There’s an exercise popular amongst Jewish educators of a certain generation--- a program designed to answer a question that I want to pose to you this morning.
The first time I did it was as a general counselor, sitting on the floor of Manor House at Eisner Camp in 1998. We were divided into small groups of three or four,
and told that quickly, we should decide who would be the leader. In front of us were various containers of brightly colored playdough.
The educator then began to narrate:
“Imagine with me now that everything on camp has disappeared.
No more Manor House.
No more bunks on Olim Hill, no Chadar Ohel.
It’s up to you to help re-build.
In front of you are some building materials.
Leaders, your job is to help your team rebuild camp.
You have about 10 minutes to work. Ready? Go.”
In my group, the counselor who had volunteered to lead suddenly started giving directions.
“Ok, guys. We’re just going to dive in.
Lisa, you’re in charge of the activity areas.
Can you build the Tzofim Beit Am
and the New Facility? Then the pool and the art shack?
Aaron, you do the bunks.
Make the girls side and boys side,
and don’t forget the A-Frames on the hill.
Jodie, can you be in charge of the Outdoor Sanctuary (typecasting, I know)---
set up the ark, lectern and the benches,
and then can you also the buildings in Center Camp? "
My memory of that moment is that some of us reached for the playdough,
happy to follow along and make a plasticine model of camp. But that at least one of us,
maybe it was me, hard to say- said
“But wait: the New Facility is kind of gross, and it gets too loud in there when it rains to hear anything. Why don’t we build something different? Also what if we put the bunks somewhere else to make them more accessible? Maybe also the art-shack should be by the lake instead? They didn’t say we had to just rebuild it the way it was before.”
I’m pretty sure that by the time 10 minutes had passed, we had a few lumps of playdough in front of us symbolizing the Chadar Ohel, because eating was the very least we could agree on. As the facilitator brought us back together, most groups hadn’t fared much better
on the playdough camp construction front.
It turned out that when given the opportunity to rebuild from scratch even a 17 year old is going to ask the question: What do we want to build and why?
I was reminded of that activity again this past summer, when I had the opportunity to gather
for a few days of learning and thinking together with a group of colleagues and teachers.
This retreat took place on Zoom,connecting members of this fellowship across the world, literally from Australia, to California, to the Berkshires, to London.
Our teacher and guide, Rabbi Larry Hoffman asked us this question:
“What does Yavneh look like now?
How will you be the rabbis and cantors of Yavneh now?”
So first--- what is Yavneh?
The Talmud relates this story:
The year is 70 CE.
Jerusalem is under siege.
There is deep division
After four years of fighting,
the Romans are getting closer and closer
to breaching the walls.
The Romans are closing in,
and there is division within the Jewish community.
The Jewish Zealots would rather die than surrender. Yochanan Ben Zakkai sees the writing on the wall,
so to speak--- surely, Jerusalem will fall.
And so he gets his nephew
to help smuggle him out of the city in a coffin.
Yochanan ben Zakkai then flatters and humbles himself
before the Roman general, Vespasian.
Vespasian promises to grant him just one request,
to which Yochanan ben Zakkai famously says
“Give me Yavneh, and it’s sages. Let me establish a new center of Torah learning--- not in Jerusalem, but rather in Yavneh- a small town on the Mediterranean coast. Let me bring Rabban Gamliel—and send me a doctor to heal my friend Rabbi Tzadok.”
Vespasian granted his wish--- and Yavneh became a new center of Jewish learning and life. (Gittin 56b).
One explanation then, is that Yavneh is what we build, when everything we knew before is gone.
Make no mistake: Yavneh wasn’t a Jewish Brigadoon or Talmudic Bali-Hai----
it wasn’t a simple relocation of old ideas in a new place. It was an earthly place of creativity and innovation, which emerged from the rubble of a time that ended. It was a place that had to be built up; encoded within it’s very name is the word Livnot, the Hebrew word for building. It was a place where the sages would gather, sitting in rows like grapes on a vine, setting a vision for how Torah would survive in this new world.
The founding of Yavneh 2000 years ago
was as much a political move as it was a spiritual one.
It was an answer to the question:
when forced to reevaluate who we are,
and what it means to be a part of the Jewish people-
what will we do?
And so back to Rabbi Hoffman’s question:
what does Yavneh look like today?
Yavneh, was the metaphor: the real question was "in a post-pandemic world,what will you build?"
This morning, I take inspiration from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai: when faced with the inevitable fall of Jerusalem, the Jewish people were not of one mind about how to move forward.
In fact, here is where I would highlight something we have in common with this moment in Jewish history. You see, Yochanan ben Zakkais’ greatest challenge was not the Romans—the perceived enemy, but rather, the division within the Jewish community itself, notably from extremist voices.
The Jewish zealots were willing to burn it all down--- to let Jewish life go up in flames
with the walls themselves. And yet, given the opportunity to make just one request to the Roman emperor Vespasian, Yochanan ben Zakkai does not say “Save Jerusalem” but instead, “Give me Yavneh and it’s sages.”
In other words---
rather than rescue that which may already be lost, he imagines a new future, in which preserving the core and giving it new soil in which to grow is the path forward.
He knows that the building doesn’t matter. He wants to preserve Torah.
When we began to come back to this building in earnest over the course of last spring into the summer, I couldn’t help but remember the playdough exercise from Manor House
each time we tentatively gathered in the sanctuary. We had, effectively, taken everything out of the building. And now, as though sitting with playdough in our hands,
what would we put back? What would we build again?
In our Torah portion this morning,
we encounter a vision of community worth preserving---
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem.
Standing here today, each one of us.
Lifnei Adonai Eloheichem.
Standing here in our diverse,
beautiful array of humanity before God.
Every man, woman, and child, the stranger in our midst.
