Standing on Two Feet
All good things must come to an end.
As a shul and congregation, I believe that we have been blessed with a wonderful year. A lot of Torah has been learned in Ner Tamid this past year; we finished a number of major Jewish works this year; the book of Shoftim, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Derech HaShem, and this week some of us will be concluding Tanya, a landmark work on Chassidic thought. I’ve seen many new faces participating in davening, not just Shabbos morning, but Friday nights and even during the week. There have been new committees and programs and in short, there’s been a whole lot going on. This past weekend was really a great display and great finale to all that’s been going on. We had a number of simchas on Shabbos and a beautiful crowd. And then on Sunday we had approximately 250 people attend the Brotehrhood and Young Family Bar-B-Q. In the words of the event’s main organizer, Bill Saks, Sunday’s event was a testimony to the fact that Ner Tamid, a modern Orthodox shul in middle of Baltimore, is alive and well. I’ve personally lost track, but you could ask Max Jacob after davening where we are holding in terms of membership and you’ll put a smile on his face. Thank G-d, alive and well indeed!
But I think if I’d have to pick one attribute that really defines Ner Tamid, it would have to be the warmth that all of you exude. It has nothing to do with red cups, it is a hallmark of Ner Tamid that goes back years and years, and it is truly a source of pride, I hope for all of us.
I recently met a couple who were trying out the shul and when I introduced myself they told me they had already attended Ner Tamid a number of times. So I apologized that I hadn’t introduced myself the other weeks the previous weeks that they had attended. To which they said, “You have got to be kidding me! Every time we were here, countless people came over to us and made us feel so incredibly welcome.”
Every shul has a feature. I’ve been to shuls where everyone takes the prayers so seriously that if I were to pull out a sefer; a Chumash, a Gemara, I would feel uncomfortable. In what I would call a “davening shul” one just doesn’t study during the prayers. There are other shuls that I’ve attended in which the only person who is davening is the chazzan; everyone else seemed to be studying a chumash or gemara. That would be a “learning shul” or a “Torah shul.” And if we would have to define ourselves we would probably call ourselves a “bein adam l’chaveiro synagogue” a shul where our interpersonal behavior is emphasized. And that’s nothing to scoff at. The institution of a synagogue was partly driven by a need to ensure that the Jewish People will be able to maintain sense of unity despite being dispersed throughout the world. It was in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple that the idea of a Synagogue really flourished and it ensured that the Jewish People, wherever they were, would maintain a level of community. Hence the name Beit Knesset, the Hebrew term for a synagogue. It means a house of gathering because that’s what a shul is meant to be – a place where people gather.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we have room for growth in this area. I think we could strive to be an even more welcoming place by making sure that our welcomes and hellos go beyond a greeting and develop into deeper relationships with newcomers. And we could also develop deeper relationships between age groups. But overall, this sense of welcoming and warmth is a hallmark that makes Ner Tamid a special place to be.
Bearing that all in mind, I want to share with you an insight from this week’s Torah Portion. This week’s Torah portion begins with Moshe addressing the Jewish people in one of his final speeches. He begins that address with the words “Atem nitzavim hayom, You are standing today.” Now that’s a pretty funny thing to say. Imagine I would have started my sermon today by stating “You are sitting today”
What idea was Moshe trying to convey to the Jewish People with those words, “You are standing today”?
I believe that Moshe was subtly alluding to the past forty years that the Jewish People had travelled through the desert. Over those forty years, many of the Jewish People had died. Some had died because of the sin of Korach and his followers; a group of people who were jealous, struggling with their inability to love others like one loves oneself. Others died because they sinned with the Golden Calf. Those people’s shortcomings were in the realm of their relationship with G-d. Those who survived, those who were standing at the bank of the Jordan when Moshe addressed them for the last time, were people who were balanced; they were people who were able to stand their ground both in the realm of bein adam l’chaveiro, their interpersonal relationships, bein adam l’Makom, their relationship with G-d. In essence, Moshe was telling them the reason you are still standing, the reason you made it this far, is because you are balanced, you stand not on one, but on two legs; you have a firm relationship with people and with G-d, and for that reason you have merited to stand here today.
And I believe that that message is very relevant to us. Because although as a congregation we excel in our bein adam l’chaveiro, in our interpersonal relationships, what we could learn from Moshe’s comments is in order to survive one must learn how to stand on two feet; one must become proficient not only in one’s interpersonal relationships but also in our relationship with G-d. And as a congregation that means that we need to become a place that is not only a beit k’nesset, a place of gathering, but we must become at the same time a beit tefillah, a house and environment of intense and meaningful prayer. To truly stand, one must have more than one strength, one must develop and grow in more than one realm.
Admittedly, this vision is a very challenging one because a bais knesses, a place of gathering, a synagogue where people can come to congregate and catch up with friends does not so easily lend itself to being a place where there is silence during services. It’s very difficult for the two to go together and that’s why you find so many shuls which excel in one particular realm but not more. So yes, it is a very challenging charge. At the same time I do think it’s possible and so I’d like to try.
Over the past couple of weeks I have turned to a number of congregants and asked them to help me in this initiative. I have asked them to help me make Ner Tamid a place of gathering and a place of prayer. I asked them to make a commitment that once a month, on Shabbos Mevorchim, they will try their best not to speak while the Torah is being read, during the Chazzan’s repetition, and during kaddish. Once a month. That’s it. And on those weekends I will distribute some reading material which will shed light on prayer and hopefully make our tefillos more meaningful so that we can become a shul that stands not on one foot, but on two. I don’t want or need anyone to shush the person next to us. Again, we are proud to be a place of gathering. This commitment is a personal one; each individual accepting upon themselves to work on their prayers making them more focused and more meaningful. And with time, we can become nitzavim; we can stand like our ancestors stood at the bank of the Jordan – excelling in both realms, not only in their relationship with others but also in their relationship with G-d. We can do the same.
This poster has the names of fifty congregants who have already made this once-a-month commitment. And I invite all of you to join together and transform this beautiful, powerful, and energized shul from being a beit Knesset, a place of gathering, and to also become a bais tefillah, a true house of worship and prayer. After Shabbos contact the office and tell them that you want your name on this list of people who have committed to make this shul stand and become a place of gathering and a place of prayer.
Do it for G-d. Do it for the person next to you who is trying to concentrate on the prayers. And do it for yourself. As we conclude one year and begin the next, let’s take one step forward in our spiritual journey together as a community. May we continue to grow not just physically but spiritually and in the merit of our communal commitment may we merit a year of health, of prosperity, and of good fortune.