There is a folk song that has been sung at many a summer camp and youth group event over the last century in our country and, perhaps, in other places around the world as well. The earliest sheet music for the song bore the title, "Come by here." It was asking God to come by, to be present, at times when we face trouble and challenge, at the times when we lift our hearts and voices in prayer. This song invoked divine help or, at least, the support of a community that, in its core beliefs, acknowledged the oneness of humanity and the unity of creation. At Temple Beth-El, and in Jewish communities around the world, we do, in fact, ask God to "come by here," or we recognize that God is here, when we recite the Shema, when we read from the Torah, when we seek to generate healing in the Mi Shebeirach prayer, and when we ask God to "grant us peace." That sentiment is embodied in the inclusion of Psalm 23, "The Eternal One is my shepherd," in a funeral service. It is reflected in our Rosh Hashanah worship and at a shivah minyan when we read Psalm 121, "I lift my eyes to the mountains. What is the source of my help? My help comes from the Eternal One, maker of heaven and earth." The folk song "Come by here," when referred to by its more popular title, is most often associated with expressions of doubt and skepticism about the prospect of people in conflict finding a way to resolve their differences. "Come by here" is not the title with which we are most familiar. It seems that former slaves who lived on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia spoke a creole dialect called Gullah. The phrase "Come by here" translates in that language to "Kum bah yah." Sadly, the most common citations about this song these days relate to two countries engaged in frustrating and nearly fruitless peace talks. Even in recent months, some negotiators and world leaders have been known to say, "Well it's not like the two sides are going to get together, hold hands, and sing Kum Bah Yah."
That is what happens we forget about the song's direct request for God's presence and help, showing an awareness of higher purposes at work in our lives. When it comes to asking for God to be with us, or for community members to be present for one another, nothing matters but that higher purpose. Disagreements, ideological conflict, past disputes, and present enmities should be secondary to our need for God’s care and for communal support. What does matter most is the commitment to be part of a community that enables each of us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. Part of that goal is the desire that God, in some way, would “come by here” so that we won't be afraid of taking the next steps in our life's journey. The last verse of Adon Olam declares, "Into Your hands, God, I commend my spirit, both when I sleep and when I wake; and with my soul, my body as well, You, Eternal God, are for me and with me, I will not be afraid." Embedded in our tradition is that confidence that we can live and not be afraid. Hopefully, that is part of what we do at Temple Beth-El: be present for each other as we push away our fear and offer respect and support without hesitation or condition. It may be that, simply, through discussion and learning about our tradition and its central teachings, we can let go of some of our apprehensions about daily living and gain confidence to move forward with each new day. It may be through putting God's teachings into action in the greater community, working for justice, reflecting God's mercy and compassion, and doing loving deeds - G'MILUT CHASADIM - that we can transform our fear into optimism, into a feeling of partnership, and into a sense that God HAS come by here to walk by our side. Or it may be that, by joining our voices together in prayer and song, we overcome fear because, no matter what else is going on in our lives, we don't feel alone anymore. All of that can happen if we approach our faith and our community with open minds and open hearts.
Earlier this week, I asked congregants to reflect on the meaning of being a member of Temple Beth-El. Your comments – 60 of them - cited values of congregational life, specific programs and milestones you have shared with our community. Here are some of your statements about how membership at Temple Beth-El is meaningful to you:
• Helping members of all ages find an avenue for Jewish expression and learning and to practice Tikun Olam.
• The spiritual and community ties that link our members
• Religious Service and Community
• Friendship and Learning from Others
• Modeling values for the next generations
• Sharing my Jewish identity through social justice. Being a part of a Jewish community that carries on our traditions of fighting injustices and helping others.
• Temple gives me a place to commune with God, to maintain a meaningful connection to my parents and family members who have passed on, and to continue practicing Judaism with members of the Temple community.
• Connecting to Adonai so that life has a deeper, real meaning and is not simply social connections with no depth.
• Worship - inspiration - illumination – education
• The sense of community on Shabbat.
• Community -- being surrounded by people dedicated to the same values and the same set of questions. (I think of Judaism as a religion devoted to questions and questioning...) and family -- we were married in TBE, both our sons were named here….This synagogue has shaped us all as people, for the better.
• The Temple gives me a place where I can be surrounded by the sights and sounds of my Jewish upbringing. It is a place of peace, comfort and acceptance. I know that my Temple is a place where I will have no fear of discrimination. It is a place where I can learn from my Rabbi and other scholars about Torah and Talmud and where my questions will be answered without judgement of my lack of knowledge or understanding. My membership is important as Temple is a place where I can become involved and make friends with other Jews. It is a place to celebrate life, the joys and sorrows that touch us all. Although we may be from other places and may not share the same Jewish education and knowledge of traditions and beliefs, we have much in common with each other which brings us together as family. May Adonai bless our Temple that our Temple be a place of peace, love and warmth to all who enter.
Maintaining Temple Beth-El as a vibrant, supportive, warm, welcoming, and giving community is a goal for which we all work together. We apply our creativity, experience and energies to sustain our values and our special spirit. You can look at the summary of events from this past year to see the specifics of what we have done to strengthen fellowship and friendship and to make our Jewish tradition and heritage come alive. With Temple Board members and committee chairs and members, leaders of Sisterhood, Mensch Club, and BETY, participants and workers in all kinds of events and pursuits, worship leaders, singers, dancers, teachers, learners, and volunteers on many levels, we can move forward without fear. We can be like Jacob, sharing his vision at the original Beth-El, when he said, "Most definitely God was in this place, and I, I did not know." We can continue to be God's partners and devoted companions for one another, committed to the central teachings of our heritage, recognizing that God and godliness are beside us every step of the way.
For this coming High Holy Days, we will receive a limited number of copies of Mishkan Hanefesh, the new Reform High Holy Day prayerbook, to use for worship on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah and for discussion and study on Yom Kippur afternoon. That will give us an ample opportunity to explore Mishkan Hanefesh before making a total change later on. We will continue to use Miskkan T’filah on Shabbat holidays, with its words in Hebrew and English that are there to teach us something new if we truly listen to the message of each prayer. I ask you now to take out Mishkan T’filah and turn to page 39 to join in reciting words that tell us how to walk side by side from past to present to future:
Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot:
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land’
That the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands