Friday, August 4, 2017

Va'etchanan (Shabbat Nachamu): Our Obligations to the Land... Even in Chester

I want to be honest with you, and share what I like to think of as a "trick of the trade." Sometimes, when you're writing a sermon (or a blog post...), the text
influences your message, and other times, your message influences the text. In other words, it does happen that I FIRST know what I want to say, and lo and behold, I find an example in the Torah text that helps me convey that message. I think this concept is true in life as well; occasionally we have a narrative set in our minds, and then we see the world reflecting that already-held-belief. I don't feel that this is necessarily a "worse" way to write, I just think it's good to acknowledge when this method is in play. And this week, it is - indeed - in play. You see, Ohev won a big award.

As a Conservative synagogue, we belong to an organization called the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Every two years, at their biennial convention, the USCJ gives out Solomon Schechter Awards to
congregations for programs, events, or efforts that they feel are deserving. This year, we won for the Children of Israel mosaics (about which I've spoken many times), AND for our community work with FUSE, the Fellowship of Urban-Suburban Engagement. Out of 190 applications, we won two of the thirteen awards given out! This is obviously very, very exciting for us, and so these two projects are really on my mind at the moment. So it should come as no surprise that I look at the Torah portion and see messages about the importance of our synagogue work reflecting back at me from inside our Biblical texts.

Parashat Va'etchanan is a MAJOR parashah; it includes both the Ten Commandments AND the Shema, all in one Torah portion!! And swirling around each of these crucial teachings are the themes of land and peoplehood. Several
times, Moses reminds the Israelites about keeping the laws specifically in order "that you may live to enter and take possession of the land that Adonai, the God of your ancestors, is giving you" (Deut. 4:1). Adherence equals thriving community and total security. Furthermore, we live observant and ethical lives in order to inspire the people around us, so that they might say: "Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people" (4:6). So much of our Torah is about building community and being in relationship with the peoples around us, which, to me at least, speaks deeply to our work with FUSE. At its core, FUSE is about creating a better society for EVERYONE. When we confront racial disparities and engage with one another in uncomfortable but vital conversations about systemic problems, white privilege, and otherness, we ALL benefit.

Having our FUSE work recognized by the USCJ is really exciting. It makes me feel like we're on the right track, and that others see how beneficial and essential this endeavor is. If you'd like to learn more, or if you'd like to participate in an event, I want to highlight a unique and exciting one coming up
NEXT week. On August 10th, we're going to meet in Chester for a tour of their central neighborhood, called Overtown. You can read more here. If you've ever heard or read anything about Chester, THIS is a great chance to challenge those assumptions and expectations, and see the place for yourself. Chester is an important city to Ohev Shalom. Our congregation was born there, as were many of our older congregants. It is part of our home, and our Torah portion reminds us that we are responsible for it. If we want to "long endure" and "prosper," we need to acknowledge our responsibilities and be in relationship with our heritage and our fellow community members. We need to "fuse" all of these priorities together into one. I hope you'll be able to join me on August 10th, and that you'll see the texts of our tradition speaking to these kinds of concerns just as I do. If we want to "enjoy long life" (6:2), as the Torah promises, this is the type of work we need to engage in. And now is the time to begin.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Ffahm oWikimedia Commons
2. Children of Israel mosaics at Ohev Shalom (in case you forgot what they looked like...)
3. From a FUSE event in 2016
4. Our FUSE logo, created by Amy Pollack (Twist n' Shout)

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