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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

A Shabbat Morning Sermon by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Small Congregations Conference

President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations
April 21, 2001, Colorado Springs

Shabbat Shalom. I am delighted to be with you for this Biennial Conference of Small Congregations.

I would like to express special gratitude to Rabbi Peter Schaktman and his staff. Peter only recently took on this new assignment, and he was thrust into the middle of this conference before he even had time to take a breath. But he has done a wonderful job, and has demonstrated tremendous energy and enthusiasm for the vital work of this department, the results of which are already manifestly apparent.

I am grateful too to the chairs of our Small Congregations Department --Jeanne Waldman, Jeff Dermer, and Alex Cohen -- and to the chair of this Conference, Susan Shovers. It is these wonderful lay leaders who champion the cause of our smaller congregations, and who remind the rest of our movement that these synagogues are the heart of our Union.

I thought that we would begin with a few words of Torah study, building on the study sessions that you have already had this morning. And I suggest that we take as our text the first three verses of Leviticus, Chapter 10, because these verses are particularly powerful and rich in meaning.

And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before God, which God had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before God, and devoured them, and they died before God. Then Moses said unto Aaron: This is it that the Eternal spoke, saying: Through them that are near unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.

As I am sure many of you discussed, these are troubling, difficult verses. This is a time of great joy and celebration for the Children of Israel. Formal worship in the Tabernacle is beginning, and Aaron and his two elder sons are being inducted into the office of high priest. And then, suddenly, Nadav and Avihu are struck down by God, for reasons that are not at all apparent from the text.

They offered "strange fire." What is strange fire?

They did something that God had not commanded them to do. Does this mean, as some commentators suggest, that God had commanded them not to do this, and they violated God's specific instructions? Or does this mean, as other commentators suggest, that they had done something which God had made no mention of one way or the other, and that they had sinned unknowingly?

And in any case, what could be so serious that Aaron's sons, anointed priests designated to succeed their father, would be struck down without warning?

As you might imagine, because the text itself offers no definitive answers to these questions, the commentators let their imaginations run wild, considering every possibility as they struggle to make sense of these words.

One of the most common explanations is that the sons of Aaron were punished for coming to the altar drunk. This is inferred from the passage immediately following that prohibits the priests from taking an intoxicating drink when they enter the tent of meeting.

The Midrash offers another explanation that is quite compelling from a psychological point of view. The sons of Aaron, it says, from the time they were very young, understood that they were destined to rule over Israel. Therefore, they became filled with pride and arrogance, and took on an attitude of superiority toward the people. Not only that, they became so hungry for power and so anxious to assume the positions that they saw as theirs by right, they actually wished for the premature deaths of Aaron and Moses. Infuriated, God punished them, turning the tables; it was not Aaron who died prematurely, it was Nadav and Avihu, in their father's presence.

Yet another explanation comes from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, a 19th century scholar who headed the famous yeshiva in Volozhin. According to Rabbi Berlin, aish zara, strange fire, was aish hitlahavut, enthusiastic fire. In other words, what made the fire strange is that it was offered with an excess of enthusiasm. Well, you might say, generally speaking don't we want sacrifices to be offered with enthusiasm? Don't we want to pray to God and serve God with the enthusiasm of our hearts? Yes, says Rabbi Berlin, but only up to a point. At a certain point, our prayer can be so enthusiastic that it intended more to meet our own selfish needs than it is to serve and praise God.

Rabbi Berlin wrote this commentary at a time of great tension between the Hasidim and their opponents in Eastern Europe. The Hasidim were known for their ecstatic prayer, which was interspersed with dancing and song and rapturous outbursts. In our Movement today, our leaders, myself included, are inclined to encourage such emotion. But Rabbi Berlin's commentary serves as a useful reminder that there are dangers as well in highly emotional prayer -- that aish can become aish zara, that worship can deteriorate into entertainment and performance, that if we are not careful, it can become feel-good self-indulgence rather than meaningful prayer.

And now a few words about verse 3: "Through them that are nigh unto Me, I will be sanctified."

Most of the traditional commentators --Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban -- see these words as God's explanation as to why Nadav and Avihu were killed. If God is sanctified through the acts of those who are near to Him, this would appear to mean that God is stricter with those who are near to Him than with those who are far away. And who is closer than Aaron's sons? Therefore, for their sins - whatever they may be - they are struck down and burned on the spot.

