Happy is the one who is anxious always, as the one who hardens the heart falls into misfortune.
- Proverbs 28:14
[Having completed 18 years with Temple Sholom - and looking forward to the next 18, I thought I would take this year to reflect back on a life with this congregation. As I am also turning 50 this year, it made sense to look at the Book of Proverbs. Rabbinic legend ascribes three books to King Solomon, the wisest of kings: Song of Songs to his youth; Ecclesiastes to his later years; and Proverbs to his middle age.]
After ten years at Temple Sholom, I took a look back at both where I and the congregation had travelled. At that point, in 2009, we has successfully sold our building in Plainfield, found a temporary home at the Fanwood Presbyterian Church, and raised almost enough money (we thought) to build a new building. For me, I realized that I had moved from being the new rabbi at the synagogue - who needed to ask everyone else about its history and customs - to finally having some wisdom and perspective. As I looked back, I focussed on one accomplishment during my tenure - that Temple Sholom had become, in the parlance of the Jewish organizational world, a learning congregation. The term had been coined by Dr. Isa Aron of Hebrew Union College, through the Experiments in Congregational Education (ECE) project. The term did not mean that the members of the congregation all came to adult education classes, but rather that the leadership of the congregation was in a place that encouraged meaningful innovation that fit the needs, goals, and vision of the congregation. Simply put, we had become self-reflective. We no longer only made changes to fix what was broken; we tried new experiments - some of which worked, and some of which did not - because we wanted to be more than ok; we wanted to be better. Ten years earlier, when I had wanted to bring the congregation into the ECE project, I was told we needed to meet a criteria of readiness. ECE could tell us what readiness was, but it had not yet learned how to tell us to get there. Ten years later, we were there.
As in congregations, so in our personal lives. Proverbs says the one who is always anxious is happy - it seems that Jewish neurosis is thousands of years older than Woody Allen. The second half of the verse explains that the opposite of this anxiety is hard-heartedness - unwillingness to change. Anxiety, in this context, is the drive to do better; to not rest content, but to push ourselves to take the risks to make ourselves better.
In the midst of the month of Elul - the month in which we are expected to begin the process of t’shuvah - of repentance; of turning back to the right path, we are called to be learning individuals; to be self-reflective; to be anxious. We have constructed a liturgy, different from the rest of the year, that keeps us uncertain, on the edge, anxious, in order to push ourselves to do the hard work to make ourselves better.
This year, our congregation has a new machzor- the CCAR’s new High HolyDay prayerbook - MIshkan haNefesh - the meeting tent of the soul. The book is designed to help us engage in the process of t’shuvah- of challenging ourselves to make our lives better; to live better - more in the way that we challenge ourselves to be. The Cantor and I are anxious. It is our first time leading out of this new book. We hope that you will be anxious as well - that the new and familiar, but a little different, liturgy will disturb you just enough to make your t’shuvah that much deeper, that much more meaningful, that much more self-reflective.
May we truly have a good year - just anxious enough to keep us moving things in the right direction - the direction of peace, of love, of a better world for us all.
Rabbi Joel N. Abraham