2 Elul 5780: Gathering as community

Community means something different these days.  So does gathering.  In person, we must take elaborate precautions (masks, distance, abundant air) to protect ourselves and the those with whom we gather from the possiblity of infecting each other.  So most of our gatherings take place electronically — by phone, through an on-line forum like Facebook, or on a web platform like Zoom. 

I’ve hugged exactly two people outside my own family in the last 5 months, and both times we were masked and our heads turned away from each other so as not to share breath.

And yet we still gather, making connections that are powerful and necessary if incomplete.  Because we are called to be in community, for the good of our hearts and souls.

In Hebrew, the letters ק-ה-ל (koof-hey-lamed) form two related words for community: קהל  kahal and קהילה kehillah.  My favorite Jewish etymology blog, “Balashon – Hebrew Language Detective,”* had an entry on these words in 2015.   I learned that in modern times these words have divergent meanings:

קהל Kahal is a group of people that just happen to be together, like an audience.

קהילה Kehillah, on the other hand, is a group of people who have gathered because they are drawn by a common interest or purpose or goal.  

A synagogue community, or a Jewish summer camp, or any similar gathering, is a קהילה קדושה kehillah kedoshah, a “holy community.”  I’m always reminding people attending a service that they aren’t an “audience” but a “congregation” — people who have congregated to participate, interact, and grow in relationship, not to be passive consumers of what comes off the בימה bimah (platform, stage).

“Balashon” tells me that the root of קהל kahal and קהילה kehillah is קוֹל kol, which means “voice” and “sound.” But before that, קול kol originally meant “a call to gather.”   

Also related is the beautiful word מקהלה mak-heylah  choir: A gathering of voices in song.  At Berith Sholom we are blessed to have a מקהלה mak-heylah Choir whose beautiful קולות kolot (voices) draw us together as one קהילה קדושה kehillah kedoshah (holy community) on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.   

Our voices call us together.   Our need to hear — and sing to — each other brings us into community.  

But I seriously miss being able to sing in synchrony (much less in harmony!) over Zoom.  Singing or reciting together results in a time-lag cacophony which reminds me of traditional דאבנן davening or davenen, the prayer experience in which everyone chants at their own speed and in their own key until called together again by the חזן chazzan/it (cantor).  

Fortunately we are also blessed at Berith Sholom to have audio and video recordings of our Choir from past years, and a tech wizard of a choir director who is mixing together individual voices to create beautiful new songs for this year’s High Holy Days.

Traditionally, קוֹל שוֹפר kol shofar — the singular sound or voice of the shofar — calls us each weekday of Elul (this month before Rosh HaShanah) to prepare for the ימים נוראים Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe.  Listen to the members of the Capital District Board of Rabbis as we each sound the call!  (The magic of technology allows me to write and pre-schedule the publication of this blog, so no Capital District rabbis were published by me on Shabbat.)  

This year, as every year, we respond to the call to gather as community.  

*Note: בלשון BaLashon means “in the language” or “on the tongue.”   I haven’t been able to find a Balashon blog about the difference between the two words for “language”: לשון lashon which means “tongue” and is used only for לשון הקדש l’shon ha-kodesh, “the holy tongue”; and שפה safah which means “lip” and refers to all other languages.  You might know שפה safah from the כונה kavvanah, the little attention-focussing meditative prayer, which begins ה׳ שפתי תפתח…  Adonai, s’fatai tiftach…  Eternal, open my lips