Isn't this an obvious point, one might ask? In fact, it is not obvious at all. Jewish leaders, in some cases at least, do not assume that God holds them to a higher standard; on the contrary, they assume exactly the opposite - that the burdens of leadership entitle them to special consideration, to laxer standards, to greater understanding. We think of the tragic cases of rabbis and cantors who have been guilty of financial or sexual misconduct. We think of the organizational leaders who, when approached to endorse a pardon for Marc Rich, felt free to disregard the fundamental moral standards of our tradition and to support the pardon in our name.

This verse is a resounding rebuke to all such leaders: B'ikroviy ekadeish, I am sanctified by those who are near to me. Being close to God gives you absolutely no advantage; it imposes additional obligations and means you are held to a higher standard.

One commentator, Rashbam, suggests that this verse is not an explanation for the punishment of Nadav and Avihu. Instead, it addresses what surely must have been Aaron's reaction to the death of his sons, and explains the words that conclude the verse: Va'yidom Aharon, and Aaron held his peace.

Aaron's sons are killed before his eyes. Was he silent? Of course he wasn't silent. What kind of father would be silent? He must have torn his clothes, he must have cried out in anguish and grief. But there is a problem. The ceremony at the altar is not concluded, the worship is not complete. And so Moses reminds Aaron in God's name: B'ikroviy ekadeish, those who are near to me are held to a higher standard. Aaron understands his obligation, even at this time of personal tragedy and anguish, and he holds his peace.

I will mention one final commentary on this passage - from the Five Books of Miriam, a modern women's commentary on Torah written by Dr. Ellen Frankel. Dr. Frankel suggests that we need to consider this incident from the point of view of Elisheva, Aaron's wife and the mother of Nadav and Avihu.

Elisheva and the other Levite women are not permitted in the Tabernacle. They stand outside, preparing the food for what is expected to be the festivities following the ceremony. She then hears a terrible, piercing cry, which she recognizes as the voice of her sons.

Nadav and Avihu are carried out, lifeless, dark ash around their nostrils, where the divine fire entered. She sees Aaron, who says nothing. She begins to wail, and Moses announces that Aaron and their two remaining sons are to remain in the Tent of Meeting.

So Elisheva is there alone, without the comfort of her husband and children. Aaron, the high priest, has been reminded of his obligations and instructed not to mourn, but for the average person - and surely for the mother - this is an impossible expectation. How could she not mourn? She cries out: I need the comfort of my community.

So the women put away their drums and timbrels, and do not perform the dance planned for what was to be a day of rejoicing. Instead, they gather around Elisheva, and sit with her, and embrace her. And accepting the embrace of her community, she is comforted for her loss.


The Purpose of Community, of Congregations

These words help us to reflect a bit on why we are here and the purpose of our congregations.

Our portion this morning reminds us of the supreme values of our tradition. It talks of worshipping God, serving God, and the responsibilities of leadership. And then, in our final commentary, we are reminded by Elisheva that these values only have meaning in a context of community. Of what use are the most exalted traditions if, when my children die, I must face the pain alone?

There are those who might claim that times have changed, and that we no longer need to be connected to a place and a community. We live in an era of globalization, and this means, they say, that our contact with other people can be through electronic media, and our every need can be supplied by distant institutions and machines. You don?t even have to walk out the door to shop anymore. You can buy practically everything you need online.

And indeed, that is how a lot of us live. For many people, their web of friends, nearby family members, and community relationships is a shrunken fragment of what previous generations knew. For many people, "leisure time" - so-called - is now spent alone, in a numbed state of recuperation, in front of a television that urges us to escape our discontents by purchasing an endless array of gadgets that we do not need. And by presenting us with show after show of really, really stupid reality TV.

But as we know, none of this really works. And that is why we come together in religious communities. There are more than 300,000 religious congregations in North America. In the Reform movement alone, we are making our way toward 1000 Reform synagogues.

And why are Reform synagogues thriving? Because they provide direction and meaning for those who feel helpless in the face of life's complexity. Because we have come to realize that we are not alone, and despite all the self-help blather that we are subjected to, we are not merely autonomous selves with potential to realize. Because we are the people of the covenant, and our life takes on meaning when we practice the ancient and enduring traditions that lift us out of our aloneness, and that bind us to our people and our unique Jewish destiny.

