A Vision For Our Temple – Rabbi Sagal Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778
On August 21, 2017, there was a total eclipse of the sun. The first total eclipse to be visible in the United States in 99 years and I – I missed it. I didn’t see it. Seeing the eclipse required some effort, some sacrifice of time or money, and I was too lazy – too busy. I didn’t care to make a pinhole viewer out of a cereal box or shoebox. I didn’t buy the special glasses. I didn’t watch it on livestream. I missed this once in a century event entirely. Oh, I stepped outside for a minute, took a little peek, a little glance, not like our President. But the truth is that while many of you here and many people across the country saw something unique and unprecedented, or even had a vision that stirred your soul perhaps – my little glance revealed nothing because I didn’t make the effort. There is a difference between merely looking at something and really seeing – really having vision – that takes effort. As one of my Rabbinic friends says, we have to learn to see with “real eyes” because that allows us to realize – get it? I’ve always thought that this was the underlying theme of the Torah and Haftarah readings for today – having genuine vision rather than merely-looking.
Consider the story of Hannah we just read. The priest Eli looks at Hannah and notices her mouth moving, but thinks she is drunk. She is praying in such pain, pouring out her soul to God and he thinks she is shikkered up – vayachsheveya eli lishkora. He is not looking at her with real eyes so he doesn’t realize. Eli sees, but he has no vision. Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, sees that she is not eating, but does not see her loneliness and despair and sorrow. He doesn’t see the other wife, Peninah, taunting her. “What’s the matter Hannah?” he says, “Why aren’t you eating? Lama lo tochli? What, you’re not hungry?” He notices, he sees, but he has no vision. He sees, but he doesn’t see. He doesn’t look with real eyes and so he doesn’t realize how much pain his wife is in.
And Abraham; as he is getting ready to slaughter his son, the ram is literally right next to him. The Torah says, “ayil acher”. It’s right there, and he doesn’t see it. That’s not the only thing he doesn’t see. According to the ancient Rabbis, as the story begins, he is not seeing clearly. He has no vision. Chapter 22 Verse 4 states, “vayar et a makom merachok: He looked and saw the place from a distance”. The Hasidic Rebbe Avraham of Sokatchov said, “He can only see merachok – distantly.” He is like Eli and Elkanah, he looks, he sees, but has no vision – until, as the Torah says in Verse 13, “vayisa et eynav-vayar”, he opened up his eyes and finally saw. The sages tell us until that moment, Abraham sees, but doesn’t see. He notices, but has no vision until the moment he opened his eyes and he saw. He saw with real eyes; he “realized”. He saw the ram and he saw the mountain and he saw God and maybe, for the first time, he saw his terrified son. And so in Verse 14, the very next verse, Abraham does a very significant thing – he gives the mountain he is standing on a name. He says, “This mountain will now be called, Adonai yireh,” which means, I see God and he says, “behar Adonai yeyraeh, this is the mountain of vision.” I’m going to call this place “vision – mountain.”
Today’s stories are about two men who see, but have no vision; and one man, whose eyes are opened and achieves vision and the destiny of the Jewish people is assured. The famed Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asks, “What was it then that eventually opened Abraham’s eyes, vayisa Avraham eynav?” The Torah says his eyes were opened. His eyes opened and he saw the ram, the mountain, and he saw God. What led him from merely glancing, merely noticing, to being able to say, this is the mountain of vision? According to Soloveitchik, Abraham’s vision required effort. It took that long arduous three day trek. It took the willingness to give – to offer, even to sacrifice all, to see himself as part of something more important than his own needs. That’s what led him from merely seeing, to having vision to encountering God on that lonely hill and offering the ram instead of his son. Elkanah makes no effort and has no vision. Eli makes no sacrifice, has no vision. On August 21st, I made no effort, no sacrifice of time or money and saw nothing. Soloveitchik says “There is no achieving vision without effort, no worthwhile vision that doesn’t include struggle and sacrifice and commitment.”