From the woodchopper to the water bearer.
Vlo itchem l’vadchem anochi koret et habrit hazot,
Not only with the community of Israel that stood there that day
But also with those who didn’t stand there that day---
Encoded in this moment in Torah
is the acknowledgement of future generations.
Our Torah--- the very same one preserved
and protected by Yochanan ben Zakkai
and the sages at Yavneh is clear
in imagining a future that didn’t exist yet.
Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem:
you who stand here now,
an array of humanity,
a collection of individuals and families
who have attached themselves to the unfolding story of the Jewish people.
People of all gender identities and expressions.
People of all races and ethnicities.
People with memories of their Bubbies and Zaydes,
Sabas, Savtas, Bibi’s, Nonna’s and Abuelo’s,
and people who have emerged into their adulthood with few ties to the past, only a desire to feel at home.
People whose adolescence and early adulthoods
have been defined by 9/11, a global recession,
and a pandemic,
and people who remember their youth as carefree.
People who cling wholeheartedly to the letter of the law,
and people whose spirit of celebration and ritual
have nothing to do with the law.
People who are disabled.
People who are lonely.
People who fight desperately for their mental health,
and people who struggle.
All of them are imagined to have a seat
at the table of a holy Jewish community.
This is the Jewish community that I want us to rebuild Yavneh for.
This is the Jewish community that I want to belong to.
And what is a Jewish community for, if not for belonging?
You don’t need me to cite the statistics---- and to be clear, the statistics represent affiliation,
which in my experience, tells us very little about belonging.
Belonging is what happens when we move beyond inclusion, and we become co-creators of a shared vision.
Imagine our community as a table---
You love this table.
You know this table well-
you’ve shared meals and laughter and tears
and endless hours at this table
with people you know and love.
Then, one day,
along came someone a little bit different than you-
with a different story to tell,
and like that proverbial moment from the middle school cafeteria they ask,
“can I sit here? Is there room for me at the table?”
Inclusion tells us that no matter the way
in which this person is different,
we should invite them to pull up a chair,
and catch up to the conversation already in progress.
To sit at this table that we’ve already created.
Inclusion may well expand the table,
but it’s still the same table, in the same house.
Belonging is different.
Belonging asks us to notice who is not sitting at that table.
Belonging asks us to put away that old table, and invite all of those people who have not yet found a seat there to help us build a new one.
In this year ahead,
as we continue to navigate the realities of this pandemic,
and work hard to emerge whole and in good health, this is the question on my mind:What will we put back? What kind of table will we build together with all of those who might like to find a place to sit?
We have the unique blessing of having grown immensely over these last eighteen months.
We have welcomed individuals and families who now call the Berkshires home, and who have found their way to Hevreh. The question is not “how do we welcome them?”,
but rather: “now that you’re here, what shall we create together?”
Belonging is about covenant. It’s not a set of feelings, but rather a set of practices. Belonging asks us to show up--- for ourselves first, and then, for one another.
The thing with belonging, is that it means we have to let go of what was,
in order to build what will be. And that can feel like a loss. Many of us like the old table.
We’ve been sitting at it for years. On this Yom Kippur, as I think about those who stand here with us today, and those who do not- I can’t help but think about Yochanan ben Zakkai
and the way he saw his way to the other side. In a coffin.
Not so unlike a death, the destruction of Jerusalem was k’ilu- it was like a death. It represented the loss of what was, and on the other side of that coffin, Yochanan ben Zakkai articulated a vision for what would still yet be.
My greatest hope for the new year is that we will articulate a vision for what might still be---
inspired by our rich history as a people, and specifically as a Hevreh community,
but more importantly, compelled by a genuine desire to build anew, together.
When I think about what belonging looks like, the most crucial piece of it is you.
It’s showing up. Belonging isn’t always in the big moments like this one today, although I’m glad you’re here. If we have learned anything together over this last year and a half,
it’s that a building is in fact, just a building. Like that old familiar table--- we might love this building. I know I do. But we can be a community that elevates belonging above all else, just about anywhere.
I looked back at my notes from that retreat earlier this week to see how I had answered the question “What will your Yavneh look like?”. I wrote:
Yavneh looks like a deeply purposeful place--- a place where there actually isn’t room to just “Put it all back the way it was before.
Yavneh values Shabbat as a day apart for a people apart. Our Yavneh valuest rest and imperfection.
Yavneh knows what Yavneh’s unique role and gifts and burdens are; Yavneh does not aim to be Jerusalem. Yavneh is Yavneh.
I feel blessed to both serve and be a part of this sacred community.
The gift of this moment is that it’s more than a metaphor;
it’s the reality that we have the opportunity to embrace over the years ahead.
My greatest hope is that in this moment of turning and returning,
each of you here today, and those of you not here today, will help us to build that table together.
A final story: It is said that the sages of Yavneh had a favorite saying.
“I am God’s creature, and my fellow man is God’s creature. I—my work is in the city; he—his work is in the field. I rise early for my work, even as he rises early for his work. Just as he does not encroach on my work, so I do not encroach on his work. Lest you say, “I do much in the study of Torah, while he does little,” we have been taught: One may do much and another may do little. What is important is that he direct his heart to Heaven.
Despite all that they had lost---the Temple, their very context for life in Jerusalem,
the sages laid out a vision for Jewish life based on belonging, built on a culture of diversity.
The shared language, the tie that binds?
That we direct our hearts to Heaven. That between us, and among us-
we have a sense that we are each one stitch in the fabric of something holy,
something divine, something bigger than ourselves.
May our Yavneh, the communal table that we rebuilt in the year ahead elevate and celebrate these very differences--- differences that have existed between and among us for thousands of years.
We are not all the same.
And that, may very well be the best blessing of all.