Joyfully in Community

Dear Friends,

As we begin this new year, our beloved Israel continues to wrestle with its deep social and political challenges. This has been illustrated most poignantly by the continuing judicial overhaul process and the inexhaustible protests, even as the Prime Minister recently heralded possibilities of peace agreements that could reshape the modern Middle East. I have tremendous faith in the resiliency of the Israeli people and the Jewish State, and I believe that this crisis could also be a moment of awakening, possibility, and renewed commitment to Zionism and Israeli democracy. At the same time, I fear that the months ahead could bring heightened tensions and deeper polarization, both within Israel and within our own community.

Amidst the expressions of anger, frustration, and fear that have filled the past several months, reading about the clash on Yom Kippur involving liberal activists and Orthodox Jews over public prayer was undeniably heart-wrenching. Many of us are familiar with the "secular-religious" divide in Israel, and this is one of the growing underlying tensions manifesting at this time. Witnessing the anger and infighting over an act of prayer — especially on the holiest day of the year — served as a stark reminder of the sinat chinam (baseless hatred between Jews) that has plagued us for millennia.

In his recent piece in The Times of Israel, David Horowitz noted the irony that, at the time of year when we are supposed to be looking inward at our own personal responsibility and accountability, everyone seems clear who is to blame for all of Israel’s problems — “the other side.” However, he writes, “furiously allocating responsibility and firing off bitter accusations is not going to fix a thing. It’s certainly not going to enable us to do what we all know we need to do if we’re going to overcome this escalating, self-destructive national crisis: heal.” It’s worth noting that, especially as we head into a presidential election year, Horowitz could have been writing this about America as well.

This time of year on the Jewish calendar is meant to be a time for healing. Our tradition understands that to heal ourselves and our world, we first need to find a way to heal and rebuild our relationships. This is perhaps most true with the people whom we have harmed and who we believe have harmed us. Parker Palmer once described “true community” as “that place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” It’s natural to feel close to people we like and who share and reinforce our values, worldviews, and personal experiences. It’s much harder to remember that those who feel further away from us are also human beings created in the Image of God (and sometimes fellow Jews as well).

We are heading into the holiday of Sukkot, when we sit, eat, sing, and celebrate together in temporary dwellings as we emerge anew from the days of judgment and forgiveness. The spiritual and emotional theme of Sukkot is simcha, happiness or joy. In fact, Sukkot is literally called “Z’man Simchateinu,” the season of our joy. It is a joy of liberation and spiritual rebirth, of ingathering and abundance, and, yes, the joy of community and unity. On Sukkot, we strive to live out the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), opening our homes and our hearts to create families and communities that are inclusive, expansive, and where everyone can feel a sense of joyful belonging.

I use the phrase “joyful belonging” because the joy we feel on this holiday and the communities we aspire to create in our sukkot are intimately connected. This joy contains elements of relief and light-heartedness that can only come after Yom Kippur — a day of forgiveness, of beginning again, of second chances, and of love. We have asked God and one another to forgo the blame — that we might even deserve — and see the best in us, and to choose compassion, forgiveness, and love. Imagine if we strived to love, to understand, and to see the best in everyone (perhaps especially the people whom we least like and with whom we most disagree). That’s how we build community on the strength of — not in spite of — our diversity. That’s how we repair our democracy, heal our relationships, and reweave our social fabric.

Just the thought of it brings a smile to my face. Z’man Simchateinu — the season of our joy.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach (Happy Sukkot), 

Rabbi Marc Baker