The Power of WE by Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff 

Friends, as I said before, it’s good to be back at Temple Sholom. When we left here in 1990, Fran was thinking that we would be away from Chicago, her birthplace, for five years or so and then find our way back. Well, five turned into 29, but finally we are back. Those 29 years were a great adventure, being in one congregation for 25 years and then going on to serve as Interim Rabbi in five different cities.

Last year I was at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, just outside of Pittsburgh proper. We really enjoyed living in Pittsburgh. Of course, the murder of 11 fellow Jews on October 27 at Tree of Life Synagogue certainly colored our year, but so did the amazing and inspiring embrace of the non-Jewish communities in its aftermath. All in all, it was a good year. Pittsburgh has so much to offer and we took advantage of all of it: plays, concerts, conservatory, and Pittsburgh Pirates ball games in their beautiful PNC Park. Our first Pirates game was fortuitous. It was Jewish Heritage day with a kosher BBQ beforehand. And they were giving out these Pirates hats with this Jewish star. You like? Oh, and did I mention, they were playing the Cubs?

The morning after the game, people in the Temple were clearly not happy about its outcome. So when I bounded into the office and declared, “Wasn’t it a great game last night?” I was met with some puzzled looks. One of the women in the office looked up at me with a particularly sad face and said, “But I thought we lost!” My response surprised her, “No, we didn’t, we won!” “Oh, I thought the Pirates lost,” she said. “Right,” said I, “you, the Pirates lost [take off Pirates hat to reveal Cubs hat], which means we, the Cubs won!” (Those were the days.)

You know, that word “WE” can be very tricky. It can also be very powerful. And last year in Pittsburgh, I learned just how powerful a WE can be. I learned it, not at the Temple, or the ballpark, or in the museum or in the concert hall. I learned the power of WE in a relatively unknown place called the Onala Recovery Center, where I spent some time. The Onala Center is dedicated to helping people who are addicted to alcohol or narcotics, housing around 50 separate meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous a week.

What was I doing attending group meetings in a recovery center? You might have read that I have been pursuing a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. One of the assignments for my class in Group Counselling was to attend four sessions of some ongoing group, and I chose a Narcotics Anonymous group at the Onala Recovery Center.

Once I had identified what group I wanted to attend, I called the ahead and asked the group leader if I could be there as an observer. “Sure.” she said, “It’s an open group. You are welcome to sit in as long as you maintain confidentiality and don’t say anything. “I can do that,” I said.

On the way to my first meeting, I was nervous, feeling somewhat awkward, wondering if I was entering a place I did not belong. I parked my car, and as I approached, I noticed men and women of different ages, some kind of scruffy, some not, hanging out near the entrance door. As I drew near, people who had never seen me before in their lives came up to me, greeted me with a smile, extended a hand, and introduced themselves, first names only, of course. “Hi, I’m Paula,” one woman said. “Hi, I’m Don.” “We are glad you are here, Don.” “So am I,” I meekly responded.

Paula (not her real name) was not an assigned greeter and these folks were not an official welcoming committee with carnations on the lapels of their t-shirts. This was simply a group of members embodying the ethos of the community they had created by being open, welcoming, friendly, non-judgmental, and genuinely happy that someone new wanted to be part of them. In not in so many words, they were saying, “It does not matter where you came from, why you came today, what you might have done yesterday or what you might do tomorrow. All that matters is that you are here with us today and wanting to be part of us.” It was clear that, in their minds, I was included and embraced in their WE.

Each meeting followed a set agenda. It began with everyone reciting the serenity prayer. You know, that’s the one about accepting the things you can’t change, changing the things you can, and having the wisdom to know the difference. That was followed a reading of the Narcotics Anonymous guiding principles, along with the rules that they collectively had agreed to as to how they would be with each other. After that, the leader – who was also suffering from addiction – asked if anyone wished to share an anniversary. One person stood and said, “Today is 6 months clean.” Applause and words of praise. “Good going, man!” Another said, “If I remain clean today, tomorrow, it will be eight months.” Applause and more words of affirmation. One gentleman shared that he was having a party that weekend with his children and grandchildren – family from whom he had been previously estranged for 15 years. They were celebrating his being clean since 1998. Wow! I wanted to shout out, “mazal tov,” but held back and just applauded.

NA follows the 12 steps of AA, so after the anniversaries, one of the 12 steps was read and everyone was given an opportunity, if they chose, to talk about what that concept meant to them. The theme that first day was interdependence. Most of the comments revolved around how much they needed each other and the group in order to stay clean. “Self-sufficiency is a lie,” one man declared. Another shared how she had once thought she could do this on her own, but then found the hard way that she could not. “I need this group and I need you people.” More than once I heard, “Without this group, I would be back in prison or dead.” One man simply said, “I can’t, but WE can.” For me, that was another wow.

