That's what I did on Thursday. I sat on a rock by a picturesque lighthouse and watched the sea bounce around beneath my feat. Blue sea, blowing wind, hot sun, white foam, brown earth, and me – all the essential elements were present for a splendid day of just being in this beautiful world.
We all need something like this in our lives. Each of us needs a way to escape from the usual patterns of our daily lives and retreat to a place of safety that allows us to consider, to ponder, to relax and to just be. We need a time and a place for the silence to enfold us.
Moments like this are more than just relaxing. They can be deeply spiritual. It is in the places of quiet and stillness that we are able to notice our own presence in the world in a way that is nearly impossible while we are engaged in the business of doing things, getting things done, striving and managing. The still moments are the ones in which we become aware of the miracle of existence and the treasure of being alive.
We need to do things in life, but, just as much, we also need quiet moments to digest the meaning and ponder the purpose of our activity. Such moments, however, are becoming harder to find in our hyperactive society. We are always in a rush. Television teaches us that silence is awkward and frightening. (Have you ever known someone who leaves the television or radio on all day just to avoid silence?) The habit has even become part of conversational patterns in which people constantly interrupt each other to avoid the possibility of a gap between speakers.
Let me ask you right now, while you are reading this, to try an experiment. Close your eyes, slow your mind, relax your breathing, be aware of your body, and just sit in silence for a few minutes. When you notice yourself getting itchy with the urge to open your eyes and do something, just let that feeling to be something else to be aware of. Let the itchiness subside and allow yourself to enter a moment of even deeper peace. It feels good – doesn't it?
It is altogether appropriate to make time for such moments in worship. The Jewish worship service is filled with moments for silence and stillness. Traditionally, the T'filah prayer (also called the Amidah or the Sh'moneh Esrei) is first recited aloud by the worship leader, and then silently by each individual in prayer. Also, in most traditional Ashkenazic services, much of the morning blessings are recited silently by each individual with the worship leader only chanting an occasional verse or two to keep everyone more-or-less in the same place. The opportunity for silence gives each worshiper a moment of stillness and the spiritual space to encounter God. We discover, in such moments, that silence is a form of praise to the God who fills all silences.
In liberal Judaism, we sometimes try to squeeze the silence out of our services. Out of a desire to shorten the service – or, perhaps, out of fear that people won't know what to do during silence – we fill every moment with words and songs. I think that is a mistake. I think we need to give people a chance during worship for the many words of the liturgy to sink in. We need to give people a chance to have their own thoughts. We need to take the risk that moments of quiet can be more than moments of itchy emptiness.
We all know that the Hebrew Bible was written a long time ago. We assume that many of the Bible's teachings were intended for a different political and social reality than ours. Sometimes, therefore, we are tempted to dismiss biblical teachings we find difficult, or even offensive, because, we say, they were "written for a different time."
What we may not recognize though, is that the Hebrew Bible was very old already when the rabbis created the religion we know today. The rabbis who transformed a national cult of ritual sacrifices into a tradition of study, prayer and doing mitzvot were willing and able to accept the difficult parts of the Bible that must have seemed to them to be "written for a different time."
How? What did the rabbis do to make the Bible – even the parts written a thousand years before them – relevant to their time?
The rabbis began by assuming that the Hebrew Bible is a sacred text, a gift from God. Therefore, when parts of the Bible seemed to them to be out-of-step with the values and realities of their times, they assumed that there had to be a deeper meaning to be found through interpretation. Rather than simply reject the parts of the Bible we don't like, we can take a cue from from the ancient rabbis and probe for meanings hidden beneath the surface.
This week's Torah portion (Re'eh), for example, includes a passage that might make us cringe:
In the context of today's world, this passage sounds like a call for cultural extermination that reminds us of the Taliban destroying ancient Buddhist statues or the Islamic State's destruction of medieval mosques. That our own tradition might teach such behavior is distressing to us.
Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
"Listen, Israel. Adonai is our God. Adonai is One."
– Deuteronomy 6:4
There is a tradition that says that we should cover our eyes when we recite the first six words of the Shema during the morning and evening service. There are many explanations for this practice, but the most common is that we should prevent ourselves from being distracted when we recite such an important prayer (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 61:5).
