Yom Kippur 2023
Final High Holidays Sermon at TBE
Shmuel noticed his friend Avrum underneath a streetlight, searching for something on the ground.
“What are you doing, Avrum?”
“I’ve lost my keys. Please help me look for them.”
A while passed with no success.
“Avrum, where exactly did you lose those keys?”
“I lost them in that alley over there.”
Shmuel was dumbfounded. “So why are we looking here!?”
Avrum looked over at his friend: “Because the light is better here!”
“Teach us to count our days,” says Psalm 90, “that we may attain wisdom.” We’ve looked at that Psalm in different ways over the past ten days and now, for my final High Holidays sermon as your senior rabbi, let’s look at that amazing verse in the context of the rest of the Psalm and discover the secret to a meaningful and happy life.
There is so much there. Take Verse 14:
Satisfy us at daybreak with Your steadfast love, that we may sing for joy all our days.
Give us just a glimpse at daybreak – a taste, a sunrise, a hot cup of coffee and a fresh crusty roll. That’s all I need, and I’m good to go.
Even if I don’t find my keys, I’ll be happy because I poured myself into the task of looking, all the while, knowing that in the end, the keys will probably remain unfound, leaving it to the next generation to try.
But despite the seemingly tragic nature of life – the psalm expresses hope in the final verse: (90:17)
“May God’s pleasantness be upon us. Let the work of our hands be established for us; the work of our hands, let it be established.”
We may not find the keys. We probably WON’T find the keys, given where we are looking. But please God, let our search be meaningful. If we don’t find the keys – let us discover something that we had no idea we were looking for.
I love this Psalm.
Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, asked: Why is the phrase “the work of our hands” repeated? His reply: It’s not enough that our actions advance positive and significant goals. They should have a sublime sweetness too, Through our work we should become keenly aware of “No’am Adonai.” “God’s pleasantness upon us.”
So, in the end, if we don’t complete the task, but the work is meaningful and productive, through it, we will feel blessed.
We should all aim to feel that way at the end of the day.
And we should feel that way, today.
For here is the secret of that Psalm. “Teach us to count our days” means not only that everything we do should be infused with meaning. But we should also pour all of ourselves, every ounce of our soul, into everything we do. Every sandcastle we build. Every dream we dream. From the smallest gesture to the greatest.
And that is my final High Holidays message. Our life IS our work.
But doesn’t this fly in the face of the cherished ideal of “work-life balance,” which has become almost an eleventh commandment of our society? Well, it’s true that we need to have priorities. Family, health, parents, partner, children, all are priorities. But the separation of work from the rest of life is an illusion. Ultimately, it’s all One. And we need to be all-in for all of it. Not just 9 to 5 or 5 to 9. Not until age 65 or 70 - or 62 if you are French. But all of it. From the first breath to the last.
Admittedly, my profession is an extreme example, but shouldn’t the seamless integration of work and life be what we all strive to achieve? Isn’t that what brings happiness, meaning and fulfillment? I happen to be a rabbi – and guess what my pleasure reading is on vacation, when I’m supposedly off the clock? Jewish history. My favorite TV series this year, watched when I supposedly wasn’t working? Mrs. Maisel and Fauda, and my favorite films were Golda and Oppenheimer. I didn’t ask for overtime pay. But for me, there is no separation between work and life. And that’s why it’s a good thing that I love my work.
Here’s something interesting. The Hebrew word for work is Avoda. And that’s the same word we use for worship. Our work, our life and our prayers, they are all one, all part of an integrated, organic, whole. Hey, I don’t even take Shabbat off. Even God takes Shabbat off. But on a given Shabbat, God doesn’t have two bar mitzvahs, a naming and an ufruf. And I’ve been all-in for all those, all the time. And yet, as with God, Shabbat still replenishes my soul.
I’d like to add another wrinkle to Rav Kook’s commentary. What does the Psalm mean when it speaks of “ma’ase yadaynu,” “The work of our hands,” twice? It means that the work of my hands is incomplete without the work of your hands. Our work has been woven together into a magnificent tapestry. There is no single point where my work ends and yours begins. Where my story ends and yours begins. Your story is part of mine and vice versa.
