on Friday, 07 October 2016.
Posted in Rabbi
This evening, I opened our service by uttering the following words:
“Behold me, of little merit, trembling and afraid, as I stand before You to plead for Your people. O gracious God, the One enthroned by Israel’s praises, compassionate and loving, accept my petition and that of my people. Let them not be put to shame because of me. … Sinners though we are, let our prayers come before You, innocent, sweet, and pleasing.”
These are the beginning words of the prayer called Hin’ni, related to the Hebrew word, hineini, meaning, “Here I am.” Written in the 17th century, Hin’ni reflects the awesome responsibility the rabbi and cantor feel in leading the worship during the High Holy Days. It’s not so much that we worry about how we pronounce the words or sing the prayers, facilitate the readers or lead the choir. We’re not so focused on the additional reflections or the particular compositions chosen. No, Hin’ni reminds us that at our core, we question whether we are worthy to stand before God and utter prayers imploring God to forgive not only us, but also all of you, for your sins.
On Kok Nidrei, Yom Kippur eve, I will open the service with similar words: “Sovereign of the Universe, in awe and humility I have come to stand before You to pray with Your people Israel and on their behalf. Who is fit for such a task? … Let me congregation not falter on my account, nor I on theirs.”
Indeed, who is fit for such a task? With eyes on me, I am always conscience of the responsibilities I have as a leader of the people of Israel. Each year when I am preparing for these holy days and I once again read the Hin’ni prayer and the similar one I will say on Yom Kippur, I am flooded with my memories of the year gone by – especially where I have failed to be the best that I can be – particularly as your rabbi.
I am human. I am imperfect. I do the best I can, and I know that I fall short. If I didn’t visit you when you were ill, I am sorry. If I didn’t give you the attention you deserved during a conversation or meeting, please forgive me. If I was short with you, please let me make amends. If I was underprepared for a service or teaching, I apologize. And if there is anything else I have done to cause you hurt or pain, I am truly sorry.
I know that some people in this congregation are put off by the way in which I sermonize on Shabbat. I try always to speak on some aspect of the weekly portion. But I don’t generally dive right into the text. Rather, I tend to tell a personal story or share a personal experience in eventually reaching the text. I know there are some who would prefer that I not. If you are one of these people, please know that I am very sorry for not meeting your needs when I preach. I am sorry if it feels like I preach from a place of ego, rather than from a place of teaching or inspiring.
At the same time, I would like to offer an explanation as to why I do what I do. I hope, in turn, you will share with me your concerns about my sermons – and challenge me to sometimes do things differently.
I came to the rabbinate as a second career, entering seminary shortly before I turned 40. In school, my classmates and professors encouraged me to exemplify living Torah. It’s not that I lacked the academic ability to give a sermon rooted deeply in texts, but rather, they saw that my life experience gave me a perspective different from most. This spoke to me greatly. Before rabbinical school, the great teachers of Torah for me were ones who shared their lives and the insights they had gained. It was a proverbial breath of fresh air that I was encouraged to do similarly.
During rabbinical school, Shira’s mother and my father were diagnosed with cancer. My beloved aunt died, and Shira’s grandmother had a massive stroke. I lived through the horror of the start of the second Intafada in Israel – bombings were a daily reality – only to return to the U.S. to be in school in lower Manhattan on 9/11. These and so many other events were my teachers, and in turn, I use them to teach others.
Moreover, the rabbinate has changed much since I was a child. One of the most significant shifts has been the ordination of women and what that has meant for the Jewish world. In large measure, the transformation has been about humanizing the rabbinate. Rabbis are no longer seen as distant, stern, formal, and without a personal life.
Now, rabbis can actually take their a day off, parent their children, attend to the needs of their aging and sick parents, and fumble in public. Yes, we can fumble and make mistakes and let the world – or at least our congregation – see it.
By contrast, I have heard from many older male colleagues that they struggle with finding a way to be themselves in their communities. One does his grocery shopping at 2:00 am in a different town from where his synagogue is located. Another was taught never to use the word “I” in a sermon. And more damaging yet, not an insignificant number of them have compromised their physical, emotional, and/or spiritual health in order to be, professionally, a title – Rabbi – and not a person.
I share all of this with you only so that you can understand who I am as a sermonizer. I don’t presume to know why those of you who are uncomfortable with my speaking personally are uncomfortable – unless you have told me so. Those who have not shared your feelings with me, I encourage you to do so. I want to hear from where your discomfort comes. I hope you can educate me and offer me a perspective I have not considered.
My apology to all of you is different than to those who I didn’t visit or did not speak with long enough. For if I did those things, then I sincerely wish to change. My sermonizing, however, is what it is. Nonetheless, I would welcome your suggestions, challenges, and perspectives about how you would like me to do differently.
And when I don’t, when I speak as I am now in the first person and you find it uncomfortable or inappropriate, I am sorry for how it makes you feel. I promise going forward to always strive for you to remain connected to our sacred community and feeling like TBJ is your spiritual home.
I am also aware that there are members of this congregation who object to my involvement in social justice activities – be it when I offer testimony on legislation before the New Hampshire House or Senate, when I speak at a rally or vigil, when I give a sermon of a social justice nature, or when I write an opinion piece for the Concord Monitor.
