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Welcome from the Rabbi

New Beginnings – Visions, Dreams, and Opportunities in Response to Formative Questions

I am so honored to be now serving as your interim rabbi at this most formative and crucial of times, when so much is at stake in our individual lives as well as the fate of peoples and nations. In this first message for our congregational bulletin, I’d like to stay close to home – grounded in basic reflections and ensuing questions to guide and steer us for what can be a very dynamic year ahead. There is a saying in Hebrew speaking of beginnings, which is “kol hatchalot kashot”, which would translate as “all beginnings are difficult.” Now keep in mind that so many idiomatic expressions serve a purpose: they can console us in the face of difficulty; they can give us resolve in the face of anticipated challenges; and they can at times even inspire us to achievements of greatness. However, all expressions do not apply in the same way nor should they always be applied in the same manner with differing circumstances.

In this case, rather than focus on difficulty, I choose to focus on opportunity. As I shared in my first Friday evening message in our new sanctuary, in Chinese, in their compound character meaning “crisis”, the meaning component on the left side means rather “opportunity.” The insight is inherent: In all challenges lie opportunities, sometimes hidden, and sometimes more overt: our task is to creatively and dynamically embrace and welcome them. In the Confucian solution to repairing the world, paralleling much of rabbinic thought, there is the notion that one should first rectify and focus on growing and cultivating the self, then progress to the community, and finally to the greater society and world at large. In this month prior to the upcoming High Holy Days, coming “early” for us this year, allow me then to share some reflections and pose many questions for us; in fact, I’ll post more questions than I have answers for, but hope they will nonetheless be springboards for growth.

Starting with our individual spiritual journeys and quests, we must, as the ancient Greeks also agreed, be true to ourselves. So therefore we must, in preparation for the time ahead, ask ourselves some of the following questions: Where are we in our individual spiritual journeys? What is most meaningful to us about our beliefs and belief systems, and how has our understanding of these grown and transformed throughout the years? What gaps would we like to fill for greater and enhanced meaning in our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world? What principles remain enduring to us, and have we made educated and knowledgeable connections with these ideas and our sacred texts and traditions? We can recognize that our collective heritage is vast: What areas are we intellectually and/or passionately drawn towards? Are we neglecting some areas that might be of value but may avoid as it may seem like the learning curve or required effort may be too much to expect or ask of ourselves? Finally, and of significant importance, how can we merge and blend our own interests, passions, and gifts into the strengthening of our congregation?

In terms of our congregation, we can recall echoing lessons from the prophet Isaiah: “without vision the people are lost.” What then is our collective vision for Congregation Beth Am, and even more importantly how do we articulate, express, and share this vision? What levels of personal commitment do we bring to the endeavor? How do we envision the impact of communal clarity regarding our purpose and our institutional culture and identity? What constitute the unique and identifiable aspects of this congregational community as opposed to others? What needs to be done? How can we do it? If our decision is to move forward, what steps need to be taken to project ahead both on an immediate, short-term, and long-term timetable and framework? What institutional structures can be modified, created, and put into place in order to achieve these objectives?

I would respectfully suggest that only after having explored the two foregoing areas of definition and opportunity, are we in a position to be able then to progress forward to a broader perspective of how this congregation fits into the broader picture of Jewish congregations and community institutions. What particular strengths to broader endeavors, issues, and causes can this congregation and community provide? What structural elements are in place in order to maximize the benefits of these strengths? What new bridges and connections to the outside world can be forged and expanded upon?

Admittedly, the “complete” answers to these questions could be seen as projects encompassing decades and lifetimes as opposed to a single year. Nonetheless, in concluding these thoughts, I will leave you with two considerations: 1) If we are willing to engage ourselves in answering these questions, I assure you that we won’t become bored or feel that there is nothing to do, and 2) Employing the wisdom of the rabbis, in a concluding section of the famous Mishnah 21 of chapter two of Pirkei Avot, after listing the crucial conditions, impediments, and excuses limiting human accomplishment, Rabbi Tarfon concludes so wisely that “You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Let these parameters be our guides going forward in good health and dynamism!!


–Rabbi Barnett


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