In the past couple of days, I’ve had a chance to see people gathered together in several different kinds of groups. Saturday afternoon, I joined Lynn and Bob at their son’s lacrosse game. He’s in seventh grade, so the bleachers were filled with pretty much only parents who see each other at every game and, I’m sure, a number of the practices. James goes to the Episcopal School of Dallas and they were playing Christ the King Catholic School.
(“What do we yell?” I asked. “Kill Christ the King? Crucify them?” – I thought it was funny.)
This morning, while I was in a packed plane congregating anonymously with people united only by a common destination, both of my churches (in Marshfield and Hanover) were gathered for worship. I landed about one o’clock and Ginger drove me to Temple Sha-aray Shalom in Hingham for the annual ADL Interfaith Seder. We were taking the youth group from our church to participate and learn from the meal. Ginger and I grabbed a quick bite of lunch together and I arrived just in time for the cantor to lead us in the opening song:
Take me out to the Seder, take me out with the crowd
Feed me on Matzah and chicken legs; I don’t care for the hard-boiled eggs
And it’s root, root, root for Elijah that he will soon reappear
And let’s hope, hope, hope that we’ll meet once again next year
Needless to say, they are a congregation with a good sense of humor. They did a great job waling us through the elements of the meal and their faith tradition, as well as inviting us to find resonance wherever we could. Afterwards, the rabbi took us into the sanctuary to explain the symbols and show us their Torah scroll. She was wonderful in the connections she made and the way she explained her faith in both its meaning and its ritual. She then invited us to come up on the platform and she took one of their three Torahs out of its protective covering.
“This is our Holocaust Torah,” she said. She went on to describe how Hitler had kept many of the things he had confiscated from the Jews he killed so he could open an museum of an extinct people after he had exterminated them. When he was defeated, this particular scroll had been recovered with many other things in a warehouse in Czechoslovakia. The congregation to which it belonged no longer existed. Over time, the scroll made its way to America. She went on to explain the scroll itself was about one hundred and fifty years old, having been copied by mystics in the mid-nineteenth century. She then had us make two lines facing each other and, starting at one end, unrolled the Torah so that it stretched from Genesis to somewhere in Leviticus. With the two wooden spools at each end, we supported the sacred ribbon of parchment by holding our hands underneath.
“Some people think those who are not Jewish should not touch the Torah because it is holy,” she said. “I think people who have a sense of faith and what is sacred can appreciate contact with what is holy, even when it is not their tradition.”
One of the things I learned growing up as a Southern Baptist was there were different approaches to the Lord’s Supper. Open Communion meant anyone who was a Christian could take part in the meal. Close Communion meant it was just for Baptists. Closed Communion meant it was only open to members of that church. Even as a kid , I wondered why we didn’t trust each other to invest ourselves in the meal as we passed the grape juice and broken Saltines. How can you participate in a meal wholeheartedly if you aren’t sure about the other folks at the table?
In most of the UCC churches I’ve been in, Communion is open to anyone who needs it.
“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,” we say. Grace doesn’t need police protection. What the rabbi offered us today was no different.
My hands supported one of the seams that stitched together two pages of the parchment. I could feel the ridge and the twine or sinew that held them together. As she told the story of the scroll, I tried to imagine the mystic scribe who so copiously copied the text, knowing the flow of faith and tradition was moving through him. I tried to imagine the Czech congregation that once touched the scroll as we were doing, who carried their faith with them to concentration camps and gas chambers, even after they were separated from their precious Torah. I thought about the photo exhibit I saw in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. years ago of a Jewish town in Macedonia that was completely exterminated by Hitler, leaving only black and white pictures to chronicle their existence. They lined all four twenty-foot walls of the exhibit, hundreds of eyes looking back at me, unable to tell their stories.
I was standing between one of my junior high kids and the bus driver who brought the group over from Hanover; across from me was a woman from Baltimore who took her hands off of her walker to hold the scroll that held Moses’ articulation of the Law designed to keep both the Jewish faith and community alive for centuries to come.
And we were holding it between us.
My early Baptist roots tell me, when they opened the door and we sang for Elijah to come, I should have found a way to tell them they were waiting on the wrong guy. Jesus had already come. As the cantor sang in Hebrew and we tried to follow along, that was not what I wanted to say at all. With the scroll stretched out across my palms, I did not feel like a stranger or an evangelist; I felt like a fellow traveler. God was in the shared unrolling of that parchment just as God is in the shared meal we will serve next Sunday in our church. The love of God is wider than the measure of our minds.
One of the words I learned to day was “daiyeinu” – “it would have been enough to be grateful to God.” Each step of our story of faith is not enough to finish the story, but it is enough to respond gratefully, which is what we are called to do.
After a long and emotional weekend, after saying goodbye to my friend’s dad, after reconnecting with old friends and then leaving them again, after finding my way home to Ginger, after finding myself holding hope in my hands between a bus driver and a seventh grader, it’s a good word to bring this day to a close.