A coalition was born on Sunday afternoon in Washington DC. It wasn’t a new alliance of Republicans or Democrats, nor was it a gathering of interests seeking to influence domestic policy. It was a group of Jews – rabbis, cantors, other professionals, and laypeople – coming together in common cause. “Big Tent Judaism” is what it’s called.
Big Tent Judaism is an effort to “engage, support and advocate for all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people.” The coalition is “a group of Jewish communal institutions who strive to create an inclusive and welcoming Jewish community.” It’s got its own website, “bigtentjudaism.org.” It has held its first conference, and I’m so glad that our Outreach Director, Susan Jaffee, chose to be at that founding moment in Washington DC. But more than websites and conference, the benchmark of authenticity in the Jewish world is the weekly parashah, and Big Tent Judaism has not one, but two of those as well. We read them this week and next, for Big Tent Judaism is a return to the Judaism of our very first ancestors, Abraham and Sarah.
Next week, when we read from parashat vayera, we will be more fully and directly introduced to Abraham and Sarah’s Big Tent, but the values described in its chapters imbue this week’s portion, Lech L’cha, as well. Abraham and Sarah move from their home to the Land of Israel, bringing with them strong values and a new and renewing faith in God. We are told that the journey is made by them, their nephew, and the “souls that they had made” in Haran. Our Tradition asks, “what does it mean to say ‘the souls they had made’?” and deduces that it refers to their outreach efforts. They shared their faith with those around them, and many people joined them in embracing the God of Israel.
A few key verses in the story of Abraham and Sarah tell us what we know about their Big Tent Judaism, and those verses are expanded and embellished in later Rabbinic tradition. We know from Torah that Abraham ran to welcome guests to his tent on a hot day in the desert, inviting them in for a little meal (which turned out to be a big meal!), washing their feet, and letting them rest. Tradition tells us that the three men were not human guests at all, but messengers of the Holy One. We know from Torah that Abraham planted a tamarisk tree near Be’er Sheva. Tradition tells us that the tamarisk – eshel, in Hebrew – was chosen because the letters of its name form the phrase achilah, shtiyah, leinah: “food, drink and lodging.” Abraham and Sarah were innkeepers, gathering in the passersby, feeding their bodies and their souls, giving them a place to rest.
Nowhere in the Torah does it say that Abraham and Sarah asked their guests to join the synagogue. For hospitality to be genuine, it must be offered without condition. We, who are so used to the idea that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” are sometimes confused by such hospitality. A year doesn’t pass that I don’t hear from some newcomer these words: “No, really Rabbi, how much are your High Holiday tickets?”
I am so proud that this synagogue has maintained the practice of offering its High Holiday services to all who choose to enter. I am proud of our partnership with the Jewish Federation which allows us to present Youth and Family programming to the entire Jewish community. I am proud of our special outreach to soldiers and their families. I am proud of our efforts to welcome Jews-by-choice, intermarried families, and Jews from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. At Temple Mount Sinai we know that there isn’t merely one way that Jewish families look, or act.
Could our tent be even bigger? Of course, and I imagine that Susan will challenge us all in the coming weeks and months to think about big and little fixes that will bring us closer to the ideal. But as we read from the parshiot that bring us the stories of Abraham and Sarah, let us celebrate the many ways in which we have gone into the family business, planting an eshel in this desert, providing food for the body and the soul, and rest for the weary.
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Preparing these remarks, I was struck by a certain contradiction in the message of my d’var torah and its place in a service celebrating new members. Let me quote myself: “Nowhere in the Torah does it say that Abraham and Sarah asked their guests to join the synagogue. For hospitality to be genuine, it must be offered without condition.” A strange thing to say on the night when we celebrate our new members! If the Big Tent people are right – and I think they are – synagogues that remain stuck in the mindset that “dues-paying membership” is the marker of Jewish commitment are going to dry up and die in the next few decades, as fewer and fewer Jews choose to enter tents whose flaps are zipped shut.
But the people we welcome tonight have made the extraordinary step of becoming not guests at the inn, but joint proprietors. They could have come to the inn on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur anyway, and we would have welcomed them. They have chosen to commit themselves to the work of this congregation with their dollars, and even more importantly, with their time and energy. They are our newest fellow innkeepers, and we welcome them to the team. May they find fulfillment through their connection to Temple Mount Sinai, and may their presence bless us all for many years to come.