Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 17, 2022 / 18 Sivan 5782
Summary: Last night, the congregation held its Annual Meeting, marking the ceremonial end of Glen Coblens’ presidency and the inauguration of Liza Millner’s tenure. Today’s column is a slightly expanded version of the remarks I offered yesterday.
Happy Pride and Juneteenth to everyone as well!
Reading Time: Six minutes
Before I begin my formal comments, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a special thank you to Glen for his service as our president over the past two years. It has been a pleasure partnering with you, Glen; your positive outlook was especially valuable as we navigated our community through the pandemic.
There are countless others who ought to be thanked as well, particularly our dedicated staff and clergy team, our educators, our facilities crew, and the remarkable lay leaders and volunteers who are the real engine of synagogue vitality. The older I get, the more aware I am that life is a complex whole, and that while it is human to break things into smaller parts, we miss something essential when we do. Our community is one living organism: each part of that is invaluable.
I also want to note that although hard to believe, Fred, this is your final annual meeting as our Executive Director. I will have more comments—and compliments—for you as the end of your tenure approaches, but we still have much work to achieve before then. Still, there’s something bittersweet about this.
Change is afoot. Given that, I want to forgo the normal way I offer comments at the Annual Meeting, which often offered a look back at the year that was. We have had an opportunity to hear about that from our previous speakers. Sometimes those remarks were a celebration of what we had achieved together. Less frequently, they marked some of the challenges we had struggled with over the previous year and that still demanded our attention.
At this year’s annual meeting, I want to look forward instead. To do so though, I want to frame the path forward in an unusual manner, so please indulge me by allowing me to share a poignant story that occurred this week when I went to visit a beloved older congregant who is now on hospice care.
She’s 90. Everyone intellectually knows death is that place toward which we are all headed. Yet at 90, thinking about her end was not a cerebral exercise for her. It’s her reality, and she has never been someone you couldn’t share the direct truth with.
As her hands rested on mine, I asked her if she was afraid of dying. “No,” she said, “I am anxious because I don’t know how long it will take to die. That’s what is scaring me.” As we sat there, it occurred to me that this focus was making it more difficult for her to live in the moment or even look forward to the blessings she still has, like her loving family who regularly come to visit her. I wondered aloud if shifting her attention to these beautiful experiences that she could still reasonably expect to enjoy might reduce her anxiety. Hopefully, I will get to revisit that question with her, but she did feel better after we conversed. Everyone, in other words, has a future, even a person on hospice.
I’ve been thinking about that interaction and the lessons it holds for all of us, as well as how it connects to two of the many programmatic areas I want to explore with you this year.
In a certain way, post-pandemic, many of us are still sitting anxiously in our chairs. Even now that many restrictions have been lifted, a lot of us don’t yet feel ready to step back into the world. We are still looking at the rear-view mirror.
But like our congregational friend, this is the time and the moment we have. If anything has become clear to me over the past two years, it is how much we all need our house of worship, this place where we can experience ongoing community that is centered around prayer, learning, and action. It’s not that people don’t have communities elsewhere: it’s that what we do at CNS is create community around meaning, growth, and kedushah, or holiness. More than ever, I think we all need this, but we may not realize how much we need this place and these people.
Do you remember Plato’s famous allegory of a dark cave? The people inside believed that life inside the cave was all there was. They couldn’t imagine an illuminated world with distant horizons much vaster than the width of the cave walls. When they finally were led out of the cave, the light was blinding because they had had no experience of it. The light made them anxious. But lo and behold, once their eyes had adjusted, their spirits soared.
This year, I want to invite you back into CNS, back to the light, the learning, and the good deeds we can do together. Ahad HaAm was a famous writer and Zionist thinker who developed the notion of cultural Zionism, of a Jewish state rather than a state of Jews. He once said that more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.
I know we are all negotiating how and when we return to public places populated with people. What I want to request is that CNS be at the top of your list. It’s nice to go to a restaurant and it’s exciting to attend a show or a game. Being with your Jewish community is something different. It’s about leaving the cave and coming home. We need to be here together, and sometimes, like the people in Plato’s cave, we forget that the light is here. To paraphrase Ahad HaAm, the deep truth is that if we let it, CNS will keep us much as Shabbat has.
Finally, coming back after a sabbatical has made me reflect on the way forward and some opportunities I’d like to offer the community. Both flow from a recognition that like our congregant on hospice, lots of people have anxiety around end-of-life matters, and just as many people are feeling uneasy about the state of the world. That’s not a pleasant way to live. If there’s something we can do together to lessen those burdens, I say let’s do it.
So in the coming program year, I’ll be offering a program entitled Legacy: Meaningful Family Conversations. When a family embraces a loved one’s later years in a direct manner, it can change a time of fear and anxiety into one of love and meaning. I believe that these conversations will ultimately help families embrace some unique and life-affirming opportunities.
Additionally, I will be offering periodic meditation sessions to those who have an interest. Returning to my own meditation practice after more than a decade break has been life changing; I believe that it can be helpful to many others as we step out of the cave and back into the light. Initially, these sessions will occur casually, for those who reach out, as has happened in recent weeks. If it appears that a more formal approach will help, we can head in that direction.
The Jewish tradition doesn’t have a version of Plato’s cave as far as I know. What we have instead is the story of Rabbi Akiva, who insisted on learning Torah publicly, even when the Romans threatened death to any who dared to do so. When a disciple questioned his apparently foolhardy decision, he answered with the parable of the fish and the fox.
One day a fox was sauntering by a river and noticed fish in flight. “Why are you fleeing?” it asked. They replied, “Humans have spread nets to catch us.” “Then come up on dry land with me,” urged the fox. The fish retorted, “If in this place of life we face danger, how much more so if we stepped on to the land, which is a place of death for us.”
Akiva concluded his parable. “If we refrain from gathering to learn Torah because of risk, how much more so if we neglect the Torah.”
B’ruchim Haba’im. Welcome back. Let’s revel in our community.
As they say in Israel, yesh atid. There’s a future and it starts today. Let’s walk toward it together.
Shabbat Table Talk
- What do you think of the parable of the fish and the fox?
- In what ways does it apply to today’s world?
- How much of you relates to the fox?
- How much of you identifies with the fish?
Links for Sensible Gun Control: IP-17 and IP-18.
Link for my sermon after Uvalde, Texas.
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.