I see that so much more clearly as I reflect back on the lives here that have touched mine, over 37 years. I’m standing up here on a shore, and I look out and see the waves of people coming in and the going out, like time-lapse photography – and those people who sat in the seats where you are sitting 30 years ago – I see them before me right now. Their presence is eternal. Their legacies never disappear.
My mind flips through the rolodex of memory as I leaf through the eulogies – and I’ve saved them all. People like Arthur White, whose indefatigable optimism moved mountains. And Meryl Aronin, whose clear shofar call still reverberates in this sanctuary. There was Janie Kane and her courage through illness, and Norma Mann, who broke every Jewish glass ceiling in town, and the warm smiles of Marsha Gladstein, who welcome-wagoned me to Stamford. And Ed Golove, who lay dying down the hall in the hospital from where his great grandchild was being born and has been their guardian angel ever since; and Sam Kravitz, literally the nicest guy ever; and Marjorie Laff, who taught me how to explain death to children, and Jeff Shendell, who somehow thought Dartmouth was the best Ivy.
To Myna Schwartz – unsinkable and heroic, who adorned every Seder table with sparkling beauty, and Karen Jossem, who when she was told she might have one year to live, refused to travel or otherwise address the bucket list, instead telling her son Doug, “Why would I want to go anywhere else when I can spend that time right here with you?” She still has not moved. A tree planted in her memory stands proudly right out there. How many people remaining in this community know that that tree must never come down?
And Bruce Feinberg, who willed his body up to this pulpit for one final aliyah. And Lori Frank, who, when she belonged to an Orthodox havurah before coming here, was asked how she could reconcile Orthodox Judaism with her feminism, and she said, “Ask God. She’ll understand.” And Ben Evans, who witnessed Kristallnacht as a child and chose this room to tell his grandchildren about it.
And Shirley Fish – our assistant principal, both strong willed and profoundly humble – and Larry Bloch, her partner in education. And Barb Moskow, who turned our Hebrew School into Jerusalem.
And Adam Weissman – wheelchair bound, who taught us that the sky’s the limit, a lesson that we also learned from others who faced physical challenges, like David Jaffe, and Pamela Weisz. And then there was Bruce Martin, who walked the streets so proudly that one might have thought he was the real Mayor Martin of this town. So many heroes who refused to be defined by disability or to be weighed down by mortality itself.
Like Dana Kraus, who defied gravity with her dancing. Or Penny Horowitz, who welcomed guests so often to her home and our gift shop and now welcomes us next door at the cemetery.
And Bobby Silberman, who gave cancer the fight of his life and inspired us all – on the day of his passing, there were nearly 500 messages on his Caring Bridge site praising his heart of gold and most beautiful soul. One wrote, “I am inspired by his courage, humbled by his candor, and honored to have been his friend.” His parents said kaddish for him on the same date of every month after his passing in 2007– and now and now Bobby will welcome his father Alan, who died this week, alongside him in the cemetery.
There’s Herb Horowitz who could sit around the men’s club breakfast table, along with Frank Rosner, Dave Gruber, Ed Kaplin, Sol Siskind and Josh Lang and chomp down bagels on a Sunday morning.
And Mildred Miller an elegant and sweet lady, who never missed a yahrzeit – our library is still named for her husband Maximillian. And Phyllis Lapin, whose creativity sparked my own. Edith Sherman built a city, and Mel Allen defined a dynasty and taught me that we are all on the same team.
Heroes all. Lois Fink, Martin Benjamin. Gloria Baum. Al Golin, who blew the shofar until he had no breath left to give. And Jack Malin, whose deep love for tradition is reflected in each of the restored Torahs in this ark.
And Fred Weisman – who was a tikkun olam machine. Alan Kalter, whose deep soul and even deeper love for Judaism belied his funnyman image. And Don Adelman – an extraordinary Jewish educator, congregant, advisor, and friend.
These are our Torahs. Many of you won’t recognize even one of these names. But they are our living scrolls. Their stories are OUR stories. They are your stories too. Each of these lives has lent a sense of exaltation to the human condition and the Jewish narrative – each of their stories has merged with the life of this community; and each of their stories has merged with mine – and each, like a wave, has receded from the shore – from where you are now sitting – where they once sat – into the Oneness of the universe.
