Shalom, Shalom - Sermon of Farewellby Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.
You must have seen them on the Internet. You know, the clippings from church and synagogue bulletins that slipped past the watchful eyes of their respective editors. Recently, my friend sitting just over here, Mike Friedman sent me a batch of those botched announcements. At Temple Shalom we provide babysitting services on the High Holy Days. It seems another congregation does something similar and wrote about it this way: "For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs." And for obvious reasons, here is the bulletin line that really caught my eye: "Our retiring senior pastor will preach his farewell message this Sabbath. Afterwards, the choir will sing, "Break Forth Into Joy." Well, I am the senior rabbi, and this is indeed a service of farewell, and the choir is here. I guess I will find out soon enough, but for now it is time to speak of Shalom.
I can't remember exactly when "shalom" became my favorite word. It was long before I noticed in the placement newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis that an opening existed at a temple named Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I grew up loving a lot about my Jewish ghetto experience in Baltimore, but I was always attracted strongly to the inspiring marvels of Washington, DC, and to the international flavor of the neighborhoods in Montgomery County. It was during my teenage years that the hope of someday living in this county, close to DC, first gained force. So, when I saw the listing for a temple named Shalom in Montgomery County, Maryland, my heart rejoiced. I applied for the position immediately after talking it over with Toby, and with Mrs. Lillian Lieberman, the widow of the rabbi under whose inspiring tutelage I was raised, Rabbi Morris Lieberman.
After sending in my application, several high powered rabbis of note let me know that coming from the pulpit of a small liturgically experimental congregation in Richmond, Virginia, would not qualify me for assuming the post at Temple Shalom of Chevy Chase. They said that a host of rabbis with superior credentials had thrown their hats in the ring and frankly, there was no chance that I would be selected. I should withdraw, they said, withdraw at once. I accepted that advice with the same regard that I have paid so many other statements directed at me over the years when folks told me something could not be done. If I failed it would not be for lack of trying.
So I went searching for as much information as I could gather about Temple Shalom and about its needs. The placement director, the famous Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, explained that this was a congregation that had sustained serious wounds at the hands of its former rabbi. The congregation was in need of healing. Shalom means wholeness. As I said, it was at the time and is still my favorite word. It defines religionthe quest for wholeness. It is the hub of a synagogue's wheel of being. It describes my purpose in becoming a rabbito try to be a faithful servant of God who each day attempts to help people as individuals and in community move toward wholeness of being as Reform Jews.
There would be no withdrawal of my name from the list of rabbis wanting to come to Shalom. I would present myself as one seeking to help heal the wounds that existed here.
By May 1980 the selection was announced. One of the rabbinic leaders who had been telling me all along that I should remove my name from consideration for the post, then called to say he was convinced that the board of trustees here would never accept the recommendation of the search committee. It was not too late for me to save face and look for another position.
At the end of May everything was sealed. Shalom would become my rabbinic home. I did not realize then that this would be my rabbinic home for the rest of my life. And I certainly did not appreciate at the time the reason why. I was about to enter rabbis' heaven.
The location of this congregation had much to do with that assessment. The resources in and around the nation's capital, in many ways the center of the world, are plentiful, varied, and at the highest levels imaginable. But more than any of that, more by far, was the factor of you. Yes, I would try to bring shalom to the members of Temple Shalom, but even more so would my family and I derive wholeness of being through you. How does one say thank you for that?
With the Psalmist I proclaim this night: "You have gladdened me by Your deeds, O Lord; I shout for you at Your handiwork" (Psalm 92). I praise God for the great handiwork of the Temple called Shalom, placed within the Stanley Nehmer reconfigured boundaries of Chevy Chase, Maryland. I praise God for the creation of this congregational family. I praise God for you, each of you.
We have done much together. I discussed that on the High Holy Days. That list is entered into the official record of this congregation. It was all accomplished as a team: the programs, projects, policies, practices of substance that so often placed us on the cutting edge of synagogue development. Beyond such successes, reside higher still, the precious moments that wove our souls together.
The weaving together of souls is something that matters. It matters a bunch. That is what I am thinking about now as I look at each of you. Our souls are woven together and August 15th will not sever such ties.
I know what these ties mean to me and to Toby and to our two daughters who feel so privileged to have grown up in this place and among you. These ties define one's true wealth. Souls woven together that nourish and nurture a lasting love of permanent bonds. Souls woven together and continuing to create deep inside that sense of shalom, of God's choice blessing of well being and wholeness at the heart of life itself.
