Creating a Holy Congregation

         Shabbat Shalom. It is so wonderful to be here at my first Shabbat as Rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation. I look forward to many joyous Shabbatot spent together and to getting to know each and every one of you.

         As I did during my interview, I have included a cartoon called Keep on Truckin’. This was featured at my Institute for Jewish Spirituality training on Emunah, or trustworthiness. What could it possibly have to do with Judaism, you might ask? Judaism teaches us about always aspiring towards increased growth. When we feel stuck, depressed or unsure of what to do, we need to Keep on Truckin’.

         Korach is a common Shabbat for a rabbi to begin his/her tenure, as it often falls out at the beginning of July. In the past I have contrasted Korach to Yitro: Korach as the person who aligns people with different interests all of whom jump in to make accusations against Moses; Yitro as one who observes a situation, asks questions and speaks in a way that reflects Moses’ best interest. Two different types of leaders-one who is admonished and one who is praised. However, there is an equally valuable lesson that does not only reflect the leader but also the culture of a synagogue.

         In May I was at the concluding retreat for my JOIN for Justice Fellowship on Community Organizing when Meir Leikin taught me this fascinating piece of Torah, giving new insight as to what is wrong with Korach’s approach. At first blush it appears that Korach merely wants to democratize the leadership process, accusing Aaron and Moses for taking too much for themselves. However, in the spirit of egalitarianism he cleverly makes a problematic statement: כי כל העדה כלם קדושים-for the entire community is all holy.[1] Sounds good, right? The problem is that’s not what God told Moses דבר אל כל-עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם קדושים תהיו, “Speak to the entire community of Israel and tell them you should aspire to be holy.”[2] Israel is addressed in the future tense, not the present.

         Is this merely a matter of semantics? Not so. Meir quotes Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who said if you are already holy, you have the license to do anything. If you aspire to be holy, the work is not finished. That is the lesson God imparted to Israel-everyone needs to continue striving to be the best version of themselves, to learn from their mistakes and to grow each and every day. Holiness is a continuous process-not something which one reaches and then can rest on his/her laurels.

         An example of this is from Rebbe, the biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin, where someone tells the Rebbe that he is retiring. The Rebbe looks at him horrified and advises him to find something to do. Telushkin writes that, “for the Rebbe, retirement was premature death.”[3] Each of us has a mission to do in this world, and it is our task to continue to aspire both to better ourselves and to move ahead. In other words, to keep on truckin’, even, or perhaps especially, when we feel frozen or stuck.

         This lesson applies not only to each and every one of us as individuals but also to our congregation as a whole. Being and becoming a קהילה קדושה, a holy and a sacred community, is an ongoing process. It involves seeing people for who they truly are, learning their stories, discovering their talents and passions and increasingly bringing them into Mosaic Law Congregation to strengthen us. Believing that we are holy as is and that’s enough-that’s the Korach approach-settling for the status quo and being threatened by growth and development. Aspiring to be better each and every day-that’s the Godly approach. It’s a lot harder but it benefits us greatly in the long run. It also creates a culture of ownership, where each and every person is valued for what they are able to contribute to our congregation. For some that might be in religious services; for others social action; for some social programs; for others ways and means. Each person’s contribution is valuable as part of our קהילה קדושה, our sacred community. May we never forget that the work is never done and that each of us plays an integral role day after day in making both ourselves and our congregation holy.


[1] Numbers 16:3

[2] Leviticus 19:2

[3] See also https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/62177/jewish/1972-The-Rebbes-Thoughts-on-Retirement.htm

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