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The Art of Holy Gathering

10/06/2019 03:03:25 PM


Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald

The floor dropped right out from under me.  That’s not a metaphor… the floor, literally, opened under me. Well, OK… if I’m being literal, it was not the floor: it was the ceiling.

It happened back in February when I crawled into our attic to fix a leak. I accidently stepped between the joists and I heard the wet drywall beneath me crack…. Like a trapdoor had opened under my feet, in an instant, my body crashed through the ceiling, and I landed on my back – a few feet from where Melanie and Hannah were sitting at the dining room table.

It was one of those life-flashing-before-your-eyes moments that seemed to move in slow motion. I saw the layers of wood, insulation, and drywall passing before my eyes. As I grazed the ceiling fan I could see all the flaws in my house – the endless to-do list and trips to Home Depot… Suspended in mid-air, I could also see the rich life I had experienced in this house: the roof above me that sheltered my family for 11 years; the floor beneath me where my three children had scampered and played. As I skirted the dining room table, I saw all the holiday and Shabbat dinners with family and friends. And when my tushy smacked the floor, as I tumbled onto my back, I could see Koby’s room – a space filled with beautiful and awful memories, all at once ...

I wondered if I would be this home’s latest victim.

I lay motionless for several moments before I cautiously wiggled my fingers and toes. Melanie stood over me with a shocked look on her face: a mixture of loving concern and “I-told-you-so” scorn.

As I looked up at the Salomon-sized hole I had made in the ceiling, I spit out the bits of insulation in my mouth and exclaimed: “we gotta get out of this place!”

Earlier that day, Melanie had been trying to convince me that we should purchase a new house, but I had been resistant to the idea of leaving the home we had created memories in for 11 years.  Clearly the universe was on Melanie’s side.

I discovered that house-hunting is laden with emotion. Purchasing a home is not about acquiring a structure made of brick and wood. What you’re paying for is not the house; rather, it is the opportunity to live the way you wish to live in a particular time and place. And, what feels good about choosing to move at this phase, is that my family can once again dream about what life can be like for us.

I think I must be one of the strangest home buyers, though. Sure I look at all the things normal folks want: bedrooms and bathrooms, a nice kitchen, ample storage… but when we would go see a prospective house, I would ask the most unusual questions: where are we going to put the sukkah? Is the dining room big enough to seat 20 people for Shabbat dinner? Can we squeeze in even more for Passover Seder? When groups of people come to the house, where will they gather? Is the back yard big enough for a Friday evening Shabbat service?

When I imagine the home that I want, I think about how it will be a home for gathering – a place to make memories with my family, friends and community.
Yet, lifestyles have changed, and architecture has responded accordingly. Today a house is designed to be a refuge from the world – a retreat from society itself. Most houses today have grand bedrooms. The bathrooms resemble day spas. They have small living rooms; but impressive home theaters fitted with leather recliners and gigantic flat screen TVs.

People don’t “entertain” the way they used to. Most of our social life these days is conducted outside the home, often in commercial spaces.  Yet, even a great restaurant cannot replace the warmth of a home’s hearth; people breaking bread around a table.

Some years ago, the vaunted Style section of the New York Times declared “the death of the dinner party.”1 A generation of legendary hosts (most of them women) was no more. Gone were the epic soirées that epitomized the New York City lifestyle – the eclectic guest lists, the lively conversations, and the unexpected encounters and friendships formed there.

Nora Ephron was one of those notorious hosts. The famous journalist, novelist, and writer of films like “When Harry Met Sally” crafted her parties after the Shabbat dinners she had experienced in her childhood – gatherings filled with warmth, emotion - sometimes friction - but always flush with life.

When I read that Times article, I thought to myself: the dinner party isn’t dead… Nora Ephron had it right in the first place – Shabbat is the original dinner party.

While our modern culture minimized the home as a place of gathering, Judaism holds a different value system. The rhythm of Jewish time, attached to the days of the week – the days of creation; in tune with the cycles of the moon and the seasons, brings us together for what the Torah calls mikraei kodesh – holy gatherings.

