The Torah portions from 2 weeks ago and last week tell different stories of leadership.
Last week, in Shelach, 12 Israelite leaders are sent to scout the Promised Land. Each comes back raving about the lushness of the land, the bounty of the harvest and carrying bunches of grapes so large that it took two men to carry each one. But 10 of the 12 scouts also come back afraid and spread their fear throughout the community. The Israelites acted like all those who are afraid, they froze and refused to enter the Promised Land and they wanted to flee back to Egypt. Only Joshua and Caleb saw potential and hope. They were realistic about the challenges ahead AND wanted to proceed forward with vision, faith and of course a plan. Ultimately, the rest of the Israelites who acted out of fear were condemned to die in the desert. Only Joshua and Caleb survived the 40 years of wandering and ultimately received the blessing and reward of entering the Promised Land. We learn from this story, that realistically facing our challenges and our fears engenders the possibility of reaching goals beyond our wildest dreams.
Two weeks ago, in B’ha’alot’cha, Joshua comes running to Moses upset that 2 Israelites, Eldad and Medad, were prophesying in the camp. He said: “My lord Moses, shut them up”. Moses replied: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets!” We learn from this story that Moses was the wisest of prophets. He understood that his leadership was not challenged by others who prophesied but just the opposite! When a people is infused with passion there is no limit to the greatness they can achieve. In fact, Moses laments that more people were not moved to prophesy.
As a congregation, as a community, these past few weeks have shown us our strength. Everyone, including me, was tempted to give into allowing our fear to drive us. But we did not succumb. We found a way to reach beyond the fear and emulate Moses and embrace the powerful energy generated.
This outpouring of passion, commitment and leadership did not surprise me but I was overwhelmed and humbled by the depth of it. I was not surprised because I have seen it many times in the past 10 years. When I first arrived 10 years ago and we were able to heal from the deepest of wounds; As Mitzvah Day grew and encompassed communities disparate from our own; As I watched my dream of this becoming a truly caring community flourish as dozens of congregants reach out to hundreds of members who have faced pain and reveled in simcha; How when the Jewish community looks for its leadership, the first place it looks is to us; How when the crash of flight 3407 threatened to suck the life force from our community and our sister congregation Temple Beth Am, the community turned to us; As I stood on the Bema at Beth Am that Friday night I saw you in the seats, comforting another congregational family who had lost their beloved cantor, Susan Wehle; As I stood at the crash site that weekend watching them recover body after body my cell phone rang and rang and rang as you called to see what you could do to help the survivors and the first responders; at all those times and countless others, we were there, infused with spirit and each standing together as leaders, uniting when so many other communities would have run in fear or fought about who was greater and more deserving.
Now here we stand again. Where others would split apart like the Red Sea before the Israelites, we rush together to face our fears and our challenges overpowering them as the waters of the Red Sea overcame the Egyptians and saved our ancestors.
Tonight we gather together not in fear of splitting apart but challenged by how to use this incredible commitment to and passion for TBZ to confront the real issues facing our community: a shrinking Western New York Jewish community, the still divisive city/suburban split, and the increasing demands of life that clamor to take up our every waking moment.
While daunting, these challenges will not overwhelm us. I am blessed to have with me an incredible Judaic team, our new Assistant Rabbi Laurie Green who is brimming with wonderful ideas, our Cantorial Intern Penny Myers who prays and teaches with a sincerity that is all too rare and our educator Susan Goldberg Pardo who inspires us and pushes us to strive for excellence. With the administrative support of Mark Criden and his staff at our side, Rabbi Green, Cantorial Intern Myers, Susan Pardo and I have committed ourselves to a plan that can, together with you and the energy you bring here tonight, not only face our challenges head-on, but take TBZ to great new places beyond the horizon of our vision.
First: All of our doors, mine especially, are open to you, to listen to you, to offer you spiritual guidance and support. I take incredible pride that the 4 of us are NOT the distant, remote rabbis satirized in the movie “A Serious Man”. Call me, write me, email me, IM or Facebook me.
Yet, it is not enough that our doors are open to you. The four of us are setting for ourselves an ambitious initial goal. Between now and October, we want to meet with at least 100 members to listen to and to learn from you. We will not ask you pedantic questions like what kind of programming do you want or what would make services more meaningful for you. Rather we will ask you to honor us by sharing your stories, your hopes, your dreams, and your reasons for being a part of TBZ. In all that we do, we need to transform from a place where inclusivity means our doors are open to all but we wait for you to come to us, into a community that understands that inclusivity means we also have to come to you. We will not stop with the first 100 but will continue this effort until we have reached as many of you as possible in the coming years.
Second: The ancient rabbis taught that each home should be a Mikdash Me’at - a microcosm of the Temple in Jerusalem, a place of safety, warmth, compassion and positive values. Much of my teaching and programming over the next year will focus on helping you transform your home into a more sacred place and reaching out beyond TBZ to those who need our help to find a home that one day they can transform into a Mikdash Me’at. We will also be looking internally to see how our TBZ home can be more of a Mikdash Me’at - a place of safety, warmth, compassion and postivie values. Here is a 9-point definition of what I hope to help you create.