But what would distract us? If we are truly engaged in prayer, it seems to me, we should be be able to endure anything unusual that might enter our field of vision – an unexpected flash of sunlight, a person walking nearby, or an insect flying in front of us. Why should such trivialities bother us while we declare God's unity and the idea that ours is the God of the universe?
But there is a deeper possibility in the meaning of this practice. When we recite the Shema, we are declaring God's oneness. This is the idea that God is the unity of all unities. In God, everything is one. We hear these words and we recognize that there is nothing that God is not.
This is why we cover our eyes. If they were open, we would be distracted just by seeing the differentiation all around us. We would see the floor and believe it to be separate from the ceiling. We would see a chair and believe that it is separate from a table. We would see other people and believe that they are separate from ourselves. We would see ourselves and believe that we are separate from God. We close our eyes while reciting the Shema so that we can remember, just for a moment, that these are all distracting illusions. We know for an instant that everything we can perceive, everything we can experience, and everything we are is a part of God.
The next time you say the words, Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, close your eyes and allow yourself to be a part of the profound unity of all existence that is contained within God. Close your eyes and allow yourself to see.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Va'etchanan: Six Words
Va'eira: The God of Everything and Everywhere
The last several weeks have been horrifying, upsetting, angering, heartbreaking and mind numbing. The news from Israel and Gaza has put me and many members of my community on an emotional roller coaster as we try, simultaneously, to take in the many sickening images and stories, grieve the destruction and loss of life on both sides, while also standing up for Israel as she defends herself. It has been emotionally exhausting.
I won't rehearse here all the charges and counter-charges about rockets, human shields, tunnels, arial assaults near schools and hospitals, and the deaths of so many children. Chances are, you've already made up your mind about all of that. I will say, though, that I am hard-pressed to imagine how else Israel could respond to the rain of rockets falling on its cities. I don't know how any country could respond successfully to an enemy that intentionally endangers civilians so that it can use their deaths as a propaganda and recruitment tool. What on earth would you do?
And just as the conflict in Israel and Gaza appears to be winding down, we today have Tisha B'Av, the most mournful day of the Jewish year. Tisha B'Av commemorates the cosmic devastation experienced by the Jewish people in ancient times when the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. To Jews, the day marks a rupture in the bonds that connect heaven to earth. It is our "Black Fast." You would think the coincidence of such a dark day at a time like this would feel like a further burden. In fact, it comes as a relief.
Last night we marked Tisha B'Av at the congregation I serve with a service that included the chanting and reading of the book of Lamentations. This 2,600 year-old book of poetry speaks of the anguish of war, death, inhumanity, grief and despair. As I listened to the words, I thought about the suffering of the people of Gaza.
Knees weak, eyes full of tears, and even my bowels bothered, I am sick with grief for the city's wreck and my people's ruin as I see our sorry children and even suckling babes collapse in the desolate streets.
The discussion that followed was amazing. People let loose the pain of the past few weeks, but also the horror of the Holocaust, the carnage happening right now in Iraq and Syria, the poverty that still ravages parts of our own country. We remembered that Tisha B'Av this year falls one day before the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the horror that it inflicted. We gave voice to the sense that there is something deeply and heartbreakingly wrong with this poor world.
We talked about how difficult it is to know where we should put the blame. On God? On "Evil"? On the human race? On the failure within each of our own individual hearts to live up to our highest aspirations? Ultimately, there can be no answers.
No answers – but there is still hope. Our group could not end the evening until we also talked about the belief that each of us has the ability to make the world better. We remembered the teaching that the destruction of the Second Temple came about because of "baseless hatred" among Jews and we pledged to each do our part to replace resentment, anger and disdain with compassion, love and acceptance. Every little bit helps.
Tisha B'Av, for me, comes this year at just the right moment. It comes at a time when I have to cry out in sorrow. It comes during a period in which I have been sick with grief and only partially recognized it. Tisha B'Av this year opens my heart to wailing for a world that is not what it should be, but a world that can yet be redeemed.
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Not Turning Away from Grief
In this week's Torah portion (Devarim), Moses recounts to the Israelites the story of the twelve spies. He reminds them how they had insisted that they send spies to scout out the land of Israel before entering it.
