From the first day of Rosh Hashanah….
Approximately 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher said, “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.” Some 500 years later, Pliny the Elder – a Roman philosopher said, “Home is where the heart is.” Benjamin Franklin, the well-known 18th Century American statesman said, “A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.” Robert Frost, the great 20th Century American poet, wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
In truth, I could present many more quotes about the home because the concept of home is so central to the human condition. Home-cooking evokes feelings of comfort and contentment. Home-grown and home-made items are assumed to be of higher quality. The goal of our national pastime is to get back home – and, of course, all sports teams enjoy a home-field advantage. On the internet, the screen which introduces us to the world and puts forth our core message is a home page. Home is so much more than just a place, but it all starts with the physical space.
To this day, I still remember my childhood room, my assigned place at the dinner table, my preferred corner of the couch for TV watching, the secret hiding places and so much more. What I really remember is the sense of security and comfort that those physical spaces conveyed to me as a young child. I knew that I belonged there and those spaces belonged to me.
After all, I was fortunate enough to live in the same house from the moment I came home from the hospital as a newborn until I left for college. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t think I realized how amazing that was until I became a parent myself. In the 15+ years that Jodi and I have been parents, we have moved twice – completely by choice. The first time, Gabi – our oldest – was too young to really know the difference. The people and things that were most important to her moved with her. The second time, however, we moved with three kids and a dog. Fortunately, we had enough time to do some advance planning with our kids to minimize the stress.
Not everyone is so lucky.
In today’s world, the economic situation of a family can change overnight – the loss of a job, an illness without good insurance, the loss of a pension, a bad investment, a divorce, an addiction or some combination of these experiences can all contribute to a financial crisis for a family. And before you know it, a family not so different from yours or mine is out of their home.
Maybe they can stay with a relative or a friend for a short period of time while they try to figure out what happened and what to do next, but no one likes to be an imposition. Maybe they can borrow some money to keep them going, but eventually that runs out. Maybe they sleep in their car for a few nights, but that’s no way to live. There ought to be somewhere they can go to live with dignity for a short while until they can get back on their feet and regain their independence. Karen Olson – a marketing executive and a Summit resident – thought so too.
About thirty years ago, on her way to work, she saw a homeless person. Big deal – you might say. Who hasn’t seen a homeless person on their way to work? But Karen Olson really SAW this homeless person in a way most of us don’t. She bought a sandwich for that woman and started a conversation with her. Then, she started making sandwiches and taking her sons with her to deliver them to other homeless people. After five years of giving sandwiches and listening to people’s stories, she wanted to provide someplace for these people to stay while they tried to get back on their feet.
She realized that the cost of building shelters was prohibitive, but at about the same time she realized that most houses of worship sit empty overnight when these people most need some shelter. And with that realization, the Interfaith Hospitality Network was born. Eleven congregations right here in Union County, New Jersey opened their doors to homeless families. Within a year another ten congregations joined the program.
Today, there are over 6,000 congregations in 41 states providing shelter to over 49,000 homeless individuals annually – and roughly 30,000 of those 49,000 people (over 60%!!) are children under the age of 18. The Interfaith Hospitality Network eventually changed its name to Family Promise and now has 180 offices nationwide. For the families who find themselves in crisis, Family Promise provides not just food and shelter, but also job training, job placement support and housing leads, but perhaps most importantly, it lets these families know that there are people who care about what happens to them.
I was introduced to this organization shortly after arriving here in Summit. For years, we have been what is called a support congregation. Our facility was not adequate to serve as a shelter, but we organized volunteers to staff the shelter and provide meals while another congregation – usually the Unitarian Church of Summit – physically hosted the families. But, then a funny thing happened – we doubled the size of our facility.
We can worship together in our building on the High Holidays. We can accommodate our entire religious school at one time. We can add a full-day kindergarten to our Nursery School. We can have adult education classes while our Nursery School is in session. We are truly blessed. And when someone is blessed – as we are – we have an obligation to share our blessings with others.
That is why we use the word tzedakah instead of charity. Charity means “a voluntary gift.” Tzedakah means justice or righteousness. Instead of helping someone simply because we choose to do so (as the word charity suggests), we help people out because it is the just thing to do, because we are obligated to do so. I recognize that it is a fine line between the two – and a voluntary gift is a wonderful thing! – but it is an important distinction nonetheless.
Consider the following teaching from our tradition: According to the Talmud, Rabbi Elazar taught that anyone who recites the Ashrei prayer (which is largely comprised of Psalm 145) three times a day is assured of a place in the World-to-Come (BT Brachot 4b). Thus, the Ashrei is recited twice during every Morning Service and once at the beginning of the Afternoon Service. But why the Ashrei – and not the Sh’ma or the Amidah or the Ten Commandments?