In 1980 you invited me into a rabbi's heaven. I am reminded of the famous line in Genesis attributed to Jacob who awakes from his epiphanic dream to exclaim: "Ah'chaein yesh Adoni ba'ma'kom ha'zeh; v'a'no'chi lo ya'da'ti." "God was in this place, and I, I did not know it." The passage continues, "mah no'rah ba'ma'kom ha'zeh", "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God." (Genesis 28:16-17.) In 1980, I did not grasp adequately the truth of these words in regard to this place. I love this place and I will love it forever. I love you. I will love you forever. Thank you, each and every one of you here this night, thank you for giving me the privilege of learning what it means to want to praise God as a result of our souls being woven together.
For ten years Karen Lowe and Helene Sacks have been the co-executive directors of Temple Shalom. For years before that they worked hard at the highest levels of lay leadership within this synagogue. Who can even begin to comprehend what that means about the weaving together of our three beings? Helene and Karen and I understand it well. We know how to weigh all we have gone through over the past 21 years. Steve and Jack and Toby have a good sense of this bond. Others can only guess. The words love and respect just don't get there. Too much has happened. We shared too much that would seem mundane except for the magic that was imbedded in our union. We connected to so much that was extraordinary that it still takes our breaths away. With all our strength and feeling, we shared and addressed a constant intensity of purpose day and night, even Saturday nights, for years. When we are together, God is in that place, and we are indeed blessed by God to have one another and we know it. I thank God and Karen and Helene that it is so.
To a rabbi, at the top of one's agenda resides building a love of Torah, avodah and Gimilut chasadim. We want most of all to generate commitment to Jewish learning and worship and the pursuit of social justice and acts of loving kindness. The other clergy with whom one engages in these pursuits become shipmates, as we say in the Navy, shipmates of the highest importance. These names shall forever warm my heart as they warm yours: Saul Rogolsky, our cantor emeritus and Sharon Steinberg. And my rabbinic shipmates at Shalom: Rabbi Barry Schwartz, the consummate rabbi, who will return here in November to install our -- yours and mine -- our new senior rabbi, Michael Feshbach. And then there is Daniel Swartz, who possesses one of the brightest and most lovably unusual rabbinic minds of all time. He also possesses a heart that is pure, devoted to a life of absolute kindness. Rabbi Gerry Serotta lives his Jewishness to a depth that goes far beyond what is suggested by the term modeling behavior. He is a tzaddik, one of the few really righteous souls in the world. He would deny it. But you and I know it is true. There may be someone on the planet who is better informed about Jewish music than is Chazzan Dr. Ramón Tasat. There may be someone who cares more about Jewish music and prayer than does he. I just do not have any idea who that other individual might be. To have had the opportunity to witness God's song through him has become one of the great privileges of my life.
JoHanna Potts is someone who always leaves me shaking my head. I do not do so to indicate approval or disapproval. She always leaves me shaking my head in awe. I am in awe of JoHanna Potts, our director of religious education and, as far as I am concerned, she is a rabbi par excellence. I usually exit from her presence just finding it difficult to believe that someone could be as remarkable as is she. But she is so. And she is here. And that is one of the nicest things God has ever done for this congregation. Savor her presence. Savor it.
Alli Wild Pettibone has worked as my partner in ministry for two and a half years. She endured two and a half years of the most intense daily contact with me that one can imagine. Not one time, not once, did we have a disagreement, a problem, a falling outnot once. What does that tell you of her abilities, patience, understanding, wisdom, intellect, compassion and devotion? We responded to endless requests for information, material, curricula, and letters of all sorts. But mostly what we did was pure ministry to help you move toward wholeness. Her empathy and energy and loveliness endeared her to you enormously and to me vastly still more.
Lois Simpson and Carol Kaplan and Debbie Kopp do not work here. Work is the wrong term. Lois was the first to make that abundantly clear a very long time ago. Their efforts each day represent nothing less than acts of divine service, most competently provided with a wonderful touch of humor and a goodness that makes of each one of them a necessary part of who and what we are. How grateful we all are that they are with us.
Both James Williams and Joseph Davis have worked at Shalom longer than have I. Darryl Davis came on the scene the same time I did. They are men of high character and enormous loyalty. The youth of Shalom idolize Joe Davis. He talks straight with them about good attitudes and right behavior. They respect his words as the true gifts they are. So do I. We are dear, dear friends.
