In romantic comedies, there’s often a point where the good-looking, likable, and inexplicably uncoupled heroine or hero of the movie goes on a series of bad dates. There’s a montage of the bad dates: this one won’t stop talking about himself, this one won’t stop talking about his mother, that one won’t stop talking about his last relationship. I’m telling you this because I’m aware that I’m about to be one of those guys in the romantic comedy bad date montage, talking about my past relationships. But don’t worry, because, just like in the good date montage in romantic comedies, it tuns out OK in the end.
I want to tell you two stories about past relationships- not juicy details about past relationships for everyone to gossip about, but about my past relationships with synagogues. As many of you know, I grew up in a small town, Kenosha, Wisconsin, which boasted one synagogue, a Reform Temple of about a hundred families. And I just moved here from Hamilton, Ontario, and, if you didn’t know, Canadian Judaism is more traditional than American Judaism. I’m telling you this so that the folks who think I’m too traditional can blame it on my more right-wing Canadian Conservative shul, and those who think I’m not traditional enough can blame it on my left-wing Reform roots- this way everyone can have something to complain about.
The coolest feature of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha was the ark. It was, and is, an electric ark. Instead of opening the curtains to get the Sifrei Torah, as we have here, there is a button, under the rabbi’s podium, so the rabbi can say, “And now please rise for the Torah service,” and the ark will automatically open. It’s a dramatic effect. And when we’d have family services, the kids were allowed to press the button, so my brother and I would fight over who got to push the ark button. Most kids fight over the chance to press an elevator button, but this was even more worth fighting for- you got only one chance a week, and, while elevator buttons are a dime a dozen, this was a sort of extra-special holy button.
So last month, we were back home visiting my parents, who had a party marking their fiftieth wedding anniversary. And the rabbi who was at the Temple when I was kid, Rabbi Remson, was at the party. We were happy to see each other- his first life-cycle event as a rabbi was my bris, and, since leaving the pulpit, he consults synagogues on their transitions. He consuls synagogues, when maybe a rabbi and synagogue didn’t get along, maybe there was a scandal, God forbid, or maybe there was a long-serving, well-liked rabbi retiring after many decades, and it’s not always easy for the next person to come in and succeed. I was happy for the chance to talk with him, and he told me this story:
In rabbinical school, all the graduating students go off on Shabbat and interview in different places, then come back on Monday and talk to each other about how things went. After interviewing in Kenosha, he told his friends that he really liked the congregation, but that they had this electric ark that he thought was weird.
One of his classmates told him he grew up with an electric ark, not one like the one in Kenosha, but a large walk-in ark, and then he told this story.
Each Friday afternoon the Gabbai would take out the Torah to be sure it was rolled to the right place. One week, he was putting it back, and accidentally touched the switch, closing the doors. He could not get out of the ark. He shouted, but no one heard him. There was nothing to do but sit down and wait until he heard the first people come to Temple. He would shout and they would let him out.
While waiting, he dozed off. Not the first person to sleep in Temple, but he had a better excuse than most. The next thing he knew, he hears cantor singing Lecha Dodi. This was a Reform congregation, however, and they read Torah on Friday night. He waited patiently until it was time for Kri-at HaTorah. The congregation stood, the ark opened, and out walks the Gabbai, carrying the scroll.
And Rabbi Remson tells this story to congregations in transition, telling them that no matter how good a job the search committee did, when they hire a new rabbi it is like opening that ark. They are never quite sure who will come out carrying their Torah. It’s important for the rabbi and the congregation to get to know each other, and that often takes time and effort. So if you’re surprised by something along the way, please know that my door is open, please feel free to drop by, or set an appointment, I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone and to hearing and addressing your concerns. Not everybody will be happy- this won’t be the first synagogue in the long history of the Jewish people where all the people are happy all of the time- but I think we’ll do alright.
