Arise and Go Forth

I cannot believe that we are at my concluding sermon at the Jericho Jewish Center. I began at JJC 5 years ago with Parshat Korach. Now we are back in Numbers at Parshat Behaalotecha.

A little known theory about the Book of Numbers is that some assert it is 3 books. The first is what we have read up until now; the second is formed by two verses from our liturgy, one of which is well-known, and the third is what comes after those verses. The verses, which are set apart by upside-down nuns, read “When the ark was carried, Moses said, ‘Arise Adonai and scatter your enemies, make those who hate you flee from before you!’” and “When the ark was returned, he said ‘Return Adonai to the myriads of Israel.’” These words of war became memorialized at the core of our central service, the Torah Service. The traditional commentary is that these lines comprise a break between the punishment that came before, when the tablets were broken, and the punishment that comes after, when the people complain about how good it was in Egypt. For two verses we are away from the reality of our stiff-necked ancestors attacking Moses, hearing instead the “rallying cry” that united them in fighting their enemies to conquer our ancestral homeland.

What does this have to do with us? Both the ark and the proclamation as it was carried forth served to unite our people. Similarly, the sounding of the shofar was a call for unification before battle. It is my hope that the Jericho Jewish Center will remain united at this moment of transition. Transitions are often difficult, bringing a sense of uncertainty and of fear. We often say in life “better the one you know than the one you don’t.” Yet transitions are beautiful opportunities for organizations to reevaluate themselves: who they are and what they stand for. The liminal moment, or transformative point, is the time to set apart what came before from what is yet to be.

I will never forget the 4 Presidents I worked with at the Jericho Jewish Center. Mark Wilkow, who attended my wedding in Scottsdale and who really showed me the ropes when I came into the JJC very green and inexperienced, having never been the direct conduit with a Board or the one responsible for shaping the vision of a congregation. Mark organized 14 get-together events my first summer in Jericho. He also helped me get 120 people to my first Shabbat on the Beach and helped me created Hiking and Halacha and Friday Night Live. Martha Perlson and Diane Charet completely devoted themselves to JJC. Martha even worked here for a time as the Bookkeeper! I am indebted to them for their establishment of the Jericho STEM Preschool, which Ariela had the privilege of attending this year. Both have stayed involved at JJC, with Diane recently creating the Mitzvah 613 kippot for our new Torah initiative and Martha working on the finances of JJC. Richard Cepler I will refer to later in this speech. There are so many here who have helped us – but I would also be remiss if I did not publicly acknowledge my deep gratitude to Barbara Rosenblum – who has extended herself above and beyond for me and my family – as she has always done for the Jericho Jewish Center.  I have learned so much in these 5 years and thank everyone, beginning with these Presidents, who helped me achieve so much, from 120 people at the inaugural Shabbat on the Beach to the establishment of a monthly Friday Night Live Service to the Mitzvah 613 Torah Initiative. Each of you has made me a stronger rabbi, and for that I thank you.

One of the things I am most proud of doing at JJC was our involvement in the Sulam for Emerging Leaders initiative with Anita Haut. Following a United Synagogue curriculum, we had eight 2-hour sessions of training Religious School and Schechter parents, pairing Jewish texts with leadership questions. Many of the emerging leaders who participated have occupied important positions on committees and on the Board of Trustees. I am grateful to Linda Sussman for introducing me to Sulam for Emerging Leaders. I have learned, not only from Ron Wolfson but also from personal experience, that the relationships formed are what is integral to congregational success. I am also grateful to those who bought into my vision of the Mitzvah 613 Torah Initiative for the creation of a new Torah which JJC can benefit from for years to come.

This transition will be difficult for many, including me, yet let us view it as an opportunity. Rabbi Matthew Abelson is coming into JJC with fresh eyes and enthusiasm. As a congregation, I know you will strengthen him just as you strengthened me. You are all such mentschlach and kind people and that will transfer over to your new partnership with Rabbi Abelson to ensure that the JJC continues to evolve into the best synagogue it can be.

I want to extend a very public and heartfelt thank you to our current president, Richard Cepler, who took on this role at my personal request. Richard – we’ve been through a lot together, and I know that your term as president has been far more challenging than anticipated originally. I would like the congregation to know how fortunate we all have been to have had Richard at the helm. Throughout the last year, Richard has remained a leader of high moral character and principles – a true mentsch. Richard – I want you to know how much I respect and admire your conduct throughout this transitional process, and how much I will always value your guidance and friendship.