Moses then told the Israelites how all the spies had returned from the land of Israel with stories of how good and plentiful it was. Despite the spies' unanimity, the Israelites still obtusely refused to enter the land, defying the command of God. That is why, the Torah says, God punished them by forcing them to wander in the wilderness for forty years. God even punished Moses for the Israelite's refusal. The people's refusal to enter the land is the reason why Moses was forbidden to ever enter it himself (Deuteronomy 1:22-35).
You remember that story, don't you?
No? Perhaps that account seems a bit confused to you. If you are familiar with the way this same story is told in the book of Numbers, you may remember it differently. In the Torah portion Shlach Lecha, which we read just seven weeks ago, it was not the Israelites who insisted on sending the spies. It was God.
"God said to Moses, 'You will send men who will scout out the land of Canaan that I am giving to the Israelites" (Numbers 13:1). Remember?
Also, in the version of the story in Numbers, there was no unanimity among the spies. All twelve reported that the land was good, but only two of them urged the Israelites to take possession of it. The other ten declared, "We cannot go up against the people there, for they are stronger than we are" (Numbers 13:31). Deuteronomy leaves out that detail.
Also, according to Numbers, the reason the Israelites were punished with forty years of wandering was for the sin of lacking faith. God says that the Israelites failed to believe in God's power to deliver them to the land of Israel, even after they had seen the wonders performed in Egypt and in the wilderness (Numbers 14:21-22). The difference is subtle, but notably different from Deuteronomy, which says that the Israelites were punished for obstinately refusing to enter the land, not for lacking faith.
Finally, in Deuteronomy, Moses said that he was punished by God because of the people's sin of rebelling against God. Numbers is strikingly different. It says that God told Moses that he could not enter the land of Israel because of his own disobedience. At Meribah, Moses failed to follow God's instructions and called the Israelites "rebels" (Numbers 20:9-13). That is why he could not enter the land.
What is the reason for all of these differences? It could have something to do with the fact that, in Deuteronomy, Moses is the narrator and the story is clouded by his personal recollections. It could be that the authors of Deuteronomy wanted to emphasize the willful disobedience of the Israelites as the reason for their suffering.
Or, it could be that the different versions of the story just represent equally valid but differing perspectives. The two stories of the twelve spies could be a biblical Rashomon that challenges the idea of a single, objective version of the truth. The versions in both Numbers and Deuteronomy are necessary because no one version can capture the entirety of "what really happened." That is the essential theme of Akira Kurosawa's cinematic masterpiece, in which a single story can only be understood after it is presented from many perspectives.
That understanding resonates deeply with the Jewish approach to discovering truth. Judaism does not fear contradictions; it embraces them. The rabbis declared, "Any dispute that is for the sake of heaven will endure" (M. Avot 5:20). Unlike religious traditions that insist on a single authoritative answer to fundamental questions, Judaism thrives on differences of opinion.
I cannot help but think about how this understanding applies to the conflict we see in the land of Israel today. Over the past few weeks, my head has been dizzy with the different assumptions, interpretations and understandings I have read about the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. There are articles all over the internet that take polar opposite views of the conflict. There are many who argue that Israel is morally justified in taking limited and restrained action to stop the rockets aimed at its civilian population and to destroy the tunnels under its territory that are designed to launch terrorist attacks. You can also read articles that say that Israel is an illegal aggressor that is using its superior military might to oppress innocent people and to force them into quiescent humiliation.
Which version of the story – unfolding right before our eyes in our own time – is the truth? People on either side of the debate are utterly convinced that they are right and that their opponents are lying, self-deluded fools. The temperature of the debate only increases as each side is infuriated by the assertions of the other.
But let's make a different assumption. Let us, just for a moment, take a lesson from the two different versions of the story of the twelve spies. In that story, neither Moses nor the Israelites behaved perfectly. Depending upon which facts and perspectives they choose to emphasize, honest people draw different conclusions. That is not to say that all perspectives and all interpretations are equally valid. There is still a difference between truth and lies. But any quest to discover "the truth" will be aided by a willingness to look at things from different perspectives.