I don’t know about corporations, medical practices, law firms or universities, but I can tell you that at a house of worship, institutional memory is precious. It is priceless. Sometimes I think we undervalue it in our awkward attempts to lurch forward.
And when it came time to say goodbye to these precious souls, most of whom were sent off on their journey to eternity from this very sanctuary - paying tribute to them was my work; the dirt under my fingernails was my work - but it was also my worship. And my life.
I apologize for the hundreds of names I’ve left out. All of them meant so much to me. I walk to the cemetery next door and realize that I’ve buried what feels like half of them. All were friends - even if we didn’t always agree. I found myself compelled to ask forgiveness of many of them on their death beds. And they were probably thinking, “Now he does this?”
Each of them contributed one brick to a foundation that is so strong and vibrant, and changing. They may be dead, but they are proof that American Jewry is alive and well. None of them found the keys that Shmuel and Avram were rummaging for in the darkness – but all of these lives were bathed in divine light.
We are the sum of our stories. And each of our stories is like an interactive novel, spinning off numerous sequels. And each of us touches the lives of others in ways we can barely imagine and often never know. And each story becomes timeless, transcendent.
And now I turn to the living. All of you have been an integral part of my life. Not mere congregants. Not clients. And certainly not customers. There is something about the relationship between clergy and congregation that cannot be compared to any other personal or professional relationship. Especially when the relationship is multi-generational.
Rabbi Albert Lewis delivered his final sermon posthumously, via a letter read to his congregation on the Yom Kippur following his passing, as described in a book by Mitch Albom. He started the letter by explaining that for all his years, people have been asking him whether there is an afterlife. And he wrote, “Now that I know, I can’t tell you.”
He did not offer a list of his accomplishments. Rather he asked forgiveness for not saving more marriages, not visiting more homebound, not easing the pain of parents who had just lost a child – for not having done more – with every breathing minute allotted to him. I echo those sentiments today. I know I could have done better.
Lewis also told one of my all-time favorite Yom Kippur jokes. He gave a sermon where the subject was death, and informed the congregation that everyone is going to die. After the service, a man comes up to him all excited. The rabbi asks, “Why are you so excited? I just told the entire congregation that they are going to die.” “Yes,” said the man, “and THAT’S why I’m so excited. I belong to another congregation!”
I’ve discovered that life can be a thrilling ride if we greet each day with fresh eyes. In Deuteronomy (26:16) it says, “The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules, and to observe them faithfully…” Rashi asks why it says, “this day?” Why not every day? The commentator’s response: “Every day, every time one fulfills a mitzvah, it should feel as if it is the first.”
That’s how I’ve counted my days. Every day, like the first. And that’s how I’ve approached my work-life.
There have been well over a thousand bar and bat mitzvahs here during my tenure. I’ve wanted each one to feel like the first. I missed only one. And even that has an asterisk. It was for March of the Living, where I spent two weeks escorting dozens of our teens, and the Bat Mitzvah student had many months’ warning. She could have changed the date. But it was tied into a promised trip to Disney World the following week and hey, I would have done the same.
I missed oodles of my own family’s simchas. I missed my kids’ school plays and choral performances. I wouldn’t miss a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
How could I? It’s the only one for that child, it should feel like the only one for me. Every funeral is the only one for that person, it should feel like the only one for me. Every naming is the only time that baby will be named, and it should feel like the only one for me. And every wedding….Well, it’s not always the only one.
But by the way, I love to do weddings. Here's my card. Just take it – you never know.
But the point is that every day you should go into work as if it is the first day. That has always been my approach. I would not miss a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
So let me share a few stories. Among the thousands I could tell, here are three.
Over the years there have been inflection points, where I’ve been given opportunities to take on new opportunities. But there were very few times when I really came close to leaving. One occurred about 20 years ago, when I interviewed at a prestigious congregation and was asked back for a Shabbat, but we couldn’t find a date because of our packed B’nai Mitzvah schedule. That congregation, in Atlanta – the largest Conservative shul in the south (not that size is important) - got around the problem by deciding to turn Shabbat into Tuesday. So, I flew down, they filled the place, and I gave a Shabbat sermon on Tuesday. It went very well.
So then, you might be asking, why am I still standing here? Well, there was one more step that we needed to take.
