Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5783 – One of the Ten

I grew up at a large Conservative shul where I only ever saw men leading prayer and ritual.  This was a time at our shul when girls could be called to the Torah on the day of their bat mitzvah, which was a pretty recent concession to the rabble-rousing feminists in the community, but rather than bat mitzvah being a doorway into mature and fulsome ownership of one’s connection to the community and leadership in it, it was a moment of tokenism.  

Women were not counted in the minyan, the quorum of ten adults needed in order for the community to engage in some of the most important rituals, including reading from the Torah, chanting central prayers or for mourners to be able say kaddish.  Of course, women were part of the community, participating and involved in various ways, but not being counted in the minyan set women on the periphery and at a certain level, our presence and participation were inconsequential.  The community could go on without us.  As a young person, I could feel the dissonance of this reality, but I didn’t have language for it, and it never occurred to me to want or imagine my Jewish community to be different.  

In university, I discovered feminism.  Suddenly, a veil was lifted off all aspects of my life and I began to turn that exposing and creative light onto Judaism.  One Shabbat morning, as part of my “research” for a paper I was writing on Jewish and Christian feminist theology, I went to the First Narayever Congregation on Brunswick Avenue – a traditional, egalitarian shul housed in a beautiful little building from the late 1800s.  

My mom went with me, and though I had never worn a tallit before – because girls and women didn’t do that in my childhood shul either – I had under my arm the tallit that my Dad had worn at his bar mitzvah and that he lovingly handed to me before we left the house that morning.  

I was nervous, excited, and made sure we arrived right on time.  I vividly remember opening the doors into the small sanctuary – with wooden pews around the simple bimah in the centre of the room, sun pouring through the windows, and being greeted as we walked in, not exactly with words of welcome or questions about who we were, but with a big smile and the words – “nine, ten.  We have a minyan!  Let’s begin.”                

We humans have such a deep and beautiful desire to belong.  We look for places with other people where we are wanted and needed, where our presence matters.  In ways that are different from our circles of family, friends, professional colleagues or interest groups, belonging in community is built to have different depth and impact.  Communities, particularly what are often called “communities of meaning” are right-sized, wisely-interconnected, and activated around our most important human experiences so that the circles of our belonging can become circles of transformation.

Jewish life is communal by design.  It is organized to be a living laboratory where we practice balancing a focus on individual growth, expression and discovery, with a focus on nurturing and supporting others, as we grow this third thing called community.  In Jewish community, we engage in shared practices and teachings, shared commitments and principled actions, where we are able to do so much more, be so much more together, than we could ever attain or dare as solitary figures.  And if community is the body of our collective Jewish life, then the minyan is the heartbeat, alive and enlivening at the centre.   

So here you are tonight, already in Jewish community.  We are such a mixed and motley crew of different backgrounds, beliefs, different ways of expressing connection to Jewish life.  I am so proud of the ways we have navigated and deepened inclusion and radical welcome here over the years.  It’s still a work in progress but an abiding commitment.  This means that if you have walked through the doors of the DJC, you already belong here.  If you have walked through the doors of the DJC, you already belong in Jewish life.  But, I want to ask you – do you see yourself as one of the minyan?  What would it take to count yourself as one of the ten?  

On the one hand, I amtalking about being part of an actual minyan – about being among the core of people committed to showing up for services at shivas and on Shabbat and all those other holydays.  

At the same time, I want to take this brilliant notion of minyan and explore it more broadly.  Minyan can be where the tone of community is set, where values are wrestled with, where practices are experimented with, where fresh directions are imagined.  Minyan can be where muscles are flexed, where the fire of dedication burns, where the big picture is seen. So, what might be important for you, as well as for the community, about your stepping into the centre of gravity and engine of movement at the heart of the DJC and at the heart of Jewish community as a whole.  What would it take to see yourself as one of the ten?   

Now if I know something about this community, I am guessing that many of you are already thinking – this sermon is not for me.  ‘I’m not that into Judaism’, or ‘I’m not religious’, or ‘I don’t know enough’, ‘I didn’t grow up with this stuff’, or ‘I prefer to be anonymous on the sidelines’, or ‘life is too demanding and full’, or ‘other Jews drive me nuts’, or ‘I’m not Jewish and I’m here but this isn’t really mine’.  Is anyone thinking any of those things?  Well, if you weren’t before, you probably are now. 

