Hineh Mah Tov: Creating Togetherness That is Pleasant and Good

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Read Cantor Juval Porat’s column from the Reform Judaism website.

Hineh mah tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad!
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

In the Jewish world, countless services and lifecycle events open with this verse, attributed to King David. For those who derive inspiration from these words – and the many melodies set to them – this verse provides comfort, engenders connection, and transforms gatherings.

I’ve always felt that the wide use of this verse may also be a reminder that goodness in coming together is not necessarily a default state. Rather, Psalm 133:1 asks us to bring mindfulness and attention into the experience of being a community.

Every summer, between the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the 9th of the month of Av (a period that falls, this year, from July 4 – 25), Jews observe a period known as the Three Weeks, or Bein ha-Metzarim (“between the straits”). Our tradition teaches that the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the subsequent exile of the Jews from the land of Israel took place during this time period. Accordingly, the Three Weeks are a time of reflection.

One midrash (rabbinic interpretive literature) attributes that destruction and exile to an atmosphere in which pleasantness and goodness among people who dwelled together were replaced by sin’at chinam, a baseless hatred (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, folio 56a). Such an atmosphere is characterized by people who hate each other for no particular reason and by community leaders who make no attempt to fix the injustices they witness.

Throughout the year, when we sing “Hineh Ma Tov,” we’re provided with the opportunity to reflect on ahavat chinam, a love that exists purely and without ulterior motives – and its presence in the relationships we have with people in our immediate and larger communities. This reflection is especially important throughout the Three Weeks, when the dangers of sin’at chinam, a lack of compassion and love, are highlighted.

As I reflect on ahavat chinam, I feel fortunate to serve as cantor of Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue. Since becoming involved with this community in 2009, I continue to learn what it genuinely takes to create a true sense of togetherness that is pleasant and good. “Dwelling together in unity” requires acceptance, willingness to engage, and the courage to be authentically ourselves. How can we reach that place?

Our congregation was founded in 1972, by and with an outreach to lesbians and gay men, and our members have been no strangers to marginalization, senseless hate, and discrimination. By recognizing each other in our personal stories, though, our congregation is today an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews, together with our allied families and friends, who mindfully bring love into every interaction. When we sing “Hineh Ma Tov,” we include our male brothers (achim), female sisters (achayot), and all gender non-conforming friends (kulanu) to welcome every gender-expression. It’s our way of encouraging everyone to be authentically themselves.

In June, our congregation co-sponsored a 10-day mission of LGBTQ activists to Israel with A Wider Bridge. In one of the many highlights of the trip, we attended a jam-packed session at the Knesset, where Knesset members met and engaged with representatives of the LGBTQ community. Witnessing Israeli lawmakers from across the political spectrum (except the religious parties, unfortunately) be equally moved by these stories truly created a sense of unity.

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