I needed the stamp of approval from the Boss.
Mara’s opinion has always mattered to more than my own. She has never steered me wrong. She’s never steered you wrong, either. As most of you know, for the past 37 years, she has been the heartbeat of this congregation. God willing you will hire a great rabbi. You will never find another Mara.
So, we bought the plane tickets and were ready to go. Everything was all set. But as they say, man plans and God laughs. Or, in this case, cries.
The night before our scheduled departure, our dear friend and congregant Pamela Cohn Allen succumbed to her long, heroic battle with ovarian cancer. Pamela’s impact on our Beth El story is beyond what any of us can measure. Irony of ironies, Scott, her husband, grew up in this same Atlanta shul, and he and Pam were advising me through this process. As I sat at her bedside while she was in her final weeks, in between our prayers and lots of silence, she asked only one thing of me – that I join Scott on the plane that would take her body home to Jerusalem. I’m very careful in making promises, because in my work, you never know what the next day will bring. But knowing how much it would mean to her, I promised her that when her time came, I would be on that plane. I would not leave her. And she smiled. That comforted her.
And so, when the day arrived, my Delta flight to Atlanta was missing two Hammermans, and I was with Scott on El Al, escorting Pamela to her final resting place in Jerusalem.
I stayed in Israel for just a few hours. I had to get back here - for a Bar Mitzvah. The people in Atlanta could not believe what I did – I don’t know if they thought I was crazy or snubbing them. We had trouble finding a date to reschedule and the process sort of lost momentum. But I definitely thought Pamela, or someone, was trying to tell me something - that my work here was not yet finished.
I made a promise, and that promise was ma’asay yadenu. The work of our hands. When I flew with Pamela’s body, that was the work of God’s hands. I did not fly there because it’s my job. I flew with Pamela because it was my avoda. And that decision became our collective destiny.
Second story. Fast forward to October 25, 2018. A call came in from the Jewish Home and I received the devastating news of my mother’s passing. She had not been well - she was 95 and stricken with Parkinson’s. Still, it came as an incredible shock when I got the call.
She died on a Thursday and the funeral was to be on Sunday in Boston. That Shabbat we had a Bar Mitzvah scheduled here. Couldn’t miss it. Do you notice a theme? I was not officially in mourning yet and I could not let that family and that student down on the biggest day of his life. So, with a heavy heart, but hiding the pain as best I could, I led that service. My heart got much heavier when I learned that while we were praying, the worst antisemitic attack in American Jewish history took place in Pittsburgh.
Many of you know how you feel when a parent dies – adrift, aimless, not knowing what to do, waiting for the rabbi to lead you, to stand you up, to help you shovel the dirt? It had been 40 years since I lost my father, so I was quite adrift. I was now an orphan. But I had a rabbi. A good one. My rabbi was me. So, with the help of an old friend, a funeral director in Boston, and down here from Melissa Fahey, an angel from heaven, my mom was brought home to Brookline.
And then I came back here for the shiva.
Shiva can be incredibly life-affirming, and I experienced that. I sat publicly in this building for ten hours each day, because I believe in the importance of that ritual and in its healing power. Stretching forty hours over four weekdays enabled me to have real, one-on-one conversations with about 400 people.
As much as this was my personal loss, we all were feeling adrift that week. American Jews were angry and terrified. A synagogue, our Jewish safe space, had been violated. Defiantly, hundreds of people came here that Friday night, including non-Jewish neighbors, and I walked in after Lecha Dodi, which is the tradition for mourners, and I led the rest of the service from that point on. (Hear that sermon below)
Our collective Jewish people’s shiva and my personal shiva fused together as one. As much as people came to comfort me, they also looked to me for comfort. As much as they helped to restore the natural order of things for me, we all sat together, low to the ground, and mourned the untimely loss of good, innocent people, vulnerable people, people at prayer, people who had only love in their hearts – and we mourned for their innocence and the loss of ours. One on one on one on one, the healing took place, down in the trenches of the mourning bench.
And on Thursday, our Hebrew School students came to me and had a real-time lesson in how to comfort a mourner. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of our Hebrew School students. Each of them came up to me individually, held my hand or hugged me and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
In any normal job, the boss would have said, “Go home, leave everything on your desk, take as long as you need and come back when you are ready.”
