Building Community: Looking Back, Looking Forward, While Focusing on the Present

[February 22, 2019 Installation Service]

In the February edition of the ORacle, our monthly newsletter, I shared one of my favorite Jewish stories, Honi the Circle Maker, a Jewish Rip Van Winkle tale.[i] While traveling along a road, Honi the Circle Maker saw an old man planting a carob tree.  He asked the man how long it would take for the tree to bear fruit, and the man told him seventy years. Honi sat down to rest for a while and fell asleep. “Are you the man who planted this tree” Honi said when he awoke. “No, I’m his grandson,” the man answered. Honi had been asleep for seventy years! Honi returned to where his home had been. He knocked on the door. “Is the son of Honi the Circle Maker still alive?” he asked the people there. “His son has died,” they said. “But his grandson is still living.”

Wow! L’Dor Vador. From Generation to Generation. Honi the Circle Maker had come full circle. A bit like me on my return to Washington State. It is powerful for me to introduce you, my new community, to my family and extended Jewish family who raised me here in the Pacific Northwest. While I do believe that deep roots build strong community, roots and history and even planting seeds for the next generation only go so far in building community. The story of Honi doesn’t end with him enjoying the sweet ripened fruit, our Sages in the Talmud continue Honi’s story.

Honi introduced himself to his grandson’s family, but no one believed it to be him. Honi left his family and went to the house of study where he had spent so much time as a student and as a teacher. He saw the students studying, he could hear his teachings being taught, “the law is as clear to us as in the day of Honi the Circle Maker.” “I am Honi!” he called to the students. But they, like his family, didn’t believe him.

While Honi lived to see the carob tree, his family, and his legacy as a scholar flourish, Honi himself was lost. No one knew him. He was deeply hurt. Honi prayed for his death: “o chavruta o mituta.” God heard Honi’s prayers and he died. We are taught that from this tragedy comes the saying, ‘either companionship or death.’ For what is life without relationships? What is community without the joy and benefit of relationships?

Jewish tradition and the rich history of Jewish continuity in Snohomish County lays a strong foundation here at Temple Beth Or. Together, we are planting the seeds of our future in many ways. We celebrate our children and are blessed to have the strength and leadership of our amazing Director of Education, Amy Paquette. We are also investing in our future through our Atideynu leadership program driven by Sonia Siegal Vexler and are developing a strategic plan–thank you Paul Vexler for offering your energy in this area. But as important as roots and seeds are in our endeavor of creating sacred community are the care and attention we give to one another in the present: right here, right now.   

I have to say, while it may seem a bit late for some, I love that my installation service is taking place more than a few months into my relationship with our Beth Or community. I have been overwhelmed the past months by your openness to letting me into your lives. You have allowed me to support you and rejoice with you. I’m not only thinking of big milestone moments, but the everyday stepping stones too: discussing how to integrate loss or chronic illness into life, saying goodbye to a beloved pet, beginning new jobs and new relationships, or simply spending time together laughing late into a Friday night oneg. You have graciously allowed me space to make mistakes and grow and learn with you.

Relationships need continued nurturing. Of course, there are members of our Temple family who I have come to know better than others since July. I’m trying hard to share my attention, but hope that you will feel comfortable reaching out to me too. Send me an e-mail so we can set-up a meeting or a coffee date or try to make it services or a class so we can spend more time together. This Shabbat, we are not only looking to our future together, we are honoring the committed relationship that we are actively forging together. Right here, right now.

O chavruta o mituta–either companionship or death.” Honi’s prayer is powerful but a little stark. Kohelet offers this teaching with poetry. “Secure yourself a friend; two are better than one. Do not work alone, and learn to rejoice in another’s company. If one of you falls, the other is there to help you rise. If it is cold, you can huddle together for warmth. If danger threatens, two can face it better than one. And three better still; the cord of three strands outlasts the cord of two. Seek out companions for work. Seek out friends for life. Make room for yourself and also for others.[ii] Thank you for making room for me, as your rabbi, in this beautiful community.

I must have had the story of Honi in mind when I asked our member, Rabbi David Fine, to offer me my Installation blessing. Rabbi Fine is a link to my past, in particular my dad, may his memory be for a blessing. My dad was a synagogue leader at Temple Beth Am and David and my dad got to know each other through David’s role at the Union for Reform Judaism. They also both happened to be from Oak Park, Michigan. Rabbi Fine knew me a bit as a child and I have caught him rubbing his eyes wondering how I seem to have grown up into a rabbi, just over night. In addition to our history, Rabbi Find and I share a deep commitment to the future of Temple Beth Or and Jewish life in the Pacific Northwest.

But what will make Rabbi Fine’s blessing even more meaningful is our present, multi-faceted relationship we are developing. Rabbi Fine is an empowering mentor and also wonderful colleague. This evening, Rabbi Fine will offer me his blessing and I am thrilled that in just a few weeks, I will have the privilege of offering blessing to David and Beth and their entire family celebrate the upcoming wedding of their son Avi to his bride, Erin. My pleasure to invite my rabbi and friend, Rabbi David Fine to the Bima.

Rabbi Rachel Kort

[i] Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 23a

[ii] Secure Yourself a Friend (Rami Shapiro) Ecclesiastes 4:9-10