Why We Gather

Two weeks ago, fifty or more of us gathered in the social hall on a Saturday night for Havdalah – the short service marking the end of Shabbat. Instead of sitting separately at the tables that had been set up, we stood together in a circle, dimmed the lights, lit the candle, and began to sing.

Sometimes, things just hit right and make the moment powerful. That night was one of those times. The instruments, the voices, the spices, wine, and candlelight – they all came together to fill those brief few minutes and that otherwise ordinary space with a kind of vibrating buzz, like we were all tuned into the same frequency. Havdalah always has a special quality to it, but that night was something different. Without even naming it, we all knew that we had connected through an experience that was more intense than anything we had expected.

The temptation, of course, is to pull it apart, analyze it – what made it so intense? Why did it work? How can we make it happen again?

The reason we had gathered on that particular Saturday night was because it was already blocked off on our calendars. Saturday, November 4th was the original date for our 150th anniversary gala event*. In the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Israel on October 7th, we decided to postpone the gala event and to use that date as an opportunity to gather as a community simply for the sake of being together. A month after the initial attacks, we needed a bit of togetherness.

Maybe it was that need to be together that made the evening click the way it did. Maybe it was the heightened, even frazzled emotional state that we all brought to Havdalah that night. Maybe it was the drop-D tuning on Sam’s guitar that made things buzz a bit more than usual. Or maybe, as Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa suggests in Pirkei Avot (3:6), because of our gathering ha-Sh’chinah sh’ruya beineinu – the Divine Presence dwelt among us. Or, to be more faithful to the Hebrew, the space between us was saturated with the Divine Presence.

I had no Sh’chinah-o-mometer to test the idea, so I guess we’ll never know, but there definitely was something different about that night.

In the Torah, when God introduces the plan to build the Tabernacle, God says, ve-asu li mikdash ve-shachanti betocahm (Exodus 25:8) – “build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you” – not “in it,” but “among you.”.

The purpose of the sanctuary is not as a dwelling place for God. Its purpose is to gather the people because in the midst of our gathering is where the Divine Presence dwells.

But not always.

For those fortunate enough to have experienced one of those intense and connective moments of collective effervescence (to use Émile Durkheim’s felicitous phrase), you know how intense the desire is to experience it again, to replicate or recreate the moment. But such experiences are not something you can make happen. It often seems that the harder you try, the lower the chances. Transcendent or transformative moments seem to happen when we least expect them, and we never know when or where they will hit.

We can’t make these moments happen, but what we can do is create moments in which they have the possibility of happening. It’s a bit like accidentally throwing together the most delicious dish you ever tasted, and then trying to recreate the recipe. Even if you come close, good luck recreating that magic you’re looking for. But along the way, how many amazing meals will you experience. And as you make more and more meals, one day, when you least expect it, you’ll stumble upon a different dish of indescribable deliciousness.

Havdalah that night was indescribably delicious, but instead of trying to recreate it, I think I’ll just savor the experience. The next Havdalah will almost certainly not have the same magical buzz as the last one. And maybe not the one after that, or the one after that. But maybe the 17th one will, or the 23rd – who knows? What I do know is that when we gather, when we create those “among us” settings, whether it’s Havdalah, or Friday night, or Shabbat morning, or even gala events – such gatherings contain the possibility of being one of those moments. And along the way, like the meals when attempting to recreate that recipe, we’ll have some very enjoyable experiences.

Not every time we gather is going to be mind-blowing. The good news is that even the non-magical gatherings are still more than worthwhile. Now, more than ever, we need the strength and connection that comes from being together. And it’s only by gathering regularly that we open the door to the possibility of experiencing one of those moments of connection and effervescence that does blow us away. We never know when it will happen, but let’s gather and make some possibilities!

Rabbi Neal Schuster


*The new date for the 150th Celebration, by the way, is February 24th – and it’s going to be fantastic!