Monday, November 15, 2010

where's the "wow"?

I’ve been considering a thought provided by two colleagues, Terry Bookman and William Kahn. One a rabbi, the other a management professor, together they do congregational consulting. In their compelling publication, called “The House We Build”, they remind us:

Synagogues are places where Jews go to pray, learn, and become part of a religious and spiritual community. But they are more than that. They are also places where we go to feel a deep sense of comfort and familiarity. Many of us find great pleasure in singing the prayers and songs as well as humming the melodies with which we grew up. Holiday festivals stir up deep-seated memories of our childhoods. Rituals offer us a sense of connectedness to generations in our pasts, our own and those of the Jewish people. Even the physical surroundings – the light coming through the stained glass, the feel of the seat cushions, the way the ark opens, the smell of old wood – all these sensory experiences create in us a sense of the way a shul should be.

In such ways, the sights and sounds of a synagogue can be emotionally powerful for us…this experience of deep familiarity is part of what we often find comforting and meaningful about synagogues.

I agree completely. It is the emotional resonance that allows our Jewish experience to be meaningful. When something strikes a chord inside, it makes us feel truly alive. This is not about how we act Jewishly; it is why. The need for emotional fulfillment doesn’t tell us how to seek a spouse or partner, it causes us to socialize. Looking for professional satisfaction doesn’t inform us what coursework to pursue; it pushes us to strive for excellence as we explore. Knowing we can support our neighbor doesn’t give instructions about what to do for a grieving family; it impels us to do so. The obligation to be responsive to the world’s brokenness doesn’t teach us what issues deserve our attention; it inspires us to perform tikkun olam – acts to repair the world. In all these ways, a friend repeats, “it’s what we do!”

Emotional response is what reminds us that we are, according to Jewish teaching, living, breathing agents of divine in this world. When we are overwhelmed by joy, or feel like we’ve been kicked in the gut, that’s when we realize our humanity. Emotions tug at us all the time: we’ve all cried at the end of a sappy movie. We’ve all rooted for an underdog on the ball field. We’ve hollered at the person who cut us off. We’ve marveled at a breathtaking painting or piece of art. When I speak with families around their life-cycle events, I always find myself saying that these profound (though even sometimes fleeting) moments are the times when we are prompted to ask the “big” questions – “how did this happen?” or “why me?” and “what do I do now?” or “how awesome is this?” Many times, the response we find is just “wow!”

What inspires such a sense of awe in your life? Which activities, relationships, experiences and sights? That is, what fires your emotions to say “wow!”?

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