05 Oct Destination: Judaism
Delivered on Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5776
In the center of ancient Jerusalem, along the southern edge of the Temple Mount there were a series of sacred steps. You can still visit these steps. This is the Davidson Archeological Center, now. These stone steps would bring you up to the plaza of the Temple itself. The ancient Jewish pilgrim took these final steps of aliyah, singing Shirei HaMaalot, Songs of Ascent, which we still have, included in the Book of Psalms. Kohanim and Leviim—priests—would stand along the steps, and with shofar and chatzrotzot (another sort of horn), with drums and lutes, and would announce the pilgrim’s arrival, bringing the celebration of the moment to a spiritual climax. “Kol ha-neshama t’halelya!” they would sing, “Let everything that breaths, praise God’s name.”
Three times a year, our People would make pilgrimage to the ancient Temple. We came from all over the world. We brought offerings of all kinds, the produce of our labor. For as large as the Western Wall looms in our tradition, it is a modicum of what Pilgrimage used to be in the Jewish tradition. The Western Wall is what remains of a once-magnificent destination, a spiritual center for the wandering Jew. The Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple itself—that is our tradition’s spiritual destination. We still physically turn to the East when we pray, and we bury our loved ones with their feet facing Jerusalem.
We still esteem our spiritual destination, but in many ways, we approach the journey as paramount.
A common notion one encounters is that the journey matters more than the destination. When striving toward an amorphous goal, we often reminder ourselves with the contemporary proverb, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” “The journey not the arrival matters,” said T.S. Eliot. It is quite Jewish to live by this notion. We invoke this notion of process over product, of path over port, when at a memorial or funeral service we include Rabbi Alvin Fine’s familiar poem: “Birth is a beginning / And death a destination. / And life is a journey / … A sacred pilgrimage …”
Truly, this message of journey over destination is embedded deeply within our tradition. From Exodus to Deuteronomy we tell a traveler’s tale: Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all of the Israelites make their way from Exodus toward Redemption, from servitude to Pharaoh into the free-worship of the Eternal God, from the narrow place of Egypt into the promised land, that land that flows with milk and honey. Marching from Exodus through the 40 years of wilderness, and then across the Jordan, the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy communicate to us that we are a wandering people. Like we say at our Seder each year, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” That, yes, we are heading toward a sacred place, a promised land, but the story takes place not at the destination; rather, it happens along the way. Torah is not a gift given upon arrival, like a colorful hospitality bag given when we check-in. Torah is manifest at Mount Sinai, a temporary destination gifted along the way. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” Martin Buber taught. Interesting that our tradition emphasizes these way-stations over arrival at the destination.
The predominate message in our tradition is that we become who we are along the way. Process over product, path over port. The journey is the spiritual experience, not the destination. We emphasize spiritual pathways over spiritual destinations.
We emphasize this in our contemporary lives, too. Consider lifecycle events. These are destinations of sorts, but when seen over the course of our lives, they are more like Sinai-moments rather than Promised Lands. Consider the bar or bat mitzvah: A Jewish coming-of-age is a critical milestone for young people. When our sons and daughters are called to the Torah for the first time, that is not the culmination of their spiritual lives; rather, it is a gateway, a launch pad into responsible Jewish living. Now, in their spiritual formation, we hand them the keys to this Jewish automobile and tell them it’s theirs to drive. Don’t crash it. Once they have become bar or bat mitzvah, our young people are now responsible for the driving of their own spiritual lives, and we hope, that they continue on that path toward ever more significant spiritual destinations.
Spiritual journeys require way-stations, and they require destinations. We need an answer to the kid’s when they ask from the back seat, “Are we there yet?” The Israelites need the promise of the Land in order for their 40 years of wandering to mean something. Otherwise, we are a nomadic people—landless, destination-less. A ship requires a port. The experience is not unlike when someone touches down after a long flight: Your plane lands and taxis along the runway. You start to gather your things, waiting for the signal that you can take off your seatbelt and begin to move around the cabin. What do they call that? Deplaning. But as the plane comes to a halt, you look out the window, noticing that you’re not yet at the gate. The pilot comes on the intercom, “I’m sorry folks, but it seems that our gate is not yet ready for us. Please stay seated and just hang tight for another moment.” Everyone groans. What a frustrating experience. A plane needs its gate. Passengers traveling need a destination at which they can arrive. Children need to know—everyone needs to know—that we are almost there.
Journeys need destinations. In religious terms, the ancient Jew needed his Temple. The Christian who walks the Via De La Rosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Going on Hajj takes the Muslim to Mecca. In all of the Abrahamic traditions, spiritual formation requires an aspirational destination.
Since the ancient Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, history has required our people to create spiritual destinations of other sorts. We created the synagogue as a stand-in, when we could no longer go to Jerusalem for worship. No more were sacrifices or pilgrimage possible. And so, the synagogue, our local meeting houses became our new sacred destinations, the place where prayer happened, the place we came together to celebrate and to mourn, to find community, and to learn Torah.
The synagogue is the spiritual destination that we have inherited. And it is the destination we are called to maintain and steward.
A synagogue has three foundation stones upon which it sits: a synagogue is a destination for Jewish living. When we are here, we pray together and in those prayers, articulate thanks and praise for the good fortune that has touched our lives, for realized blessings. And we pray to articulate our hopes and our dreams for how we would like to live our lives. Here we sit at the start of the new year, and as we look back, perhaps there are blessings for which we can give thanks. And as we look at the year ahead, perhaps there are things we want to ask of God, to ask of our loved ones, to ask of our community, to ask of ourselves? It is here in this synagogue that through prayer we can hold together both joy and sorrow, celebration and struggle, and find sanctity in that. Practicing Jewish living is what we do in this sanctuary.
Consider the space. Do we recall the sacred, significant moments that have happened here? Here was you held the Torah for the first time. Here was where—as we’ll do tomorrow—you brought your grandchild up to the bima for the blessing of new babies. Here was where we sang together, feeling close to God for one of the first times in our lives. For some, this is where we held your spouse’s funeral service. Synagogues are sacred vessels that hold our Jewish lives.
And synagogues are also destinations for learning. Here is where our children learn how to practice our traditions and learn how to speak from their Jewish souls. This year, our Confirmation class is tackling the topic of theology. All year, as we meet together, we’re studying different perspectives on God—who might God be or not be in our lives? How are we challenged by faith and how are we encouraged by the spiritual? Last week the students interviewed one another about their beliefs. “How do you picture God?” they asked, “What are some of your doubts about God? Has God ever answered your prayers? What does God want of us?” The synagogue is that destination where we come to squeeze honey from the rock, where we come to learn and to be challenged by Torah, where we come to learn how to Jewishly be in our world.
And synagogues are also destinations for community. Here is where we can know others, and be known by others. Community is the very name of our congregation: Hevreh. We are *chaverim*, friends, who make up this sacred *Hevreh*. And in that way, our spiritual destination becomes portable. Have community, will travel. Last year, many who spend part of the year in Florida came together for a Hevreh afternoon, where we ate, studied a little bit, and talked about this congregation we love. In both Naples and in Del Ray, Hevreh came together. Yes, we were looking out at the beach, we were wearing boat shoes and short-sleeved shirts in January, and it felt like Hevreh. It felt like Hevreh because of the spirit with which we were gathering. Hevreh is community.
Hevreh is a spiritual destination. We exist to be the spiritual destination for anyone who comes walking through our doors—to be a destination for Jewish spiritual practice, to be a place where people can be together for Shabbat and holidays, to be destination for Jewish learning, to be a destination for community.
Over the last year, I have been learning how to speak “Hevreh.” In so many conversations with many in our community, we have told similar stories: That few of us are from the Berkshires, that we each constantly choose to live here, to make our home here, to build our businesses here, to build our lives here. This region was and is a destination for visitors, and it is a place many of us felt called to, to form our lives. No one is here by accident. In other words, Hevreh is an intentional community. We each constantly choose the Berkshires, and we each constantly choose this sacred community.
And so, I wonder something aloud: How, as we head into the new year, will each of us name our spiritual journey and name Hevreh as a spiritual destination?
In this day and age, there is a glut of opportunities to engage in the spiritual. It is not infrequent that someone says to me, “Well, Rabbi, I’m spiritual but not religious.” Often, I want to whisper back, “Me, too.” And we find a touch of the spiritual in our yoga practices, in meditation, in writing, gardening, baking, or the like. Those practices are wonderful. They are pathways to greater meaning in our lives. They are tools we employ along our spiritual journey. And in the synagogue, we have other tools we can employ as well. But we need to say yes to them. We need to try them out, without getting discouraged, without expecting perfection. Learning how to practice Judaism is an art. And in this new year, I want to challenge each of us to look for an opportunity to say yes to Jewish practice, to say yes to landing here in our spiritual destination, because it is pregnant with the potential of a richer life.
Rabbi Alvin Fine wrote, “Birth is a beginning and death is a destination, and life is a journey, a growing from stage to stage.” It is about the journey. And it is about this destination. In this coming year, as we continue on our spiritual journeys, let’s also make Hevreh more and more of a destination for one another. As we often read on Shabbat: May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship. May it welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture. May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity. May its threshold be no stumbling block to young or straying feet. May it be too high to admit complacency, selfishness and harshness. May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.