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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

September 26, 2022

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783: Ayeka - Where Are You?

Shanah Tovah!

Wow, that was nice to hear!

One year ago, on Rosh Hashanah 5782, I stood here, on this same bima. I opened up my machzor, my prayerbook. I smiled. And I greeted an empty room. A few times during the High Holy Days last year, a handful of our board members and lay leaders were here with me. But for most of our sacred days, our sanctuary was empty. 

Every year, the week before the High Holy days begin, I stand here, on this bima. I adjust the position of my microphone. I make sure everything is in order. I look out into the empty room, imagining you are all here. A rehearsal, if you will.

Last year, leading the services that we streamed for you at home, I stood on this bima and I looked out into this empty room. I tried to feel present, to connect, to feel the magnitude and awesomeness of these days. I tried to pray. But I’ll tell you now, those were some of the hardest moments for me, spiritually, as a rabbi, as a shaliach tzibor, as a leader for this community. As a Jew. Last year, our High Holy Days services felt more like a rehearsal than the real thing. Because the sanctuary was empty. You weren’t here.

Now, one year later, we are together again, welcoming the year 5783. We have been through so much, and we celebrate sharing this space together. It’s a time for joy and reconnection. I hear the voices of our choir, I feel the energy between us, and between all of you. What a blessing and a gift, one that we took for granted, until the pandemic took that all away during these difficult years.

I celebrate our full room today, on this first day of a new Jewish year. I celebrate our sacred community, our Temple family. I will share words with today that might be difficult to hear, but I do so because I care about you, and because you care about me. We are in sacred relationship with each other and we have a covenantal responsibility to one another. I share what I do today because we have serious choices to make in the new year.

It’s hard for us to remember what our lives looked like before the pandemic. In 2019, and in years prior, our sanctuary was not completely empty each Shabbat, but our numbers were small. A winter Friday night would bring out four or five of you to services. In my first year here, we had zero attendance at our Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot festival morning services, so we stopped having them. While we have a lively and consistent Shabbat morning Torah Study group, we no longer hold Shabbat morning services here, because at most, one or two people would choose to come. 

Since our return to in-person worship over a year ago, our Friday night attendance has remained low, both in person and online. I’m here with you today, expressing a real fear: that before long, the empty sanctuary of last year’s High Holy Days will become our reality.

Temple Anshe Amunim is not unique. We, like so many other synagogues, and houses of worship in Pittsfield, are facing the demographic reality of population decline in our community. The United States is trending toward secularization. Fewer people are engaging with houses of faith. [1]

Today, we have a choice before us. We can accept the trends in our city, in America, and even hide behind them, and blame them for our troubles. Or we can strive to be the exception to the rule by choosing to show up.

During the early days of the pandemic, the decision to stay home was out of our control. It wasn’t a choice. Guided by our Reopening Taskforce, our congregation chose how to respond, by limiting attendance, requiring masking and vaccination, but the pandemic was an outside force, something that happened to us. We had very little agency. Even as we reopened, it made sense that our numbers were smaller at first. Our in-person attendance dropped whenever Covid surged. We made hard and important choices for nearly three years to keep our community safe.

The pandemic is not over. People are still dying everyday, and it’s crucial to get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask as needed. But we are in a new phase of the pandemic, and you can be here, at Temple. If you’re sick or have severe health concerns, you should stay home, and we’ve made it possible for you to join us virtually. If you’re healthy, you can safely show up for Shabbat.

I am grateful for the leadership of our worship chair, Lesley Beck, who does so much to make our services and holidays vibrant. I am honored by the presence of our small group of Shabbat regulars.

If you are new to our community or visiting as our guest, you are a part of this conversation, too. You chose to be here today, and you can choose to join us on Shabbat in the weeks to come.

So what is really going on? Why do we have five, ten people at Shabbat services each week? Why most weeks of the summer do we have more out of town visitors than members of our community gathering on a Friday night?

Everyone has weeks that they are traveling, feeling unwell, or have other plans. But something deeper is going on.

Here’s what I’m hearing and seeing from you. Being at Temple represents loss and grief: loss of what we once had here, grief for the people who are no longer with us. These are the heavy emotions we carry into this sanctuary, this sacred place.

Maybe you used to bring your kids here, your whole family, and they filled the bima with other children. The room was vibrant with their smiles and songs, and they chased each other through the aisles and back hallways. Now your children have grown up or moved away, and the Jewish population of youth and families is not what it once was in Pittsfield. Whenever we ask our current families to show up, they are here, participating, involved, but there’s no denying it: it isn’t the same as it was.

Or maybe you used to meet your neighbors here. You’d sit together and catch up on life. The next morning, you’d wave to each other from your driveways, and the next evening, you’d go out to dinner together, or host each other in your homes. Close, deep connections, friends who became like family.

Now your neighbors have moved away, or left the synagogue, or have died. You enter the sanctuary, still half-expecting to find them here, and they’re not. Except for a handful of faces, you don’t know as many people here anymore.

Maybe you are newer to our community, and you haven’t had the chance to get to know many people yet. Maybe you are mourning a Jewish community you left behind somewhere else, or the connections you have not yet made.

And maybe this was the place where you came with your spouse, your husband, your wife. Or your parents, or a Temple member so dear they were like a parent to you. And their chair is empty now. Whether you buried them in recent years or decades ago, being here reminds you that they are no longer with us.

When a Jewish person dies, we gather together, as soon as possible, for burial, and offer words of consolation and comfort for their family at the funeral. We conclude at the graveside with words of Kaddish Yatom, Mourner’s Kaddish.

