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Oys and Joys: What is the Purpose of Praying in Community?

 

This week’s d’var Torah on Ki Tavo.

On a conference call with other small congregation rabbis earlier this week, a colleague was lamenting that their congregants just weren’t coming back to services in person, and it was disheartening to see all the empty chairs. I, personally, am learning to rejoice just as much in the faces on the screen as the ones in the seats, but still, we wondered what it might take to bring people back in the room (and I know I’m preaching to the choir here). We wondered if we would be hybrid forever (probably), if we would ever NOT be online at all (probably not). And it made me think of a bigger question, that I want to talk about tonight: why do we need to gather as a community in the first place?

And it made me think of something I saw once on vacation. About a year before I moved to Philadelphia, my family went to Portland, ME to celebrate my parents’ 65th birthdays six months late (or their 66th birthdays six months early, depending on how you slice it).

I didn’t exactly seek out Jewish content in my travels. But on our last day in Portland, we literally stumbled upon the Maine Jewish Museum. I was able to gently nudge my family inside, where we happened upon a beautiful exhibit of paintings by Max Miller called Final Mourner’s Kaddish: 333 Days in Paintings.

While saying Kaddish for his father, a daily ritual that traditionally takes 11 months, Miller painted a watercolor of each of the synagogues he traveled to in New York, Vermont, Ohio, and Florida. I loved the paintings—and a few of the sanctuaries looked familiar—but for the most part I was struck by how lovely it was for him to create something beautiful out of his loss. It moved me to imagine him finding comfort and familiarity in each new community, even as some regular davveners chided him for sitting in “their” seats. Saying Kaddish wasn’t something he could do alone, and so he sought out community wherever he went.

This is what Jewish communities are for: they are places to gather to celebrate milestones and mourn losses, where we can share our oys and our joys. Ideally, we find a place that we call home, where we consider the seats “ours.” But even as a relative stranger, we can find comfort and joy in the patterns and rituals of Judaism, wherever we are.

Although right now, our minds are turning towards the High Holy Days, in our weekly Torah portion, we are celebrating a harvest ritual, which probably took place a few times between Shavuot and Sukkot. Ki Tavo begins with a description of the ritual of the first fruits and the third-year tithe, which the farmers bring to the Temple. Each offering has a formula that goes with it: the first, a retelling of the Exodus (“my father was a wandering Aramean…”); the second, a declaration that the produce was harvested in an ethical and ritually pure way. Then the fruits—or likely, also, grains—are shared with segments of the population that don’t own land: the Levite eats of both the first fruits and the tithe, sharing the latter with the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.

This passage and its commentary show us the importance of participating in ritual. There are only a few places in the Torah that prescribe a whole speech for us to recite, but doing so here democratizes the celebration. It’s not the priest that says the formula, but the farmer. The Mishnah tells us that, since not everyone’s Hebrew, or everyone’s memory, was good enough to recite the formula unassisted, the Temple provided a prompter for those who needed it. However, they soon discovered that those who needed the prompter stayed home out of embarrassment, so they started prompting everyone (Bikkurim 3:7). I’d apply this same logic to why our community recites Kaddish together, since it can be one of the most difficult prayers to say unassisted.

This passage also shows us the importance of expressing gratitude in the context of a community. It was not enough to say a bracha over the food as we ate it, or to ship some of it to the Temple as a donation. We needed to make the trek to the Temple, basket in hand, to declare how blessed we are, and to share our good harvest with our community.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says, “The first tithe goes to the Levites, to maintain Israel’s spiritual core. The second tithe is consumed in Jerusalem, to teach us to celebrate our good fortune in God’s presence, and in the presence of our fellow Israelites” (EC 1142).

And that is what we are here to do each time we walk into (or log into) a synagogue. Because when we choose to live our lives in community, we learn that both sadness AND happiness are communal endeavors. A simcha is not private, often, the joy that accompanies them cannot be contained. It belongs to all of us. I’m thinking of the line in the song L’Chayim when all the Russian barflies sing:

“We’ll raise a glass and sip a drop of schnapps in honor of the great good luck that favors you, We know that when good fortune favors two such men, it stands to reason, we deserve it too!”

Perhaps our ancestors, whose lives also had quite a lot of ups and downs, knew that, when someone had a good harvest, we would need to spread the blessing around. And in these strange times, God knows we could all use a little extra blessing.

Our ancestors accompanied their tithe offering with this ancient prayer: “Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our ancestors” (Deut. 26:15).

And so we say tonight: God, we give thanks for what joys we have been able to harvest in our own lives, and share with this community, in this past year. May this coming year be fruitful and abundant in blessings and in opportunities to share them. And let us say, Amen.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz