Sharing the Burden: Building Transformative Jewish Spiritual Community & Why What we Do Matters
Address to the SAJ Congregational Meeting, June 15, 2022, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alot’cha, Moses hits a breaking point after the people take to kvetching once again, weeping and crying “if only we had meat to eat!” and remembering all the “good things” that they could eat in Egypt. Overwhelmed, Moses says to God: “Lo Uchal Anochi!” “I can’t do this!” In fact, he goes on, he would rather God kill him than lead the people!
Moses does have a flare for the dramatic — and in this case, we can hear and feel the pain and frustration in his plea in his extreme response. I image in those three words “Lo Uchal Anochi,” Moses is communicating:
“I am exhausted!
I have nothing left to give.
I cannot seem to find the strength to face the world and to face the challenges in front of me.
I feel so alone.”
When I read the parsha this week, Moses’ “Lo Uchal Anochi” penetrated my soul and has not left my mind since. This is because I can so directly relate to moments when I have felt as Moses did, like it’s all too much and it feels hard to find the light. And this is not about Moses as a leader- it is about Moses as a human being. I imagine there is not a single person who has not had a moment or two or many where we can relate to Moses’ feelings of aloneness or overwhelm or fear.
How could we not, especially given that we have just lived through twenty seven months of a global pandemic, a pandemic that for some us, we are learning to live with and for others still very much dominates our minds and limits our activities? A time in which there were long stretches when we may not have seen another human outside of ourselves or the people we live with?
How could we not have moments relating to Moses’ desperate plea, when living in a moment when the basic human rights for self-control and autonomy of half of the world’s population are being threatened; when another massacre of children occurs and those in power do nothing?
How could we not feel a bit like Moses in moments of personal challenges, in a society that does not make space for feelings of grief or struggles with illness?
Now that we recognize that we have all been there at some point in our lives, let’s go back to the Torah portion for its response. After Moses cries out “Lo Uchal Anochi!” “I cannot do this!” it is very important to note that God does not take Moses aside and give him a pep talk, reminding him that he has enough “inner strength” for the road ahead. God does not remind Moses — “Hey! I picked you at the burning bush for a reason! Get yourself together.”
No. Instead, God instructs Moses to gather seventy elders to share the burden with. The Torah, through the voice of God, is saying: “Yes, Moses, you are right. You cannot do this alone. You need others to support you, to care for you, to lighten the burden for you”. In other words: it takes a village to get to the Promised Land.
I have always believed, and I continue to believe, in the transformative value of community. And not just any community- but spiritual community in which people throw their lots in with others, make a decision to care about people outside of their immediate circle, and to commit to the greater good.
Spiritual community offers connection and a lifeline in a time of extraordinary isolation — a phenomenon that has been increasing even before the pandemic and now it itself a pandemic. An April 2021 study* found that 67% of Americans feel more alone than they ever have.
Spiritual community offers hope in a time of growing fear and uncertainty about the future. One that offers people the opportunity to take risks and find opportunities for action that help a person move from anxiety to action.
Spiritual community that offers people the opportunity to feel like they truly belong and are seen in a world in which people are often judged and marginalized and this opportunity and experience of belonging is transformative.
Spiritual community in a Jewish context gives opportunities for self-expression and personal growth through multiple ways — and through ways like prayer, meditation, community-building, social action, we can experience the kind of “shelymut” -wholeness — that is at the heart and center of Mordecai Kaplan’s thinking (as I learned from Mel Scult).
SAJ is this kind of spiritual community.
I have spent the last week or so collecting some anecdotes from community members, those who have been at SAJ for decades and those who have been at SAJ for months or just a few years. I have chosen just a few for the sake of time — and I am sure if we probe more, we will find riches:
From a long term member: “The world may be raging but when I step into SAJ time ceases I breathe and settle into my spiritual center which is touched by song and prayer and the wisdom of Reconstructionist Jewish thought.”
From a parent of young children: “SAJ has been a lifeline for our family during the pandemic, providing support, friendship, growth and moments of great joy for us and our children.”
From a mom of a teen: “As a result of the Civil Rights trip to the South, my teen’s life is forever changed for the better.”
From a recent convert: “SAJ has nurtured me spiritually through my conversion process, from attending shul on zoom during the depths of COVID to being present in the synagogue for my ceremony. The community supported my time of greatest growth; SAJ has been my lifeline to my Jewishness.”