I am a strong supporter of Israel, and I believe that Israel has acted justifiably in defending itself. I believe that the rulers of Gaza have behaved immorally and cowardly by targeting civilians in Israel and by intentionally putting the lives of their own innocent civilians at risk – actually seeking the deaths of their own people to score points in the international media. Yet, I am still capable of listening to the intelligent people who disagree with me to consider the possibility that Israel has not acted as wisely as it could.
In defending itself, I believe that Israel could make better choices. Israel could put as much energy into pursuing peace as it puts into its security. Israel could act more strongly to harness the hatred and extremism that exists within its own family. Israel could do more to empathize with the suffering of those innocents who are unwillingly under Israel's control. These are thoughts that I probably would not have if my aim were to see things only from a single perspective.
Moses and the ancient Israelites entered the land of Israel with great difficulty and with many mistakes along the way. Yet, according to the Torah, they entered it in order to become a light to the nations, not only a light for their own perspective. The modern state of Israel today is similar. It doesn't do everything right. It's plight is difficult. Yet, it needs to stand for more than its own narrow self-interest. We grow and become wiser when we admit that there are many versions of the same story.
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Masada Is Not What It Used to Be
Sukkot: Intentional Disorientation
This week's Torah portion (Mas'ei) begins with a curiously contradictory verse. The text says, "Moses recorded the starting points of Israelites' journeys according to the word of Adonai, and these are the journeys of their starting points" (Numbers 33:2). Why is it that Moses writes down the "starting points of the Israelites' journeys" from Egypt to the Land of Israel, but the text immediately repeats the phrase in the reverse as the "journeys of the Israelites' starting points"? What is the significance of the change?
Jacob ben Wolf Kranz of Dubno (1740-1804) was a chasidic preacher from Lithuania known as the "Dubner Maggid." He explained the difference with a charming tale. The story goes like this:
A pious man had a son whose mother died after the boy was born. The man remarried, but the boy's stepmother was cruel to him and the hard feelings between them became worse as the boy grew toward adulthood. One day, the man met an exceptional young woman in his travels whom he thought would make a wonderful wife for his son. The man met with the young woman's father and the two men arranged for their children to marry. When the man returned home to his son, he shared the happy news with him. The son was delighted to learn that he would soon leave the house of his stepmother. Preparations were made for father and son to travel together to the town of the son's bride-to-be. Not long after they began the trip, the son asked the driver, "How many miles have we now traveled?" The driver answered that they had traveled three miles. A while later, the son asked again, "How far have we traveled now?" The driver told him that it had been ten miles. Some time later, the father asked the driver, "How many more miles until we reach our destination?" and the driver told him that they had five miles to go.
The son asked his father, "Why is it that I asked how many miles we have traveled, but you asked how many miles we have yet to go?" The father said, "Your mind is only focused on getting far from your stepmother. I, on the other hand, am thinking about the joy you will experience once you meet your bride. You are counting the miles since we left. I am counting the miles until we arrive."
This is the reason why the Torah says that Moses wrote down "the starting points of the Israelites' journeys," but the Israelites thought more about "the journeys of their starting points." Moses thought about the start of the Israelites' journey, but also about where they were headed. He knew that a land of milk and honey awaited them. For the Israelites, though, the purpose of the journey was getting away from Egypt. They only wanted to know how much distance was between them and their suffering.
All of life is travel from one place to another. The journey takes us from the past we have experienced to a future that is still a mystery. If our minds are overflowing with thoughts about the places behind us, we might forget to be mindful of the adventure and joy that are ahead. If, when we reach our destination, our thoughts are still on the past, we might miss our arrival entirely.
We all know where we have been in life and we try to understand how our experiences have shaped us, but life cannot really be lived looking only in the rear-view mirror. The challenge is to accept what has been, and yet to live in the present with optimism for the future. In this way we can learn from our past without being defined by it. Our destiny is not ruled by our history.
Last month, I left a community that I appreciate and love – not an "Egypt" for me at all! – to come to a congregation that is my new home and a source of joy. So far, I have had only my first tastes of the milk and honey that flow here, but I have found them to be delicious. I am so grateful for the journey that has led me to Temple Sinai in Cranston, Rhode Island.
