Adapt to Thrive: Charting a new year within community
KOL NIDREI D’VAR TORAH / SERMON
RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER
10 TISHREI 5782 // SEPTEMBER 15, 2021
Tonight, I want to explore with you
cycles of time and the power of sevens,
a number that sits at the core of our tradition.
Sevens signify holiness and deep relationship
to community, to land, and to G-d.
There are the seven days each of Passover and Sukkot,
and the seven days of the shiva mourning period,
the seven weeks of counting the Omer before Shavuot,
the seven branches of the Menorah in the Temple,
the seven species in the Land of Israel,
and the High Holy Days fall in the seventh month, known as Tishrei.
But at our foundation, it is the cycle of seven days,
culminating in Shabbat,
that has sustained us most
through good and difficult times across millennia.
As Israeli writer Ahad Ha’am famously said:
“More than Jews have kept Shabbat,
Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
And at the peak of the Shabbat cycle is
a Sabbath of Sabbaths,
the name for Yom Kippur given by our sacred Torah.
Tonight, we have reached the peak
שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ of our holiest days, the height of time itself.
But this year of 5782,
we go even beyond the weekly cycle of Shabbat,
or the yearly cycle of Yom Kippur,
as we begin the final year of the Biblical seven year cycle
known as Shmitta.
While Yom Kippur is but one day of rest and renewal,
our ancient ancestors envisioned an entire year
of rest and reflection every seven years.
This cycle of Shmitta is also called
שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָ֑ה
A Sabbath of Sabbaths shall there be for the Land, a Sabbath for G-d.
Shabbat, Yom Kippur, all of our holidays,
and yes, an entire year—
are all meant to be used as time for spirit renewal.
Stop your work, stop producing, and just be.
Here’s what we learn across our Torah about the year of Shmitta:
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ…
(9) You shall not oppress a stranger,
for your soul knows what it is like to be the stranger,
having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
(10) Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield;
(11) but in the seventh, you shall let it rest and lie fallow.
Let the needy among your people eat of it… (Exodus 23:9-11).
…וַעֲבָֽדְךָ֖ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֑ים
If your fellow… is sold to you, they shall serve you six years,
and in the seventh year, you shall set them free,
(but) do not let them go empty-handed: (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)
א) מִקֵּ֥ץ שֶֽׁבַע־שָׁנִ֖ים תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה שְׁמִטָּֽה׃
(1) (And) Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.
(10) Every seventh year, the year of Shmitta… gather the people—
men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—
that they may hear and learn…
and follow the teachings of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)
At its foundation, Shmitta is an original social justice movement
and a vision of sacred community
that cares about a life well-lived for all—
where we rear our children with wisdom,
care for the land and its workers,
and all have ample to thrive.
Time is an interesting thing, isn’t it?
In many ways, we have just lived through a warped version of Shmitta.
Trapped in our homes for a year and a half,
we have certainly had a lot of time to reflect,
perhaps too much time.
This period, with all of its tragedy,
has afforded us the opportunity
to consider what is important to us.
This pandemic has helped us in many ways
lay fallow the facade of cordiality and inauthenticity,
creating opportunities towards deeper connections.
And while we are far from through this,
with all that we have learned from this cycle of time,
we can begin to envision a post-pandemic community and world.
But, let’s just say, this has not been the most restful time.
During a recent Friday night service,
one of our members and local farmer, Sephirah Oshkello,
called Shmitta a time for 4 Rs:
rest, reflection, release, and receiving.
We could all use a real Shmitta year,
a time to rest from stress and overwork,
a time to reflect on what matters to us and our communities,
a time to release what holds us back,
and a time for all to receive the abundance that life offers
so that all may thrive.
Sevens are important for our JCOGS community,
and for me personally, too.
For seven years, I have now served as the first full-time rabbi
of our Jewish Community of Greater Stowe.
Recently, the board of trustees of JCOGS,
representing our community, and I,
have signed another seven year contract together.
Cycles of seven.
Our family is so blessed to be here with you all.
Together, let’s start our Shmitta communal reflection of 5782,
by taking stock of the bounty and impact
of what we have accomplished in JCOGS’s short history.
In order to thrive in these challenging times,
we need to adapt,
and to do so, we need time for reflection.
In light of the pandemic, and the Shmitta year,
let us reflect together on our shared future—
how JCOGS is adapting in a new world
to meet the challenges of this tumultuous 21st century,
and the needs of our members and local community.
Our JCOGS mission (has always been) to create and sustain
an environment that perpetuates
and celebrates Jewish traditions, observances,
and sense of community.
We are building a multigenerational community
where differences are embraced, even celebrated,
and where we hope that all those who walk through our doors
feel like they have come home.
You, our founders and members,
have created something very special here at JCOGS,
a beautiful building, a Jewish cemetery to honour our departed,
and we are so blessed with an incredible board of trustees,
committee members and chairs, and our wonderful staff.
Over this past Shmitta cycle,
we have seen our membership increase,
and our religious school grow in so many ways.
We have learned and prayed together.
We have hosted events, dinners, concerts, and film screenings.
We’ve produced the first ever JCOGS album in our sanctuary,
and brought out the incredible musical talent at JCOGS,
in full, holy display tonight.
And we help warm toes, host blood drives,
glean produce, collect winter clothes,
and were instrumental in the creation
of the Lamoille Community House warming shelter
and the Racial Equity Alliance of Lamoille
through our tikkun olam efforts.
All this in a community where Jews were not always welcome,
and in a world where antisemitism is still real and alive.
We have mourned through the Pittsburgh shooting
and other tragedies that befell our people and others.
And we have been a part of positive change,
including multiple local school districts
making this Yom Kippur a day off.
And while we are enduring a pandemic,
as the need for community has only increased,
our chesed committee recently produced a beautiful grieving booklet,
and are busy reaching out to our most vulnerable members.
We have celebrated Zoommitzvahs and micro-weddings,
as we hosted Friday night services
and other events on Zoom for over a year.
Reflecting on our community growth,
how do we take the lessons learned
to reimagine our collective future?
Let me share a few JCOGS initiatives in the works for 5782,
guided by the teachings of Shmitta.
Open your mind to your own ideas
of how you might further embrace
this year within community.
Community access and belonging
Our community must begin with access and belonging.
What can we do to create a more inclusive place,
with more points of entry and engagement?
Let’s start by bearing witness to tonight:
how we are gathered in this unprecedented way
in a hybrid, multi-access service,
those here in person and those at home all together.
This is what our community will look like for the foreseeable future,
as we create greater access to Jewish life.
Access and belonging are also why we’ve initiated The Nosh,
a community hub for schmoozing, coffee,
and the finest homemade Jewish pastries
this side of the maple beltway.
Think baking demonstrations,
and music and poetry nights and lectures,
or Mah Jong group meet ups,
with partial proceeds to benefit both JCOGS
and Capstone Community Action’s Essentials Closet.
If you have a program or group you want
to bring people together around food,
we’ll help you make it happen.
Essential to the Shmitta year
is hearing and learning Torah’s wisdom.
On October 4th, we launch a Zoom cohort of learners
using the new, cutting-edge
Foundations for a Thoughtful Judaism curriculum
from the renowned Shalom Hartman Institute,
combining text-based learning with experiential practices.
We are building communities within our JCOGS community,
to draw people together through more personal connections,
so each of us is noticed and counted.
Here, we use the power of communal learning
as a foundation to a thoughtfully-led life.
One of the biggest changes in learning is that
we’ve launched a new partnership
with Beth Jacob Synagogue in Montpelier,
as the synagogues support each other’s youth and family learning,
passing on our Torah’s values to the next generation.
This year’s Mitzvah program,
which launches this coming Shabbat,
will look a lot different.
We are leaning into the educational truism of “show, don’t tell,”
by structuring our Mitzvah program around Saturday mornings,
including a once-a-month Shabbat morning service
for the whole community
that includes Torah reading and discussion, followed by kiddush.
Embracing Shabbat is an essential part of the Shmitta year,
putting into practice rest, reflection, and Torah learning.
That is why, once a month, we are also going to focus
our Friday night services on Shmitta,
studying texts on the topic,
and discussing how we are embracing its values
in our congregational life.
Of course, sustainability is the heart of the Shmitta year.
From vegan cooking classes to regenerative farming discussions
to planting and now caring for our beautiful Mitzvah garden,
our green team has been busy at work.
We have a stunning community-made mosaic to adorn the garden,
and the food grown has both sustained us and others,
at our Friday night onegs and donated to our local food share.
This new year, the green team will be focusing on the climate crisis
by making our JCOGS building more energy efficient,
while providing resources and support
to help you make your own homes more sustainable.
In addition, our cemetery committee is actively working
on a new section of our cemetery for green burials.
The Shmitta year is also all about the imperative of equity.
Don’t oppress the stranger.
Forgive debts owed.
Let the needy among you eat.
As I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah,
this year, we are going to see a different kind of dedication
to tikkun olam than in the past.
We are inviting our members to help us choose
which one issue JCOGS is going to work on in-depth for the year
through educational and religious programming,
committee work, hands-on direct service, and advocacy,
where we can have a meaningful local impact.
There are two overriding local issues that
desperately need addressing in our area:
housing insecurity and the lack of affordable housing,
and food insecurity and the need
to address hunger and nutrition in our area.
After Yom Kippur, you will see a 60-second survey in your email,
so we can decide where we wish to put our collective energy.
Take a minute now to settle into this new year.
Let’s take a deep breath together
and consider what it might mean for us.
How could this year of 5782 be different from all other years?
How will you embrace rest and reflection in your life?
What do you want to release or lay fallow?
What might you deepen in your life?
All of the JCOGS varied initiatives
weave together themes that we ought to embed into our lives every year:
connecting to people, rest, reflection, learning,
sustainability, belonging and equity.
We are actively building our sacred community on a grassroots level.
How might you contribute to the building up
of our JCOGS community?
How might you join together with others
through tikkun olam, chesed, learning, Shabbat, or providing a nosh
to create access and belonging?
Through the works of our community’s hearts and hands,
may this awesome day and this whole year live up to the name
שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ a Sabbath of Sabbaths,
that we may help reach our peak of holy time
to see a world truly fulfilled for all.