A New Year for Transit - The Rosh Hashanah Imperative to Imagine

The following is a shortened version of a sermon delivered by Rabbi Alana Alpert at Congregation T'chiyah.


“A talmid haham (Torah scholar) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a beit din (law court) [..]; a tzedakah fund [..]; a synagogue; a bath house; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; a butcher; and a teacher of children”. (Sanhedrin 17b)

Our tradition is unequivocal: there is no meaningful Jewish life alone. And it’s not enough to have a few buddies - there must be critical mass, and that critical mass needs to be organized.

So much for all my fantasies about trekking off to a mountainside to live my days alone in nature. As Genesis tells us “It is not good for humans to be alone” , or the more militant Talmudic creed "oh chevruta oh mituta" - “Give me companionship or give me death”. No serious Jewish life is possible outside of community. And not just any community - holistic community. Community that takes responsibility for the varied needs of its members.

Law court, the tzedakah fund, synagogue, bath, toilet, doctor craftsperson, bloodletter, butcher and teacher -- are those things enough? Rabbi Brad Artson points out that other necessary services such as defense, roads and bridges would certainly be on the list were those not covered by the imperial power during Talmudic days. What other kinds of infrastructure, goods and services are sine que non - that without which Jewish life is not possible? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for community?

You may remember the name James Robertson....


Mr. Robertson was a typical Detroiter who rocketed to stardom when the Free Press covered his commute. He became known as the 21 mile man, for the 21 miles that were only part of his epic journey every day to his job at a factory in Rochester Hills. The story went viral. In community organizing, we know the importance of stories in motivating systemic change - so we can easily imagine this headline:

“Robertson’s Story Inspires Public Outcry Leading to Massive Investment in Public Transit Improvement”. But instead, the headline read: “Thousands donate to help Detroit man who walks 21 miles every day to work”. Auto dealers vied to gift him a car, and now a team of financial advisors are managing his $300,000 trust.

The American Dream to the rescue! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Solidarity is for suckers! Play by the rules and one day, you too can have your own sedan protected by a white picket fence.

It’s probably not the best thing to start the New Year off being snarky. I certainly don’t mean to disparage the good folks who gave tzedakah to improve Mr. Robertson’s quality of life -  a great mitzvah, for our tradition teaches that one life is like an entire world. They saw a human face, a deserving face, and a direct way to right a wrong. But of course, this does nothing for the thousands of Metro Detroiters for whom having a car remains out of reach. Society’s response to James Robertson’s story highlights how much easier it is for us to think individually rather than collectively -- the kind of thinking our tradition demands.

Would it be permissible for a Torah scholar to live in our community? If we were to make a modern rewrite of this Talmud and draw parallels, wouldn’t a decent public transportation system be on the list?

I have a confession to make: when I moved to Detroit two years ago and was told that I would be organizing around regional transit, I was bored as hell. It took me a looooong time to get excited about it. I’m finally there - because I’ve come to understand that this challenge is deeply spiritual -- that it’s about collective dreaming and audacious imagination. That its about the religious imperative to be visionary co-creators.

There is a reason we are here together today. I surely would have had a more profound spiritual experience alone on a mountaintop. On a mountaintop I wouldn’t have had to worry about whether we have enough food or if I should have worn the other dress or if you’re feeling alienated and I for sure wouldn’t have to use this damn microphone. But I am not on a mountaintop because Rosh Hashana isn’t about me, it’s about creation. And creation is something people do together.

Projects like the Regional Transit Authority are called “infrastructure” -- but that only happened in the last couple decades -- they used to be called “public works”.

How does this sound: "Infrastructure is sacred creation." Eh.

Now how about this: "Public works is sacred creation." Better right? In Hebrew our word for “work”, Avodah, is the same as our word for “service” or “worship”. Work is holy. Public work? Collective work? Even holier.

There is not a lot we can do to make a bunch of busses sexy. But remember in our Talmud, the profane are there right alongside the more obviously holy:

We need both a synagogue AND a bathroom

A tzedakah collection AND a schvitz.

A teacher AND a butcher.

Community is both beautiful and gritty.

Isaiah prophesied that we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. But before the beating: we first have to imagine that the sword and the spear CAN be anything other than what they are. Our work of creation is not making something out of nothing -- there is a finite amount of matter in this universe. Our task is to reshape the material of our world into the architecture of the world we dream. Our task is to stretch our imaginations.

This is the Rosh Hashana imperative - to imagine that things can be different. To commit ourselves to being part of that sacred collective imagining, and of the sacred collective creation that follows.

We sing min hameytzar karati Yah anani bamerchav Yah -- From a narrow place I called out, I was answered from a wide open space. The narrow place - the place where our minds are constricted, our imaginations stunted. The narrow place, like Mitzrayim -- the place of enslavement -- the place where we shrug, saying that the way things are are the way they will always be.

Kvetching is a Jewish value -- cynicism is not.

When we cry out, together, we will be answered.

When we struggle together, we will be redeemed.

May the cry of the shofar itself bring us from narrowness into expansiveness.

May we today, on the birthday of creation itself, commit to struggling towards that wide open space...

Commit to the process of co-creation that is inherently collective, inherently human, and inherently Jewish.

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