The meetings ended with a reading called “We Do Recover” designed to foster resilience and instill hope. It reminded them that there were two alternatives from which they chose: either go on as best they could to the bitter ends—jails, institutions or death—or find a new way to live. Of course, I could not but think of the passage we read on Shabbat and will repeat on Yom Kippur: “Behold, I set before you today the blessing and the curse, life and death. So choose life that you might live.” For us, the choice is mostly metaphoric. For them, it is literally a choice between of life and death, a deliberate choice they struggle to make day after day after day.

I have to tell you, I was blown away by the strength, the resilience, the courage and the mutual caring of these good folks. Meetings ended with everyone standing arm in arm in what we would call a friendship circle, reciting again the serenity prayer. A few pats on the back and we went our separate ways. Going back to my car, I tried to write down as much as I could remember.

The second week’s theme went beyond self-sufficiency and talked about relying on a higher power. It read, “We came to accept that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Those who so chose then shared what their greater power was, or as one person put it, the God of their understanding. Was that greater power capital-G God? For some. For others it

was no more and no less than their own inner resources. One person said something to the effect: “For me, turning my life over to a Higher Power means privileging my highest, most noble, most self-less self over my self-serving and self-gratifying self.” At a later meeting, someone said, “As long as I try to be a better me, I am at one with my higher power.” As long as I try to be a better me, I am at one with my higher power.

For many, that higher power was the power of the community itself and the presence of those around them. Some spoke of the group secular salvific terms: “The power of this group saved me!” Standing arm in arm at the end of my fourth meeting, I truly felt that power. It was the last time I would attend. But before I left, I just had to tell someone what I was doing there and how it had touched me. So as everyone was walking out, I pulled Paula aside told her why I had been coming. Somewhat teary-eyed, I told her how moved and inspired I was by the people in that room. “Will you be coming back?” she asked. “No,” I said, feeling sad and guilty. “So tell people about us,” she said. “I can do that,” I said.

Friends, if there was ever living proof of hiney mah tov, how good it is, how not just pleasant but powerful and transformative it is, for brothers and sisters linked in bonds of mutual concern to come together, open their hearts, and truly save each other. I saw that living at the Onala Recovery Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Why am I sharing this on one of our most holy of holy days? It is partly to fulfill my promise, but, as you might have already surmised, it’s because I think there are lessons, important lessons, to be learned. You see, what is critical is not what they do to welcome without judgement, but what we do, both within these sacred walls and beyond. It’s not about their interdependence, but ours, not the greater power of their understanding, but the greater power of our understandings.

Lesson #1 is about non-judgmental acceptance and joyous welcome.

As Rabbi Gellman so beautifully said last night, we all have biases. Being non-judgmental is hard. Each of us has our own histories and our own proclivities which includes what we look up to in others and what we look down upon. But we can train ourselves, not to look up to nor down upon, but to look straight at. As Buber and Levinas both taught in different ways, truly looking at another is to see the humanity in their eyes and the divinity in their souls

Sometimes it is difficult to find – that is part of the work of acceptance. What helps is to assume that what we assume about the other ain’t necessarily so. Sure, we all make judgements – we all have our prejudices. But sometimes prejudice can be a good thing – especially when we follow teachings of Sages in Pirkei Avot, havay dan kol echad l’chaf zechut to pre-judge everyone favorably. In modern HR-speak, we would say, always assume positive intent. That’s Jewish prejudice, predisposed to seek out the good in the other and find the many points of our common humanity.

Likewise, here at Temple, we are called to engage with non-judgmental acceptance and joyous welcome, what Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the URJ calls “audacious hospitality.”

Everyone who walks through the doors of Temple Sholom – be they third or fourth generation members or entering for the first time, likewise nervous, awkward, not sure if this is a place they belong – everyone should be greeted as I was greeted at Onala – with a smile, an outstretched hand, and a welcome that communicates “We are happy you are here!” That is one of the aspects of the ethos of Temple Sholom which I cherish. Temple Sholom is and ever

strives to be a judgement-free zone. In this sacred community, you are not judged based on your background, your age, your personal status, financial status, or gender identification, the level of your Jewish knowledge or observance, whether you are religious or spiritual, believe this or that or none of the above, what you wear on your head or on your feet, whom you love and how, your mental and physical abilities and disabilities, what party you vote for or the shade of your skin or colors of your hair, the clothes you wear or the car you drive – or even whether or not you own a car, or the team you root for. (OK, maybe the team you root for.) All that matters is that you are here, today.

