25th Anniversary Sermon: Deciding For Judaism

It was 1980. Temple Shalom was searching for a rabbi. I applied. So did scores of colleagues, many with far more impressive credentials than my own. From day one I was never really sure why on earth you chose me. I can tell you that, at the time, your decision humbled me and it does so still today and especially tonight. Marking these twenty-five completed years together has much more to do with you than with me. The honor I feel has everything to do with your kindness and patience over so long a stretch of time; your readiness to finish working through the past and then to focus so deliberately and well on creating this synagogue’s future; to adopt together the highest of standards and then strive to soar beyond them. What a privilege to share in this adventure with you for twenty-one years as your rabbi and senior rabbi, and now for four and one-half years as rabbi emeritus.

In 1980 Toby and I had no idea whatever that we had come to our congregation for life. For life. This twenty-fifth anniversary observance celebrates only a point reached along what I pray will be a much longer way, perhaps, God willing, a history that will include another twenty-five years of closeness. Toby, Elana, Dena and I shall always be grateful for your giving us the opportunity to walk side by side with you. Bless you for tolerating me and all the mishegoss my passions led Shalom to engage. And I am filled with thanks to God. I am filled with thanks to the remarkable professionals and lay leaders with whom it was my great privilege to work, and with boundless gratitude to my family, especially to Toby. No one will ever know the real extent of her contributions to my rabbinate and whatever good my being here wrought. However much you attribute to her, I assure you, only begins to tell the real story of her merit.

In 2001 as I prepared to climb out of the saddle, several sermons were given reflecting on our experiences together and the meaning to me of my rabbinate at Shalom. During that span I lived as your rabbi 24/7/365. After stepping down and for the last four and one-half years I have lived a very different existence, laboring mostly outside these walls away from the duties that come with one’s more than full time service here. I began living my work life among you, in your world. That is what I wish to address this evening. This night is about you far more than it is about me. I want to convey what I think I have been learning about you and how it differs from what I thought before becoming your rabbi emeritus.

Away from here, suddenly, I faced choices that never before entered my mind. Worship, prayer, Jewish study emerged as options. Shall I attend here or try a service at another shul or daven with my siddur at home? Or, shall I take advantage of the endless cultural temptations so available in our metropolitan area? As I began to live in your world, I faced for the first time what you had always faced. It is now four and one-half years later -- so what have I discovered living in your world? I discovered I had been wrong.

I remember telling you (what chutzpah!) that, if you were only willing, it was not difficult to set aside a few hours a week for Jewish worship and study. I remember explaining why it should be simple to leave the office early on Fridays to go home for Shabbat dinner before coming to Temple. I described for you a host of other Jewish disciplines that you should embrace with consistency. There was nothing to it but to do it!

Well, I am here tonight to fess up and tell you how wrong I was. I just did not know. I did not grasp it. I was terribly incorrect in my estimation of the ease with which one could find the time and energy to engage daily and weekly Jewish growth. And I was even more inaccurate when it came to recognizing the importance, relevance of these Jewish activities. I feel badly about these mistakes. Your well being has always mattered most to me. I thought my calls to you were correct and would serve you well. I thought I was saying the right things in the right way. I believed what I told you. I was wrong.

Some of you might want me to stop here. But surely, you don’t believe I have changed that much.

As I began to walk in your shoes day after day, year after year, I learned that it is so much harder to decide for Judaism than I ever imagined previously. The hours and the energy required to decide for Judaism are tough indeed to come by, much tougher than I ever thought was the case during my years as senior rabbi. And as I walked in your shoes I also discovered something else. I learned it is also far more necessary to decide for Judaism than I ever understood before, far more valuable, far more replenishing to decide for Judaism, far more beneficial to one’s well being, one’s fulfillment and one’s salvation! I know now more than ever that it is far more self serving in every honorable way to decide for Judaism than to refrain from doing so. I never realized this as much living in the Temple as living outside it.

In your world, a world not filled with Jewish sources and Jewish worship and Jewish involvement, I run low on spiritual fuel far more readily. I get fewer minutes of peace to the prayer than in my pulpit rabbi’s life. What does that mean? It means I need to pray more not less. Prayer does indeed provide strength and insight. Now, it plays an even larger role in sustaining me. So does Jewish study. So does Jewish ritual and tikkun olam. After four and one-half years in your world I now know how Jewishly drained it is possible to become by the weekend. I now spell that two day period w-e-a-k-e-n-e-d. For weakened is the spiritual, moral and emotional state one may well have reached by the time Friday afternoon arrives. I stand before you tonight only relatively recently aware of how tough it is to find the time to refuel Jewishly in this other world, your world, now my world. I do get it. But what I also get is how bereft, how unacceptably diminished, how much more vulnerable life is when not refueling Jewishly and regularly!

