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.