Do you understand why I couldn’t do that? How I would never be able to live with myself if I had retreated to my own private mourner’s bench, that week of all weeks? Perhaps our lives are too enmeshed, but you needed me, as you needed me after 9/11, when we packed this place on Rosh Hashanah with survivors, with witnesses, still coughing from the ash. (Hear that sermon below)
We did a Yiddish concert here the Sunday after Newtown, when Hesh Romanowitz reminded me that Jews never stop singing. We gathered the whole community here the evening after Rabin’s murder. So, I knew that I could not take my mother’s shiva week off.
There are times over the years when I’ve been away where I’ve missed a funeral, where it’s absolutely crushed me. I was on a cruise in Alaska when Marcia Kahan died; and in Australia when Deb Goldberg lost her long courageous battle. And so, in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, how could I abandon you when we all felt so afraid, so vulnerable? But was it right for me to turn my shiva into our shiva? It just never occurred to me – or anyone here – that it could be handled any other way. Our stories are too enmeshed.
I have zero regrets, but I also suspect this:
On next July 1, when our clock has hit zero, I will wake up in my new home in Madison, take a deep breath, walk down to the beach, sit in the sand, look around at the water lapping the shore, feel the breeze on my face – and like a huge tsunami wave, it will finally hit me that my mother has died.
Back in 2008, journalist Stephen Fried wrote a much-discussed book about a rabbinic search process at a large synagogue in Philadelphia. It was called The New Rabbi.
A telling scene in the book has the author eavesdropping on an older couple conversing about their rabbis in the row behind him at a Shabbat service.
“I don’t like (Rabbi X).” “He’s too…well, something…”
“I like (Rabbi Y),” “He’s nice, friendly.”
“I don’t like him either. He’s too friendly. I don’t want a rabbi who’s friendly.”
That brief snippet points out the complexities of this quest. Rabbis are expected to be 29 years old with 30 years of experience, serious yet funny, principled yet conciliatory, sophisticated yet homespun, friendly yet firm, and all of that 24/7.
It is not without reason that Fried’s research led him to the conclusion that the rabbinate (and not the American presidency) is the toughest job in the world.
I mean, it’s hard. Lots of jobs require you to grit your teeth and deal with people you don’t like. Politicians have to do it all the time. But tell me of another job where an elementary school student gets on the school bus and starts lobbying his classmates that it’s time to “get rid of the rabbi.” Two classmates go home crying, and their parents call me, in total shock. And just a short time later, I am standing at the bedside of that same student at Yale New Haven, cheering him up and praying with him for his recovery.
And no, there was no cause and effect between the two incidents. At the Seminary, I failed my class in the Dark Arts with Professor Snape. And there was no question that I would be there. Not a shred of doubt. And that incident on the bus, as much as it pained me, would never be discussed again – until right now. Who would want this job? Toughest job in the world.
To paraphrase the old country song, Mama don’t let your babies grow up to be rabbis!
I would never recommend it to anyone. But I wouldn’t trade these 40 years in the biz for anything. It has made me a much better person than I ever would have been. I’ve had to do things I never would have done, like setting aside superficial differences to focus on what’s really important. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me recently when a congregant with whom I have had major political differences turned and said to me, “But we always knew you would be there for us.” There have been times when I wondered whether I might have lived my best life being a little less of a mensch. But then there are times like, well, last week, when I made good on a promise I’d made to John Graubard before his death, to share one of his jokes in a High Holidays sermon. I know it meant so much to his family. They told me. How many professions give you that chance to make someone on his death bed happy? That’s one of the gifts of being a rabbi. Even the simplest gesture can mean so much to people. It’s both a gift and an unbelievably weighty responsibility.
I recall speaking to the Rabbi Joe Ehrenkranz of Agudath Sholom when he was about to retire, and I congratulated him. He looked at me, and said, simply, “I failed.”
I was taken aback – here’s a guy who led groups to see the pope, who sat on the White House lawn when the Oslo Accords were signed; who served his congregation for 40 years. I’ve never done any of those things. If there ever was a rabbinical dictionary and you looked up success, you would see his face.
But now I understand what he was getting at.