In June 2004, I accepted a call from the board of the Equal Rights Center to take over that agency as its executive director, a post I have held for the past 18 months, after serving on the ERC board for over twenty years. Down to Dupont Circle I go each morning to work that I love, fighting discrimination and finding remedies for bigotry’s fragmentation of our community. The work fits in well with what I for so many years sought daily to accomplish here. I always saw with complete clarity the essential purpose of this congregation: Help our membership, as individuals and as a group, to move toward wholeness of being as Reform Jews. The essence of the Equal Rights Center is somewhat different, but only somewhat. Its purpose is to help the residents of Greater Washington move toward wholeness as members of the human race. And I utilize my Jewishness constantly as I go; I am empowered by it and endlessly challenged by it. It operates within me informing the decisions I make. The actions I take. In your world it is more important than ever to decide for Judaism and to do so without preaching.

You should know that I keep a copy of “Gates of Prayer” and the Tanakh and some other basic Jewish texts on the credenza behind my desk. How I need them! I need them for me to help me stay Jewishly connected away from the congregational rabbinate. For my faith is a blessing. It makes me better at everything I do. It works in your world, now my world. It really works!

And however tough it is to break away, I do leave the office early on Friday afternoons – not as early as I should, but early. I always observe Shabbat. Often a portion of that observance is spent here, either Friday night or Saturday morning, sometimes both. There is greater meaning and purpose now in reserving Shabbat for worship, study and family. Doing so is no longer required by my job description. It is required by facing the truth!

You bet I take off for the High Holy Days and the chagim: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Atzeret-Simchat Torah, Pesach, and Shavuot. I don’t do it to come here and lead services. I do it to serve the needs of my Jewish heart, my Jewish mind, my Jewish soul. (Yes, I believe in souls.) Never before, nev-er be-fore have the words in the texts of our faith meant more to me than in these years of living each day out there where you have always been. I keep them at the ready. Not to go proselytizing – although at mediations with corporate representatives I almost always advocate for the process and benefits of redemption. I need Jewish beliefs, thoughts, values, practices, being. They circulate through me to impact what I say and do outside the role of a full time congregational rabbi. Never did my being cry out for them more than now. I am more certain tonight than during all the years I regularly stood before you, that deciding for Judaism is a success breeding way to be, it is a life-saving way to be!

On page 100 of the gray “Gates of Prayer” Leviticus 19 is quoted: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” That is our mission out there. Serving holiness as Jews is our commission – and we are meant to get it done throughout the day, in our offices, in our classrooms, in any and all work spaces as well as at home. What does it mean to be holy? Are we excused from holiness when we are busy with seemingly secular pursuits? In this hour I know that the answer is that we are not excused! Bruce Kahn in his new world, in your world, is called to holiness as a Jew more than ever before. We all are! What do we all think this religion of ours is about? If it is not about how we live each day throughout the day then it is not about anything much at all.

Page 100 in the gray prayer book continues by clarifying what is meant by holiness: “As God is merciful and gracious so shall you be merciful and gracious.” Merciful and gracious, when? Where? How? To whom? The answers are clear. They are not easy to implement, but they are clear. There is more about holiness on this blessed page. “Let your neighbor’s property be as dear to you as your own.” That means the property and funds for which we bear responsibility at work and at home. “Let your neighbor’s honor be as dear to you as your own.” That means the folks who work for us or oppose us, even the less agreeable individuals we meet while riding METRO. Page 100 concludes, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not rejoice when your enemy falls. You shall not hate another in your heart, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When? Especially when we are most tempted not to do so. Where? Everywhere. How? That is what the Jewish experience and Jewish sources and Jewish prayer are here to help us ascertain. But first one has to decide for Judaism in that everyday world of ours.

Deciding for Judaism in your world, in my world, is far tougher than I ever thought from 1980 through 2001. It is far tougher to do and for more consequential. As one who now walks your path with you, I know better each day how critical it is to strive for holiness as God is holy, to fulfill our commission with excellence.

Deciding for Judaism is to expand our Jewish consciousness. Beyond question our faith is intended to be our way of life. Embracing it moves us toward wholeness. We need a plan for wholeness. The good news is that we have the plan. Out there as we pursue that plan we participate profoundly in “restoring the broken fragments of our world to wholeness,” for ourselves and for others. I know now how important it is to decide for Judaism. That is in large measure what makes this night different from all those other nights we spent together in this sanctuary. Now, after more than four years of living daily in your world, now my world, what is my message? I say to you as one of you: Decide for Judaism. Be Jews. More than ever, be Jews!

In this week’s Torah portion we read (Genesis 32:31): Va’yik’ra Ya’a’kov shem ha’ma’kom P’ni’el; ‘Kee ra’ee’tee Elohim pa’nim el pa’nim….’” “So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face…’” Thank you for these 25 years! In you I have seen God face to face.