One of the strongest memories I have from the past few years is a funeral I conducted a few months into the pandemic. None of us had been going out anywhere, vaccinations were still a year away. In the cemetery, we stood at a great distance from each other, gathered at the graveside only with immediate family members. We couldn’t hug each other. We decided it was safer to say our prayers - we didn’t even sing. But we were there, in three dimensions, together.

I led the funeral service, sharing Psalm 23 and El Malei Rachamim. And then we came to Mourner’s Kaddish. As I started reciting these words, so associated with death, but in their meaning, only celebrating life, I wiped back a tear - and as many of you know, I’m not a crier. For the first time in months, I heard other voices praying with me. Unlike on camera, on the computer, in my home, or alone in the sanctuary, I heard voices joining in prayer together. A solemn prayer, not a joyous song, but powerful still, as we offered comfort to those in grief.

Creating a space to say Kaddish in the weeks and years following a loss is not the only purpose of weekly Shabbat services, but it is a crucial reason why we gather. As you may know, recently, we’ve encouraged a Temple tradition of sharing memories of our loved ones on Friday nights. It is beautiful and moving. I welcome anyone to reach out if you’d like to say a few words about someone before lighting the candles, or before we say Kaddish. You can also just come to services and speak from your heart in the moment.

Jewish tradition holds that certain prayers need to be said in a minyan, a group of ten people. Mourner’s Kaddish is one of them. 

As Rabbi Jonathan Romain explains, “There are many [reasons why] ten was [the] chosen [number]: one is that on Noah’s Ark, there were [only] eight [righteous] people (Noah, [and his family]) plus the divine spirit, and that was not enough to save the world from destruction (whereas ten might have done so !). Similarly, God agreed to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if there were ten righteous people there. Another [reason] is that Psalm 82 says that ‘God stands in the congregation’ and elsewhere that same Hebrew word (eidah) is used of the ten spies, [so we connect the word congregation with the number ten].” [2]

There is something about gathering with a quorum, a minyan, with at least ten people in prayer, that creates a sacred container for our joy, and also for our grief. We learned this in a profound way when we were unable to gather for funerals and yahrzeits during the pandemic, when beloved members of our Temple family did not have the support and the honor they so deserved.

Now, we can be together. We can make a minyan for each other. The choices we make, about attending Shabbat services or not, impact each of us personally, and they also impact everyone else in our community. When our grief about our Temple keeps us away, we are denying the opportunity for others to communally grieve their own loved ones.

Coming together for Shabbat is also a time for joy. We have a really nice time together on Friday nights. We sing. We schmooze in the lobby. And this year, health and safety conditions permit us to bring back Shabbat dinners - pizza for our young families once a month, and a simple, catered dinner on a regular basis, after services, for our whole community. It’s often been said, if you feed them, they will come. We’re going to make it easy to feed you, and easy for you to come. Don’t worry about who’s cooking or who’s running the kitchen. Just come and be together, during services and afterwards upstairs, over Shabbat dinner. For those who came to our end of summer barbecue, you know the kind of spirit and energy you’re going to find here. If you’re unsure - I’ll say this. Just try. Only you can make the choice to show up. 

In the garden of Eden, after Adam eats from the tree of knowledge, he tries to hide from God.

In those early days, God scored pretty well in the omnipotent and omnipresent categories. God appeared as all-powerful and all-knowing in the world. In other words, you couldn’t actually hide from God.

So God knows exactly where Adam is, physically, but still gives Adam a chance to come out of hiding on this own.

“Ayeka?” God asks Adam. “Where are you?” [3]

“Hineini,” Adam responds, sheepishly. “I’m here.

God asked Adam this question, “Ayeka - Where are you,” not physically, not which tree are you hiding behind, but where are you, spiritually, Adam? What is the chesbon hanfesh, the accounting of your soul, that you need to do, Adam? Ayeka? Where are you?

I ask you that same question today, this first day of the New Year. Ayeka? Where are you, spiritually? Where are you hiding, and why? Can you overcome the loss and grief and pain and be together again, in community, with your Temple family? We will still feel that loss and grief and pain. Our Temple is not the same as it was fifty years ago, thirty years ago, even three years ago. It can be uncomfortable to come to Temple after being away, or when the smaller crowds are a reminder of what once was. But if in this new year, if we make the choice to show up, instead of staying at home, alone in our grief, if we come to Shabbat, we will pray with each other, we will break bread together, and we will support each other. We will be here together.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur, it is sealed. Words of our Unetaneh Tokef prayer that challenge us, because we don’t like to think that our fate is sealed. We don’t like to see a mostly empty sanctuary at 26 Broad Street, because we’re afraid that the empty sanctuary is our fate. 

But our fate is not yet sealed. The empty sanctuary is only one vision of what might be. And we have the agency, the power, to change our fate. We’re given the tools to do it, the choice is yours. U’tshuva, u’tfilah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gezerah - repentance, prayer, and charity moderate the severe decree, in this case, of an empty, shuttered synagogue. 

Our prayers do not cause things to happen. We know that praying for rain, or for a sick relative to get better, or for the pandemic to end, or to win the lottery will not cause any of these things to occur. In a reflection, perhaps familiar from our Shabbat siddur, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel offers: “Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” Praying together on Shabbat is what lifts us up and supports us. Prayer is our sacred architecture of meaning, comfort, and joy. Prayer is what unites us as a community, if our open ourselves up to being here.

Ayeka? Where are you? In 5783 I invite you to choose to say Hineini, I am with my Temple family, celebrating Shabbat. I am here.

[1] Yonat Shimron, “More Americans are becoming secular, poll says,” The Washington Post, 12/17/21,

[2] ​​

[3] Genesis 3:9

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Sat, December 2 2023 19 Kislev 5784