While I do miss and think about the places and people I have left behind, those thoughts cannot be my main focus right now. I need to be here now in body, mind and spirit. I take comfort in knowing that the community I have left is now on its own magnificent journey without me. We are part of each other's pasts, and that allows us to experience new beginnings – things we would miss if we were to stay stuck in the past.
What of you? What memories, images, nostalgia and regret do you carry around with you from your past? Do you mark your journeys in life according to the miles you have logged since past departures, or according to the unseen destinations that lie ahead? Wherever you are, make sure that you walk the path ahead of you with eyes raised in optimism and hope. You never now what is to come.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Mas'ei: The Torah of Now
Lech Lecha: "Get Yourself Going"
Today is my last day serving Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Florida, as the congregation's rabbi. I will be leading a Shabbat service on the beach this evening (something I love to do), and then I will metaphorically ride into the sunset, onward to a new position far away.
I think I've learned a lot from my three years with this wonderful community. I came with a clear directive from the leadership to make a lot of changes. The congregation wanted more vibrant worship, more opportunities for serious adult learning, and a more visible presence in the community through social action and service projects. While I think we have had important accomplishments in all of those areas, there has been another goal – usually unstated – that this congregation has sought.
Temple Beit HaYam, like all congregations, wants to be a place where people feel that they belong, where they connect with others, and where they find real, lasting and meaningful friendships. I have learned in my three years here that this unstated goal is at the heart of what it means to be a congregation.
So here are some rabbinic lessons I have learned that I will carry with me to Temple Sinai in Cranston, Rhode Island:
• Remember that the service is, at best, only half of what brings people to the synagogue on Shabbat. They also come for the oneg, or the kiddush – the time when they spend time with people they care about, when they connect with new people, and when they feel like the synagogue is a place where they belong.
• When people sit around a table to learn and study our tradition together, a great deal of the learning comes from listening to each other. There is something deeply powerful and moving about reading a text together and hearing others relate it to the most important moments of their lives. There needs to be time for that whenever we study together. There needs to be an opportunity for people to discover themselves in the text.
• Social action programs feel good when they give us a chance to help people in need. But that is only half the fun. There is a deep fulfillment in being part of a group that works to make the world a better place. No social action program is complete if it does not give participants a chance to reflect on their experience, share their insights, and enjoy the camaraderie of the group.
• We are living in a society in which people are, more and more, strangers to their neighbors. We spend so much of our time staring at screens and playing with gadgets. So much of our jobs and schooling isolates us from the people who live next door. When affluence places us in large comfortable homes, it creates a cocoon effect that makes us forego the pleasures of being with other people. Part of what draws people to a synagogue is that it fulfills a need that is otherwise unmet in their lives.
The job of the rabbi is to be an organizer and facilitator of these experiences. Perhaps even more importantly, though, the role of the rabbi is to be part of people's lives and to be a member of the community. That can be difficult when the rabbi feels the tension and ambiguity of being both friend and professional, participant and leader, on-the-job and in-the-moment, all at the same time. That is the dance of this profession. It should be danced with joy.
I leave Temple Beit HaYam with a lot of good feelings. I have made a lot of lifelong friends here. I have grown as a professional and as a person. I have seen that, no matter what the size, a congregation is a community only when people really want to be with each other. That is a great and joyful thing to see. I can't wait to dance this dance in my new home.
Goodbye, Temple Beit HaYam.
Hello, Temple Sinai.
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Ten Thoughts about Being a Congregational Rabbi
Today is a very happy day for me and my family. We are moving to Rhode Island and today is the day that we closed on the purchase of our new home. We are so happy to have a beautiful home in the place where we want to live.
You might say that our prayers have been answered, but I don't think that is the way that prayer works. I think that prayer, when it is successful, is a way for us to answer God's wishes, not a way for God to answer ours. Let me tell you what makes me think about that today.
I have been beaming all day since I got the word from my wife up in Rhode Island about the completion of the sale. (I'm still down in Florida). This afternoon when I went outside, as I often do, to pray the afternoon prayers, I was stunned to hear myself speak the opening words of the service, even though I know them by heart and recite them regularly.
Ashrei yoshvei veitecha. Happy are they who live in Your house.
Wait. I was just thinking about how happy I will be to live in my new house. Now, all of the sudden, I hear my very own words telling me that it is actually God's house that I am happy to live in. And, I have to say, it is true.
