What is a congregation? Why is the sky blue? Where did the joy go?

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 1, 2021 / 17 Tevet 5781

Upcoming: This Wednesday, January 6th at 4pm, Israel360 and CNS are presenting a remarkable conversation with David Makovsky and Dennis Ross, two high level experts on the Middle East. They will be discussing the recent peace agreements and what they mean. We are very fortunate to be able to partner with the Jewish Federation of Ventura County to make this sort of event available to our congregation. Please don’t miss it. Register here.

Reading Time: Five minutes

Summary: This week’s Oasis looks at how the Coronavirus and the challenges of 2020 forced us to ask big questions, and discusses the importance of joy.

There are moments and even eras when fundamental questions surface and when large numbers of people engage in the sort of philosophical speculation that normally is reserved for young children and professional philosophers. These big questions as they are sometimes referred to, are not only about “what is the meaning of life,” but they touch upon mystery or wonder. “Why is the sky blue?”

Above image is owned by Pixar studios

Normally, these beautifully meditative forms of curiosity are tamped down when someone gives us a sufficiently satisfying answer. My dad the scientist told me that blue light scatters more readily and faster than red light, and thus the sky appears blue. That is, until sunset, when the angle of the sun scatters the blue light out of view and reds begin to proliferate. It was a good and satisfying answer in sixth grade. Yet on any particular evening when the skies are burnished and painted with red, orange or violet, I find myself overtaken again by wonder. The question returns.

2020 has raised so many questions many of us had stopped asking because we took the answers for granted. What is a democracy, and why does it matter? How do social norms instill trust, and what happens to that trust as norms are eroded? Is justice blind, or does everyone always have an agenda? What is it about skin color that prevents us from seeing the person beneath?

How is it that a small bit of genetic code, in the form of a virus, can grind an entire planet to a halt, spreading fear, pain, death and destruction in its path? And how can that same bit of genetic code inspire so much creativity and resilience, as well as one of the greatest and most uplifting unified scientific efforts in all of human history?

Big questions. This past year, we’ve all asked them. More to the point, life has asked these questions of us.

One of the questions we repeatedly were forced to ask at Neveh Shalom is “what is a congregation; what does it mean to be a congregation?” Before the pandemic, we had some pretty satisfying answers. A religious community gathers together to pray, to socialize, to learn, to perform acts of lovingkindness. A community is about the relationships.

Those remain reasonably satisfying answers, yet this pandemic required us to discover that gathering is important but can be worked around. Most of us are hungry to be together, hungry to share a kiddush lunch together. We crave to look into our friends’ faces and to hug these people we care about. What we discovered is that even though we miss all these deeply human activities, our community was something else—something more than what we imagined. What we achieved together over this year is remarkable, and a tremendous affirmation that “am yisrael chai”—that the Jewish people can survive and thrive under the most austere of circumstances.

One of the things that a religious community also does is to sing together. This the pandemic stole from us. Whether services are live-streamed or broadcast on Zoom, communal singing is not possible. Not in the way that matters. This might seem like something relatively unimportant, especially for those who prefer to listen rather than join in. What this year has magnified is how important a spiritual activity singing is. Communal singing is a form of both meditation and relationship. In the midst of a congregational melody, when everyone joins in, something happens in the room, and something happens within each of us. Our voices create something greater than any single one of us. In the moment of such singing, spiritual community and connection is created. Internally, when we sing without reservation and allow ourselves to be swept into the music, we are fully in the moment. Our worries and our to-do lists get set aside. Our loneliness or upset, our hurt feelings, all of those give way to the music. Singing expands us. We experience flow. The doors of joy are opened.

It would be tremendously valuable if our society could continue to ask big questions after the menace of the pandemic is behind us. Such questions provide us a way to connect with one another and chart a national path together. How do you define what a good life is? What role does government play in creating the good life for all of its citizens? Which tasks must instead be handled by communities, families or individuals? What must we do to rebuild civic trust?

Those are important questions. What 2020 has also shown us is how essential joy and wonder are, precisely because these were missing from so many people’s lives. More joy would make us reframe what a good life is. More joy would make us less frightened or disturbed by those who are different than we are. More joy would foster greater compassion and gratitude.

Joy doesn’t have a price tag. Neither does wonder. Sometimes they sneak up on us, sweep over us without any effort on our part. At the same time, seeking out joy and wonder is a spiritual practice. It’s a choice.

The year has ticked over and that has brought a sense of relief to many people. We also know that the challenges of this past year won’t all magically disappear because of the calendar. Since that is the case, let me wish you all a year of joy and wonder (in a safe, mask-appropriate manner). We all deserve them. We all can work for those gifts.

Send out an invitation to joy. Let the wonder in.

Shabbat shalom and a happy, joyous new year,

Rav D

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.

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