Finding our People, Finding our Place: The Power of Gathering as We Return to Each Other

After 23 Avengers movies spanning over more than a decade, a rather grim narrative had unfolded in the Marvel universe and the world of the good guys seemed all but lost. With our heroes, Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Spiderman, and many more, we watched as the supervillains took the upper hand and destroyed people and planet piece by piece. In the penultimate movie of the series, Thanos, the consummate badguy, had used the infinity stones to put together the gauntlet, which allowed him to snap away half of the world’s population. And finally, we arrived at the last movie of this particular timeline, called Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero geeks around the world waited with baited breath to hear a very important phrase, a callback to the comic books. Captain America had yet to speak it out loud, but now, it was their only hope against immediate destruction. And we watched as portals in the sky opened and an army of heroes arrived by the thousands. Dr. Strange and The Hulk, Black Panther and all of Wakanda, Antman, and the X-men and Captain Marvel. And finally, Captain America said it – Avengers Assemble!

Now, if you are like me, you had goosebumps then, and you’ve got goosebumps now. But you don’t need to be a lover of superheroes to know the feeling behind these words: Avengers Assemble. Because many of us have been blessed to know that feeling at some point, that tingle of possibility and connection that comes when the people gather. When we find ourselves suddenly not alone. Not just as a random face in a crowd, but as part of a gathering in which we can look around and say these are my people and this is my place. The gathering can be huge or very small, but that tingle is real.

If you can, think of one time that that happened for you, the tingle of possibility, the magic of being part of a gathering of people that mattered to you. It doesn’t need to be on the precipice of the destruction of the universe, though it could be – it could be a rally or a protest when everyone showed up to stand together. It could be a reunion of old friends when just a glance spoke volumes. Or when CBE has come together to sing at times when our hearts needed it most. Or when Union Temple gathered night after night online for Chanukah last year, lighting candles and sharing joy. Or maybe you’ve felt it in a house meeting where stories were shared and relationships were formed and ideas were turned into action. Or maybe you’ve felt it at a shiva house, an assembly of the broken hearted, literally being held up by their community. What did it feel like to you to know in that moment these were your people? Oh how we have missed these moments.

The founders of our country understood so deeply the power of a gathering of people that they enshrined it in our first Amendment as the freedom of assembly. The right to stand among others and connect with one’s neighbor. The freedom to show up as a group, become a team or family, to sing or chant or act as one for a shared cause. In her recent book, The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker writes: “In countries descending into authoritarianism, one of the first things to go is the right to assemble. Why? Because of what can happen when people come together, exchange information, inspire one another, (and) test out new ways of being together.” It is transformational. It is transcendent.

In the early 20th century, Sociologist Emile Durkheim called this magical feeling, this ineffable spark of gathering: “collective effervescence,” which sounds only a little bit like an air freshener. He describes it as the sense of energy and harmony that people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose.

And sociologists today note that it is something we have been deeply missing for the past year and a half. Gathering itself has been the primary danger as we try to protect one another and slow this pandemic. Out of love for each other, we have chosen distance and separation and isolation. And while our yearning for this collective effervescence has been muted, maybe even numbed to protect ourselves from how much we crave it, our need to assemble is waking up from hibernation – and it’s hungry.

Even introverts like me can feel it – it’s in the very pattern of our spiritual DNA. This need to gather is not only human, it is deeply Jewish. Our Torah and tradition vibrate with the instinct to gather and are saturated with the lessons of when and why and how:

Queen Esther experiences it in our Purim story. Haman, the bad guy, is on the verge of destroying the Jewish people and Esther’s uncle Mordechai comes to her and implores her to go to the king and reveal her Jewish identity so that the King will intervene and stop the evil Haman. At first, she hesitates, afraid, but then, she realizes she must take action and save her people. What are the first words out of her mouth? K’nos et kol Hayehudim – go and “k’nos” gather up all the Jews. Why? So she would not have to do this alone, so the people could participate in their own redemption, so no one would get lost in the fray. Queen Esther knew the power of gathering.

