A preacher once heard about another preacher who gained notoriety by preaching the world’s longest sermon. He felt led to preach some kind of notable sermon, too, and get in the record books. But he didn’t want to bore people with a long sermon.
So he decided he would preach the world’s shortest sermon and he told his congregation that he was going to do this. He didn’t want it to just be an excuse for a sermon. He had to say something meaningful in the sermon.
He received a lot of good suggestions. When the time came for his notable short sermon he stood up at the pulpit, cleared his throat and said, “Love,” and then sat down.
Now, I am sure some of us would love for me to follow this noble fellow’s example. Sadly, ethical issues in terms of plagiarism, prohibit me from preaching someone else’s sermon, so my message will be longer — perhaps considerably longer — than this particular pastor’s sermon!
You may know the old adage that a rabbi has only one sermon. We just keep giving it over and over again, throughout our careers in a variety of different ways. Hillel’s sermon, for example, was more than one word but still short and sweet, yet undoubtedly profound. Two thousand years ago he said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
I am still pretty new here so you may not know what my “sermon” is. So let me tell you. It is very simple. I can express it in a few short sentences:
(1) “I believe in God but the God I believe in exists not out there somewhere, but in all things. Everywhere. Including inside of us.
(2) Second, the oneness of God is reflected in the oneness of the entire universe.
(3) And finally, animated by the divine spark within, we are called on to instill our relationships with holiness.
That’s it. The rest is commentary, now go and study it.
1. God exists.
2. God is One – Therefore all being is one.
Tonight is not a theology lesson so I don’t care if you understand the import of these two lessons. It’s the third statement that calls to each of us:
3. Because we are all animated by the divine spark within, we are called to sanctify our relationships and make them holy.
I say again: Because we are all animated by the divine spark within, we are called to sanctify our relationships and make them holy.
At a certain level, this orientation we share is simply a matter of looking for and recognizing God in every person and in every thing.
Our task is to see God’s presence in the other and make it manifest by bringing out the holiness in potential. The early Chasidic teachers called this “raising the sparks.”
We can also call it living life with meaning and purpose and demonstrating our sense of responsibility for others by engaging in holy deeds.
That’s my sermon. A little longer than one word. And – sorry – I’m not done yet.
So let me just share a few observations and implications.
• One can’t be a Jew (or perhaps any religious person) alone. We need each other in order to live lives of meaning and purpose. Holiness can only be created in relationship.
• One can be a Jew without praying in Hebrew or without actually knowing much of anything. Not that it wouldn’t hurt to learn and embrace the richness of Jewish thought and practice.
• One can be a Jew without being born Jewish.
• One certainly can be a Jew without believing in God – as long as you act towards others as if you do believe in God.
• But you can’t be a Jew alone. You can’t be a Jew living on a mountaintop or on your own tropical island.
To be a Jew is to sanctify your relationships with others in order to bring God into the world. That is why around here we are constantly talking about community. Community – that is, the way we organize our relationships – is the mediator of Judaism and Jewish life.
Judaism teaches us how to live with others, beginning in our homes with those whom we feel closest to. It extends to our friends, our congregation, the larger community and the world beyond.
For Jews, there is no such thing as independence or complete autonomy – in truth we are interdependent with others. We need each other in order to live out our religious lives, and God needs us to bring the Divine Presence into the world by discovering and creating holiness everywhere we can.
I can’t think of a more timely lesson than the need for community. This idea is more than timely; it is downright counter cultural.
Historians undoubtedly will point to 2014 as – among other things – the year of the selfie. This obsession is more than sermonically interesting. It is also literally dangerous.
After the Tour de France race began this summer, several cyclists were knocked from their bikes by bystanders who seemed more interested in taking pictures of themselves than in watching the race or photographing the participants. American racer Teejay van Garderen called the behavior, which toppled him as well, “a dangerous mix of vanity and stupidity.”
Race organizers stepped up online and onsite efforts to increase awareness of the potential for collisions between cyclists riding along at speeds up to 45 MPH and inattentive people on the sidelines who want to record their presence at the big event to share with friends and family on social media.
In some cultures, taking photos, depicting one’s own image or looking at oneself in a mirror is considered a display of ostentatious pride and something to be avoided. Modern technology takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum.
It is much easier to become preoccupied with oneself, engage in “navel-gazing” and develop an inordinate sense of our own self-importance when it is possible to post 24/7 to the entire world about every daring, exceptional, insignificant or stupid thing we do.
I believe that these days we are in the midst of a major shift in our society in the way we engage with others. This shift, away from the communal to the individual, has serious implications for our congregation, our communities and the way we live our lives. We are fast moving into an age of super-individualism in which our communities and all they bring to us are potentially at risk.
Yes, we inhabit a world of unprecedented opportunities for personal choice. The entire economy seems to be driven by them.
Think about it: when we travel, be it on the train, plane or cars, we can sit in our smart phone bubble and not interact with anyone.
Wear headphones in the gym or walking the dog and most people will leave you alone.
The ability to make personal choices can be very empowering. But when it creates a real disconnect from those who would be our friends and partners in life, extreme individualism pits us in competition with each other, burdens groups trying to meet everyone’s needs and threatens to become destructive to the individual and corrosive to our society.
