As we mark the first Shabbat of 5781, our Torah portion is Ha’azinu. The Torah’s penultimate portion contains Moses’ final oration to the Israelites and derives its name from the opening word of that valedictory: Ha’azinu! Listen!
Poetically, Moses addresses his words to “heaven and earth,” but, of course, his sermon was intended for the entire Jewish people to hear and harken to. Indeed, Moses was speaking to both those in the “wilderness generation” who built the first sanctuary, as well as to those of us, here and now, who are responsible for congregational Jewry as it exists today, to say nothing of whether it will exist in another generation.
So do I address this first-of-the-year d’var Torah to both our local congregations’ loyalists and leaders as well as to the future Jewish generations who will, in time, call our community their own.
My friends, as we take our first tentative steps into this new year, we are aware of how much of the past year was erased; and we know well how much of our future is uncertain, if not upended. Indeed, a great many of the initiatives — for budgets and buildings, for schooling and staffing, and for the future of our respective congregations that our community’s leaders and I imagined only a few years ago, confidently set in motion eight to 18 months ago, and were counting on ever since — all are now in dire need of a radical reevaluation.
After all, since March 2020, the coronavirus has exposed our weaknesses and has accelerated our decline, such that everything is now different across our landscape, and none of our prior expectations are any longer fully intact.
But amid so much crisis and uncertainty, one thing has not changed. At least not yet.
By and large, every single one of our congregations (here in Pittsburgh and across the country, to be sure) still seeks to solve its own challenges … (wait for it) … solo. And this in spite of the fact that congregations, their boards and rabbis share the majority of these present challenges in common.
Why would so many otherwise inclusive congregations pursue isolationist policy? Fear, I suspect — namely the fear that we are the only one who is frightened, who is hurt, and, ironically, we dare not admit our fear or our pain and therein exacerbate both.
But, imagine what could happen if our collective community were to heed Moses’ exhortation and we were to engage a listening campaign among all those who love and lead our shteiblach.
Yes, imagine what could happen if our community were to answer Moses’ call, “Ha’azinu,” by being curious enough about our neighbors to sincerely listen, to seek to learn, so as to better understand what hurts our friends, what together we fear, and what we desire in common.
Imagine what could happen if members of one congregation were truly to listen to members of a neighboring congregation, so all might better appreciate and achieve their shared hopes and dreams for the future of this Jewish community.
Above all else, Ha’azinu teaches that we must listen with a heart open to all people. We must listen with a mind open to those who feel and think differently. And we must listen with imaginations unfettered, such that we are in dialogue, as was Moses, both with those who are with us now, and, too, with the generations who will follow us, who are depending upon us, and who will, in time, lend their voices to the conversation we are enjoined to engage.
May our entire community be blessed in 5781 by our listening.
Shanah Tovah. PJC
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is spiritual leader at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association. This article was first published by eJewishPhilanthropy.