And the five Daughters of a man named Zelophechad in the Book of Numbers, who are part of our 40 year journey through the wilderness. They realize, during this trip, that because they are unmarried women without a father, that upon their arrival to the Promised Land, they will not be given a plot of land and will be homeless. So as intimidating as it might be, they go and approach Moses and all of the elders in the public square to get this changed. But they don’t go alone. The text begins: vatikravna – meaning “they drew close to each other” – the five sisters gathered themselves and approached the decision makers to make their case as one. Alone? Who knows. But together, they give each other courage and they successfully change God’s own laws, for the good of all women. The Daughters of Zelophechad knew the power of gathering.

And Moses, who descended from Mount Sinai after 40 days, holding the tablets of the covenant. When he got down to the bottom, he didn’t send a memo or hand out pamphlets or keep it to himself. Rather, Torah tells us “Vayakhel Moshe – Moses gathered the people” – from the word “kahal,” or kehillah, community. He communitied up the people to share the words of covenant because until the people assembled to hear it and accept it, they were just words on a page. On a rock. But gathered in community to hear them, something happened there. They found their people, they became each other’s people in that moment. Moses knew the transformative power of gathering.

This is not a smattering of exceptional examples and it is not accidental that there are so many synonyms in Hebrew for the word “gathering.” In Jewish tradition, the call to come together in moments of fear, challenge, transition, hope, and becoming – often involves the act of gathering together, connecting person to person and heart to heart for some greater meaning or purpose. Without the gathering, the story cannot continue.

And then, this theme is wisely picked up on by the rabbis of the Talmud in the concept of a minyan – the need to have a group of ten adults to be able to engage in certain parts of Jewish tradition. Like have a formal call to prayer, read Torah in public, and mourn. In order to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbis made it law that at least ten people would have to gather so that the grieving person would not disappear alone into their grief. So that the community would know it’s our job to console. The rabbis also obligate a community to celebrate with the just-married couple, to ensure that no one would be alone in their joy, either. The rabbis knew the power of gathering.

When people gather, extraordinary things can happen. We can unleash wells of creativity that might otherwise lay dormant. We discover nascent bits of courage that come alive in company. We are afforded the chance to offer waves of comfort, and to generate transcendent joy. We can feel seen and valued and needed and known, and in response, we can see and value and know our neighbor. For each person in a gathering like this is beloved.

And for a year and a half, we have not really had the chance to breathe this holy air of assembly. Maybe we have felt lonely. Or disconnected. Or on the outside looking in. Or out of the loop. Or unseen. You would not be the only one to feel any of those things. But this is what sacred community can do that almost no other institution in communal life can do. After a year and a half of this very challenging time, it is time to reclaim this way of being and to gather intentionally, creatively, and with purpose. To deepen our relationships and to build new ones, weaving or re-weaving ourselves back together. We won’t always be able to do that in person – when that is not safe, as for some it is not safe even today. But virtually when we must, and face to face when we can – we will find ways to gather that redraw the map back toward each other and create space for wondrous things to happen.

Because inside of gatherings like this is the chance to tie ourselves to one another in transformative ways.

Late in the TaNaKH, the Hebrew bible, we bump into a woman named Ruth. She’s traveling with her sister and her mother in law, a woman named Naomi. Both of Naomi’s sons have died, leaving Ruth and her sister widowed. They are all in great pain, having experienced profound loss together. Naomi tries to send them away, to go and live their lives and start over. But the text tells us that Ruth clings to her. Ruth says to Naomi: el asher teilchi elech . . . ameich, ami. Where you go, that is where I will go. Your people will be my people.

In a defining moment of her life, out of loss, Ruth found a deep gut need to cast her lot with another human being, to intertwine their stories and connect their journeys. After feeling so detached, she needed to know: who are my people and where is my home? These are important questions today, grounding questions for us. Naomi’s people would be her people and wherever her people were, that would be her home. And in the process, Ruth discovered a whole great big family, comfort after loss, the joy of true companionship, and purpose and meaning in her journey – a way to step forward into the future. This is what gathering may be for us.

And we should note that Ruth’s “people” are not her mirror image. Finding our people doesn’t mean surrounding ourselves only with people who are just like us. Though it could, it often doesn’t. Ruth was young, Naomi was aged. Ruth was a Moabite, Naomi was an Israelite. But they found in one another profound and enduring connection. In shared values, shared experiences, and shared vision for what would come next.