Rabbi David Wolpe said in Fried’s book, “Vulnerable people in the rabbinate have a tough time. The more human you are, the more exposed, the less chance you have of making it as a rabbi.”
Wolpe’s comment implies that, try as you might, you can’t be genuine, true to yourself, honest, open and transparent – vulnerable – and succeed. And forget about being an introvert. You’ve got to be able to put on a show – and never let ‘em know who you really are. Never let ‘em see you sweat.
that’s not me. Never has been.
I’ve never gotten caught up in the game of needing to live up to others’ expectations. But it’s my own expectations that are the crux of the matter. I wake up literally every morning wondering whom I’ve already let down that day. Knowing that somewhere, with someone, I could be doing better.
That Bar Mitzvah that I did on the day after my mother died – that family has never stopped thanking me. They just did again a few weeks ago. But who did I neglect that same day? Who was waiting for my call as I prepared to bury my mother? Maybe someone else was losing their mother.
The priceless gifts and the weighty responsibilities. Leaving the house at 3:30 AM recently to do a funeral a thousand miles away – how could I not? The wedding on St Martin that I had to turn around and come right home the next day because of a tragedy in my family. But I had to go. The funerals during Covid where it was just me and the grave digger, and I was the family’s only link; of course I had to be there, even if it meant my taking on risks that most weren’t allowed to take. The couple grieving for a stillborn child - who is still with them in the room - not knowing how to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. The many people with whom I said a final Sh’ma while watching their life breath ebb away. The teen whose parents were murdered – and there was nothing I could do but just be there. I prayed before I knocked on the door. The gay young adult looking for reassurance that God still loves them. The 20-something heroically climbing out of addiction and telling her story to high school students – in Newtown, of all places, not long after the killings.
And then, there were the countless TBE students whom we met up with in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Michmoret - and another for Shabbat dinner in Budapest, who just happened to be in their neighborhood – she was in Vienna, or Slovakia, I believe, and grabbed a train to be with us for Shabbat; just because they are all our kids. All these families were so grateful that we could bring their kids a taste of home, and a free meal – so incredibly grateful that we were there.
But none of them has any idea about the hundreds of other families. And I have no idea about the God-knows probably thousands of others who hoped for me to be there for them at a given time, who heard what I did for that person but I didn’t do it for their person and they sent thought waves my way, but I didn’t hear them.
(***Someone is actually going to take me seriously about Severus Snape teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Please be assured that he is a fictional character, and the Dark Arts and other genres of Wizardry have never been taught there! They barely even taught Kabbala when I was there. Snape is not Jewish, though some see antisemitic tropes in how Snape is portrayed, and there is an ancient Synagogue of Severus located in Tiberias. The point is that my mind reading skills are quite limited. But you knew that. I know you knew that)
I now understand what Rabbi Ehrehkranz meant. You’ve got to set the bar high to be a successful rabbi, all along knowing that not only will your never come close to reaching your goal, but unless you have developed a super thick skin and a heart of stone and not an ounce of conscience, this job is custom-designed to shorten your life. It is designed to break your heart.
I used to explain it as being like a juggler with a thousand balls in the air. But the juggler has it easy, because they’re just balls. It’s more like what God deals with. No, I’m not saying I’m like God, but there is a scene in the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty, where Carrey takes God’s job for a day and he is buried under a blizzard of prayers written on post-its, like all those notes at the Western Wall. I can imagine God today, on Yom Kippur, feeling overwhelmed by an avalanche of prayers. And then, when someone actually reads what’s on those post-its, their heart breaks, again and again.
A juggler is not reading those balls
in the air, but when hundreds of you come up to this ark during Neilah,
I know what you’ve all been through, your joys and your sorrows, and there are
many joys, and I can hear the whispers of what you might well be praying
for. The sheer weight of all those
prayers is overwhelming, a burden that after 37 years, not even Atlas could lift.
And you know what gave me a sliver of grace this year. When I came to realize that none of you can possibly understand what I am babbling about. And that’s OK. I can’t expect you to understand what this life is like. I can’t expect even most other clergy to understand it, including many rabbis, who are still caught in the hamster wheel that I am now, thank God, exiting. God bless them all. I feel for them. My wife, my kids and my dogs – only they understand it.
