January 20, 2021
Last weekend my closest friend and her family celebrated the bar mitzvah of her son, Blake. They live in Arizona. A year ago, she and I were discussing the best time to book an airline ticket from Atlanta and where Dave, Joy, and I (and others) would stay while there for the event. She was pretty disappointed when the event had to become virtual, but the synagogue to which she and her family belong made it a beautiful occasion. The small gathering of people there in person met outside, and it was a beautiful morning in Arizona. The rabbi made everyone feel welcome, regardless of whether we were there in person or watching from across the country. There were some very tender moments, like when my friend and her husband got to tell their son how much they love and appreciate him and how proud of him they are. There was obviously hard work that had gone on ahead of time to make some difficult logistics look effortless, like when both sets of grandparents offered a blessing for Blake in unison with one set of grandparents in Maryland and the other in Ohio. One of my favorite moments was when Blake's great aunt Ruth spoke about the value of relationships and making sure he spends time working on his closest relationships to keep them healthy and active, even when those relationships are with people who are far away. The rabbi was very engaging and showed extraordinary care regarding the service. Near the beginning he announced that Blake would be the leader of the service while taking care throughout to guide him and support him and the rest of us by helping us understand what was happening at each juncture. By the end, I had no idea that an hour and fifteen minutes had passed by while we listened to scripture and prayed for the needs of the world.
During the service, Blake got the chance to speak about his own understanding and interpretation of his Torah portion (scripture reading for the service). It was from Exodus, and it centered around the hardening of Pharaoh's heart related to Moses asking for the release of God's people from slavery in Egypt. I was so moved when Blake imagined aloud with us how miserable it would be to have no freedom and to have someone else telling you what to do all the time and making all of your decisions for you just because of your ethnicity. The passion for justice in his words was hopeful and inspiring. In addition, the ways that he prayed the prayers of the service with commitment and confidence was very heartening. He led as if what he was saying really meant something to him and to all of us gathered to listen. There were prayers for those who mourn and for the sick. There was even a prayer for "faith without fanaticism" which felt very important for the experience we are living right now.
Among all the tender and touching moments that involved this important rite of passage for Blake was the rabbi's introduction to a particular prayer during the service. As he prepared us for the prayer called the V'shamru, he said, "At Temple Emmanuel, we don't just say this prayer. We sing it, and we dance it!" He showed us a couple of motions we could do, across the country, to join the prayer. It's a simple prayer reminding the people of God to keep the covenant of the sabbath as God has commanded, helping the people to remember that the relationship between God and us must be protected and preserved and that it deserves a revered place among all of our other commitments. The sabbath day and it's observation is not just a marking of a day in the calendar; it is a special day. A day on which we focus on our covenant relationship with God and do things that bring us closer to God.
We have lived this kind of practice in weekly worship. Those clearly delineated events that were on our calendars a year ago, however, have blurred lines now. We can participate in worship by watching it when we have time to do so, and while I love the flexibility woven into the virtual world of church, I miss the rhythms and patterns of a weekly observance of a day of worship and rest. I miss the weekly physical representation of the meeting that happens between God and us when we gather to sing and pray together. What can be done in this liminal time to preserve the sabbath day and keep it holy?
My hope is that our current worship series, Covenant, will help you reconnect with God in a personal way so that the eventual return of our community life will be that much more rich and full because of the work that you have done on your personal relationship with God in Christ. Through your personal prayer time, the ways you're personally showing up for God and others, the gifts you have received from God that you are finding ways to share in the world, the ways you are serving neighbors, and the witness of your words and actions--this is what will help us define and support a better future for our congregation and our community.
We've seen so much tragedy and heartbreak in the last 10 months. We look for much hope and renewed life in the months that lie ahead. Get a head start on that by doing your work on the covenant into which God has specifically invited YOU. And when we are together again, who knows! We may not be able to settle for just saying the words of our prayers; we may have to sing it and dance it, celebrating a rite of passage for us all out of the present struggle into renewed life together.
May that be.