Good evening. Shanah tovah.
I’m here to extend an invitation to you. It is an invitation to join me in a sacred practice that I deeply believe in. This year, I invite you to embrace the holy obligation of doing the grunt work.
If you have spent any time at all at Kol HaNeshamah, chances are you have heard one or more of us talk about our commitment to hospitality, or our vision of our shul as a tent open on all sides, welcoming all, celebrating the mixed multitude that is our diverse Jewish community. It’s not just a neat metaphor we pull out and dust off for the holidays. This is our commitment, week after week, day in and day out, and for many of us, it’s the very heart of why this community matters so much.
So year after year, at each of our services during these high holy days, one of us stands up here before you, to ask each of you to help create this sacred space: for ourselves, for each other, for our community. It is both a request and an invitation.
If you were with us on Rosh Hashanah last year, you may remember that I stood up here asking for your support. The gist of my message was “somebody has to do it.” Why do I bring my contributions of time, talent and treasure to sustaining this community? Why am I asking you to do the same? Simple. Somebody has to do it. If not me, who? If not now, when? Now, everyone may not find this to be a deeply inspiring message. But I want to sincerely tell you that I do, and if you do too, then I think we’re in good company. I heard through the grapevine that several of you who were visiting last year were inspired to consider becoming members after spending the high holidays with us, and that, at least for some of you, the “somebody has to do it” spirit speaks to the kind of community you want to belong to.
My oldest son’s bar mitzvah is now just weeks away. And as I predicted, the year has given me many opportunities to reflect on the role of obligation in Judaism, and in Jewish community. As you’ve probably noticed, Judaism is kind of obsessed with obligation. Over and over we open our mouths to praise God and say “asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav,” our God who has made us holy by imposing obligations on us. With 613 mitzvot, there is seemingly no aspect of life too picayune for the Torah to have a commandment about it. Let’s be honest, this isn’t everyone’s favorite part of Judaism. Obligation gets a bad rap. This is the part that turns off so many Jews I have known. (Well, that and the patriarchy part.)
If you grew up with this tradition, maybe the focus on commandments made Judaism feel oppressive, or alienating. Or maybe, like me, it is what has drawn you in.
Back in June, at the Pride Shabbat service here in this sanctuary, I shared a little bit about my journey to this Jewish community. Thirteen years ago, when Kol HaNeshamah had just formed, my partner Connie and I had a rich, if tiny, Jewish life. We celebrated Shabbat in our home nearly every week, with a close knit group of friends and chosen family. For a while, a Torah study group met at our house one night a week. We’ve hosted at least 2 dozen seders in the 19 years since we moved to Seattle. Dayenu! It could have been enough.
But around the time Henson was born, a rabbi I had been studying with, in her wisdom, urged me to go find a Jewish community that was outside my house. Join a synagogue, even, if you can imagine that. I did, and long story short, here we are.
Being part of a synagogue community has brought incredible blessings into my life. And of course, plenty of work and expense, any number of petty little annoyances, and just a bit of drama (not too much). But what is priceless to me, what I get from being part of a synagogue community that I could not get otherwise, comes down to one word: obligation.
What I get from being a member of Kol HaNeshamah is just this: you are my responsibility, and I am yours.
I’ll tell you why that is so precious to me. Responsibility is hard. Maybe it’s different for you, I don’t know, but I’ll speak for myself. Doing the right thing in the big moments is not so hard. Solving important and urgent problems, tackling a crisis, sure, sign me up! But most of life is the small things. The routine, the schlepping, the grunt work. Doing something routine a thousand times in a row is so much harder than doing a hard thing once, and yet that’s what defines us and shapes our lives.
Being responsible for each other lightens the load, not just because it makes the big things easier, but because it makes the little things worth doing. There is a purpose to all the small stuff, and that purpose is our connection to each other. The most tedious task is full of sacred meaning, tying the thousands of tiny little knots that knit us together.
The Rambam’s ladder of tzedakah ranks 8 different kinds of giving, in order of their righteousness. At the top, giving such that a needy person is no longer needy. Make an endowment, or set someone up in a business where she can make a living.
Toward the bottom of the ladder: giving after you have been asked, giving less than you should but cheerfully, and finally, giving begrudgingly – the very bottom rung.
I am going to suggest that the bottom rung – the lowest level of tzedakah – deserves a special place of honor. This person is giving purely out of obligation. They get no pleasure out of it. This kind of giving may be the most important kind. Not because we should stop there – but because if we each wait until we felt inspired to contribute, we may never get started up the ladder.
So this year, I invite you to give begrudgingly. Don’t get me wrong – if you can give generously and cheerfully before or after being asked, yes! Thank you! If you are excited and inspired to bring your gifts, to contribute time, to donate money, by all means, do it! We will welcome and celebrate your contribution. But if you are waiting for inspiration to strike, I invite you to make a commitment to the least exciting contribution you can muster. Go ahead and give a little less than you think you should. Do something horribly uninspiring that needs to get done. Maybe for you, that’s setting up for potluck, or licking 500 envelopes, or schlepping the tablecloths home to wash. Maybe it’s standing up here next year, asking me for money.
Do it out of inspiration. Or do it out of obligation. Do it because human beings freely choosing mundane obligation is literally the inspiration for our entire Jewish civilization. You and I choosing to be responsible for one another, day in and day out, is what makes us a community. It’s what makes this place sacred to me. It is why I give to Kol HaNeshamah. And it is an incredible gift that I am grateful to receive every time we come together.
May you be blessed with sweetness in the new year. Shanah tovah.