I promise that this sermon will not be a guilt trip.  That is not interesting to me.  But I do want to turn our attention to how we build Jewish community for these times and why it is important.  During the pandemic, we have been seeing how essential the collective support of community can be for human wellbeing, particularly in the face of isolation and deep loneliness.  We’ve been seeing how essential the collective power of community can be to the projects of justice, repair and growing spiritual buoyancy in the face of violence, uncertainty and fear.  This is always true, but during the pandemic, when physically coming into community has been limited, when knowing each other and feeling connected has been more strained or absent, these times have brought into relief just how important the life of community can be.  These times have illuminated the need for a strong, thoughtful minyan at the core. 

And of course, the elephant in the room, the elephant sitting right in my lap, is the fact that I am stepping down from my role as rabbi after the holydays and Cantor Lisa is retiring at the end of December.  Jewish community needs wise leaders and good teachers, for sure, but a community is only as strong as the web of its members.  In order to build Jewish community for the world we are living in and for the transition the DJC is moving through, I want to ask you to lean into the possibility that you, as you are, are exactly the right person to be one of the ten and that this is the year to be counted.

On the night before their liberation, when the Israelites were still enslaved in Mitzrayim, in ancient Egypt, and the oppressive grip of Pharaoh was weakening, plague by plague, the Israelites were commanded to paint the doorposts of their houses with the blood of the Pesach offering so that the angel of death would pass over the Israelite houses and they would be sustained in life (Shemot/Exodus 12:23). 

Our Sages ask the perhaps obvious question – wouldn’t God know where the Israelites live? Why did they have to mark their doorposts?  The Sages answer that this act of self-identification was not for God but for the Israelites.  In order to be transformed from an enslaved people to a free one, each individual Israelite had to claim this community, claim this people, and claim this vision of sacred liberation for themselves.  This was a moment of coming out, no longer being passively defined by others as slave, as object, as sub-human but of actively taking hold of naming themselves, claiming their full humanity and choosing to belong among their fellow Israelites who stepped in with them.  It was an act of devotion.  A gesture of courage.  And in that physical, external, whole-body motion of painting their doorframe and saying, ‘count me,’ I imagine the ennobling vitality of witnessing one another and the liberation unfolding among them. No divinity, no force of redemption could be powerful enough to free them without each person taking responsibility for joining the movement into freedom.  They had no idea what would happen next, but only after the stepping in, could unimagined possibilities light up in their souls. 

That Shabbat morning at the Narayever changed me. Being counted by others affirmed in me something I hadn’t yet claimed for myself.  Being counted was so moving, but it was everything that followed after that that was really significant.  My mother and I sat down at the front, near the bimah – nine and ten in the minyan that soon became twenty, forty, sixty people in prayersong, reflection and relationship together, gathered around us.  

I put on my father’s tallit with shaking hands and a sense of strangeness, awkwardness that it felt so foreign around my body.  It took a couple years of wearing it and not wearing it, feeling like a fraud, picking it up again, before wearing a tallit felt like it was mine.  Today it is naturally, totally part of me, and I feel my Dad’s embrace around me every time I wear it.    

Shortly after we sat down that Shabbat, the gabbai came over and asked if I would honour the community by taking an aliyah (the first aliyah since my bat mitzvah), not as a tokenistic act, but actually leading the community that I was beginning to claim as my own.  Before stepping in, I had no idea all these curiosities and desires and possibilities were in me.   Acts of devotion.  Gestures of courage.  Trying things that feel foreign until they don’t.  Stepping in for myself, and with a decision to be consequential by belonging to others.  

My path took me into Jewish learning and spiritual practice, eventually becoming a rabbi and building community.  What it looks like for you to step into minyan is up to you.  There is not a singular model for minyanhood or one set of requirements.  But there is transformative potential in how you step in.  

Here you are in Jewish community at the beginning of a fresh, daring New Year, making commitments about what you will reach for in 5783.  

If there is a conscious choice to count yourself as one of the ten, there is also the conscious choice to relate those around you as the other nine.  Look around you.  Count each other. Count on each other.  Assume that this community, that the shared project of collective liberation, cannot go on without you. 

I want to challenge you not to squander your place in community.  Make good use of your belonging –  in the caring and reciprocal web of relationships that are right here, in the shared work of growing, learning, healing and awakening that are already built in and waiting for your willingness to both bring yourself bravely and to become what you can’t yet imagine.   

 Let’s count nine and ten.   Let’s begin. 

Shana tova.

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