How the Others Will Bless or Curse

(D’var Torah written by me for CCAR Webinar on Task Force on Intermarriage)

One of most common questions I get from visitors to Temple Beth Sholom is: where’s the front door?  TBS’ design is such that the front door is on the main street side, but the parking lot leads you to the back of the building.  And while we have signs pointing visitors where to go, it is still a challenge to figure out how to get in to the building.  Yet, once inside, especially in our sanctuary, guests remark how beautiful it is, how good it is to be in a space that feels so comfortable.

Mah tovu o’halecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisrael. How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

Each of us can speak about how good our communities are and how beautiful our places of worship inspire prayer and moments of peace.  Yet, how difficult are they to navigate when trying to find the entry point?  How foreign do they look to the new comer and how does one navigate their way into the community?

Each person who enters the community comes in with certain expectations and a history of what they experienced in the past.  For some, it was the experience of the synagogue of their youth.  In that place, there were certain customs and expectations as to how to act, where to go and what to do.  For others, their point of reference for a religious community comes from outside Judaism yet they may enter with a Jewish partner who is either already comfortable in the space or is navigating it for the first time.  And there are those who enter a Jewish community completely alone but are just curious.  How will each individual react and speak of the community they experience for the first time? Will they bless or will they curse?

Balaam was hired to curse the Israelites by Balak, King of Moab, who feared that they would overtake his land.  Yet, Balaam was only able to speak words of blessing over the people.

Rav Yohanan offers us a midrash: “What did he (Balaam) see? He saw that the openings of the Israelites’ tents were not directly oriented toward one another. He then said: ‘These are worthy of having God’s presence (Shekhinah) rest upon them.’”

But why were the openings of the tents not directly oriented toward one another and why would this be worthy of blessing?  Rav Yohanan explains that the Mishnah states: “Within a communal courtyard, a person may not open a door directly facing another door, nor a window directly facing another window.”

Yet it is still a communal courtyard and the tents are all gathered together in one place.

Today, as we engage in our conversation regarding the presentation of the Task Force on Intermarriage at the CCAR convention, we take away two reflections.

First, is the perception of the community from on high.  Balaam stood high on the hill and looking down at the tents, he saw them gathered together as one large camp.  It was strong and it presented a sense of order.

Second, when entering the camp directly, while the tents are gathered together, they are still separate in that no one can see into another person’s dwelling place from their own.  There is still a sense of personal space and autonomy.

To those who enter our communities today, they hope to find a strong, unified community.  One, that when standing together is consistent in principle.  Yet, when one enters our communities, they do not want to lose the self.  One wants to know that they are still able to hold various opinions and thoughts and not just be a part of the collective where everyone agrees blindly.  There is hope for open dialogue and discussion and even disagreement.

We rabbis of the CCAR represent over 900 congregations. We are all a part of the Reform movement, hence the collective.  Yet, each of us is an individual thinker and leader in our communities.  Each of us holds our own opinions to personal practice on and off the pulpit.

Our congregants enter the community looking for stability and a place where they can also express their individual beliefs and opinions.  They look to the community for support and blessings.  And in return, we pray that they too bless us.

Mah tovu o’halecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisrael – these were the words spoken by one looking in to the community.  These were blessings offered by someone experiencing the community for the first time.  These were words given when only looking from the outside.  What might Balaam’s blessings have been had he entered in to the heart of the community and experienced the vibrant life within?  What are the blessings we hope others will speak of us when they experience our communities from not only the outside but also when they enter our doors?

Allow each of us to create a strong unified community yet allow us also to always promote individual thought and practice.  Then will we be able to appreciate, how beautiful are our tents O Jacob, our dwelling places O Israel.