And I’m OK with that. It took me a long time, but I’m finally OK with that. I hope you can forgive me for my not always being there – and I will continue to work on forgiveness from this end as well.
A wee bit of unsolicited advice, though, for the benefit of the next rabbi. When someone around the table suggests doing a customer service survey on pastoral care – look back at this sermon and just say no. Your next rabbi will thank you and might even stick around for a while.
So, if you’ll indulge me, one more story, for the road. I hear Jackson Browne in my head right now, as the roadies start breaking down the amps. So, stay a little bit longer and let me end…at - at the beginning. My first Shabbat here. My tryout. Every saga has an origin story. So, in this Marvel Universe, how did I get here?
It all started at a 5,000-watt radio station in Fresno, California. Oh, wait, sorry. That’s Ted Baxter. It all started with a Big Bang? No. It all started with a mouse…. Oh wait, that’s Disney.
No. Not a mouse, but a mall. You see, it’s the mid ‘80s, and we liked going to the Stamford Town Center. We always drove through when we would go from our former home in Peekskill, NY to visit Mara’s brother, who was a graduate student at Yale at the time.
So, it started with a mall. If you’re glad I came, you can thank (now defunct) Brooks Brothers and Mara's brother. And when Temple Beth El showed up on the rabbinic placement list at a time when we were looking to move back to New England, which this is (barely) we were heading back up Long Ridge one Sunday and saw the sign for the synagogue on the corner of Roxbury Rd. We drove up Roxbury Rd, and I swear - the building looked like Mount Sinai as we were approaching it, rounding the bend from below. And I heard a voice. And it said, “Make a U turn where possible.”
No, Siri wasn’t around yet. I didn’t feel called or anything – but something felt right. We took a spin around the lot and liked what we saw. We made that U turn and headed back down Roxbury Road, past the schools my as-yet-unimagined kids would one day attend.
I sent in my resume and was interviewed by a few machers at the Bauer’s house on Heatherwood. Rabbi Goldman was there, and as I recall, so were Alan Kalter, Jerry Poch, Ron Gross and Arthur White. The Manns and Rodwins weren’t, but they came as scouts to watch me in action at my synagogue a week later, throwing my old congregation into an abject panic, because, if you knew Norma and Milt, Roger and Judy, they had trouble slinking into the background. At the Oneg, Norma started serving coffee. A few weeks later, I was invited for a Shabbat service on Feb. 20, 1987, one week after I turned 30. Having no B’nai Mitzvah scheduled at my current place, I came.
Despite frigid weather and a holiday weekend, and almost no publicity, about 100 people showed up for the service. I was awestruck! What a place! A sanctuary to die for – Afterwards, I was very impressed with the Oneg. Great cake. No paper plates. The real china came out. The people were friendly and seemed happy to see me. In fact, some started kissing me on the cheek, which for me was a little weird. Sandy Siegartel told me, “We’re a kissing congregation.” It sounded pretty good to me.
It was so wonderful, coming to Stamford, living among such prestigious neighbors as Superman, Young Frankenstein, and Roseanne Roseannadanna. Over the years, I could proudly tell my colleagues that I hailed from the home of Purdue Pharma, professional wrestling and Jerry Springer – of blessed memory.
On that cold night of my tryout, the portion was Yitro - just a few days after Tu B’Shevat. I tied together the great themes of the holiday and the portion and talked about the Torah as a tree of life. “At Mount Sinai,” I said, “God looked upon a nation of slaves and saw in them a kingdom of priests. God looked upon these nothings, these refugees from Egypt, a group of half a million underachievers and perpetual complainers who hadn't even wanted freedom. “Asafsuf,” “Riff Raff,” the Torah calls them. And yet God also called them a holy nation, Am Kadosh., a nation apart, a treasured people – Am Segula,
Before giving them the great gift of Torah at Sinai, before planting that seed of greatness, before a single commandment had been uttered, God saw within them the potential for greatness.”
I then said, “It is the mark of a great artist – a visionary – to be able to look at a seedling and see a tree, to be able to look beyond what is actually there and see what could be there, what will be there, what must be there.
