25th Elul: building our community together

25th Elul  2nd September 2021

This will be the second year that many of us will not be sitting together with our community as we work our way through this penitential season. We may be alone or in a small group, but the loss of being together with the whole synagogue community, of hearing and singing along with the heartfelt penitential prayers, of viscerally experiencing teshuvah with others, helping each other on the journey – this loss is real.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote – and I am never quite sure if he is paraphrasing a famous theme tune – “Community is the human expression of Divine love. It is where I am valued simply for who I am, and for what I give to others. It is the place where they know my name”

So how do we build community when we are socially distanced from each other? How do we reach out to others, pray with them, call them, feed them, cry with them? How do we enable the sense of belonging that we crave?

One of the mi sheberach prayers after the reading of the Torah and Haftarah, the prayers that invoke God’s blessing on those being prayed for, is the prayer for the community and it is extraordinarily detailed.

We ask for God’s blessing first on the whole of the local community and their loved ones, as well as on the whole Jewish people, but then focus more narrowly  

Those who prepare synagogues for prayer and those who come to pray in them. Those who provide light, and those who provide wine for kiddush and Havdalah, and those who provide bread, and those who give charity to the poor and for everyone who is involved faithfully in supporting the needs of the community……

There is no job too humble, no gift too small, for the community to recognise that without that person/ work/ object they would be far less able to function.

While we are unable to meet in person, it is up to us to keep communities together and functioning. Reaching out to others to see how they are, checking that there are supplies so that everyone will be able to make shabbat and the festivals – and for the wider community that our neighbours and neighbourhood is cared for.

Making community is an active verb. It doesn’t just happen, and it works best when there are many different people involved.   It is for all of us to get involved – as the midrash says: “If someone… says, “Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],” this person destroys the world. — Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Mishpatim

Soon the new moon of Tishri will be with us and we will prepare for the services of Rosh Hashanah. We may be physically alone or isolated from loved ones. We may feel ourselves distanced from normal community events. We can respond by drifting away or we can respond by making an active choice to create community in whatever way we can.

The mi sheberach  for the community uses an interesting adjective – it speaks of those who create community be’emunah  With faith. It sometimes is a leap in the dark to put in the work to create community, and sometimes the process is discouraging or hard to do. But with all important work if we begin with a belief in its importance, we will find the strength to bring it forth into reality.