On this day of Rosh Hashanah, I want to ask you to do something for me and for yourselves. I want you to take a moment and glance around. I want you to look around this room, take a look at the ceiling, at the walls, at the chairs, at the bimah. Take a look at me, if you can stomach that. I want you to see how we are sitting. Look at the rows extending to the back. People in the back, wave to the people in the front. I want you to picture the hallways outside that brought you in here, the doorways in the front and back that opened to you. I want you to see yourself as you came in today in the hallway. Take a moment and just look around…this is a nice sanctuary, a nice building. Yes, the chairs are worn and some broken, the ceiling and walls are a little water stained. The room is a bit dark; the sound system could be better; our social hall, in which many of you are sitting this morning, is in need of repair. But all in all, it’s a nice building. One that has been home to several generations of devoted worshippers and congregants and has hosted countless simchas and sorrows. That’s what we see when we glance, when we notice. But what happens when we attempt to look with real eyes, when we attempt to see with vision? When we see Temple Emanu-El with real eyes, we come to realize that the vision that built this building, designed this sanctuary, and created these spaces – that vision is no longer our vision.
In the 1950s when this building was built, Jewish people were moving from the cities to the suburbs. They were being given an opportunity to assimilate into the larger community in a way never before available. What was their vision? It was to create worship spaces – Temples that looked like the worship spaces of their non-Jewish neighbors. A high platform in the front where worship would be conducted by clergy elevated above the congregation. The shorter the Rabbi, the higher the bimah. Rows and rows stretching back just as in the worship spaces of their neighbors; and because Jews have a unique need to have ample space for only three days a year, they built social halls in the back with moveable walls that would be opened up on the High Holydays. In churches, social halls are typically below the Sanctuary, but in synagogues, they put them in the back to accommodate those three days – the only time when the room would be filled to capacity. In the back of social halls they often built stages because in the 1950s and 1960s the Jewish community was embracing the idea that Judaism was more than worship, it was music and theater and dance. And so they built stages for performances. I’m curious how many of us grew up in synagogues just like this one? That was the vision that drove the people who designed and built this building and the hundreds of synagogues like it across the country – a desire to create spaces that would mimic the designs of the suburban communities in which they now lived and thrived; acceptable and familiar to their neighbors.
It was a strong vision, a compelling vision for its time because it was assumed that everyone who entered was Jewish or grew up Jewish and was already committed to the community. The spaces didn’t need to be particularly easy to access or even attractive to people who entered. Religious schools were cold cinderblock, often in the basement because Jewish education was a given. The offices were sometimes hard to find because you were expected to know where the Rabbi was. The entranceways were plain and there was no one to greet you, because after all, why should we welcome you or thank you for showing up where you were supposed to be anyway? When your Zayde showed up for minyan in Flatbush, did anyone need to greet him or show him where the sanctuary was, or how to find the Rabbi? Did anyone need to show him a warm and welcoming face? In 1967, his children didn’t need that either – but we do. It’s time for a new vision. It’s been almost seventy years since this congregation was founded. We need not merely to notice what needs repair, to see what needs patching up, but we need vision. We need to look with “real eyes” and realize that we are the generation charged with a vision for our future as a synagogue community. We sit in the beautiful shade of this holy space today because seventy years ago, a previous generation had the vision to plant holy trees for us; can we do no less?
As Dr. Erica Brown, a noted Jewish educator has said, “We are in the end a small people; if we do not take care of ourselves, who will? If we do not implement a vision, who will do it for us?” So I am sharing today with you that we are embarking on a path that will lead to a fully renovated and redesigned synagogue space that I am hoping will be finished by 2020. In fact, I want to call it Emanu-El 20/20 because it is going to emerge from a specific vision – get it? 20/20 vision? This vision will encompass the sanctuary that we are seated in today, the social hall, the entrance and hallway, the chapel and the public spaces in which we gather as a community to pray, to rejoice, to sing, to dance, to celebrate, and to mourn. But the building only can become a reality if it emerges from our vision of who we wish to be in the years to come. We can patch up the chairs, but we can’t patch souls without vision. We can repair roofs, but we can’t repair relationships without vision. We can expand our hallway and chapel with engineering, but we can’t expand our hearts without vision.