What, therefore, is a successful congregation? There are, I admit, dozens of criteria we might use to determine how well a congregation is doing. But I would argue that the ultimate test is always the same: Does this congregation provide caring and community? A successful congregation is a place where the members feel cared for and welcome. And an unsuccessful congregation is a place where members feel uncared for and unwelcome, a place where the synagogue is perceived by its members to be more interested in their money than in themselves as people.

And now, a very important question: Are small congregations more effective than large congregations when it comes to providing caring and community? In many cases, they are.

"Bigger is better" is the dominant paradigm in our culture, but when it comes to the most important areas of synagogue health, very often it is not true.

In most of our small congregations, most of the time, everyone who comes in is warmly welcomed. No one is a stranger. The same persons remember you from week to week, and care if you are missing. "Oneg Shabbat" is not limited to a few minutes, but instead nurtures long communal conversations.

There are other areas, too, where small congregations would be judged to be healthier than larger congregations. They are fundamentally more self-reliant. The percentage of individuals who involve themselves in synagogue activities is higher. Leadership is more empowered. And professionals do not serve as surrogate Jews; every member in a small congregation is a rabbi, a cantor, and a teacher of Judaism.

But the greatest advantage that small congregations have is this: they offer greater possibilities for genuine hospitality and true community. They know how to create loving relationships. They understand the meaning of hachnasat orchim - welcoming the stranger.

Many of you smile - I know - when you hear about the programs established in large synagogues to train greeters for Friday evening services. Is there a small congregation anywhere that needs to train people to do this? Is there a congregation in this room in which the stranger arriving on Friday night is not immediately welcomed, greeted, and embraced?

Several weeks ago I spoke at Temple Israel in Detroit, which may be our movement's largest synagogue. It has 3400 families, four rabbis, two cantors, and at least two services every Friday night. It is a wonderful congregation, and a place, I know, that you all immediately identify with. What I found interesting is that when you ask their leaders how they describe themselves, their answer is: "We are the largest small synagogue in North America." How fascinating, and how very wise! For all their size, and wealth, and programmatic richness, this congregation understands that their members will judge them most of all on their welcoming and caring-on whether they welcome new members, care for the sick, comfort the bereaved, and befriend the lonely. They will be judged on whether they are able to create intimacy and connection, and establish a face-to-face community - something identified much more often with a small congregation than a large one.


The Congregation as Family: Pluses and Minuses

But is it automatic? Is it always the case that small congregations take the abstract ideals of Torah and turn them into tangible and living relationships? Is it a given that life in our small congregations always gives expression to the values of compassion and family and community and Jewish fellowship so central to our tradition?

Of course not. It is true that small congregations draw Jews in at a higher level of commitment, and that social relationships often have a particular strength and vitality.

But let's admit that small congregations can also be fragile and frustrating.

I began serving a congregation of 100 families in Durham, N.C., in 1976, and I remember well from those days the periods of deep frustration. A lot of what a rabbi does in a small community is wait for people who don't show up on time or at all, to do things like fix the boiler or wax the floor. I remember the Temple board meetings that always seemed to be more contentious than necessary, and the hundred different clerical tasks that I did myself because there was no one else to do them.

Also, worship is hard in a small congregation. Bigness is a problem in many areas, but it is a definite asset when you are trying to create an enthusiastic, praying, living community of faith. The physical presence of a substantial congregation seems somehow to give weight to our prayers, and makes it easier to feel the Divine Presence in our sanctuaries. It is difficult to lift worship above the depressingly routine when you are consumed with worry about whether or not you will get a minyan.

And this too: there are times when community is not everything that it's cracked up to be. A community is an extended family, and families have both advantages and disadvantages. Some people, of course, assure us that their family life is entirely harmonious. We have a word for these people: liars. The rest of us know that there are times when our families drive us crazy. In the small congregation, the members of the synagogue become your relatives, and you are stuck with them all the time. As in family life, there are moments when you just want to scream.

Even more serious is the fact that small congregations can be exceedingly resistant to new directions. By virtue of their limited membership base, small congregations feel very vulnerable. They cannot afford to lose a single member family. This often means that the leadership in a small congregation fears other members- reactions, and becomes captives to the need for solidarity, sameness, and comfort. Also, in a small congregation the leaders are likely to be close friends, and just as likely to be afraid of any change that might affect their closeness.