As I leave the Jericho Jewish Center to embark on a new and uncharted chapter in our lives, I have such mixed emotions. Each of us in life learns to balance our many roles. We have our professional lives, our lives as family members – as spouses, as children, as parents – our lives within our communities and our own internal lives. It’s often difficult to find the formula to balance all of these components, and for many of us, this is a continual quest throughout life. As I look out at all of you here today, I want you to know that the hardest part for me in leaving is that I will miss all of you so very much. I see people here whose parents or spouses I buried, whose children I Bar or Bat Mitzvahed. I have officiated at some of your family weddings, as well as so many joyous births. Karina gave birth to both of our daughters here. They say “it takes a village to raise a child”, and the Jericho Jewish Center has been the village that has helped raise Ariela and watched her grow, as well as welcoming our Leora into the world. This congregation has been such a special and important part of our lives. We are so grateful and thank you for all of the love and care you have given our family during the last 5 years. Life moves on, but people are irreplaceable. I will always remember the goodness and values that are at the heart of this very special community.

From today’s Torah portion, when the ark was carried forth Israel proclaimed, “Arise G-d!”. As we both embark on new beginnings, it is my hope and prayer that the Jericho Jewish Center rise up in strength and with renewed spirit.

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Count the Leaders

Our portion begins by counting each of the leaders of the Family of Gershon, a division of the Levites. Each of them is recorded as he is. Each tribes’ gift being brought to the Tent of Meeting is listed individually. Each leader is also listed individually by name.

Richard was a reluctant leader. When I first came to JJC, Barbara Rosenblum told me he was the perfect choice for President. I asked Richard and each time he adamantly declined saying he was not cut out for the job. I gave a sermon one summer Shabbat morning about going outside your comfort zone and looked at Richard, whose face was to the ground. After that sermon he told me he would become President.

These 2 years have not been easy for Richard. There has been negotiations with the STEM preschool and a change in ownership of the school, Homeland Security Grants, a change in Maintenance Director, a rabbi and cantor search, repairs in the building such as a boiler, computers needing to be replaced and discussions about the server, a new awning in front of the Sanctuary, a 3 day power outage, security concerns, public assembly license meetings and many more things than can be enumerated. Luckily Richard had a partner in Jay who joined with him in steering the JJC ship and who has gotten excellent training in becoming the next President of JJC.

We are so grateful to Richard for stepping up to the plate and doing what he could to strengthen JJC. He always had time to talk and to take things to another level. We also would be remiss in not thanking Helene for all she did behind-the-scenes to strengthen Richard. Behind every man is a stronger woman. Richard and Helene were two of the first people I met at JJC, and their devotion and dedication to this spiritual home is boundless. How wonderful it is to have this special Shabbat with 3 generations of the Cepler family present.

It has not been an easy couple of years with the passing of two strong, loving parents. Yet when Craig, Seren, Belle, Emily and Sadie were here on the 2nd Day of Passover, Richard said to Emily on the Bimah לדור ודור, do you know what that means? It is a concept that Richard has internalized. He knew this was his time to step up and take the mantle of leadership, and we are all the richer for him choosing to do so. His Executive Board has worked tirelessly in supporting him these past 2 years, as has his Board of Trustees.

Transitions are always hard yet they are important. Life is always changing and when one door closes, another one opens. Richard has helped open the door wide to the capable hands of Jay who in two short weeks will take over as President of the Jericho Jewish Center. Jay did something that has not been done in years-assume the position of Executive Vice President so that he could be groomed into this role. He even began staying for Kiddush! Thanks to Richard’s tutelage and close relationship with Jay, I know he will be a strong, successful President.

We are commanded to count the leaders because true leaders are few and far between-especially people who will take on the Presidency of a congregation. Let us count the many achievements of Richard, his Executive Board and Board. While Richard should get a well-deserved reprieve, we know this is not the final time he will be in a leadership role at JJC. Let us celebrate the work of our JJC leadership by asking each Board member to please rise as we read on Page 825.

When We Feel Broken

When we feel broken

When the ground beneath our feet has slipped away

When we are unanchored

When we are vulnerable

We need somewhere to turn.

For some of us that is G-d

For others that is our family

For others that is our community

But each of us needs something to cling to, to hold dear.

 

I say words like this at the cemetery when explaining why we say words like Tziduk HaDin, that G-d is our rock in whom there is no flaw; or the Mourners Kaddish, when we sanctify and praise G-d’s great name. Why do we say these words at a time when we might be angry and frustrated with G-d? Certainly not for G-d’s sake but for our own. When we are broken, when we are rudderless, we need something to hold onto.

In the reading As We Remember Them, I think about the line “When we have decisions which are difficult to make, we remember them.” Those times in life we are at a crossroads, we think about what would the beloved matriarch or patriarch of our family have said? How would they have prompted us to act?

