Choosing Community, Choosing Membership (Lech L’cha)

Posted on October 15, 2021

Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis
Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA  •  October 15, 2021  •  10 Cheshvan 5782

When I was in my early 20s, I spent several months on a kibbutz in the middle of the Negev, the desert region that is the southern half of Israel.  Kibbutz Revivim is a place that is isolated, really in the middle of nowhere, and life there is very much with people.  Unfortunately, I do not know what the state of things there is now, but at the time I was there in the late 1990s, it was several hundred people making a life with each other, farming together and working in the kibbutz factory together, with a central laundry, such that everyone knew what each other’s socks and sheets looked like, and a dining hall where folks ate lunch together, and houses built up close to each other.  At the time I lived there, kids were raised within their individual families—the times of communal children’s houses on kibbutzim with children being raised apart from their parents was a thing of the past—but even so, kids, and pet dogs, roamed free around the kibbutz, and everyone kept track of each other.  It was good, and it was supportive, and it was extremely nosy.  Everyone was in everyone else’s business all the time, both figuratively and literally:  their business and their personal lives were all deliberately tangled up in one another.  Kibbutz living had all of the advantages of close-up, intimate community, and all of the disadvantages too.

I attended a panel discussion once while I was there, where kibbutz members spoke about their lives—and the conversation ended up largely focusing on choice.  Not only had each member made the original choice to join the kibbutz (which involved a long process of its own), they each spoke about how—as the reality of life so close up with others confronted them with daily challenges—that to maintain a healthy life for themselves there, they had to actively evaluate and make the choice for themselves again and again to be part of the kibbutz community, every single day reminding themselves why they’d made the choice that they had, and checking to make sure that it was still the choice they wanted to make.

Not everyone deliberating that choice on a regular basis chose to stay.  Some left, knowing that that was the right and healthiest thing for them to do.  Others elected to stay, day after day, year after year, actively searching within themselves to make sure they were clear:  this is the life I chose, and this is the life I still choose; here are the challenges, and here is why it is worth it to me… for now, and, I hope, for tomorrow too.

The lesson that I learned from those members of Kibbutz Revivim has guided me through the years.  I am well aware that so many things that confront us in our lives are beyond our control—but more things are within the realm of our choice than most of us let ourselves recognize most of the time.  When we stay in a marriage (even a good marriage), in a workplace (even a wonderful workplace), in a friendship, in a home, in a town—we can easily start to assume that things in our lives simply are as they are and that our bed is made, or we can actively evaluate and choose them for ourselves again and again with deliberation and maybe even with joy.

I was thinking about all of this this week as I was looking at the text of our Torah portion, Lech L’cha, which begins with God telling Avram to go to a land that God will show him—and Avram (Abraham) picking up his life and uprooting his family and going… and going… until God tells them to stop. Avram chooses a life for himself that day, opting to follow the path God lays before him.  But Avram’s saying yes to that life isn’t the end of his story, with the deal done.  Three more times in this Torah portion, God offers a covenant to Abraham, and each time Abraham’s actions indicate that he accepts anew. As the Torah goes on through the generations of Abraham and Sarah’s family, their descendants are offered the covenant again and again, and every time they make an active choice to take it on.  Sometimes, they seem to feel restless under the confines of having chosen to live so up close with each other and in partnership with God (who is not always an easy God to live with): it’s not always comfortable to have made the choice to stay, but they assess it to be worth it again and again, for their own sake and each other’s sake.

I was thinking about this also within the context of what it means in our world today to choose to be part of a synagogue community and to support each other here.  Even before the pandemic, we already lived in a time when being part of religious/tribe-like community was largely optional—and life during the pandemic has shown to what extent membership in a temple is, really, not at all like membership at a gym.  When we talk about gym membership, we are usually talking about fee-for-use, thinking about how many times we went this week or this month, and whether or not we stay members depends on how much we are taking advantage of its services.  For those of you who have chosen synagogue membership, you know that it is much more akin to membership at a kibbutz or in an ever-renewing covenant:  we are choosing life together, so that we can make sure the community is here for us in times in time of joy and grief, that it’s here for when we want to learn or worship, that it’s here for our children, and for other members, and for the future.  We actively choose this place again and again as the covenant we want to make, and the community we want to build, and when we actively make that choice, we do so like those kibbutznikim who believed in their ideal, even when it was tricky to get it right.

It is a mussar principle that we can choose the lenses, values, and vocabulary through which we want to make deliberate choices about the daily paths we walk in this world.  It’s not always easy, but it is ours.  May we be blessed with wisdom as we make our choices and walk in our ways, and with wholeness with every intention we set for ourselves.