The result? The small congregation, even more than the large one, tends to protect the whiners. It tends to defer to the supersensitive souls, and to adapt to the concerns of its weakest members, giving them control over important matters of policy. Unwilling to engage in conflict over principle, possessing a very low threshold of pain, small congregations often discover that they are simply unable to change, even when change is desperately needed.

I remember these frustrations very well from my small congregation days, and I know that you have experienced them also. It would be silly for us not to be honest with one another about such things. There were times when I found myself caught up in the middle of negative currents, when the dark side of small congregational life loomed so large that it made me wonder why I ever went there in the first place.

But the fact is that these frustrations were only a part, a small part, of my experiences and recollections. They were always overshadowed by the driving vision of Jewish life that I found there, and by the defiant commitment to survival that my members possessed. Because the fact is that in the small congregation you are able to build community, and to see how that community touches people's lives, and all of this can be deeply wonderful.

A few months ago, my wife and I returned to Durham for the first time in many years. My son is thinking of applying to Duke University, and we used our visit to the campus as an opportunity to visit with my old congregation. It is quite extraordinary what has happened there. The 100 families that made up the congregation in 1976 have become 550 families. The building has been expanded, twice. There is a day school - a day school - on the Temple's land, supported primarily by Temple members. I felt a sense of exhilaration to see what the community had become, but also, I admit, a sense of sadness.

When I arrived in Durham as a 29-year-old rabbi, there were only a few B?nei Mitzvah each year, and every one was an occasion for a communal celebration. There were no elaborate invitations or caterers; the women of the congregation joined together and prepared the food. (Don?t take offense, please. That's the way things worked in those days.) Everyone in the congregation was invited, and everyone came. In Durham today, like in every other congregation of its size, there are B'nei Mitzvah almost every week, but these are celebrations only for the families and their circle of friends. The parties have become elaborate affairs like in the big cities. No one pretends that everyone knows everyone else and that everyone cares about everyone else. The congregation is simply too big, and it is unrealistic to think that it could work that way.

Is Durham a success story? Absolutely. I am proud of what it has become, and of what I have helped to create. But, inevitably, like every other congregation that has grown so dramatically, it has lost something as well. The sense of intimacy. The sense of family and community, not as an abstract ideal but as a living and breathing reality. The sense of being open, in the natural and unself-conscious way of a small congregation, to strangers and sojourners and all who enter its gates. The sense of the small congregation that there, amidst kinship and conflict, the Jewish spirit is expressed, rehearsed, renewed, and sustained. The sense of the small congregation that, alone and struggling, it keeps Torah alive and creates at its center a space for God. The sense of the small congregation that it can never take itself for granted.

Frustrations and all, this is what small congregations have-what you have. And, most often, what others do not have. That is why your very existence is a blessing, and why God's presence dwells in your midst.


Each Person, a Part of Torah

I would like to discuss with you briefly one additional topic, and that is the shortage of Jewish professionals that is we are now experiencing in the Reform movement.

On the one hand, I know that many of you represent congregations that have long been too small to afford a rabbi. But there are others that have had rabbis for many years, that need professional Jewish leadership, and that now find themselves unable to attract a rabbi, even if they can still manage to pay the salary required.

Is this a new problem in Jewish life? Not exactly.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations was founded in 1873 when 34 mostly Midwestern congregations gathered in Cincinnati to create a new organization of American synagogues. At that very first conference, the delegates proclaimed that among the practical goals of the Union was "to aid and encourage young congregations," primarily through what were then called "circuit rabbis." At the first annual session of the General Council of Delegates, held the following year, UAHC President Moritz Loth appointed a special committee on circuit preaching.

President Loth charged the Committee on Circuit Preaching with "attending to the spiritual wants of those scattered co-religionists and small congregations located all over the broad land, who by reason of isolation or want of means are deprived of religious encouragement; through properly qualified ministers." The primary strategy for doing this consisted of looking for competent volunteers among the rabbinate to give sermons at these congregations, with only their travel expenses to be reimbursed, and, even more important, of finding rabbis willing to serve in outlying areas and then encouraging small congregations to band together and hire one rabbi. The model that the Union leadership had in mind was the "circuit riders" of American Methodism, the highly mobile traveling preachers who covered a vast territory instead of being rooted in a single locality.

And was the committee successful? Despite the best efforts of the Union's lay leaders, it was not.

