We’re all, from time to time, guilty of “biting off more than we can chew.” Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, preparing for the presentation of God’s covenant, that which we call Torah, the Israelites seem to have done just that: “All the people answered as one, saying, ‘ALL that the LORD has spoken we will do!'” (Exodus 19:8) We can almost hear Vincent Price’s eerie voice, in the role of Satan, saying, “Everything?” It seems a bit too bold a promise, no? Can Israel, a nation that has already expressed its doubts about God’s ability to protect them from the Egyptians and to provide them with food and drink, truly be so thoroughly committed to God’s demands?
Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), emphasizes one key word in this verse–yachdav, “together” or “as one.” He reminds us that no one Israelite, no individual Jew, no matter how pious and well-intentioned, is remotely capable of observing each and every mitzvah. But put us all together, working in unison at maximum capacity, and we can indeed fulfill all of God’s expectations. The power of the community answering as one is unlimited. So Israel’s response is not overly ambitious, it is determined: together, we will insure that everything God asks, we collectively will follow through.
I like the word yachdav very much. It’s the name of the semi-annual gatherings of the Coalition of Innovating Congregations, of which we at HHJC are a member through our involvement in LOMED (formerly Re-Imagine) and our commitment to lifelong learning. At Yachdav events, we learn from other participating synagogues about the successes and challenges of Jewish education in the 21st century. We’ve also been able to display our achievements to other shuls. At one recent event, while Beth Benmen and Sheryl Glickman walked around gleaning ideas from other congregations, I presented our storyboard to educators and lay leaders from elsewhere in the New York area. I saw that our work in the Bnai Mitzvah Family Journey left a positive impression on other communities. While they focus primarily on religious school students, our work touches the lives of adults as well as children. At Yachdav, the collective accomplishments of multiple shuls come closer to “everything” than any one shul can achieve.
And so it is with our congregation. No one person–from the clergy, staff or lay leadership–can make it all happen. To be an all-purpose community, we need maximum involvement and participation. If we are to say that we are going to do it all, we need to answer b’yachad, all together. In such partnership, we can satisfy God’s demands. We can even have the courage to say that we can. No bite will be too big!