Sermon Parshat Beshallach
The story in this week’s parsha is not only about the epic battle between Pharaoh and Moses, but it is also about Moses leading the people of Israel. Ancient Israelites are not all that different from Jewish communities today. New things made them uncomfortable and they keep looking back, with nostalgia, about how good life was in Egypt.
But let us take a closer look at the story of the crossing of the sea . We all know the script: Pharaoh regrets letting the slaves go. He sends out the Egyptian army in pursuit. The army catches up with Israel and we find them trapped between the approaching army and the sea. The People of Israel are terrified. There is danger in every direction. Moses, Aaron and leadership of the tribes are not sure what they are supposed to do. One brave man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, leader of the tribe of Judah, and the brother in law of Aaron, moves forward and he enters the sea. The people then behold the greatest miracle of them all; the sea parts offering an escape for the Israelites.
But the people are still scared. Do you remember the movie, “The Ten Commandments?” As the waters part in the movie the people are filled with awe, but their faces also show they are very sacred. They start across hesitantly, looking over their shoulders at the advancing Egyptian army. With fear and trembling, they leave Egypt for the other side of the sea. But when they emerge on the other side, there is great relief; there is joy; music, singing and dancing. For that day, there was happiness in being saved and seeing the dreaded army of Egypt suddenly destroyed.
That is not only a story from our past; it is a paradigm for the future. The way into the future often starts with terror about unknowns, with danger in every direction. We are very happy to keep the things in our life the same and we only get up and go when there is no other choice. We get comfortable until we become too scared to stay in one place any longer.
This is true of ancient Israel, it is true right here in the United States of America in this age of Change, and it is true of Temple Emeth. There are challenges facing our congregation, issues that threaten not only our financial health, but the very existence of our community. It has been reported in our local newspapers, not just our congregation, but all senior congregations are in serious trouble. Membership is falling, synagogue membership is aging and younger members live elsewhere and, if they attend synagogue at all, they attend elsewhere. The research today shows that Jews want to live in communities with a mix of young and older families and they want their synagogues to have that same mix of members.
We are comfortable where we are, but we easily see that Egypt is attacking. We cannot survive as a community, as a congregation if we stand still. Look at some of the sister congregations around us. Deerfield Beach has merged with Habad to save itself. Coconut Creek and Margate are shrinking very quickly. There are no new or younger leaders willing to take on the issues. The established leadership has no one to whom to pass the leadership mantle.
We could just give up; we could just let it all fade away as the population of King’s Point slowly becomes less and less Jewish. Our membership continues to slowly decline, and the economy is not helping us either. More and more Jews are asking themselves if membership in a synagogue is worth the expense. Should we just close our doors? Just what do we have to offer new members that they can not get elsewhere, in their community clubhouse, in the local strip malls or on the street?
I was not brought to Delray Beach to oversee the end of Temple Emeth. We have some unique strengths that can help us not only weather this crisis but emerge, in just a few years, stronger and better. We don’t need to change what we are doing, we only need to expand the opportunities in our congregation to welcome those who still long for a Jewish spiritual experience.
Conservative Jews in Delray will need to work together to create a strong community. I am sure you have heard many rumors about merger talks between our congregation and Anshei Shalom. There are plenty of differences between our congregations, big differences, but the reality is that we need each other. Talks between our congregations may be long and difficult at times, but I am hopeful that we can find a way to work together to create a stronger community.
Over the past years, we have fallen behind other Conservative congregations. Everyone who visits us from the north is surprised to find we are using old siddurim and old humashim. These are books that other congregations replaced 30 years ago. The prayers in our siddurim have not changed all that much but the world around us has changed a lot. Since the siddur we used was published, there have been new prayers written about the Holocaust, Israel, and the reunification of Jerusalem. There are even prayers for the secular holidays that we celebrate in this country. Contemporary siddurim include women and those who convert to Judaism in our prayers. Prayers are translated using the same English that we use. Thanks to Shirley and Vernon Leopold, we will be dedicating new siddurim just before Pesach.
The Jewish community is very large and includes all kinds of Jews. That is why we need to make our community and our synagogue a very big tent. We may need to have alternative minyanim meeting here on Shabbat. Some Jews want a smaller egalitarian minyan run entirely by lay leaders. There are others in our community who will want a non-egalitarian minyan because they are not comfortable with full participation by women. Perhaps we need a learners’ minyan where people can go to learn to pray. Our tent has to be big enough to include all who need to express their thanks to God. One size no longer fits all daveners. We need to let people know that all are welcome here. One congregation that embraces all.
Our parties for holidays, our Shabbat dinners and our entertaining shows attract an audience of members and non-members that are very important to what Temple Emeth is all about. These must continue. But we also need new programming that will reach out to those who do not need a congregation for their social life. What do they need? They need programs of social action. The Jews we seek to join us are busy all day long, but not with anything of any substance. Their lives are a mile wide but only an inch deep. I spoke about this on Rosh Hashana and some came up to me and said, “I am too old to do social action anymore, leave that to the younger people.” And that is exactly right. We need to attract younger people by offering them ways to find meaning in their lives through rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. We are organizing two new social action groups now, and with God’s help, we will have more as the year goes by.
It is well documented that over the last ten years, Jews join synagogues for three reasons: to pray, to do meaningful acts of hesed and to learn about their heritage. I happen to love our Adult Education program. It is varied and unique in the community. I would not change any class that we offer. We just need to offer more. Young retirees and empty nesters are looking to find a personal place in Jewish Learning. The local office of the Seminary now offers adult classes in people’s homes. These are serious text classes. Habad also offers them in the conference rooms of downtown law and real estate firms. They can’t open these classes fast enough. We also too need to take our text classes, in Bible, Talmud and Ethics into the homes, offices and conference rooms where Jews are hungry for learning. Just as my daughter Ashira last week taught Torah to this congregation, we need to bring that teaching into the communities that surround us with home study groups and maybe even some business study groups. If we invite our neighbors to join us in the serious study of Jewish texts, it is only a matter of time before they will join us in prayer and social action as well.
The Talmud teaches that the world stands on three things, Torah, Avoda and gemilut hasadim. All the surveys that have studied why some congregations grow and why some die seem to hinge on these three things. The Teaching of Torah, meaningful services and acts of kindness to others. Adult Education, a prayer environment that offers choices to all who search for God and social action projects are what we need to add to our congregational menu to bring in the very people we need so much to move our community forward. It is not about “changing everything we have always done” because what we need is not to “reform” the congregation, nor to “reconstruct” the congregation. What we need is to expand what we are doing to make Jews who are lost and searching, welcome in our community.
We are in a unique position to make all of this a success. We have a community that is more than just condominiums. We have many mixed neighborhoods filled with many Jews who are seeking a spiritual home. When this economy recovers, we will be in a city where there will be plenty of building, both to our west and to our east; west of the turnpike and east into the neighborhoods of downtown and east Delary. From Yamato Road to Woolbright, from the ocean to 441, Temple Emeth can emerge stronger and better over the next five to ten years. Yes there will be some changes, but there will also be much that is the same.
The people of Israel were the same people on the Sinai side of the Red sea as they were on the Egyptian side. The difference was, now they were free from all their fears. The future may always be uncertain, but at that moment, as yesterday’s problems drowned in the sea, they joyfully danced and sang. So too we must leave our fears of the past behind and face what the future holds. There will be plenty of difficult decisions to make and yes, we will probably pine for the “good old days” when we had thousands of members. But our future calls for a community of young and old alike, working to make Judaism and the world a better place.
And that is something to sing and dance about.