The connection to Shavuot is clear: the ark that Israel carried around the desert held two sets of tablets: the new intact ones that Moses had written and the broken ones that had come directly from G-d.[1] Why maintain the broken tablets?

Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider writes, “The bereaved, and especially those that have suffered painful loss, often live their life with two compartments within one heart – the whole and the broken, side by side. To be a good friend is to know this and to be respectful of the brokenness that always remains.” How often do we want to take away someone’s pain and sadness, to fix their suffering, rather than be present with them as they currently are? Our job is not to be the fixer but rather the one who is present with people, acknowledging their losses and their grief.

Rabbi Goldscheider continues, “The idea of brokenness appears in a number of significant places in Judaism: We sound the shofar with the broken notes of the shevarim; the Hebrew root ‘shever’ meaning ‘broken’. We begin the Seder breaking a whole piece of matzah. When the bride and groom stand under the wedding canopy, a glass is shattered into pieces. These important symbolic rituals represent shattered and broken events in both our personal and communal lives. Breaking the matzah represents the broken life of the slave, the repentant spirit of a remorseful person is symbolized by the broken sounds of the Shofar, and the breaking of the glass represents a world that is incomplete without the presence of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. The two sets of tablets in the Ark offer a striking metaphor. Namely, that brokenness and wholeness coexist side by side, even in Judaism’s holiest spot – in the heart of the holy Ark.” [2]

At times we feel complete, that nothing can touch us. At others we feel like we are the lowest of the low. Humility teaches us to occupy the middle ground between self-effacement and haughtiness. We should always strive for balance, yet at painful times like losing a loved one, we sink to great depths. It is our job, when we feel broken, to be present with our experience as it is and work day by day towards wholeness, recognizing that there will always be a void.

One prayer, based off Psalm 147, that illustrates this is Healer of the Broken-Hearted by Shir Yaakov. We sang this at the rally at the Mid Island Y following the murder of 11 precious souls at Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. It goes “Healer of the broken-hearted, Binder of the wounds, Counter of uncountable stars, You know who we are.” No other person can understand who you are or what you are going through. Only G-d knows. When we are broken, no one can tell us to snap out of it; only we can do it with G-d’s help. When we are in mourning, no one can give us advice or rationalize how we can escape from it.

This has been a very difficult year of loss for the Jericho Jewish Center. A number of our steadfast congregants lost parents. While I cannot help you restore a sense of wholeness or a “new normal,” my heart goes out to you. I cannot fix but I can be present with you as we remember our loved ones who came before us. The brokenness and the wholeness lie side-by-side in the holy ark.

To Hold in awe

Those words of law

Inscribed in stone

Which God had hewn,

Then to cause truths

Those laws impart

To transpose to

The human heart.[3]

[1] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 14b

[2] https://www.aish.com/h/9av/oal/The-Broken-Tablets.html

[3] Lucille Frenkel, “Goal of Shavuot Prayer,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 159.

The Goal of the Ten Commandments

Think not these laws mere rules set down.

Indeed, they pace the distance

Which raises Man from depths to heights-

Think not these laws but rules-they are

The essence of existence![1]

Why do we emphasize the Ten Commandments? My Senior Rabbi in Tucson taught the following when he did World Wide Wrap: the 613 commandments can be thought of as 6 + 1 + 3, making 10. The 613 are emanated in the 10. Similarly the 10 commandments can be thought of as 1 + 0, making the 1 true G-d. The 10 commandments thus emanate the 1 G-d.

Often we erroneously look at the 10 commandments as the blueprint for human existence. Rather than doing so, we need to look at what they signify. There are 10 commandments as a logical, sequential order in how we should act in this world. It begins with the belief in 1 God, which presupposes that one does not believe in any others. If we believe in a Creator of the universe, we must hold His Name to the highest of standards, never taking it in vain. Not only do we value His name, but we must act in His example, resting after 6 days of creative work. We further demonstrate this not only by following His example but by honoring those who are made in His image, the most central of whom being one’s parents, who are partners with G-d in our creation. Once we honor them, we also acknowledge that each person must be treated with great dignity and respect. We therefore cannot murder another, who is also made in the image of G-d. If we honor that each person is made in the image of G-d, we cannot have relationships with those with whom we are not supposed to. We also would not steal from another in the image of G-d nor would we lie about him/her. Last but certainly not least, we would not be jealous of his/her achievements, instead appreciating what we have and counting our blessings.

The goal of the 10 commandments is not a list of rules but a mindset for daily living. It is to understand that each of us has a uniqueness about us, as we are made in G-d’s image. Similarly, each of us has to respect the uniqueness of all the others who are made in G-d’s image. Through a mindset of turning to G-d and remembering the Creator’s role in our lives, we keep on the straight-and-narrow.

