12 March 2010

Throughout All Their Journeys

It was a busy week, even more so, since I spent two nights away--Sunday in DC so that I could be with some of our high school kids lobbying on Capitol Hill for the Religious Action Center; and Wednesday in Cambridge, speaking to the board of a foundation that supports our work in Brooklyn. In each instance, I found myself thinking about clerks.

Clerks at the Amtrak Stations in New York, DC and Boston; and clerks at hotels in DC and Cambridge. I thought of their levels of friendliness; the way in which their comportment was one which carried the weight of serving a customer. And I especially noticed the more silent or even invisible clerks, who make train stations and trains and hotels comfortable places to be. Are they clean? Are they welcoming? Is it *pleasant* to connect with them?

This set of reflections was brought about by my recent visits to Trader Joe's, which, I'll admit, I'm finding very pleasant--and not just because their beer, Simpler Times, is made in Monroe, Wisconsin (which produced Huber, a Madison favorite.)

At Trader Joe's, I found everything about the experience--from walking in to checking out--to be enormously friendly and enjoyable. Why is that?

In the corporate world, it's because good service generally earns you more money. But besides that, it earns you loyalty (which translates into more money, I understand) but the loyalty piece is what interests me, especially since these days, good loyalty is hard to find. In many ways one might say it's undervalued, given the clicky epidemic of instantaneous information overloads that we all suffer from. We're always on to the next thing. It seems very little actually *abides*.

So it had me thinking about the synagogue. Our synagogue, yes, but all synagogues, everywhere. And ways in which the strength of a synagogue in fact rests upon the shoulders of the clerks, those tasked with serving the community on all levels--from the rabbis to the staff to the security to the maintenance crew. Do we own the shared mission of creating a space in which to not only abide but thrive? Do we greet with a willingness and pride in service? Does the very space in which we do our work exude a sense of mission--whether it's a mission to spend your contributions well or serve you with an open heart in whatever capacity you seek an encounter inside our walls?

The synagogue's strength is often that it breeds familiarity. This is a great asset. It connotes accessibility, warmth, and the value of connection. But familiarity, as they say, also breeds contempt. And when things are going wrong, that same familiarity can tolerate what ought not to be tolerated. It takes vision, and wisdom, perseverance, and hard work to maintain a familiarly accessible, warm and connected community.

I always marvel at how in the week following the incident with the Golden Calf, this week's double parshah--VaYakhel and Pekudei--concerns itself with the sacred task of completing the Tabernacle, the place where God will reside for the Jewish people as they continue their journey in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. The people's abiding interest in God and God's abiding faith in them is what fuels their reconciliation, one week after a disastrous apostasy, so that a home may be made for God and the people can keep God close.

The rather clerk-like "accounting" of the materials used to construct the Tabernacle give us an opportunity to be reminded that any synagogue community is, on one level, the aggregate of its individual parts. The strips of wood; the brass door knobs; the bathroom faucets; the memorial plaques; the answering machine; the website--each of these elements are portals into the reflective question, "Are we the sum of our parts?"

Or, perhaps more elementally, "Are we giving people a reason to believe?"

In Exodus 40.33, when the end of the building of the Tabernacle is described, the text says, "And he reared up the court round about the Tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work." This *finishing* the Sages teach us, is described with the same verb used to describe God's finishing the work of Creation back in Genesis and so by analogy they teach us that this task of Moses was God-like in its devotion to and vision for creating a whole universe for others to enjoy.

A universe where there is presence; warmth; and a sense of community in all that one encounters when one enters the walls of the synagogue.

How does the journey from Egypt, the Exodus, end? "For the cloud of the Eternal was upon the Tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys."

May we merit such presence at the corner of 8th and Garfield.

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

"God is in the details," Mies Van der Rohe liked to say. As a designer (read: frustrated artist) I find the last few parashot particularly fascinating. A God who had heretofore inhabited words and dreams (and deeds) now asks his new nation to build Him a house, of materials both sumptuous and practical. And a portable one at that. I've never had occasion to conflate my livelihood with my religion, but I like the idea of adding Bezalel to my rag tag list of inspiring artist/designer/architects. As for the bureaucrats: they obviously don't realize that nothing kills creativity (read: constructive applied thought) like loss of momentum.