The Torah declares: “you shall rejoice in your festivals, with your son and daughter, your workers, the [landless] Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow in your communities” (Deut. 16). Holidays in the Torah were a time for bringing community together – not just for some, but for everyone. It was a practice of radical inclusion and joy.

The Talmud says that after the destruction of Jerusalem, when an exiled community could no longer convene in its Sacred Temple, the modest Shabbat table in our home serves as a mikdash me’at – a tiny version of the holy altar.2

But even our celebration of Shabbat can grow stale if we let it. We can forget that its subtle choreography is a vehicle for human connection and its rich symbolism conveys hidden meaning waiting to be discovered.  Many of us have lost our attachment to Shabbat; and yet Shabbat is the most important practice we have as a people.

Back in May I had the opportunity to attend a conference with Priya Parker. Parker started her career as a conflict negotiator; sought after by governments and large organizations for her talent in convening groups to resolve problems. She’s a master at orchestrating transformative gatherings; yet, when Parker looked at the everyday gatherings in her life, she found them stale and trite.

The real problem with our gatherings, says Parker, is that they lack purpose.3   We tend to focus on the mechanics of a get-together – the food or décor – rather than the meaning. To create a truly great gathering we must commit ourselves to a clear purpose that is specific yet disputable. Which is to say, the purpose isn’t self-evident.
Think for example of a birthday celebration. It’s easy to fall back on tired old rituals – cake and presents. But maybe you’re turning 60 and you decide that this year the purpose of your birthday will be to surround yourself with the people who make you feel young. If this is your goal, you might choose to forgo the party and climb a mountain with a close circle of friends and share stories of youthful adventures.

We have a rich tradition of purposeful gathering in Judaism. On Friday nights we greet our guests along with the angels of peace. “Shalom Aleichem malachei ha-sharet”... “Peace be upon you, ministering angels. Enter in peace… bless us with peace… and go in peace.” When my family sings Shalom Aleichem, I imagine our son Koby among the angels. Having left this world just before sundown on a Friday, I picture Koby visiting us each week to offer blessings for peace and health. Adopting this ritual has made my experience of Shabbat richer – and keeps Koby present in the weekly cycle of my family’s life.

Who you invite to your Shabbat table, and how you welcome them in, can make all the difference. For this, you need to practice a generous authority as the host. This means setting some rules and expectations. That may seem counter-intuitive to some: in our culture it’s common to have gatherings with little structure. We think that by being a “chill” host, the magic will just happen on its own. Parker says this is backwards. She explains that in our diverse world – where we don’t have shared cultural norms and etiquette – a host who sets out a structure equalizes the social playing field for the guests. Pop-up rules make it possible for us to gather across difference and make meaning together, without being the same.

Parker explains that being thoughtful about how you structure a gathering creates a “temporary alternative world.” Shabbat is such a temporary alternative world. While many Jews today find the rules of Shabbat onerous perhaps, we should view the mitzvoth of Shabbat as liberating – transporting us from our workaday world to a heightened plane of existence.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote: “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn…”4

Our tradition offers the world a radical notion: while it is true that our very lives depend on the work of our hands, we are not human doings – we are human beings. “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth;” writes Heschel, “on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.”5

Shabbat is a taste of the world as it was meant to be, opening up our appetite for more of Shabbat’s harmony and peace. We achieve this sense of an alternative world by how we behave on Shabbat.  This is why nShabbat has rules. We refrain from the world of commerce, where relationships are merely instrumental, so that we can connect with others soul-to-soul. We have to put aside the technology of constant distraction and be truly present with others.

I know groups of friends who have a rule when they go out to a restaurant: the first person to touch their phone during the meal has to pick up the check. So try this next time you have guests over for Shabbat: whoever takes out their phone during Shabbat dinner has to load the dishwasher!

Can you imagine your home being a place for purpose-driven gatherings on Shabbat and other occasions? Can you imagine instigating a meaningful conversation for people to reveal something authentic about themselves? Can you see faces around your table softening with empathy and understanding? Can you imagine such a gathering in which people leave a little different than when they arrived – wanting more experiences like the one they had in your home?