I hope as we continue with Shavuot, our holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, that we will take these lessons to heart and that we will continue to explore the Ten Commandments not as laws in and of themselves but rather as a theology for how to maximize our daily living.

 

For the Jew to choose life

Is not a simple matter,

For life is precisely that substance

Which the nations have consistently denied to the Jew,

 

And what is life to the Jew?

 

And what is life to the Jew

But every moment of lifebreath

Governed and evaluated by a system of law

God-revealed in a world God-ruled-

 

And God,

God is never

A very simple matter.[2]

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “The Ten Commandments,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 159.

[2] Lucille Frenkel, “The Ten Commandments,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 158.

In the Desert

I remember a conversation I had with someone when I was at a down time. Something I had wanted had fallen through and I was left in a lurch. The person I spoke to said to me “You’re in the midbar,” the desert. That is a very difficult place to be.

We’ve all been in the midbar at various points in our lives. We’ve been stuck, not knowing where to turn. Our ancestors were at such a point in this week’s portion. While they were taking the census to prepare for battle upon reaching the Land of Israel, they were only in the 2nd year of their wandering, having 38 more to go. They had no idea about the ups and downs they would have, the battles they would fight, the rebellions lurking in their midst. Yet 38 years later they saw the light at the end of the tunnel, the Promised Land.

Having lived in a desert, I remember hiking and seeing sand and dirt everywhere I went. Sometimes I got lost and could not find my way back or to my destination. At other times I found an oasis, a source of sustenance (perhaps a kairn, or trail marker) to get me through a difficult stretch.

We wish we could always touch the Promised Land. Yet being in the midbar is part of our life’s journey. Not knowing where to turn or what to look for is a common challenge. At the same time, if we had all the answers at the outset, we would never grow. If we did not have to go through the treacherous terrain of the midbar, we would remain stunted in place.

This book of the Torah is about the struggles Israel had to encounter along the journey in order to become the people ready to conquer the Promised Land. It is not always easy to read about what our ancestors did, whether the Ten Spies, Korach, the quivering for quail, the remembrance of free meat in Egypt, the gossiping about Moses’ wife, the striking of the rock rather than speaking to it. Yet we need to recognize that without these mishaps there would have been no room for growth. At times a fatal mistake is made: Moses striking the rock precludes him from entering the Land of Israel. That might be unfair but our actions have consequences, and we cannot take them back. What we learn from them, however, will hopefully take us out of the midbar and into the Promised Land.

As we enter into the journey where we celebrate the giving of the Torah, let us remember that the journey from slavery to freedom is a process. Let us have compassion on our ancestors, forgiving them for their mishaps. Let us also have compassion on ourselves when we fall short as well. When we find ourselves in the midbar, uncertain of which direction to go, may we have patience and resolve, and may our faith in G-d and our strength lead us in the right direction for us at this given moment in our lives.

One person who has left the midbar for the Promised Land is Beth Blumenstock, known for her shirts with the universities’ names in Hebrew. Beth is well-known at JJC at Stephanie, Alex and Melinda’s mother. Her daughters return to do their B’nai Mitzvah Haftarot and to lead the Prayer for the State of Israel, as they did so beautifully today. Yet Beth is accomplished in her own right. She is extremely generous, offering rides to people to shul and giving small gifts to others. She always has a smile on her face and a kind word to say to everyone. Today, right before we read about the giving of the Torah, she has chosen to take on the mantle of Torah and receive her Hebrew name.

We honor Beth today by bestowing upon her two Hebrew names after her grandmother Regina. Ruhama comes from rahamim, meaning compassion. We know the compassion and care that Beth has shown to so many in our congregation through her loving, kind presence. She knows just how to bring a smile to people’s faces when they are down and to go the extra mile in visiting someone at a time of need. What a perfect name for her to take on.

Beila comes from the Hebrew Bilhah. At first I was perplexed why so many Yiddish names derive from Bilhah, one of Jacob’s handmaiden. Then I recognized that she bore the first two of the children through Rachel’s line, Dan and Naphtali. In other words, she gave life when Rachel could not. It was not easy to be in the background: the text indicates that Rachel had authority over Bilhah, even naming the children she bore. With that being said, Bilhah was a crucial figure in being able to begin Rachel’s line with Jacob.

Beth often shies from the limelight, not liking to take credit for things yet making important contributions behind the scenes. That is why it is so wonderful to honor her today as she acquired two beautiful Hebrew names. She is certainly one who is not in the desert but rather is bound for the Promised Land.