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Where we are (going)

Rabbi David Segal Aspen Jewish Congregation 24 March 2017 | 27 Adar 5777 | Shabbat HaChodesh

This evening marks the beginning of our official goodbyes. I’ve said some goodbyes this month as seasonal members have begun already to disperse to the four winds. I have gotten choked up. This is the bitter part of what makes transitions bittersweet. I have also tried to stay in denial, a happy delusion that is harder to maintain tonight.

When Rollin and I were considering the job in Aspen just over seven years ago, I sought counsel from mentors and colleagues. Naturally, there was caution about the daunting challenge of becoming the first rabbi of a 35-year-old volunteer-led shul. This was scary and exciting to me, and on some days it still is. It tested me, and you, in vital ways.

Aside from this leadership challenge, one mentor warned me about the resort rhythm of Aspen. “I know resort synagogues,” he told me. “I go to one. And it’s nice while I’m there, but you can’t get second-homeowners to engage, to feel invested.”

I’ve never been happier for a mentor to be proven wrong. You part-time residents, you whom we honor and thank and bid farewell tonight — you have shown full-time spirit. We changed the by-laws, which used to restrict the board to full-time residents, and recruited second-homeowners to serve (Daryl Gelender, Elaine Weiss, Sue Raphaelson, Judy Craig). When we switched to voluntary membership dues, we axed the separate membership category for part-time residents, which had viewed second-homeowners with a hint of second-class suspicion.

Now it’s clear how much we rely on you. Your generous financial support makes it possible for us to be here not just in the summer and winter but all year, for the growing and diverse Jewish population up and down the valley. You enrich our summer events, adult education classes, choirs, Shabbat and holiday observances. You’ve invited me and Rollin and our children into your lives, and you’ve opened your homes and your hearts to our community.

In the Torah portion this week, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Moses and the Israelites construct the Tabernacle. The skilled artisans take over to collect donations from all the people who want to contribute to the holy building, and something striking happens:

They received from Moses all the offerings the Israelites had brought to carry out the work of constructing the sanctuary. And the people continued to bring freewill offerings morning after morning. So all the skilled workers who were doing all the work on the sanctuary left what they were doing and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work ADONAI commanded to be done.” Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work. (Exodus 36:3-7)

Think of it as a building campaign where the fundraisers were so overwhelmed by donations that they made donors stop giving. It’s hard to get our heads around that. But I think the Israelites needed to build something together by their own free will and voluntary labor. One of the overlooked evils of slavery is that it robbed the Israelites of their ability to be generous. Now, given the chance, they erupt in a giving frenzy. As one second-homeowner says to me when I thank him for donations, “I’m just happy to be able to give.” The Israelites learned that lesson in this very moment of giving toward the Tabernacle: it is a joy to be able to give, to support, to build, to show up. You have taught me that lesson here.

Unlike Moses, I’m not giving an order to cease and desist giving. (The Development Committee would frown on that, certainly.) I ask that you keep giving, investing, showing up for each other — not because you haven’t given enough, but because the work of building a community, unlike a sanctuary, does not end when you hammer in the last nail.

Whether or not we have our own building — I pass the baton of that challenge and opportunity along now — what makes our community special and sacred and sustaining is not any structure we inhabit but the spirit that inhabits and inspires us. The spirit of care and support for those who are isolated or ill. The spirit of joy for new babies, new b’nei mitzvah, newlyweds. The spirit of responsibility for honoring the dead and comforting the mourner. The spirit of welcoming the stranger. The spirit of learning and living and singing and silence.

The spirit of our congregation is made of the spirits you share. You have shared above and beyond, and I want to challenge you tonight to sustain that spirit of giving. Extend your good spirits to your new rabbi, to old friends and new members who come along, to aging members who make the agonizing choice to move away. You part-time residents proved my mentor wrong because you do see this as your community, as your spiritual home. And you know, as with one’s actual home, it doesn’t take care of itself. When you feel ownership over something, you don’t simply expect it to be there for you without your taking responsibility for it. I hope and pray and trust that your spirit of responsibility will continue.

For my part, I will carry all of you with me in spirit from here. We are told in Pekudei that the priest wore a breast piece inlaid with 12 precious stones, each one engraved with a name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. In all he did, the priest carried the spirits of all Israel with him. It was a check on his ego, but I know now it was something else as well. It was a reminder that a spiritual leader carries with him all the names and spirits of the people he has ever served. That’s one of the sweet parts of bittersweet.

I want to close with a poem that reminds me of you, our seasonal folks. It’s called “where we are.”

where we are (for edward field) by Gerald Locklin

i envy those who live in two places: new york, say, and london; wales and spain; l.a. and paris; hawaii and switzerland. [Aspen and Columbus, or Chicago, or Kansas City, or Dallas, or Florida, or...]

there is always the anticipation of the change, the chance that what is wrong is the result of where you are. i have always loved both the freshness of arriving and the relief of leaving. with two homes every move would be a homecoming. i am not even considering the weather, hot or cold, dry or wet: i am talking about hope.

Over the years, I developed a habit when greeting seasonal folks upon their return from their offseason abode. I say: “Welcome home.” I soon realized that it wasn't a joke. Together, we made this place into a spiritual, spirited home. I always looked forward to the freshness of your arrival, and I dreaded your leaving each spring and fall.

Tonight, of course, I face my own leaving, but I, too, am talking about hope. The hope that we will carry each other’s names and spirits with us as we scatter to the winds. The hope that I, like you, will be back. The hope that it will always feel like home.

Shabbat shalom.

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