One more story, of more recent vintage. Last week, Susan said Temple Sholom would get a computer for my office. I told her I was already using the laptop that my last shul, Beth Jacob, got me, and maybe we could buy them out. So I wrote the president of Beth Jacob, who said that the executive thinks I should consider the computer a parting gift. It clearly wasn’t a debated decision- it was decided with a few short emails and texts. And it’s not a schlepper computer- it’s a 2014 Macbook Air. Susan, we should probably write a thank-you note.
But what really struck me is that earlier this month, they had a farewell Shabbat for me, and had a big ceremony to give me this. It’s a new chumash, that Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton, Ontario, gave to me, to give to you. It has a Temple Sholom dedication plate in it- they must have contacted the office here to get it- dedicated in my name, but I am to give it to you. And I thought, what sort of people are we, what does it say about Jews, who are supposed to be blessed with some financial savvy, that we make a bigger deal out of the fifty-dollar book of Torah than the thousand-dollar computer? Why is one presented as an afterthought in a one-line email, and the other the subject of emotional ceremonies?
The computer is a wonder, and valuable tool, but the book speaks to the heart of who we are. To where we came from. To what we can be. The book speaks to the future we aspire to create. The Torah is what binds us together- in Kenosha, in Hamilton, in Bridgewater, in Jerusalem, in Moscow, it doesn’t matter where you are or where you came from. We are a people who seek to create a more Godly world- a world that better reflects Divine mercy, and justice, and kindness. We have been on that mission, in many different places and in many different ways, for thousands of years. The Torah is what binds us on that mission. We can agree with it, disagree with it, love it, misunderstand it, hold a grudge against it, but we all have a part in it, and we all have a piece of Torah that only we can teach. That, I think, is why I was given this book of Torah to give to you. Not just to throw it in the pile with the other books, though I will do that, but to carry the message that we all share Torah. And- this is where it’s more like the good date montage than the bad date montage- it’s because it’s not about me. It’s about us. It’s about us as a people, and the connections between us, and the potential within us. There is Torah that I can bring to you, and Torah that you can bring to me, and Torah that we can bring to the world. It is in you to take your place in the sacred mission of our people. It is not always easy, and it takes a deep engagement with the tradition and finding your place in it. It is my hope that together, we can bring to ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world, a Torah of shalom.
Tomorrow, we’ll read in the Torah that Moses said, “לֹא אוּכַל לְבַדִּי שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם: I cannot carry this people alone.” If it was true of Moshe Rabbeinu, it’s true of us all. We form communities to accomplish more than we ever could if were were but loose collections of individuals. I have particularly benefited from the example set by Rabbi Ron and Leora over their forty years of leadership here, and from the advice and assistance he has given me during this transition. The Torah teaches that Moses was helpful but not possessive when leadership transitioned to his successor; Rabbi Isaacs has acted in the best of the Torah’s tradition in his offering me both assistance and space. He teaches with both his words and deeds. Kol Hatchalot Kashot, the midrash teaches, all beginnings are difficult; still, the time and efforts provided by the Isaacs and the lay leadership here at Temple Sholom are solid bases for optimism, and while the Torah is right when acknowledges the limits of what one person can do alone; there is much we can accomplish together.
I like thinking back to that congregation which never knows who will appear in their ark, walking out proudly carrying the Torah. There’s a nice element of surprise there. But I also like thinking of the Torah that you carry within you, that will surprise us all when we hear it. You may also be surprised by the Torah inside you. It is that combination: the surprise of who carries Torah, the and the insights and connections that come when we interact deeply with the book, with Torah- that excites me about our future here.
So it was my honor to receive this book of Torah. It was my obligation to shlep it. And, now, it is my pleasure to give it to you. May we be blessed with spending many years of finding ourselves in its pages. May we be ever surprised by the Torah that emerges from within us. And, while life usually doesn’t have happily-ever-after endings like romantic comedies do, may we be blessed to live lives worthy of the gifts we receive.