So this is what we will do. To help us each find our people and our place – or to refind one another and reclaim this place as home – we will gather in ways that are small and large, joyful and serious, physical and spiritual, intentional, beautiful, and human.

During this pandemic, we merged congregations – and some of us are still figuring out how to find our people and our place here. And some are new to this community and excitedly wondering the same. And for some, we just had a year and a half of massive disruption in our lives and it’s time to find our way back to each other and begin to build new connections, for we, too, now are new.

So we’re going to spend this year, as Parker wrote, “testing out new ways of being together.” And to see – what will come from that, what meaning might it add to our lives, what isolation might it break, and in what army of joy and care and friendship might we find ourselves in then.

In some ways, we have already begun. With the Echad Project, we gathered 60 of us and talked about our refrigerators and our families, our stories and the places where we belong. We sipped canned rose together on the steps of the sanctuary and began to weave real relationships with one another.

And during Sukkot, we’re going to have a block party on Garfield Place, where all the committees and teams and groups will have a table to invite others in, to help us all find our people. And with live music and food and possibly some carnival games, we will meet one another face to face and explore new ways of connecting here.

Ya know, it’s magical to be part of a congregation that is big and vibrant and full – and also it’s easy to maybe feel a little lost in a big community or just to not to have found your way in yet. That’s not weird or surprising – and it’s also not the end of the story.

During this year, we’ll begin building “small groups,” small intentional holy gatherings of people building connections with one another. Maybe around what you love to do – hiking or cooking or writing or knitting or whittling. Or maybe around study. Or maybe around our neighborhoods or Shabbat dinners or by the life stage we are in now. I am so glad to tell you that we have recently welcomed Rabbi Jason Gitlin to CBE to work in partnership with all of us to lead this vision that was birthed by our senior Rabbi, Rachel Timoner, to create bright lines of loving connection between us all. Rabbi Gitlin will be at that block party listening and then, after, he and I and a team of lay leaders, maybe you, will grab some coffee and find out what you want to do here, who you want to meet and fall in congregant-love with, who are your Avengers, and how you want to gather.

Imagine there is someone here now, in this room, or in this community, that you might not even know yet, but who might be someone you come to love, respect, enjoy. Share ideas or laughter with. Confide in. Take new risks with. Find comfort in. There is someone here looking at you and wondering if that person might be you. We are in potentia the beginning words of each other’s next chapter. We’ve been away from each other for a long time. Maybe as we return, in all kinds of ways, we return differently, curious about what or who we might find that will be a healing balm for what has just been and even still is, what new or renewed relationships might be a spark that lights up whatever comes next.

And maybe you’re thinking – she’s not talking about me, I have little kids that take up all my time, or I work insane hours and can’t possibly, or I am pretty much homebound, or I don’t know anyone, this is for “insiders.” Let me tell you. I am speaking directly to you. We live in a time when it is easy to be anonymous, to get into a rut, to forget to make time to nurture our souls. We live in a time when it’s easy to think someone else is worthy of something that we are not worthy of. If there were ever a time to decide to take a step toward one another, to do something that heals our soul, to remember that we are each vital and can both love and be loved anew, now is that time.

Over time, with the help of everyone here and in the sanctuary and joining us virtually and even those who didn’t know they were welcome and wanted here today – we will keep on becoming a community where everyone has people and everyone is seen and heard and held. We will look at each other and, like Ruth did, say “you’re my people. Where shall we go together?”

We join a long tradition of seeking that magical tingle of what it feels like when we gather, when we assemble, when we draw near, when we community up. Our journey to find our people and our place is ancient and it is now.

Philosopher Martin Buber taught: “all actual life is encounter.” Encounter – as in meeting, connecting, entwining our stories, mattering to one another when we need it most. This is what can happen when we gather well. As this new year begins, may we encounter one another in ways that fill us and begin to heal the long months of separation. May we gather with one another in ways that add sweetness to our lives. May we assemble, in ways large and small, and manifest that great tingle of possibility that comes when we look around and say – these are my people and I have found my place here. Shanah Tovah U’metukah, a sweet and good and healthy new year to us all.