When I think about congregational life, there is always one set of statements to which I return from the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot. In Pirket Avot, Chapter 1, Saying 6, Rabbi Joshua ben Perachyah who lived in the Second Century BCE declared:
ASEI L’CHA RAV – Find for yourself a RAV – a rabbi or a teacher.
U-K’NEI L’CHA CHAVER – acquire for yourself a friend, companion or a partner for study.
VE-HEVEI DAN ET KOL ADAM L’CHAF Z’CHUT – and judge everyone favorably, towards their merit OR give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
The first two statements of this three part quote sound like they are appropriately paired one to the other. One is about finding someone who knows more than we know from whom we can learn. The second declares that we should find a peer, an equal with whom to study after sitting at the feet of our chosen RAV. It may be that ASEI L’CHA RAV doesn’t just mean to find a teacher. It may challenge each of us to turn ourselves into teachers. Through our accumulated wisdom and experience, we can all be dedicated and knowledgeable educators and mentors. Rabbi Joshua, if he were here, would urge us to take the time and energy to make that happen: to be teachers and guides who show care and patience to those we hope to train as leaders through refining skills and sharing new insights.
The word CHAVER in modern Hebrew means more than being a colleague, peer or study partner. Its primary meaning is now "friend." That notion of friendship in Judaism still comes from the relationship of two people who learn together, side-by-side, or from the teacher-student connection.
In a story from the Chasidic tradition, a student once professed his love for his rabbi, to which the rabbi responded, "Do you know what hurts me?" The student, confused by the response, said, "My teacher, I said that I love you! Why do I need to have any idea about what hurts you?" The rabbi responded, "If you do not know what hurts me, then how can you say you love me?"
Being a CHAVER in a fellowship of study and communal activity in a Jewish context ideally means developing and sustaining a deep friendship and partnership, where two people not only learn and grow alongside each other, but care about each other as human beings. And it can apply, just as much, to congregants who work together and Temple leaders who make decisions in concert with one another, combining the best of their knowledge to take the congregation forward with a sense of meaning, vision and purpose.
So what about that third part of the saying?
“DAN ET KOL ADAM L’CHAF Z’CHUT. Literally, it means, “judge each person according to his or her merits or good points.” Working and learning in close quarters with friends and colleagues might create moments where our impatience can get the better of us. Rabbi Joshua was telling us something that we have likely learned time and again in our own lives. Sometimes we just want other people to accentuate our positive traits when they think about their partnership or friendship with us. And if we want other people to do that for us, we need to reciprocate in kind. For the rabbis, that was the key to sustaining relationships within a community. Always tipping our view of people with whom we serve towards the positive side will make any institution or organization to which we belong, including Temple Beth-El, warmer and stronger.
This saying of Rabbi Joshua Ben Perachyah is echoed in the new Temple mission statement, which brings us together under this expression of guiding principles: “We strive to be a place where spiritual growth, tradition and ritual provide meaning and comfort to every person who comes through our doors. Temple Beth-El encourages its members to learn, celebrate, serve, and grow together, so that each person will have the fullest opportunity to share the beauty of Jewish expression.”
This mission statement embodies the first two parts of Rabbi Joshua's teaching by noting that, at Temple Beth-El, we “learn celebrate, serve and grow together” to seek "meaning" and "comfort." Hopefully, it is not only ritual, tradition and individual spiritual growth that provide each of us with meaning and comfort. Rabbi Joshua would remind us that it is our partnership and engagement with each other that offers us meaning through the relationships we create and maintain, and comfort through the ways in which we can, should and hopefully do reach out to one another. A recent article about congregational life described congregations as having the potential to be based either on gratitude for each other, including the clergy person, or on critical and harsh judgment of one another. In congregations and in any organization, no one is perfect. No one can do everything, not a lay leader, not a clergy person. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt means looking at what someone has done over the course of days, months and years. And if it seems that something that needs to get done is falling by the wayside, rather than offering criticism, it may be a time to reach out a helping hand in patience and genuine camaraderie. When we see each other as part of the whole who can lift up one another towards communal growth and achievement in the most cheerful, enthusiastic and positive way, there is nothing we can’t make happen.
So look at the listing of Temple programs and you will see the blessings that our partnership brings us. Worship, study, opportunities to socialize, giving back to the community, and hosting our neighbors for our amazing and wildly successful Jewish Food and Folk Festival show what we can do when we are partners, colleagues and friends who work together for the betterment of our Temple and of Las Cruces. There are many areas in which we can improve and refine how we do what we do in order to be more caring, more open, more welcoming, more inclusive, and more thoughtful. We have established strong foundations in all of those areas upon which we can build to make our congregation a place that reflects the best of the Jewish heritage and spirit.
Last August, the bombs that exploded at two local congregations placed everyone on alert. Even while I was away at a convention that weekend, I still received the news about what happened, and coordinated with local and Temple leaders to open up our Shabbat service that Friday night to the general community. We had an increased attendance that evening, with guests from a variety of faith groups joining us in our worship. Without changing the language of our prayers, our service was able to touch our neighbors in a way that they had not expected. That is the power of what we have as Jews, and that is a gift we can continue to share in many ways with others, and, mainly, with each other within these walls.
My deepest gratitude goes to Monika Kimball, the Temple Board, to committee chairs and members, the Golf Tournament committee and participants, Sisterhood, Mensch Club, BETY, Religious school faculty, students, study group participants, singers and musicians of all ages, and all who give to Temple something special from their own essence. To our newly formalized colleagues in the Jewish Federation of Greater El Paso, we welcome this strengthened connection that will broaden horizons and enhance access to resources and energy for all of us. To Rhonda, and to Adam and Juli, thank you for being my ever present support, sounding board, purveyors of great wisdom, and cheerleaders, all based in the love of family.
On the major festivals, we add a prayer to our service that asks for crops to grow and for the rains to fall to make that happen. In Temple life, we are the ones who provide nourishment for the congregation to help it grow through our commitment and dedication. Our ideas, our energy, and our good work nurtures Temple Beth-El into a community that can enrich our lives, individually and together. So may this holiday blessing for natural growth now lead us towards new vistas in the future that lies before us:
L’vrachah v’lo lik’lalah.
L’chayim v’lo l’mavet
L’sova v’lo l’razon.
For blessing and not for curse.
For life and not for death.
For abundance, and not for want.
May God continue to establish the work of our hands and the gifts that come from our hearts as teachers, mentors, colleagues, and friends who will strive to bring one another meaning and comfort to help make our lives complete.