November 13, 2019

Changing Porcupines Into Family

It was unseasonably cold on the eve of the New Year. The lakes were frozen; the sun retreated from the heavens on erev Rosh Hashanah. A group of porcupines noted for their rugged individualism were caught shivering in wintry storms. They decided to huddle together and thereby find warmth in each other. But as they drew closer, their sharp, stiff quills tore into their flesh and caused them considerable pain. They then separated but were again punished by the icy winds. Such is the dilemma of porcupines: isolated they freeze, united they suffer.

What should be done to alleviate the human “porcupine condition?” Not to pluck out the armaments, but the quills need to be bent, the needles softened. Much of the society which we are thrown into is hard, competitive and angry. For all our vaunted individualism, human porcupines are imperiled by loneliness and our celebrated privacy turns into brooding isolation.

We seek an oasis from the biting cold, and where better than in the synagogue whose metaphor is family? What unites us is less rigid dogma than the warmth of mishpacha (family).

Synagogue is a promise of an extended family. This we have learned from the Bible, our family album, and this remains our secret expectation. We want to belong more than we want affiliation with an organization.

Too often that expectation of friendship leads to disappointment. The human porcupine murmurings are heard in every denomination. “It's cold!” The complaint is not about the synagogue's ventilation but about its felt alienation. Gaining admission, they find the synagogue inadvertently turned into “theater,” the people standing at its door “ushers,” the seats all facing a “stage,” the choir, cantor and rabbi talented “performers.” The synagogue sanctuary is rectangular and vertical, all eyes look uniformly straight ahead and upward. But the secret of the heart's eye gazes horizontally, yearning for contact with the “other” who prays and studies and reads along side us. Soon the service is over, the “Adon Olam” and the “Neilah” sung, the aliyot fulfilled and the hasty exodus into the frozen forest.

The porcupines grow dejected. Their souls ache. Something lacks. Not the soaring sermon, the chorale harmony, the cantorial flourish. What is missing is friendship, family, belonging, home.

On Rosh Hashanah, the annual reunion of people takes place, and once more the expectation of friendship is anticipated. They will leave as they entered, quills bristling, frost and dust on their paws. Shall the quills retain their sharp, unbent posture?

Some wise porcupines gather to analyze their Jewish condition. They conclude that Jewishness cannot begin nor end in the sanctuary. They conclude that Jewishness must be experienced before we cross the threshold of the synagogue, that it must begin before “Mah Tovu” and after “Yigdal.” Its season begins at home because the center of Judaism is the home, and the altar of Judaism is the table. That home is not a fortress. It must be opened wide to others with whom we sing and eat and study and drink together. The home warmth must be brought into the sanctuary to thaw out the frozen pews.

We need not rip out the quill from its skin, but we must be gentle with them. The stranger will not feel at home by shaking his hand and offering formulaic greetings, distributing a prayer book and prayer shawl. The synagogue needs the softness of havurah (community). The congregation needs the ambiance of Jews who experience the depth and warmth of family with each other at home, and enter the synagogue together as mishpacha. Midway between the home and the kehillah (congregation) is the havurah. A havurah is comprised of a minyan that does not meet in the boardroom or social hall or chapel. In the tent of the home, eyes face each other, the quills are bent, the sound of dialogue is made audible and the meeting is personalized. It can transfigure the shul. Heat rises from below. It cannot come from the pulpit above. It begins below, between and among the family whose history and destiny we study and whose blessings we seek. We are mishpacha; we are not porcupines.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is the spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.