In trying to figure out why Rabbi Elazar chose the Ashrei for this special treatment, later rabbis zeroed in on the verse that starts with the Hebrew letter ‘pey’ (Psalm 145 is an acrostic): “God opens a hand and satisfies the needs of every living thing.” Now, anyone who looks around can see that there are plenty of people with needs that are going unsatisfied.
And that is precisely why we say this three times a day.
Because God HAS provided enough for everyone. The problem is not in production; it’s in distribution. By saying this line three times every day, we remind ourselves to be God’s partners in providing for those who are less fortunate. So, it’s not simply the recitation of words, but the inevitable conversion of those words into action.
Well, I can tell you that we have taken Rabbi Elazar’s words seriously when it comes to the recitation of the Ashrei. It’s the first prayer that our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students work on as they begin their year of preparation leading up to their big day. I chant it every Wednesday with our Religious School students. It is a part of every morning and afternoon service here in our Synagogue. And now we have an incredible opportunity to put those words into action.
Thanks to our expanded physical plant, we can now be a host congregation for Family Promise, and we have committed to our first week of hosting starting October 6th. I hope that this is not news to you. We have publicized it through all of our usual means of communication. But, in today’s world, I recognize that we are all saturated with mail, email, phone calls, Facebook posts, tweets and more. It’s easy to miss something – even something as important as this.
Now, I am sure that some people are thinking that we just spent all this money to enlarge and enhance our building. Do we really want to open it up to strangers right now who might put additional wear and tear on it?
Well, I’d like to remind you that we are sitting in our brand new sanctuary (many of us are at least). When we use the word sanctuary, we think about consecrated, sacred space for prayer. But Sanctuary has a second definition – a place of refuge and protection. People in danger seek sanctuary. We know, for example, that the Kiddush was added to the synagogue service on Friday nights and festival eves for the sake of people who were sleeping in the synagogue so that they would hear the words of the Kiddush even if they didn’t have a home to go back to following services.
Further, all the names for a synagogue in Hebrew – Beit Knesset (House of Assembly), Beit Midrash (House of Study), Beit Tefillah (House of Prayer) – start with the word “Beit” which means ‘house’ or ‘home.’ Avraham and Sarah – the very first Jews about whom we read during this Rosh Hashanah holiday from the Torah – were lauded for their commitment to “hachnassat orchim” – welcoming guests in their home – even when it was not convenient. How do we know this? According to one Midrash, Avraham welcomed three strangers into his tent the day after his circumcision in the heat of the day. Think about that for moment.
In discussing this mitzvah – this obligation – which Avraham and his wife Sarah came to personify, the Mishnah teaches that it is permissible to move bundles of wheat on Shabbat – agricultural work that would ordinarily be forbidden – in order to make room for guests. In other words, we bend the rules of the Sabbath in order to be good hosts. The great sage Rabbi Yochanan said, “Welcoming guests is as great as rising early to go to the Beit Midrash (see BT Shabbat 127b).”
We have a small group of volunteers who have been planning for months in order for us to be good hosts, but it is a tremendous undertaking and we need your help. It is a no small to host up to five families for a week. We must divide our social hall up into five living spaces. We need to set up beds. We need to provide lunches and dinners and snacks. But most importantly, we need to provide companionship – to let these people who are down on luck right now know that they are not alone in the world. In short, we need everyone in our community to be a part of this effort.
Whether you want to provide supplies, do some prep work or spend some time with our guests, we need you. We need you starting this Sunday, when we will go pick up a lot of the equipment that we will need from a St. Luke’s Church in Union which can no longer serve as a host. If you can help us out, let me know or let Heidi Block know after services.
In less than two weeks, we will have a Sukkah – a temporary dwelling – standing somewhere on our lawn. Some of us will have them in our backyards. We will eat meals in the Sukkah. We will have programs in the Sukkah. Some people will even sleep a night or two in the Sukkah. These Sukkot – these booths – are supposed to remind us of how fortunate we are to have permanent homes. It’s easy to forget how much we have and how blessed we are.
This year, let us put our gratitude into action. Let us share our blessings with those who do not have everything they need by opening the doors of our sanctuary – our spiritual home and place of refuge – to a handful of families who have nowhere else to go. And in so doing, we will have truly invited God to reside among us as God said in the book of Exodus: “Make for me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them.”
When the holiday is over and you’ve had some time to think over what a huge mitzvah this is for us as a congregation, I hope let me know how you’d like to help.
Rabbi Avi Friedman