From an SAJ teen: “I’ve never felt more at home than I do at SAJ. It feels like a family to me.”
From a member of the Adult B*Mitzvah Cohort (one of 17 Adult B*Mitzvah students) “SAJ is the space that allows me to explore divinity, connect, and feel belonging for who I am. I previously thought I would have to compromise some aspect of myself to integrate into the Jewish community. Since being at SAJ, I feel more confident in being Jewish anywhere I go.”
From a new member: “As my day job went remote with the pandemic, and while I don’t miss the commute, I often feel very isolated. Being able to start my day with the SAJ Wake Up group twice a week has been an essential point of connection, giving a rhythm to my week that culminates with seeing each other in person at Shabbat services.”
From a member who attends the online cohort for retirees: “During the Pandemic, I joined several groups and classes at SAJ. These outlets became my spiritual lifeline, and the work we did not only benefited each other, but often the greater community. I feel truly blessed.”
From a Parent of a College Age Student: “SAJ has created a true community for our family in a world and a city where true community is rare and needed. If it takes a village to raise a child, SAJ is our village. Saj has helped us raise our child with a sense of meaning, values and fun. And it has given us, as adults, a spiritual and friendship home. I can’t imagine our family life without it.”
From a 13 year old recent B*Mitzvah: “SAJ is a place of safety and kindness where we question the world and grow as a community.”
There are many who believe that synagogues are a soon to be ancient relic; that the model is essentially broken.
As someone who grew up in a synagogue that I found irrelevant and problematic, one I happily left after my non-egalitarian “coming of age ceremony,” I am not going to assume the role of champion for a “model” or “the model” of synagogues.
But I have always and will always defend and champion Jewish spiritual communities — whether in the form of a synagogue or havurah or a start up minyan or online community — as long as they speak to the heart of what is happening in people’s lives and in the world, lifts people up, and enable people who feel alone, afraid or overwhelmed like Moses, to find their way and meet the challenges they face.
We can hear in these words from SAJers I shared just a moment ago, and God willing in your own experiences, that SAJ is one of those communities.
And in this time of continued isolation and with despair constantly knocking on the door, the work of our community has never been more needed or important as it is today.
To be clear, I do not want to paint a rose colored picture. SAJ is not perfect. I am certainly not perfect. We are always going to be a work in progress. And now, we are facing an exciting time and an also unnerving time as we try to figure out what life in general and at SAJ will be like now and in the coming year or two years as we move past or learn to live with Covid.
And I know that in that vein, I am sitting with more questions than answers in this particular moment, including:
-As personal habits and priorities shifting in the pandemic, how will that impact SAJ and in particular regarding services?
-As we build many onramps to access Judaism and community, what will bind us together?
-What are the unmet spiritual needs of the moment and what forms might they take?
-What are the structures that will support us so that we can make the most impact in the city and our world?
-How do we adequately meet the needs of such a diverse community, with people who do not know the basic Torah studies and people who have tremendous Jewish background (and everything in between)?
-How can we as a congregation better engage with Israel?
-How do we reintegrate the people who did not connect online in the last few years?
When I came to SAJ, we began working on building on the wonderful foundation that SAJ had laid and growing from there. It has been a labor of love and worth every second.
Now, we in a period of regaining our footing, rebuilding and adjusting to new realities we could have never anticipated as well as dealing with the challenges of a community with growing and diverse needs. It will certainly be a challenge. And to face all that I named and more, we are going to need to summon courage, creativity, and an open-mindedness as we look forward. And we will need a measure of trust and patience alongside a lot of hard work.
And, it will be worth it. Because what we do matters.
Each of us has stood in Moses’ sandals at times, perhaps even this very day, saying “Lo Uchal Anochi!”
And it is my hope and prayer that we can look around and see the 70 elders in the faces of our community, the faces of those on the screen, the faces of those we meet at Kiddush or the picnics, the faces of those we deliver meals to through the amazing work of the Caring Committee, the faces of the people sitting next to us at services.
In doing so, may we remember that we do not have to feel so alone and apart, and instead feel fully heard, seen, and embraced. And like Moses and the 70 elders, we share the burdens of life and the burdens of the world; and we pick each other up and we keep marching towards the Promised Land, all the while knowing that even if we do not get there, we know that some future generation will.