A synagogue is going through a process of strategic planning, visioning for the future. The temple's leadership decides to talk to people about why they come to services.
The president first speaks with Goldstein.
Mr Goldstein, why do you come to services?
Why do I come to services? What do you mean, 'Why do I come to services?' I come to pray to God! I come because it is expected from me by Jewish law! I come to hear Torah! What a silly question!
Unfazed, the brave, stalwart president then goes to talk to Rosenblatt.
Mr Rosenblatt, why do you come to services?
Why do I come to services? What do you mean, 'Why do I come to services?' What a silly question! I come to see Goldstein!
Yes, we come here and we pray. But much more importantly, we pray with each other.
From Exodus Rabbah, we see the following midrash, or story: 'Our Rabbis said that when Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a little kid escaped from him. He ran after it until it reached a shady place. When it reached the shady place, there appeared to view a pool of water and the kid stopped to drink. When Moses approached it, he said: I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be weary. So he placed the kid on his shoulder and walked away.'
In this story, Moses is not giving a grand oration to the Israelites. He does not command the adherence of Mitzvot, or threaten the Israelites should his words not be taken to heart. He does not speak on behalf of God. There are no miracles involved, no huge crowds listening to his every utterance. It's a quite different Moses than we see in this week's Torah portion, the Moses that serves quite publicly as the prophet of God. This midrash gives us a glimpse into Moses the man, not Moses the prophet, or teacher, or great leader. In this private setting, Moses' actions are even more important, as we learn about his true self.
And in this story, Moses demonstrates the essence of a warm, welcoming and holy community. As a shepherd, he is responsible for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of sheep. And yet, when one lowly sheep runs away, Moses runs after it. His interest is not in the larger majority. His concern is with one sheep.
But it's not only Moses' care that makes the story so powerful. It's his realization of what the sheep needs. Moses realizes that the sheep was parched and in need of drink. He also carries the sheep on his shoulder, ensuring that the sheep's thirst would not be further exacerbated by the trek back to the flock.
This story epitomizes the essence of a warm, welcoming and holy community. Firstly, Moses cares about each individual sheep in his care. Secondly, Moses understands the needs of each.
It's no coincidence that it is only after Moses' experience as a shepherd that his role shifts to become the the leader that we see in this week's Torah portion. It is Moses' delicate care and attention as the shepherd of Jethro's flock that merits his appointment as the shepherd of the Israelites. And similarly, he cares about each of the 600,000 Israelites that is led from slavery into freedom.
The midrash is powerful because depending on circumstance, each of us may see ourselves as the sheep, or as Moses.
On this Shabbat, we are proud to honor our new members. New members provide us with the opportunity to follow in Moses' footsteps, walking with our new members to see what their needs are, and their dreams. Similarly, our new members serve as leaders, teaching us their ideas, sharing their wisdom, shepherding us.
Last week I had the honor of being installed as your rabbi. Bobby Harris, the URJ Camp Coleman director spoke about the fact that 21 years ago, both of us started working at Camp Coleman. In that first week of staff training, he gathered all of us together and asked us to stand in a circle, arranging ourselves by the number of summers we have spend at Camp Coleman.
Immediately, the regulars seemed to attach themselves to each other like filaments to a magnet. They organized themselves in the center room singing camp songs, screaming cheers and sharing private jokes. Traditions ran deep with this group. And then there was me. I had to ask someone from the office for directions just to get to this meeting! I was shy, and didn't know anyone, let alone the 'insider secrets' that those guys knew. I felt like the Israelites, being a stranger in a strange land.
Bobby let the merriment ensue for a little while, and then he spoke to the collective group. He talked about the important of memory, of tradition, and of history. This made the 'cool' kids very proud, because they are the ones that pass on the memory, the traditions, and the history. It seemed we had our work cut out for us.
But then Bobby spoke to us, the newbies. If I had known the midrash then, I certainly would have felt like that sheep that ran away from the crowd. He spoke about the importance of new ideas and visions, freed from the constraints of tradition and memory.
And then he looked around the room and said, Every tradition begins with a new idea.
Every tradition begins with a new idea.
On this Shabbat as we celebrate our new members and welcome the Athens Jewish community to our home, we must remember this. This building is a static thing. It stays the same. But our synagogue, the synagogue changes constantly. It changes because of you. Because of us.
Like Moses, let's challenge ourselves to really listen to the needs of each other, to be proud of our history and traditions but to also remember that every tradition began as a new idea. I wonder what the next tradition will be.