By Rabbi Jordan Gendra, Ph. D.
Once upon a time, the trees saw that humans were given a Rosh ha-Shana, the beginning of a new year. Then the trees went to God and complained saying: “Is not it written in your Torah that humans are like trees? If humans are like tree and trees like humans then shouldn’t we have a new year too?” Agreeing that they were right, God asked the trees when they wanted to celebrate their new year. We need the water, therefore let it be on the month of Shevat because on this month Israel received the mitzvah “When you enter the land and you plant any tree for food…” (Lev 19:23).
This is how the first day of Shevat came to be the festival; but the trees raised the question: “During Shevat there is neither festival nor simcha (joy), but only the usual Rosh Hodesh. Will Shevat not have a special day? At the end, G-d concluded, and so did the House of Hillel, that the New Year for the trees would be celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Shevat.
Shevat will be here soon. One of the coldest months of the year, when nature seems to be asleep, resting and building up energy to blossom the next spring. Similarly, we could look through the same lenses at the life in our synagogue. The rush around the High Holidays and Chanukah is long gone. There is nothing else to be celebrated until Purim. Community life seems to come to a stop. However, this is only appearance.
For many centuries, Jews always took special care of their synagogues because they are a translation into a physical aspect of values and non-physical ideas. The synagogue as a beit tefilah (house of prayer), as a beit midrash (house of study) and beit keneset (house of meeting) represents the heart of the Jewish identity and experience, being always at the very center of the Jewish life wherever the Jews had lived. This is probably one of the most cherished institutions and the most efficient tool to experience Judaism and to pass down it to the next generation.
The trees in the opening story raised their point saying: “Is it not written in your Torah that humans are like trees?” Certainly, it can be applied to humans, but this is even truer about congregations. Like the trees, congregations need to be nourished today if we want them to survive, to get more strength, to blossom and to provide shadow to the next generation. Therefore, planning becomes a crucial element in this holy endeavor.
As never before, synagogues around the country and from all Jewish denominations share the same common challenges. There are only few synagogues in this country that are lucky enough not to fight with a tight budget or that have no losses. Disagreement between members is also an integral piece in the life of our communities. During the last few years the development boom has changed the geography of many places bringing demographic shifts. We live in a society that changes very quickly and we have the moral obligation to respond to these challenges, therefore planning is necessary.
A passage from the Talmud (TB Taanit 23a) tells us that once Honi ha-Maguil was walking on the road and he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Honi thought: “Carob trees need many years to bear fruit and this man probably will not be alive to eat from it.” He asked the man: “Do you expect to be alive when the tree will bear fruit?” The man answered: “I did not find the world desolate when I entered it,” said the old man, “and as my fathers planted for me before I was born, so do I plant for those who will come after me.” As the old man from the story, we also need to do what it is so natural for farmers and gardeners: we need to plant and plan for our future.
We need to work to make our communities a meeting point where people of all kind of backgrounds will find a place to experience wholeness in their lives, enjoying community, connecting with each other, reflecting, dreaming, asking questions and seeking answers. Abraham Y. Heschel reminded us that we are partners of God in tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. However, in order to accomplish this task, we also have to be also k’lei kodesh, holy instruments or vessels, who seek to transform our synagogue into a more spiritually fulfilling community.
Rabbi Jordan Gendra (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ’06) is the first native Spanish rabbi ordained in 500 years. He is moving to Albuquerque in July. He has authored several books and articles in Spanish focusing on the development of the Kabbalah and he has taught courses related to Judaism. Rabbi Gendra collaborates regularly with Casa Sefarad at Nahalat Shalom. He works as an English-Spanish translator and also offers life coaching and spiritual direction. Rabbi Gendra also enjoys his book related art as calligrapher, printer and bookbinder.