Social justice activism by rabbis very often leaves congregants feeling dismayed, particularly if their rabbi holds a different view on a particular issue than does the individual congregant. Having been an active adult congregant in a synagogue for more than 16 years before I entered rabbinical school, I know this all too well. At the same time, my understanding of Judaism compels me to speak.
One of the concerns I have heard is that I somehow might be putting Temple Beth Jacob’s non-profit status at risk. I am not. Only if a member of the clergy in his or her capacity as congregational clergy endorses a candidate or tells people to vote against a candidate would that non-profit status be in jeopardy.
As a rabbi, I do not lose my private right to take positions on candidates as I see fit. What I might post on Facebook or say in a private conversation is perfectly legal; and as my colleagues and I have been told, is something we should not shy away from, as we must live our non-clergy lives as well. Still, I am extremely careful at the Temple and at my home. Because I live in a property owned by the synagogue, I never, ever place a candidate placard on my lawn, for example.
When I do speak, I speak on issues, not candidates; I research the issue and speak from what I believe to be an authentic Jewish perspective. When I testify against enacting restrictions on access to abortion, for example, I speak about the Jewish teachings that life does not begin at conception, and that sometimes the fetus has the status of a rodef, a “chaser,” when it will cause harm to the mother. Because of these positions, all denominations in Judaism oppose restrictions on access to abortion because Jewish law sometimes mandates that a woman terminate her pregnancy.
When I speak and write in favor of repealing the death penalty, my position comes from the shared view, again by all denominations in Judaism, that only God has the right to take a life.
Always, my remarks contain references to Torah, the prophets, the Talmud, and modern Jewish thinkers, whether the topic is poverty, racism, homophobia and trans-phobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or any number of other subjects.
And yes, another Jew may interpret those texts differently, but that is the beauty of our tradition. Eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim, These and these are the words of the living God, a Divine Voice uttered, as the houses of Hillel and Shammai debated a point of Jewish law. If you ever want to discuss with me the substance of my position, please know that my door is open. Educate me from your perspective. I may not agree with you, but you will help me see beyond my own view. I will learn more, and moreover, I will learn more about you. And to me, that is way more important than whether we agree or disagree on an issue of social justice.
There is another reason why I am an activist. The Talmud teaches that it is impermissible to build a synagogue without windows. The requirement arises out of verses in the Book of Daniel describing how Daniel prayed by windows. Rashi, the 11th century French Biblical commentator, taught that windows are required because they allow the person praying to see a glimpse of the sky. Seeing a glimpse of sky may inspire us to connect with God or may remind us that God is in the building with us. Or the light may provide an uplift. Perhaps, but seeing the sky is only one reason why the windows are important. Judaism teaches that we must have windows because we are obligated to see what is on the outside. We cannot use the synagogue as a place to hide from the realities of our world. Today, that means we need to see the poverty, racism, homophobia and trans-phobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.
When Rav Yehuda Amital hired architects to build his yeshiva in Israel, the architect wanted to make it without windows so it would fit in better with the environment. Rav Amital’s response was that it is the people, rather than the building, who must fit in with the environment. A place of prayer and study is not meant to be a place where people are isolated from the outside world; rather, we must have a constant awareness of what is going on in our world.
Despite my feelings of being compelled to speak out, it pains me to know that members of this congregation object. I promise to look more deeply into what I do – to explore my motivation, as I will with speaking personally. Again, I will ask if my ego is too involved. I will ask if my time being an activist detracts from my time serving the congregation in any way. And again, please know that I promise to go forward, striving for you to remain connected to our sacred community and feeling like TBJ is your spiritual and communal home.
There’s a story of a Rabbi who was loved by his community – by everyone but a gentleman named Isaac. Isaac challenged and contradicted the Rabbi constantly. He came to classes and services just to point out the faults in the Rabbi’s teachings.
One day, Isaac died. During the funeral, the congregation noticed that the Rabbi was deeply upset. They couldn’t figure out why. “Isaac was always criticizing you,” they said to the Rabbi.
The Rabbi responded, “I am not upset for dear Isaac, who is now in heaven. I am upset for myself. Isaac challenged me and required me to grow and change. With Isaac gone, I am afraid that I will stop growing and changing.”
We read in Torah, tochi-ach amitecha, rebuke your kin. The rabbis have much to say about this commandment, toch’cha. First, they teach that when you have some feedback to give, you must do so. Secondly, when doing so, it must be done privately, gently, and lovingly. They offer this explanation:
A mature person welcomes constructive criticism; he or she puts spiritual growth ahead of ego. [That person] must always understand that whoever offers rebuke is merely a messenger of God sent to make us focus on our shortcomings. Thus, do not reject the criticism of humans for if you do so, you really detest the rebuke of God.
I want to say clearly and directly that I want to hear your feedback. Even if it seems like I don’t, and I am working on that, I really do. This New Year, I promise, truly, to labor toward improving myself. I will especially focus on listening with an open ear and an open heart, and on not being defensive.
I want thank those of you in this community who have helped me to identify this important area on which I should focus.
It is 5777, a new year. Being fit for the task of standing before God as your spiritual leader is ever present on my mind.
BT Eruvin 13b
BT B’rachot 34b
Pirkei Avos 6:33
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