So what is our vision? 15 years at Temple Emanu-El has given me some insight into what I think our community yearns for. I firmly believe that the members of this community truly want to find meaning in their lives. We want something more than just the comforts of life and the pursuit of reward. I am convinced that people are not merely interested in their earning statement, but in their yearning statement. They are interested more in their self-worth than their net worth. We want our life to mean something, and we want to find meaning in life. We don’t just want to write a resume, we want to craft a spirit; and we want the Temple to help us do it. We want and desire a sense of community of supporting one another in times of difficulty and rejoice with one another in time of happiness. We want to live as part of a community. I propose we redesign this sanctuary space so we genuinely feel that, here, we encounter God and we encounter one another. A redesign that brings us together in some kind of semi-circle where there is a sense of holiness and a sense of community. We lower the bimah, so those leading the prayers are not far above you, but on the same level as those worshipping, so that we have the feeling of worshipping together, not in a performance, but in passionate mutual participation. So we sit not in endless rows extending backwards, but in some fashion brought together in a design so that no one here is more than 50 feet from the person leading the prayers, and we no longer have the people in the back far removed from the energy of worship, but we feel that we are together as one – as one just as God is one. We require a redesigned bimah that is low enough not only so that there is no separation between me and you, but that its height does not become both literally and figuratively a stumbling block to those ascending. Why should a person who has trouble walking fear having an Aliyah to the Torah or placing a tallit on their grandchild because they can’t climb these steps? I’m done with that.
We need to redesign this sanctuary with an eye not to these three days a year of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but to provide a meaningful and beautiful space for the other 362 days. A space that will bring us in on Shabbat and for B’nai Mitzvah and during the week. A space for our kids to love and return to with their own children; to do the opposite of the previous generation. We need a social space that is worthy of the b’ritot and baby namings and the weddings and the B’nai Mitzvah that will be celebrated within it – a space where we will want to mark the occasions of our lives. We need to look hard at how we enter this building. In our generation, many of the people who come to our doors are experiencing synagogue life for the first time. They are on spiritual paths or they are new to Judaism or are curious about what a synagogue and a Jewish community could offer them or maybe they have not set foot in a temple for many years. Instead of being greeted by an empty narrow hall and a deadening silence, what if you experienced an open and welcoming space that was occupied continuously by a live person who greeted you “Welcome to Temple Emanu-El. How can I be of help to you?” An entrance space where the Rabbi’s office and the Cantor’s office were right there – not up a long staircase or hard to find, but accessible to you instantly and where the door was open to you and your family. Imagine if you walked in our doors, and felt instantly like you were in as comfortable a place as your own home, filled with chairs and couches. A room that lent itself to people greeting one another and sharing their lives, telling their stories with the same ease as if you were sitting around a campfire, or a space that provided a quiet refuge from the challenges of the world and gives real meaning to the “Sanctuary”. An entrance space and gathering space that says we are here not just as a people needing a building to come together, but we are a congregation, devoted to the highest morals, ideals of our people, and built on a foundation of love and trust. As Rabbi Soloveitchik taught: a true congregation is made up of people bound by love and in pursuit of something higher than themselves. This is my vision. A vision based on fifteen years of sitting with you, praying with you, learning with you, and celebrating with you – weeping with you – and now I want to work with you if you’ll let me.
To make this vision a reality, foundational work has already begun. The dedicated leadership of this synagogue has already taken steps to move us forward. This fall we are going to embark on a feasibility study to see if financial resources exist in the community to pursue this vision. I firmly believe that they do. A small team of Temple members have already been in conversation with architects to see if they are willing to work with us to make this vision come to life. They are and most gratifying of all, as people are slowly, gradually hearing of this vision, they are stepping forward and saying, “count me in”. This won’t be easy as Rabbi Solo veitchik says, no vision is. It will require time and effort and money. But we are a generous people, and as Erica Brown has said, we are also a small people, so any gift, any contribution of time or money goes a long, long way.
A Midrash written 1200 years ago, called Eliyahu Rabba, asks a question about our friend Elkanah who lacked the vision to see the pain of Hannah his wife. The Midrash asks, if he lacked vision, if he was so flawed, how was it that he was so blessed that his son, Hannah’s son, would be the Prophet Samuel, who led Israel for so many years? Because it is taught, he would do one thing well. When Elkanah would go up to Shiloh to pray, he would greet passersby and invite them to come with him saying with joy, “won’t you come with me to the House of God?” and they would be inspired to join him. So, I too, am deeply flawed and like you, I have my fears and doubts, but I ask as Elkanah did long ago – won’t you come with me? Won’t you come with me to make this vision real? Won’t you come with me up to God’s house? Won’t you come with me as we create a congregation – a House of God for us, for our children, for the generations to come? So that we might say a few short years from now, as did Abraham long ago, “Adonai yireh behar Adonai yiraeh” – “Here we see God, for here there is truly vision.”