“How to Construct A Mikdash Me'At mikdash me'at” by Ozzie Nogg
1. To transform the home into sanctuary what you have is not as important as how you behave.
2. To qualify as a mikdash me'at, a home must be a place of safety, comfort and refuge, where the hungry find food, the weary find rest and the stranger finds warmth and welcome. In order to be a true mikdash me'at, a home must be a place where many voices are allowed to sing - in harmony or in disagreement.
3. When erecting a mikdash me'at, place it on a solid foundation of compassion, generosity, humility and positive values. Trust and the ability to forgive are also critical building blocks.
4. To make a home a mikdash me'at you must take nothing for granted. When you rise up, give thanks for the new day and the opportunities it brings. When you lie down, give thanks for the day that is past and the lessons it taught you.
5. A mikdash me'at is built on respect - for spouses, partners, parents and children. In a little sanctuary there must also be respect for the people who work in the home. Pay them fairly. Treat them kindly.
6. Remember. Hospitality is as important as divine worship. In a mikdash me'at, food is happily shared with others. At the table, speak words of wisdom and support. Do not gossip. Even if you are alone, be not distracted by television during meals.
7. To qualify as a mikdash me'at, a home must be a place where each family member is appreciated, considered special, and encouraged to grow and learn in different ways. Listen to others with an open heart.
8. To be approved as a certified mikdash me'at, a home must be insulated against rough weather with a protective layer of peace - shalom bayit - if not every day, then surely on Shabbat. On this one day, at least, you must shut out the stress and cares of the world. Replace tension and argument with words of sweetness and love.
9. When building a mikdash me'at, begin now, and proceed with joy.
Third: Across the American Jewish community people are asking: “Where are the men?” This year I will be hosting a new group aimed at men: “Drash and Draught” - a men’s study group which will look at ways Judaism teaches us, in the words of Rabbi Dan Polish, to “Mentch Up”.
Fourth: Also in the realm of outreach - I have invited the Jewish Outreach Institute to come to TBZ to work with our entire staff and others to teach us how to be even more open, welcoming and inclusive than we all ready are. They will also be evaluating our written and electronic materials and presence on the web. JOI has worked with dozens of congregations to help them fulfill Isaiah’s vision, which is our vision: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The first of our program initiatives from JOI will be the implementation of a Grandparents Circle. This program, which will be led by our member and teacher Marcia Valente, is designed to help grandparents be a positive Jewish presence for their grandchildren, WITHOUT impinging on their children’s perogotive as parents.
Fifth: Celebration - On July 17, 1810 the first Reform service was held in Germany. That means this summer on the Shabbat of July 16th and 17th, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the beginning of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Green and Cantorial Intern Myers will mark the occasion at services that Shabbat and throughout the year we will focus on this anniversary. As a part of observing this milestone, I will be teaching a class on Reform Judaism at Temple Beth Tzedek and Rabbi Perry Netter from Beth Tzedek will teach a class on Conservative Judaism at TBZ. Rabbi Netter and I are committed to deepening the connection between our congregations, the oldest and strongest in Western New York.
In addition, 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of our Women of Reform Judaism/Sisterhood. With everything Sisterhood has done to support and enhance our congregation one might even think it existed before the congregation. This year we will not only celebrate Sisterhood’s history of commitment to TBZ but also thank them for their ongoing vision and support as they are providing us with the resources to renovate the Sisterhood Chapel into a modern, even more spiritual worship space.
And Sixth: As the board resolution says, we want to involve more of you in the planning and decision making here at TBZ. In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, Korach, my teacher Rabbi Herb Bronstein writes: “synagogue affiliation has two modes: Taking and giving... In our own lives we have to ask: ‘Are we takers or givers?’” That you are committed to TBZ and its future is evidenced not just by your presence here but that you are members of our congregational family. In most congregations, after the last child becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah a large number of households quit the temple. Not at TBZ. Our members, you, are not simply takers, using our services and then leaving the rest of us behind. TBZ is a special place. You stay and you give so that others can come and stay as well. You know you own this congregation. Be like Eldad and Medad. Continue to make your voices heard in ways that will help TBZ remain the Jewish light of Western New York and be able to shine its light even further and brighter.
Finally, if any of you think we should fear our future or that the challenges are too daunting, look around this room. As the prophet Joel says in chapter 3 verse 1:
וְהָיָה אַחֲרֵי־כֵן אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי עַל־כָּל־בָּשָׂר וְנִבְּאוּ בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם חֲלֹמוֹת יַחֲלֹמוּן, בַּחוּרֵיכֶם חֶזְיֹנוֹת יִרְאוּ
It shall come to pass that I will pour my spirit on all living beings and your sons and daughters shall prophesy and your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.
We dream our dreams but it is our youth who will show us, who have shown us the way. If there is another congregation that could inspire its young people to stand up as they have, express their opinion so passionately and articulately and to attend an annual congregational meeting, I am not aware of it. Your presence here tonight inspires us.
And so I conclude on a personal note. The great 19th century Chassidic rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said: It is the followers who make the rabbi. Tonight, looking at all of you, I understand his words, as I never have before. Seeing our high school and college students here as well as hearing and reading their words these past few weeks, if my rabbinic career were to end at this moment, Dayeinu, it would have been enough.
But my career has not ended. Now I look forward to the continued fulfillment of my dream - to be your spiritual leader as we together over the next year raise this Temple to the greatest glory it has ever known
Let us honor our students as they have honored all of us by ensuring that Temple Beth Zion will be here for them, their children and their children’s children, henceforth and forever.