendship, that we forget the deeper roots of our faith until the day come when suddenly we need more. Corona virus, economic hardships, and the assault on democracy are like a whirlpool dragging us down until we fear we will drown. Our history, our community and our faith will help us rise above the fear and help us face whatever may come with courage. With these ideas to strengthen us we will discover the hidden spiritual wells filled with the waters of Joy.

      We may not always have all the answers, but we know, from the stories of our ancestors, the faith we need to see us through today and the trust in our future, that these will give us the hope we need to address today’s challenges.

     May God be with us as God was with our ancestors and may God guide us to be the examples of courage and faith for generations to come. May we face the future together with confidence as we say…    Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783