Tell me honestly there haven’t been times when an iPhone didn’t lead to resentment.
This, then, is our challenge: to respond to the culture of individualism and isolation by nurturing communities that provide centers of value and meaning for their members. We cannot function as a religious community unless our members join together and sacrifice a bit of themselves for a higher, communal purpose.
If we are living in the age of the “selfie” then we need a counterbalance. We need community.
Therapist Mary Pipher has written a book around the Irish proverb It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.
Here is what she says:
[These days]… ironies abound. With more entertainment, we are more bored. With more sexual information and stimulation, we experience less sexual pleasure. In a culture focused on feelings, people grow emotionally numb. With more timesaving devices, we have less time; with more books, we have fewer readers. With more mental health professionals, we have worse mental health. Today we’re in a more elusive crisis, a crisis of meaning, with emotional, spiritual and social aspects. We hunger for values, community and something greater than ourselves to dedicate our lives to. We wake in the night, sorry for ourselves and our planet.
In his classic work, I and Thou, Martin Buber wrote that a community must have a center. It has a shared vision, purpose and commitment through which all members are connected to each other like spokes on the hub of a wheel. In order to create such a community, people give up some of their individual needs and desires for the benefit of the group. In return, the collective provides its individual members with the support they need to live lives of meaning and purpose.
Temple Sholom of Chicago has a vision. It is our commitment to support each other as we deepen our engagement with Judaism and Jewish life through prayer, study and acts of social justice. To this end, members are expected to give of themselves in support of the community in a wide variety of ways:
Our tradition teaches us that when two people sit and exchange words of Torah, the Shechinah – God’s presence is among them. When we share our stories and bind ourselves together in meaningful relationships, we provide a place for God’s presence to dwell among us, making this Kehillah Kedoshah truly a sacred community.
What is the purpose of our community?
We are here for religious and spiritual quest – our search for meaning and purpose: We gather together for study, for celebration, for prayer and reflection, because none of us can do any of these things alone.
We come together in community to provide for mutual support.
We form and nurture relationships in order to create and discover holiness in the world through the performance of mitzvot.
These are all ways of recognizing the godliness in others, sanctifying our relationships and, ultimately, bringing God into the world.
Strengthening our community is the way to begin.
A chapter in Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, is entitled: “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.” Her son Sam, then seven years old, is the only child among his group of friends who goes to church. Sometimes he doesn’t want to go, but she doesn’t let him get away with that. Here’s why: “I make him go because I can. I outweigh him by nearly 75 pounds. But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want — which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy — are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith — people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.”
I want this light, this life for all of us.
This year, find a way to be involved at Temple Sholom and through Temple Sholom. The Monday Meal. Classes for all ages. The Social Action Committee. Worship on Friday and Saturday. Chesed. Welcoming. Ecco Chavurah. Mishpacha. Brotherhood. Sisterhood. Israel advocacy. This year especially, middot practice.
The list is long. The list is for you.
It’s also about having fun so mark down May 2 for a party.
Help us help you make of this place an even more sacred community.
During the past couple of years a group of congregants became a community within a community and produced a Shema Statement, saying Temple Sholom seeks to be a sacred community that embraces, inspires and matters. A commentary produced from the manifold conversations became known as the V’ahavta Statement.
It reflects our aspirations for our community. It says:
We welcome you as you are
For all the stages of your life
We say to you “Hineynu – We are here when you need us.”
We challenge you to grow.
To join our search for relevance and renewal in ancient wisdom.
We say to you “Awaken! So much to be discovered!”
We invite you to share our mission:
To be a source of healing in the world
To ask with us: “If not now, when? What is our sacred work?”
Thus we remember that we are a community that engages in Torah (sacred study), Avodah (spiritual exploration), Tikkun Middot (personal growth) and Tikkun Olam (healing a broken world).
As a rabbi of this congregation I am so proud of this statement and the work behind it. But I am even more hopeful that these words will guide us to becoming the kind of place that our community needs.
A final thought:
Scott Russell Sanders is a prize-winning essayist and a retired English professor at Indiana University. In his book, Writing From the Center, he tells about a prominent builder in a small Ohio town who was asked to join the volunteer fire department. He politely declined. After all, what could he get out of it? His home was brick, wired to code, and fire-resistant.
But one day his house caught fire. The volunteer firemen showed up with the pumper truck. But before turning on the water, they playfully asked the contractor if he still saw no reason to join. Without hesitation, he said he would be glad to join right then and there, and the fire was extinguished.
Sanders likes to tell this story because his dad was one of the volunteer firemen that day. He also likes to tell it because of what it says about being a part of a community.
We should not have to wait until our houses are burning before we see the wisdom of facing our local needs by joining in common work. … We had better learn how to live well together, or we will live miserably apart.
On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about how our world is a scary place these days. There is only so much we can do to change that. But our work here stands before us and it is clear and attainable: to see the holiness within. To embrace each other. To remember that everyone matters. And to be inspired to create together a community of sacredness and – yes – that very thing called love.
I am grateful to Rabbi David Thomas for some of the rhetorical methods of my sermon.