Sermon Va’eira 2019 R’Erez Sherman
A rabbi I follow named Rabbi Erez Sherman wrote a short missive that went like this:
“On a short but sweet family vacation this week, I overheard this conversation in a hotel lobby between two people…
‘You know, sitting through a 3 hour service in a synagogue…
“I was quite nervous what was to come next, so I listened attentively.’
‘Sitting in a synagogue for three hours is very valuable…it forces you to stop and listen.’
“It was destiny for this conversation to occur in front of my eyes, so as to validate our tradition and Shabbat synagogue rituals. I am grateful my ears were open to listening.”
Then I began to speak. This is what I said: “I too know that not everyone is willing to sit for multiple hours in shul. With modernity comes impatience. Shul’s not flashy. It’s fairly redundant, week after week. Unlike playing with a hand held devise which entertains us, we have to dig down, exert considerable energy to do the work of prayer, participation and reflection. Synagogue services are, it seems to me, the counterpoint to our daily life filled with modern technology where our current expectation about most things is that they should proceed at the speed of light –that we can and should be able to “split our screens” (both literally and figuratively) and that that everything should pretty much be completed almost before it even starts.
I too live in the world I just described. I listen to people complain that services are the same every week, that they are too long, not modern enough. I hear you. They are long, much shorter than when I was growing up and even shorter than when I was raising my kids, but they have length. They are the same every week – pretty much – and I’m proud that I can still fight the tide and keep them that way. As far as modern goes – well – women count as part of the minyan. We include interfaith couples warmly and graciously. But the take home for me is that there are always people who complain just as there are people who are generally happy. Knowing that, my job as your rabbi is to find the balance between halacha – Jewish law –and the needs of the community.
It seems to me. Sitting still for a few hours each week should be considered a blessing rather than a hardship. Sitting still for a few hours with members of our own tribe, learning about our history, or rituals and contemplating our relationship with our higher source who I call G!d, is a blessing that so many of our ancestors never experienced or worse, were murdered for. We Jews in America have the most religious freedom and flexibility of expression than any Jew in the history of the modern world.
So I am on board with the couple in the hotel lobby who agreed that “Sitting in a synagogue for three hours is very valuable…it forces [us] to stop and listen.” It allows us to contemplate, to decompress after the daily requirements of the work week. When the service is the same, it becomes rote. When our lips know the prayers, when our voices know the melodies, it frees up space between our ears to relax a bit. When we do something by rote, our brains have a chance to catch up with all that’s been going on in our life. We can sort and process our feelings, just sit and be. These are good things to do. Temple offers the safe place and time to do it without the guilty feelings we might have if we were at home trying to do the same thing – only to be faced with 3 loads of laundry, bills to pay, taxes forms to fill out. Cooking to do…you know what I’m talking about.
I just realized something – I just figured out one more reason why people don’t like to come to shul – it’s not only what we hear all the time which is “I can’t follow the service. There’s too much Hebrew; it’s so antiquated…” It’s really that they don’t want to sit and be; to cogitate, reflect and process what’s going on in their lives. It’s probably too overwhelming of a task. Better, they think, to just keep multiple screens open on the computer on the desk and in the head. Better to be amused by the latest YouTube video or Amazon Prime offer. I get it. It’s a way to cope with life and it’s not too shabby in the short run.
But coming to shul and investing several hours a week is the wise choice if you are looking at the long game. Our spiritual health, mental health and physical well being all have an opportunity to thrive when we take the time to sit and let the distractions of the week fall by the wayside for at least a little while.
May we all thrive in every way possible in this new year of 2019. Ken ya’hei ratzon!