Almost as many jokes have been told about rabbi's spouses as have been created about rabbis. Not when it comes to Toby. Why not? Toby lords nothing over anyone. Toby turns from praise and the spotlight. Toby is self-effacing and non-confrontational. Toby is giving. How giving? Shortly Julie Knoll will explain something of Toby's record here. It is impressive. Toby is giving indeed and extremely talented and able and aware and Jewishly knowing. But there is so much more to Toby than that.
She has responded to you constantly with grace and sincerity and affection and kindness every day of our twenty-one year journey in your midst. She has been just right, not once or twice, but always. How many calls, how many encounters with how many souls have taken place not because she sought any sense of importance, but because she was put in the spot of living as the wife of the senior rabbi of Shalom. To perfection she responded each and every time.
As senior rabbi I can tell you that the pressures and strains and stresses that go with trying to serve God and the Jewish people full time are not slight. In this calling the time demands are not favorable. The requirements are compelling and constant. It was normal for me to begin work at eight in the morning and to be home but two nights a week for dinner, one of those nights being Shabbat, when we finish our meal and then hurry off to Temple. To work the entire weekend and on holidays and Holy Days and during almost every vacation period was normal. Doing so over a long period of time is wearing. It is not an ideal life for a marriage to remain strong. Toby not only endured this reality, but after God Almighty, she was always and is still my greatest source of strength and help. Our daughters Elana and Dena will tell you that she is their greatest source of strength and help, too. I would have long ago faded from the scene were it not for her. If you think favorably about my rabbinate here, about our souls being woven together, don't thank me, thank Toby. Without her there would be no me.
Apart from Toby, Elana and Dena do get it, they understand. They know the family implications of what it means to be RKs, Rabbi's Kids, as the term is used among insiders. They are a group apart. Some RKs can handle it, some cannot. Elana and Dena could. It is late, very late, Elana and Dena and now Wayne, too. It is late in the day for me to be available to you as much as I always wanted to be. But the sun has not set. There is still time for us. How well you have done. It is your doing. Your excellence is your doing and your mom's with a little thrown in from me. You are superb people, superb women, superb Jews. You know so well what it means to be a daughter of the synagogue. You know the good of it, the troubling parts of it. We will have time now, and as that starts I want you to know how blessed I am by you. Somehow through it all, through all that goes into enduring life as an RK, each of you still loves your faith, your people, this special place, and even me. I love you more than life itself.
Ladies and gentlemen, my most beloved congregational family, I am ready to stand down now, and honored to accept the position of rabbi emeritus. I yield my place to Rabbi Michael Feshbach. He is becoming my rabbi, too. I am telling Michael a great deal about us and the Temple called Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He is so favorably impressed, but not as much as he will be once he experiences what it means to weave his soul together with your souls in the days, months, and years to come.
It was especially delightful for me to tell him about the next person to address us, our president, Julie Knoll. I looked Michael right in the eye and told him that he never met a synagogue president to surpass Julie's excellence, her exquisite combination of intellect, wisdom, integrity, efficiency, organization, acharai or follow me example setting. She makes so very clear what it means to live this life as a Jew and to revel in doing so.
To all the presidents of Shalom, to the founders, to the officers, trustees and committee chairpeople and those who assisted them, I offer the deepest thanks of my heart. You can have a synagogue without a rabbi, but no synagogue exists without a president and lay leaders. You all orchestrated so very much of the melody our praise of God produced over these past twenty-one years.
It is time to pipe me over the side as we say in my beloved Navy. I can hear the boatswain's pipe sounding and the voice coming over the 1 MC, the main loud speaker system, "Senior Rabbi, Temple Shalom, departing." It is time now to be there for my family, to be there for long suffering friends, and in ways different than ever before. It is time to go forward through this life with you, souls bonded, the weaving continuing, not the same as in the past, but continuing nonetheless. I celebrate that it is so.
I ask you now to turn in your announcement sheets to the words of Psalm 150. It is the concluding Psalm in Scripture. As I conclude my active duty rabbinate here I am moved to praise God for the privilege of serving our Creator with you. If you are moved to do so, please rise with me and join together in reading this final Psalm now.
Praise God in His Sanctuary.
Praise Him in the sky, His stronghold.
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him for His exceeding greatness.
Praise Him with blasts of the shofar;
Praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with lute and pipe.
Praise Him with resounding cymbals;
Praise Him with loud-clashing cymbals.
Let all that breathes praise the Lord.