As Rabbi Alan Silverstein explains in his book on the history of the Reform movement, there were dramatic differences between the early Methodist circuit riders and the reality of the late 19th century rabbinate. The Methodist circuit riders were unmarried young men. They neither expected nor were promised any formal "salary," and they willingly ventured into areas totally devoid of organized Methodist religious life. Moreover, they did not require any extensive formal training in order to be recognized as a preacher, and thus were available in large numbers

In contrast, rabbis mainly were married men with family responsibilities and an array of personal possessions. A sudden transfer to a new location required time and considerable effort. In addition, rabbis feared entry into isolated areas devoid of synagogues. They agonized over possible anti-Semitism and worried about the absence of a critical mass of Jews. Furthermore, rabbinic ordination required years of training, and American rabbis were very few in number. Thus, they were most frequently engaged by well-established synagogues, and were unlikely to embark on the itinerant life of the circuit rider.

Does any of this sound the least bit familiar?

When the Union had 34 congregations, we did not have enough rabbis. Now that we have 910 congregations, we still do not have enough rabbis.

We are hard at work on this problem. We are trying to convince more young men and women to enter the rabbinate, but there is no easy and obvious way to do this. Furthermore, once they are ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, there is no easy and obvious way to convince them to serve in smaller communities. I have long believed that our Movement should create a rabbinic service corps, requiring newly ordained rabbis to serve for two years in small and isolated congregations, here and abroad. But the Union does not have the authority to mandate such a program, and, at this time, there is no support for it elsewhere in the Movement.

Having said that, there are things that we can do, and are doing. First, the para-rabbinic course is being enlarged, expanded, and renamed; beginning next year, it will become a much more intensive program so that its graduates will be even better prepared to serve in communities unlikely to attract rabbis. Second, we have already begun to make use of technology to overcome the isolation from which our small congregations have long suffered. We currently offer an online course to train religious schoolteachers who may not have the skills and knowledge that they need to be effective in the classroom; many more such offerings will be available very soon. Third, we are expanding our regional staffs so that small congregations can have easy access to talented professionals who can assist them in all areas of congregational life. For example, by next year we will have regional educators in all of our regions, and they will be available to visit and work with our small synagogues in developing their educational resources. And fourth, we hope to cooperate with our largest congregations in developing a program that would make possible the sharing of their resources and personnel with small communities. And there are other things that we are doing as well, and we will discuss them during our luncheon program.

I recognize the limitations of what I am proposing, and so do you. As long as we cannot place a rabbi in every community that wants one and has a reasonable claim to expect one, we cannot be satisfied. But I am a realist, and so are you. A problem that has plagued our movement from the day it was founded and that has not found a satisfactory solution in 128 years is fated to remain on our agenda for a bit longer.

In the meantime, you will endure, you will serve your members, and your Jewish spirit will remain unbroken. As I have said many times in many forums, the leaders of our small congregations are the true heroes of Jewish life.

For the most recent issue of Reform Judaism, I wrote an article about some of the mega-philanthropists of the Jewish community who continue to heap withering criticism on the synagogues of North America, particularly the Reform and Conservative synagogues. In some measure, I wrote this article with you in mind. Who are these billionaires who are so dismissively contemptuous of our congregational leaders? Let them spend a single Shabbat in Juneau, Alaska, or Bozeman, Montana, and learn something about the real Jewish world, and about Jewish courage and hard work; let them see what the smallest, most modest synagogues of our movement do, and how they sustain a holy community through the sweat of their members- brow and with the most minimal resources imaginable. Let them see what I see: that somehow, in some way, God has lit a flame in the soul of these synagogue leaders, and for a century and a quarter, no force on earth has been able to extinguish it.

The Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, famously noted that the Jewish people are like a living Torah scroll, and every individual Jew is a letter within it. If a single letter is damaged or missing or incorrectly drawn, a Torah scroll is considered invalid. So too, in Judaism, each individual is considered a crucial part of the people, without whom the entire religion would suffer. And so each congregation, no matter how small, or fragile, or isolated, contributes to the inner pulse and power of Reform Judaism, enhancing our dignity, and testifying to our faith.

That is what our small congregations are. Part of the unbroken conversation of Torah. A letter in the scroll. A visible symbol of holy community. For their members and for the Jewish people, a guarantor of eternal life.

Thank you for what you do. Shabbat shalom.


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