I am outside on a beautiful day. My heart is light and happy with the day's good news, even though I am more than a thousand miles from my family's new house. My happiness does not come from a yellow, center-entrance colonial structure in New England. How could it? I'm in Florida. My happiness comes from feeling good about the world around me. I am feeling good about my emotional connection to my family, even while they are far from me. I am feeling good about the joyful anticipation of a new job and a new life in Rhode Island.
If there is a house that I am happy to be living in right now, it is the house built out of the gifts I have received in my life. This is God's house, not mine.
Prayer is like this. It has a way of unexpectedly putting words into my mouth that provide insight, meaning and wonder. When I pray, those words become my words. I understand them differently than another person might understand the same words. The words of the prayer help me reflect on my life in the here and now. Because I am the one who is speaking the prayer, the words become personal and powerful. That is what Ashrei did for me today.
As a rabbi, I often recommend that people try prayer, but not because it is something that we are "supposed" to do or because I want to get them to be "more Jewish." I recommend prayer because it works. When a person accepts even a small and simple practice of prayer, it has the ability to make him or her more thoughtful, more patient, more accepting, and – honest to God – happier.
So, if you don't pray, why not try it? Why would you reject something that could make you happier? I often suggest that people set a time each afternoon to say "thank you" for three things that have happened that day. I suggest that people try beginning every day with a simple prayer of gratitude for being alive. I suggest that they go to bed every night with words of forgiveness for others and for themselves. Even these simple practices, spoken in words that you understand, can make you a happier person.
I believe down to the core of my being that God wants people to be happy. I believe that happiness is the natural state of the human soul. Prayer is a tool for gently freeing ourselves of the distractions and anxieties that keep us from knowing ourselves to be happy. When we pray, we help God to achieve the divine intention of allowing us to be happy.
Ashrei yoshvei veitecha. Happy are they who live in Your house.
May you know whose house you are living in, and may it make you happy.
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How to Pray?
This is the sermon I gave this past Shabbat at Temple Beit HaYam, on the occasion of my last service in the congregation's sanctuary.
Saying goodbye to friends is hard. Saying goodbye to an entire community of friends is harder still.
I will lead my final service for Temple Beit HaYam next Friday on Stuart Beach — an experience I really love, but one that does not lend itself to extended remarks. Tonight, I stand before you in this sanctuary for the last time, and this sanctuary is an important place for me. I would like to take advantage of the opportunity to make some farewells and share some thoughts.
This spot, where I am standing now, is the place I have stood to join couples together in marriage (including a couple here tonight). It is the place where I have stood next to 36 young men and women as they became b’nei mitzvah. It is the place where we have conducted funerals and mourned the death of dear friends. This bimah is a holy place for this congregation, and it always will remain a holy place in my life.
Not only this sanctuary, not only this building, but this whole community is a place where I have learned about being a rabbi and about life. Over the last three years, I have listened to people’s stories and dreams, held the hands of the sick, taught some Torah, raised money to fund our congregation’s programs, worked with remarkable volunteers, and have been myself a proud member of a community bound by genuine and heartfelt concern for one another and bound by a love of Judaism.
Thank you all for the wonderful experiences and the wonderful adventures you have given me.
Over the past three years, I think, Temple Beit HaYam has gone through some important changes. This congregation has seen a resurgence of adult Jewish learning and exploration of adult Jewish spirituality. We have innovated new ways of teaching our children to live Judaism joyfully. We have recommitted ourselves to meaningful action to help needy people in the larger community and to being a respected and notable presence on the Treasure Coast. We have experimented with new ways to organize and finance the Jewish community. So much has happened, both to me and to this congregation, in just a few short years.
Tonight, we struggle to find a way to properly say goodbye, and I am reminded of the Jewish teaching that we never really reach the end of anything that is truly meaningful. We read Torah from the first word to the last and then we return to the beginning to start over while the sound of the last words are still in our ears. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught, “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od,” “The entire world is nothing more than a very narrow bridge,” “V’ha’ikar lo lefached k’lal,” “but the important thing is to be fearless in crossing it.” There is, ultimately, no ending that is not merely another step along the path.