I can. I want your home to be a place for such gatherings. It’s not really hard to do, but it takes some thought. Here at HEA we are shifting our focus to what many call “relational Judaism” – a term coined by one of my rabbinical school professors, Dr. Ron Wolfson. Sometimes you’ll hear the buzzword “engagement” used. What it comes down to, is the transformative power of one soul encountering another in a meaningful way. Describing  his work, Dr. Wolfson writes: “What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches  our lives.”6

It may sound like a simple idea – but it’s not simplistic. Hosting a gathering is an art form. A transformative gathering has a purpose that people are invited to experience. The purpose is disputable and isn’t afraid to kindle some heat. Its hosts exercise generous leadership and they create boundaries that make people feel safe enough to be real with one another.

These are just the basic ideas of relational community and meaningful gathering. A few years HEA we started a successful initiative called Shabbat Club with our young families. Now we’re ready to scale up to the entire congregation.

The concept is simple – a group of families and individuals commit to having Shabbat dinners together, quarterly for one year. We provide you the tools and ideas you need to create transformational Shabbat gatherings in your home and in one another’s homes.  It has rules; as any good gathering should. In this case: “The first rule of Shabbat Club is that you definitely talk about Shabbat Club!” So, you’ll soon be hearing much more about Shabbat Club and what it can teach us as a community about meaningful gathering.

“So that’s your message, rabbi?!  Shabbat? You want us to have Shabbat dinners? That’s your big idea for the year?!”
Yes! Yes it is. Because Shabbat can give us a window on rediscovering the art of transformational gathering in every area of our lives.

I’ll close with a story to put a finer point on it.  I recently solicited input on this sermon from a friend, asking: “what is the message your soul needs to hear this year?” She responded, “I need to hear my rabbi speak to the anxiety I feel about the state of the world today… it feels like society is pulling apart – people are pulling apart – and I don’t know what I can do about it!”

When I told her I was thinking about the spirituality of gathering, she shared with me her experience of a deeply impactful gathering she had attended. The group is called Race2Dinner. It was conceived of by two African American women who host a dinner where they create a “temporary alternative world” through the use of pop-up rules where it feels safe for white upper-middle-class liberal women to confront their complicity in racism and bear witness to the painful stories of Black and Brown women.  The women I know who attended found it challenging, but were deeply moved by the experience.

Purposeful gatherings like this are happening in living rooms and around kitchen tables all around this country. These types of deep gatherings allow us to be among others who are different – who think differently, who live differently – to see one another, and to be seen for who we are.

Purposeful gathering is not a trifling thing. Gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel and make sense of our world. Learning how to gather well can not only change our lives, it can heal a broken society.

In this sense, Shabbat is the most revolutionary, most counter-cultural idea that the Jewish people has to offer humanity. Shabbat is a beautifully anachronistic practice of deep gathering that can engender trust, invite us to share and dream with others, and connects people to one another with the potential to heal a fractured world. So, let us dedicate ourselves as a community this year to the Art of Gathering, by learning through the timeless spiritual tools we already have in Shabbat.

How we gather matters; because how we gather is how we live.”7

May the New Year be one of transformative mikra’ei kodesh – holy, purposeful, gatherings. Shanah Tovah

1  Trebay, Guy. “Guess Who Isn’t Coming to Dinner.” New York Times, Fashion and Style, 28 November 2012.
2 Versions of the concept of our home or table as altar or temple can be found in B. Talmud Berachot 10b, B. Talmud Hagiga 27a, Pirkei Avot 3:4, B. Talmud 29a. Commenting on Hagiga 27a, Rashi states that “our table becomes an altar when we welcome guests to it.”
3 Parker, Priya. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. 2018
4 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. 1951
5 Ibid.
6 Wolfson, Ron. Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. Jewish Lights, 2013
7 This is a common refrain that Priya Parker uses in her writing and speeches.

Fri, July 30 2021 21 Av 5781