I Am Because of You

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Why be part of a congregation? Can’t I just be spiritual by myself? Why do I need organized religion? Why do I need a Har Sinai Congregation?

Let me begin in Africa.

Boyd Varty grew up on the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa and he tells the story of a baby elephant called Elvis. Yep. That is Elvis like the singer Elvis! The elephant was born with a deformed back legs and pelvis and when she walked she sorta did a pelvis dance like Elvis Presley.

Everyone thought that because of her disability, Elvis would have little chance of surviving in the wilds. However, for five years she kept returning in the winter months to the Game Reserve and all the gamekeepers and guides were always excited to see her. One day, they followed Elvis and her herd to a small watering hole.

Boyd describes: “I watched as the matriarch drank. And then she turned in that beautiful slow motion of elephants. And she began to make her way up the steep bank. The rest of the herd turned … and began to follow.

And I watched young Elvis begin to psych herself up for the hill. She had a full go at it. And halfway up, her legs gave way and she fell backwards. She attempted it a second time. And again, halfway up, she fell backwards. And on the third attempt, an amazing thing happened. Halfway up the bank, a young teenage elephant came in behind her. And he propped his trunk underneath her, and he began to shovel her up the bank.

And it occurred to me that the rest of the herd was, in fact, looking after this young elephant. The next day, I watched again as the matriarch broke a branch. And she would put it in her mouth. And then she would break a second one and drop it on the ground. And a consensus developed between all of us who were guiding people in that area that that herd was, in fact, moving slower to accommodate that elephant.”[i]

In his observation of Elvis the Elephant, Boyd Varti said that he learned to expand his concept of community.  No longer was his focus on one elephant but the interaction of that elephant with the whole group. In South Africa, where he is from, there is a notion of ubuntu – which Varti translates as: “I am because of you.” Each elephant in that herd became greater than their individual elephant-selves because of the “love me tender, love me true”[ii] way they treated Elvis.

In synagogue terms, our humanity is heightened by the people around us.[iii] Our congregation elevates us.  We are more than just ourselves. Through Har Sinai Congregation, our soul is sharpened and shaped in religious terms by the people who are on this journey of Judaism beside us.

Reverend Lillian Daniel, a Protestant Minister and author, puts it this way:

“Sometimes our best thinking can only get us so far, especially since any God we create will likely agree with our point of view on everything… Religious tradition should be like sandpaper against a culture that is constantly asking ‘How can we meet your needs?’ It should require something of you. Any idiot can find God in a sunset. Finding God in the woman sitting next to you whose baby cries during the entire sermon takes grit.”[iv]

Our synagogue is sandpaper grit sanding our individual beings: refining and clarifying them in the reflected spirituality of our neighbor. Spirituality is self-seeking, it is about “me”. Religion requires “us”.

In the story of Elvis the Elephant, we can find another reason for belonging to a holy congregation, separate to Boyd Varty’s reading.

Elvis the Elephant’s disability was a gift for her herd. Elvis brought, in Jewish terms, her Torah to the group. In the giving of her Torah, her disability, she made that herd special.

In the book of Numbers/ B’Midbar, Moses and Aaron and Miriam brought their own gifts, their Torah teachings to the fledgling Israelite community. Moses provides leadership as the conduit to God’s will. Aaron supervises appropriate ritual. And Miriam ensures that there is water to those who are wandering the desert.

In the book of Numbers, there are characters who bring unlikely gifts but when analyzed are Torah none-the-less.

The prophet Balaam and king Balak brought their Torah, for in their desire to curse the Israelites, the blessing of the Israelite’s tents and homes were expressed.

The rebel Korach, brought Torah, because in his rebellion he teaches the Israelites that Moses is the real deal, the one through whom God speaks.

Even the spies who ventured into the land of Canaan and brought back bad reports – their contribution was a gift – for it brought forth the realization that the generation who left Egypt were not yet ready to enter the Promised Land.

It may be that your gift is not obvious to you at first, yet each of us has a gift, or in Jewish terms, Torah, to bring to the congregations we belong too. A sacred community is made up of the multiple Torahs each of us share in the small groups that make up our congregational whole. You become more than a reflection of self, and so valued, for each of the gifts that you bring to our Har Sinai Congregation.

Your Torah might be greeting the new person at the Pre-neg on Shabbat. Your Torah might be helping with the community finances. Your Torah could be singing at services to help create a warm spiritual atmosphere. Your Torah might be blowing the Shofar or playing a drum. Your Torah might be giving time to stuff envelopes in the office. Your Torah might be sharing your wisdom with a Bible study group. Or leading a class. Or teaching a group of congregants to play Mah-Jong. Your Torah might be leading a Havdalah hike or arranging for a speaker for a Brotherhood or WoHSC event.

