I wanted to get some words down in the afterglow of the incredible Netivot Unity Shabbaton. It was even more wonderful than I could have imagined, entirely fulfilling the hope I had back in March when I raised the idea as a way to use the kedusha of Shabbat to bring our community back together.
What’s amazing is that it did this in even more exceptional ways than I could have predicted. Three brief thoughts:
- Singing together: There is a power to music in general, with its ability to reach a part of a person’s emotional being. But singing together is a level beyond this. There’s something about the way voices come together, the strength of many people singing in a group, that has an impact that is deeply moving. I think that was an important piece of what made the Shabbaton so wonderful, and helped bring all who were there a little closer together. It’s an important lesson for how we gather at Netivot.
- New Friends: I got a distinct pleasure when I heard people who had been part of Netivot for many years say, “I sat at a table with people I didn’t know at all before – and it was so great!”. This was a key part of what the Unity Shabbaton was all about, and we’ll all be better for it.
- The Power of Amen: If you’ve been to a camp or NCSY slow shira you are probably no stranger to the power of an ‘Amen’ at the end of havdalah. But this one was extra special, coming after Covid (I know – I’m not supposed to use that word). I got shivers, and may have felt some emotion!
I’m copying my dvar Torah from Friday night below, which I hope helped set the tone, and which I think reflects what the Mesilas Yesharim reminds us in his introduction: of values which we know, but need to remind ourselves in order to live consistently.
Here it is:
I assume most people here have heard Modi’s routine about the differences between how Sefardim and Ashkenazim say good Shabbos. I lived that recently. One Shabbat morning I went to the Kehilah Centre for Avi Kadoch’s bar mitzvah. The men were kissing like mad, hugging, shaking, smiling – it was a delight! This Shabbat, in the spirit of unity, I’d like us all to be Sefardim. No mumbling of good Shabbos – but a genuine Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach!
So – I’ve been allocated 5 minutes for this dvar Torah, and have four minutes left. There’s not even time for a kiddush club if you want one BAYT Brotherhood!
An amazing statistic – a painful statistic: In the Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews they asked the following question: “What are the problems of greatest concern (to the Modern Orthodox community)?”, 42% said ‘people lacking kindness for others in their community’ was a serious problem, and a further 39% said it was somewhat of a problem. That means that 79% of respondents think that, internal to our own community, there is a lack of kindness to others! One of those interviewed noted: “I live in a big community with tons of shuls, schools, grocery stores, and kosher restaurants. However, it feels like people are unfriendly, not interested in meeting new people, and just don’t care.” Now do you understand why we all need to be Sefardi?
Anyway, I want to think about this challenge using the case study of Avraham.
One: The Torah does not seem to give us any obvious reason why Hashem chose Avraham as the one to send to Eretz Canaan and become the “first Jew,” and to be the father of our nation. We understand why Noach was chosen, since the Torah tells us he was a tzadik in his generation. Moshe, we understand as well, since we watch him grow up through the early chapters of Shemot where he learns to defend and care for those in need. But why Avraham? We meet him at 75, with no prior indication of what earned him the privilege of Hashem’s favour.
The Chachamim try to make up for this giant absence with different explanations: that he rebelled against the idol worship of his father; that he rebelled against King Nimrod; or that he was an intellectual in search of the purposes of the world (I’ve always found this last one rather appealing – a great model for a Modern Jew in search of purpose and meaning). And yet, all are absent from the Chumash itself.
The Sfas Emes (based on the Zohar) provides a radical and fascinating explanation, one that turns the question on its head. Hashem, he says, has always been calling out to people, but until Avraham, no one was listening. Avraham’s greatness is not his courage, idealism or intellectual curiosity. Although his actions did make him stand out as an individual, again, those alone were not why he was chosen. Rather, it’s simply that he listened deeply when Hashem reached out, thus meriting him the gift of hearing Hashem’s voice. Listening – this is the mark of a great person. That’s the first thing I want to take away from Avraham – the power of listening.
I remember one day someone asked me how I was – and I made the mistake of properly answering the question. When I was done he said, “I really didn’t want to know all that. I was just being polite.” Let’s not be so polite, I mean, let’s be polite, but actually mean what we say when we ask how someone is – and then listen. As Avraham demonstrates, it’s an incredibly rare trait, but when exercised, so SO powerful! Can you imagine if we all listened to each other so attentively how much that would transform us? I think this is an incredible gift you can give someone. Try it next time you see someone from Netivot, from our community. Stop and really listen, like Avraham. It will change your world and theirs.
Two: How did Avraham become the model of chesed? I’d like to submit that it’s not because he was born that way, but rather, it was as a result of his life experience. It’s easy to forget that Avraham was a displaced person, sent by Hashem from his home – his place of comfort – to Eretz Yisrael. And it is because of this experience of displacement, of having no place to go back to, that it was then Avraham who opened his tent up to all who desired entry, who, in his moments of pain and recovery from his brit milah, sat outside waiting to bring guests into his (new!) home.
Some of us feel at home in Toronto, in our shuls, in our school. For others, there is the challenge of Avraham. But for all, and I believe this was all my heart, like Avraham’s tent, Netivot is a home for us all, and we can help everyone feel at home, feel grounded, noticed and that we each matter. Chesed, as they say, starts at home, in our home.
The gemara says potchim be’chvod achsanya, so I apologize, but I’m going to close with words of gratitude instead. The first word of gratitude is to the BAYT, for opening up their doors to so many Netivot families. It was not easy, and we’re incredibly grateful.
The second is to all those who volunteered to make this Shabbat possible. There are too many to name, but please look at the flyers outside with their names on it, including our incredible donors who’ve made so much about this Shabbos possible – and say thank you. But there are two people that need to be named. Daniella Ulmer and Deena Eisicovics. You cannot imagine how much time they spent on this! They actually earn a pension from school for the amount of hours they put into this! Daniella and Deena – I, we, are so grateful for all you’ve done and continue to do for the Netivot community. We are better because of you.