Who among us could have seen greatness within the hearts of those Israelite slaves? And who among us can look out the windows of our houses in the middle of the winter and actually see spring? Can we imagine the blades of grass beneath the snow? Can we hear the birds over the din of the plows? Can we visualize an explosion of green upon the bare branches of the trees? It's not easy. But it's exactly what we have to do.
We must plant those seeds, even though it is still cold and icy.
We must see the forest, even though there is no forest yet to be seen.
We must be future oriented, even though so many forces conspire to tie us down to the past.”
When I looked out at you, I did not see riffraff from Egypt. You were dressed quite well, actually. I realized I needed to get back to Brooks Brothers, and fast. But I did see seedlings. Part of me saw not who you were, but what you could become – and what we could become together. What could become of the work of our hands.
In my mind, I imagined daffodils, ready to burst forth from the cold, hard earth.
Did you conduct (your business) affairs honestly? Did you set aside a special/regular time in your schedule for Torah study? Did you do all you could to have children? Did you yearn for world redemption? Did you deal deeply in matters of wisdom? Did you learn critically?
It’s fascinating that none of the questions has to do with ritual observance. Nothing about Shabbat or Kashrut. But ethics. Were you honest? Did you apply your learning into world repair? Did you foster hope for the future? Did you try to make a difference?
These are the questions the Talmud asks.
I want to add two more.
Rabbi Arnold Goodman, a real mensch and former R.A. president (and the departing rabbi in Atlanta when I was there), who passed away this year, recounted a story of sitting and having lunch at a rabbinical conference. After the lunch, he looked visibly shaken as he told a student what had just happened. He said, “we were going around the table and each of us was sharing the greatest accomplishment of our rabbinate. One of our friends was quiet. We asked so, nu what’s your greatest accomplishment?” He answered, “I raised nice kids.”
That’s the first question a rabbi has to ask – whether referring to biological children or all the other ones, including all the kids whose B’nai Mitzvah I refused to miss. Did I raise nice kids?
I think I did. I couldn’t be prouder of mine – and I’m pretty darn proud of yours. They’re all my kids, by the way. That has no expiration date. Every Jewish child deserves to have their own childhood rabbi, who will love them unconditionally and always be there for them – and that relationship lasts for life.
And one more question:
Did I board that plane with Pamela?
Did I keep my promise, the promise that I made to her when she was so afraid, as she stared deeply into my eyes?
That in the end is what matters. Having integrity. Being worthy of trust. That’s the whole ball game. It’s horrible to have to say this, but in our world of rampant abuse by people of the cloth, it’s no small accomplishment to know that you have been able to trust your clergy with your children for all these years. I’ve been responsible with your kids - and my Mitzvah Fund has been audited every year. What else can a congregant ask for?
And it’s no small thing that couples could entrust me to help them through hard times, to the point where even when they got divorced, this remained a safe space for both of them. To be worthy of trust is a huge deal. I’m immensely proud of that.
And so, I boarded that plane El Al plane in Newark, and because I did, the entire universe was upended. All the things that would have happened had I moved away twenty years ago, did not happen. And all the good things that we’ve experienced here for the past twenty years, they did. All that, and because I didn’t go to Atlanta, I got to be on the right side of 28-3.
Because Pamela asked me for that promise, and because I said yes, your life changed.
We all live such elaborate, interwoven lives.
Teach us, O Lord, to balance our days, our work and our life, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom – that our work and our life become one with who we are, who we really are. And that we pour every ounce of our God-given breath into everything we do, with all our heart and all our soul and all our might.
And now, 37 years after I spoke to this congregation for the first time and saw seedlings, I now look out and see 37 fully grown gardens. One stacked on top of the other. And each pew is stacked 37 times, like planes over La Guardia. Circling. Circling. I see them all, the dead, the living, the not yet dreamed of. It feels like that last scene from Les Misérables, which opened on Broadway one month after my opening night here.
And, as I see you, marking this moment, I’m taking a mental snapshot right…now… and will carry it with me for the rest of my days, wherever I find myself, next Yom Kippur, and the one after that, and God willing, beyond.
And as I look out, I see a reflection of what I could only imagine 37 years ago, shimmering through our windows and sparkling in your eyes – and as I look very closely, squinting in the dimming light, running my fingernails into the dirt, I think I may have spotted what I’ve been searching for all along.
For the privilege of serving you, thank you.