Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
Jacob is fleeing from his brother who wants to kill him for stealing his birthright. Its night. Jacob has sent gifts ahead to appease Esau. He crosses the river and wrestles with an angel. He “wins” and also “loses” that wresting match. He “wins” in that he struggles with a Divine being and isn’t zapped. He loses because the angel touches his thigh sinew at the end and so he limps forever; and because of that, in remembrance, Jews cannot eat the thigh sinew of any meat, and so kosher filet mignon—the thigh meat with the sinew removed— is very expensive. Blame it on the angel. After this wrestling match Jacob meets Easu and they reconcile in a beautiful and moving teary-eyed scene.
There things about this reconciliation are especially relevant to new members.
But to understand the relevance, I first need to introduce you to a concept. Jewish thinker Rabbi Ron Wolfson has coined the phrase “relational Judaism. “ A relational shul, he posits, is the kind of synagogue where, like Cheers, everyone knows your name. They know what you are interested in and what you aren’t interested in. A relational shul welcomes you warmly and isn’t about how much you pay for your terumah or what the school costs. People join shuls to have such relationships, I think. People join shuls because they don’t want to parachute an unknown Rabbi in for the most important moments of their lives. They don’t want to sit shiva alone. They don’t want to sit at a Bar Mitzvah service and feel like a guest in their own shul. They don’t want to be divided into camps as Jacob divided his people.
So, first—after the wrestle, the angel says to Jacob: "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But Jacob answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." Said the angel, "What is your name?”
We cannot bless each other—and I cannot bless you—if you don’t know me and I don’t know you and you don’t know each other. Thats why in most services I’ll ask you to turn and introduce yourself. Thats why at Sat services we share what happened to us during the week that we are grateful for. Thats why our Mitzvah group will visit you in the hospital or pay a shiva call or bring you soup if you have a new baby. Even if you say “Don’t bother, its not necessary.” We want to know you. Please, new members, help us be a relational shul. Bless us with your “names” by being in relationship with other members and with me.
Second—at the reconciliation with Esau Jacob offers gifts. Esau refuses and Jacob presses him, saying: “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favourably.” A relational shul treats each member as if seeing them is seeing the face of God: every member, every volunteer, every leader, and… the Rabbi. We strive at City Shul to speak kindly and with sensitivity with each other, and to always remember we are all created in the image of God. Some of us are single and some are married—and we will speak sensitively about that. Some have kids and some don’t—and we will speak sensitively about that. Some of us are white and some are black; some are Asian and some are Caucasian; some are straight and some are gay and some are cis and some are trans; some are old and some are older (and some believe “orange is the new black”) and some are young and some are younger—and we will speak sensitively about that. Some are born Jewish and some become Jewish and some support the Jews in their families while not being or becoming Jewish themselves; and we try and see the face of God in absolutely every member, and receive them favourably.
And third—most significant for joining shul—at the end of the reconciliation, Esau says to Jacob: "Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.”
You’ve joined a start-up shul. Our Bar Mitzvahs meet in a basement. We do potluck dinners. Our prayerbooks are donated left-overs with stickies and loose binding. In ten years from now, if you are with us for the long run—and I sincerely hope you will be— we may laugh nostalgically at what we once were, but for now, you’ve promised to proceed at our pace. You’ve joined a Reform shul that is decidedly eclectic in its Reform-ness, with a a covenant of membership and a Leadership Team that supports its Rabbi to be the deciding religious authority of the synagogue. You’ve promised to start on your journey with us at our pace. That is not to say we don’t listen and pay special attention to the feelings, likes and dislikes, opinions, hopes and visions of the congregants. On the contrary—we pride ourselves on being a grassroots shul where every congregant’s voice is valued, and where every member’s involvement, talent, skill and opinion, thoughts, and ideas makes a huge impact on who we are. But we also pride ourselves on having a clear vision of what principles our shul stands for, and you, dear new members, will be an integral part of clarifying and manifesting those principles in the years to come.
So we welcome you with open arms. We hope you never feel that being a member of City Shul is a wrestling match, or needs gifts of appeasement. (Though we do have a tradition of donating bottle of scotch if you miss an appointment if you are gabbai.) We hope you feel that you have begun a journey with us that will be spiritually fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, musically uplifting, prayerfully open-hearted, and most of all, relational. With each other, with me, and with the Holy One and the sense of holiness this synagogue strives to offer you.