Whatever your Torah thank you and our community needs you! Giving to your congregation will make you not only feel good but will make you more integral to our community and will make the congregation special.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are who we are because of us.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are because of the Torah you give.

But there is more.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are greater because of purpose.

All people need to live larger than the daily grind… we flourish when we pursue a life of meaning. Within a congregation we define and act out purpose together. And for so many reasons, this is easier and better to do in a group.

I love the following set of analogies by an anonymous author, to make a case for the benefits of being in a congregational community with purpose.

It is another lesson from the animal kingdom.

This time here in North America.

There is much that we can learn from the North American geese whose purpose is to head south for the winter as they fly in a “V” formation!

Here are some of the lessons:

Science knows that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following and hence they can fly further than if they fly on their own.

With a congregation we meet people who share a common direction and we can get there more easily because we are travelling on the thrust of each other.

When a goose falls out of its “V” formation, it feels the drag and resistance of going it alone, so quickly tries to return the formation.

As congregational members we can keep to the task of our communal purpose the more we remain together.

When a goose tires, it rotates to the back of the “V” wing and another goose flies at the point.

In congregational communities, we can take turns getting the job done, but when we tire we can help each other to our destination, so we can get more easily succeed together.

Geese, as they fly in their “V”, honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up with their speed.

When we live in congregational community we become the cheer leaders for each other.

Finally, when a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose, and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay by the fallen goose’s side until it can fly or until it dies. And only then, do they launch out on their own, or with another formation to catch up with their group.

In congregational communities, we are more than ourselves, we are there for each other in difficult of moments.[v] 

We need the sense of geese to stand beside each other and be buoyed by community and community purpose.

Here we sit on Yom Kippur morning in community as Har Sinai Congregation.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are who we are because of us.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are because of the Torah you give.

At Har Sinai Congregation, we are each more because of purpose.

And in addition, at Har Sinai Congregation, we are more because of the chain of tradition that is passed on by us all.

Let me begin with a traditional Yom Kippur place.

Our Torah Portion that you will shortly hear.

This morning we read from the book of Deuteronomy:

“You stand here today, all of you, before your Eternal God – the heads of your tribes, your elders, and officers, everyone in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water – to enter the sworn covenant that your Eternal God makes with you this day…” This covenant that we will read about in the Torah was made with the Sinai generation and the generations not yet born[vi]

Being part of congregational life is important because we are all of us, part of a community who values continuity. We are part of a long chain, a covenant of values that was given to all of us together at Mount Sinai. The covenant of Judaism is our common inheritance, whether by birth or by choice, the thing we share with each other, it is in the concept of our Jewish DNA. It is for us to pass it on.

Being part of a synagogue, enables us to understand this in context. Our kids comprehend that being Jewish is important when they see their family practice, its traditions and mores. Tradition even has more weight and standing when it is done by many people around them, in a synagogue, living Jewish lives. We are strengthened in our heritage through each other’s valuing of tradition and each other’s participation.

At Simchat Torah we will read the words of Deuteronomy that end the Torah. Moses will have just finished reminiscing and remembering all that has occurred. How he journeyed and was changed by the Israelites in the wilderness. His life is integrated with theirs, because of their mutual experience from the time of Egyptian bondage, through the desert, to this moment on the mountain.

At this poignant moment, he stands at the top of the mountain looking at the vistas of the future in Canaan that he knows he will never see.

Why be part of a community? Why be part of a congregation? Can’t I just be spiritual by myself? Why do I need organized religion? Why do I need a Har Sinai Congregation?

There will come a time, like Moses, when we will stand at the top of our life’s mountain, looking backwards and ahead as well. When we do, we will have benefited from the enormous blessing of being part of something, a synagogue, our Har Sinai Congregation.

We will find blessing because our lives were refined because of those who surrounded us.

har sinai logoWe will find blessing through our gifts which have been amplified in their sharing.

We will find blessing because we were able to journey in a community of support and shared purpose.

We will find blessing in being part of a chain of tradition that will continue beyond ourselves into the future.

These blessings come naturally with being part of a Kehillah Kedosha, a holy community, a holy congregation.

These blessings can and should be ours. Here, at Har Sinai Congregation.




[i] https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=481294968

[ii] Song Title, Elvis Golden Records, 1958

[iii] ibid

[iv] https://fashionmagazine.com/lifestyle/spiritual-but-not-religious/

[v] A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul

[vi] Deuteronomy 29:9-14

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