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Laura Hausman

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Home From the Rabbi From the Rabbi - July 2014
From the Rabbi - July 2014 PDF Print E-mail
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel”

These beautiful words of praise are traditionally recited as we enter the sanctuary  and appear in the opening section of the morning service.  They are all the more beautiful because they were uttered by a man, Balaam, who was intending to curse the Israelites rather than bless them.  

The story of Balaam, that we will read the first Shabbat of July, is one of those stories that, if it were not in the Bible, it would be more likely classed as ancient farce than spiritual lore.  The story tells of Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam, a unique example of a non-Jewish prophet in the Hebrew bible. Concerned by the Israelites’ victory over the Amorites, Balak sends for Balaam and instructs him to curse the Israelites. Not only is Balaam initially obstructed in his path to curse the Israelites by a talking donkey, but every time he opens his mouth to speak the curse he blurts out a blessing instead, despite the rising and somewhat comical anger of Balak.  Included among these blessings is the first line of the Mah Tovu prayer.

The Rabbis understand this blessing to be a prophetic reference to the study houses and synagogues that were to be such a central aspect of Jewish communal life.  In looking over the ancient tents of the Israelites Balaam saw not the physical beauty of the tents but the spiritual and ethical beauty of synagogue communities.  And the fact that Balaam’s words are turned from curses to blessings, sheds light on an important aspect of synagogue community - our words of prayer, our spiritual experience in the synagogue, and our acts of loving kindness in the context of congregational life, can and should have a transformative effect.  Having come to curse Israel, Balaam observes their places of worship and his words of condemnation were turned to words of praise.  Many of us may walk through the door of the synagogue with the burdens and concerns of our daily lives; the anger and frustration at friends, family and work colleagues that we all feel at times; the anxieties, pains and difficulties that life throws at us and that fill our hearts and minds from day to day.  The synagogue is the place where we can turn our curses to blessings, our anger to calm, our anxieties to contentment, through the presence of the divine and the support of our community.
How do we do this?  Ron Wolfson, in his book “Relational Judaism”, describes how congregations succeed in touching and transforming our lives for the better:

“It’s not about programming
. It’s not about marketing. 
It’s not about branding, labels,  logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps
. It’s not even about institutions. 
It’s all about relationships”
Judaism has always understood the synagogue as a Beit K’nesset, a place of meeting. It is a place in which we meet one another and God, and in which we learn how Judaism teaches us to meet the world. In the consumerist society in which we live, the synagogue community reminds us that the primary business of religion is people. It is a place where we find community and the kind of deep personal connections that only a congregation can provide.

As part of a congregational family we can be transformed for the better through our relationships with each other, with our tradition and with God.  Those relationships are created and deepened as we share our stories and the stories of our people, as we create connections with each other, and as we engage with the many activities of congregational life that help us to create shared experiences and shared stories.  This, perhaps, was what Balaam saw so many years ago as he looked over the tents of a People who truly cared for each other and built our Jewish tradition that values relationships so highly.

As your new rabbi I have already experienced the great warmth of the CBI welcome and begun to create relationships with the wonderful people who make up this community.  I know that the depth of communal and spiritual relationships is a significant part of what makes CBI great. And I hope to build on that great strength in the coming years as I get to know everyone and build relationships with all of you.  
Rabbi Emanuel



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