Our ending now is a new beginning as Temple Beit HaYam begins again to renew itself with a new rabbi and a new sense of vitality that comes with an optimistic view of the future. The wheel turns, the bridge stretches out before us, but it never really ends.
What has made this community successful up to this moment? Let me tell you what I see here, and what I think can bring even greater success in the future:
* Temple Beit HaYam is, first and foremost, a community. This is a place for people to gather, to celebrate good times and support each other in difficult times, to build friendships that last a lifetime, and a place that people come to because they genuinely want to be with each other. Never underestimate the importance of that as a critical Jewish value. The Jewish people are only as good as we are good to each other.
* You are thirsty for Jewish learning. One of my greatest joys as a rabbi has been teaching and learning together with the members of this congregation. We have amazing Torah study on Shabbat mornings, often with two dozen people or more crowded around the Social Hall tables to talk about words written thousands of years ago. That, in itself, is amazing to me. The members of last year’s Adult B’nei Mitzvah class and this year’s Adult Confirmation class had a transformational experience of friendship, learning, growth, discovery and joy. I have never had so much fun as a rabbi as I have had teaching here.
* You are a community that has a greater capacity to do good than you realize, and a fantastic capacity to enrich your own lives in doing so. The volunteers in the Souper Sunday program know that they have touched the lives of people in need in profound ways, and they know that the experience has changed them for the better, too. There is even more that this congregation can do to make Martin County a better place. There is even more you can do to enrich your own lives by helping others.
* You are a community that thrives because of a talented and deep core of leaders. The people who so generously give their time and energy to this congregation are its life blood. I have seen people here who find passion, purpose and meaning in life by giving their time and energy to Temple Beit HaYam. Many of the people in this room have had that experience, and I am deeply grateful to them all.
Tonight, I ask all of you to keep building on this congregation’s strengths by continuing to participate in the things that you love about Temple Beit HaYam. Come to services. Spend time with your Temple friends. Volunteer to help. Give more of your time and your treasure than you think you should. I guarantee that, in the end, you’ll end up wishing that you had given more.
But also remember that Temple Beit HaYam is more than just a place to come together to be with friends. At their best, synagogues are communities that know who they are and have a vision of where they want to go. Being a leader in a congregation is about more than reviewing budgets and setting policies. It is about asking difficult questions about the future. It is about creating a shared vision and pursuing it relentlessly.
Keep thinking about the kind of community you would like this to be. The Jewish people in the 21st century face some daunting challenges. The affiliation rate keeps dropping and the intermarriage rate keeps going up. We live in a society that is increasingly divided between the religious and the non-religious, with most North American Jews feeling more cultural kinship with the non-religious camp. Judaism today is deeply in need of new ideas and practices that draw Jews back to Judaism in ways that are meaningful in their lives. To do that, we need congregations that are driven by vision and excitement about throwing away old rules and reinventing the synagogue. Temple Beit HaYam is no exception. We need you to be part of Judaism's new future.
Tonight, I am asking you to keep looking for new ways to make Judaism a meaningful reality in the lives of each member of this congregation. Keep experimenting with new ways to keep the vital energy of our tradition relevant in the lives of Jews young and old. Be passionate about finding models that work, and be fearless in casting aside models that represent nothing more than institutional inertia.
Do not convince yourself that it is the rabbi’s job alone to be that kind of visionary. Doing so will not only make Rabbi Durbin’s job more difficult, it will be selling yourselves short, too. Make sure that each of you makes your own dreams heard in this community. Make sure that each of you takes a stand for what this congregation can yet become.
Because I am leaving Temple Beit HaYam after a short tenure of three years, there may be a temptation to think that this goodbye represents a kind of failure for the congregation. I don’t see it that way. Not every beginning is a victory and not every ending is a defeat. The transition Temple Beit HaYam is going through now is a new opportunity. It is up to you, in the way that you respond to the challenge, that will decide the difference between success and failure. I plan to make the most of the opportunities before me in Rhode Island. I hope that Temple Beit HaYam will do the same here.
So, goodbye, my friends. Goodbyes are hard, but they are also necessary for new beginnings. The bridge is narrow, but we are fearless to continue to walk along the path. Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’fached k’lal.