As members of this Temple, you are customers of a sort. But you are also owners, representatives, ambassadors, and exemplars called to embody the ethos of Temple Sholom and what it strives to be. It is up to all of us, not just clergy and staff, to make sure that those who would come through our doors in search of a spiritual home feel that they are Jewishly normal. Within our walls there is no such thing as an inadequate Jew. We need to make sure that those who enter for the first time feel that they have come home.

With or without the words being spoken, our task, especially this year, is to nurture in each other’s hearts the feeling that indeed, Hinay mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad. How truly good, how truly beautiful, how powerful and how meaningful, how truly sacred it is that we are joined together as brothers and sisters, family all. Young and young at heart, engaged in a sacred community of meaning, mattering, and mutuality.

Which brings us to Lesson #2: Interdependence.

You think self-sufficiency is not a lie? I ask you then to take a moment and look down at your hand. You can see it, right. That’s because the lights are on. Now look up and look around at your fellow congregants, because without them to help you pay the electric bill for this place, you would be sitting in the dark, or not sitting here at all. It’s silly, I know, but it concretizes our interdependence, the point that here too, you can’t, I can’t, but WE can. We need each other to keep the power on and the energy flowing, the energy of the spirit, the energy of justice and compassion, the energy of learning, the energy of Torah that is alive and living through us.

The Talmud reminds us “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh – we are responsible for each other, and by extension we are responsible to each other. None of us is so self-sufficient that we never need a pat on the back, a word of comfort or encouragement. None of us should be an island – none of us need to be an island as long as we are here for each other in mutual dependency. As I wrote in the Holiday book, we must strive to make our presence here and in the world speak the word spoken by Abraham and the prophets: hineyni, one to the other. I am here with you; I am here for you. Again, are we perfect at all of that? No, it is not so easy, but friends, God is not finished with us yet.

Speaking of which, we come to lesson #3: relying upon a higher power.

Forgive my theological chutzpah, but I believe there is a higher Power in each of our lives. It does not matter whether or not we use the word God; Martin Buber wrote that the word God has so much baggage that sometimes it can get in the way. I invite you to take a moment, if you will, to name for yourself the higher power of your understanding. What moves your heart? What undergirds your resilience, your hope, and your willingness to sacrifice? What privileges your highest, most noble, most selfless self? What motivates your desire to change the world? What serves as due north for your moral compass?

Your power might be a God who answers your prayers – even when the answer is no. Your higher power might be the power of community, the power of the Jewish people, the power of the human family, or the collective power of all life which acts through you, kind of like the Force. Your higher power may be a set of values you aspire to embody. Your power may be a Shepard who walks with you through the valley, or as Rabbi Schwartz taught, a cheerleader who shares your joy when you gain yardage, your sadness when you lose yardage, who can’t run onto the field and carry the ball but who never gives up on you and is always cheering you towards the distant goalposts.

For many people, it is the power of self-less love. For me, it is all of the above and more. Whatever the power of your understanding, what makes it Jewish way is that leads you towards a better you. And is that not what we are supposed to be doing together today and tomorrow and every day – each of us striving to be better “ME’s” – together striving to be a better “WE” and in so doing, becoming one with our higher power?

Oh, and, by the way, if you believe there is no higher power, just us alone in an empty, uncaring universe, then, as Rabbi Richard Rubenstein taught, it means that we need each other and the heritage we share even more to help us transverse the rocky roads of life (See Lessons 1 & 2.). That’s the saving power of WE.

Mikol melamdai hiskalti, taught Rabbi Chanina. I have learned from everyone who has had something to teach me: my teachers, my colleagues, and especially my studentsi. And to that I add, I have also I learned from people whose names I do not know, people whom I might pass every day without giving them a second glance.

Of course, it’s not like these folks at Onala taught me anything I did not know – or that you did not know about acceptance, interdependence, and a greater power. But they live it, live for it, and live because of it. And sometimes we need to be reminded how very important certain things are –especially now as we take stock of who we are as individuals, and as a community and what we would strive to become.

We need to be reminded about how welcoming we must be, how much we rely on each other, and how we are individually and collectively connected sustained, motivated, nudged, dependent and loved by a higher power above us, around us, within us and between us. Hinay mah tov – how good, how beautiful, how important it is that we stand in the presence of that power, standing together with all those who are with us this day and all those who are not, those upon whose shoulders we stand as well as those who will stand upon ours, linked arm and arm and heart to heart in that greater “WE” we lovingly and gratefully call team Temple Sholom!

Shanah tovah. i Talmud Ta’anit 7a