Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reflections on Nothing -- and Everything

Reflections on Nothing – And Everything -- A Riff on a Significant Shabbat for a Rabbi and His Congregation -- Parshat Shoftim – Friday, August 13th, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

To quote from the introduction to this week’s Torah portion in the Plaut commentary, “The weekly portion Shoftim (lit. “magistrates”) begins (at DT 16:18) an extensive segment dealing with the ethical and administrative norms for providing the community with a suitable structure.” Ethical and administrative norms for providing the community with a suitable structure? Can you get a better basis for a sermon than that?

Okay, who are we kidding….? Yes, that is a terribly important subject – so much so that I am going to save it for the High Holy Days this year! But let’s talk honestly here for a second – is THAT why ANY of us are here tonight? Heck no! In fact, with one or two possible exceptions, you probably aren’t here to talk about the actions of America’s latest ignominious folk hero, Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who was arrested and fired after cursing out an obnoxious passenger over the PA system after their flight had landed, and then jumped out the exit door down the emergency chute!

Tonight marks a remarkable coalescence of events. As it is each summer, tonight marks my return to the pulpit after my summer adventures. I want to thank those intrepid volunteers who took responsibility for leading lay services in my absence, who, by all accounts, did, as they always do, and outstanding job facilitating the spiritual needs of our congregation and community in my absence. It is only too bad that the flip side of people coming out to services BECAUSE the Rabbi is back requires us to acknowledge that too many of us underappreciate the efforts of these volunteers, at least in the most obvious and significant accounting – our attendance or general lack thereof at these lay led services!

But honestly, a significant part of tonight’s attendance is attributable to more than this annual return. I understand that some of you (many of you?) received something close to an invitation to be here tonight, in part because there are 2 other milestones being acknowledged tonight, one strictly personal, and one shared by a Rabbi and his congregation! It is almost impossible for me to believe that tonight marks the beginning of my second decade of service to and leadership of this congregation, which frankly could and should be our focus tonight, and our lead back to the words from the Plaut commentary placing our Torah portion in context.

Could be. Should be. But again, probably aren’t as central as they would otherwise be, because of a pre-destined confluence of calendric phenomena.

How often do any of us get to celebrate a significant birthday, especially one usually approached with trepidation as an excuse for some serious ribbing and decidedly unserious celebration? Even less often does such an auspicious date fall on Friday the 13th! Even less often does it have all this other significance connected to it as well!

Directional change coming here, to reinforce this last point…. One of my last responsibilities at Camp Harlam came last Shabbat morning, as the unit with which I was working was asked to lead Shabbat morning services for the camp and about 200 alumni guests. Alumni Day services are generally a nightmare – the staff and alumni are far more interested in seeing old friends than in praying, which interferes with the whole tone, mood, and setting of the worship. Rare is the Alumni Day Shabbat service that “works.” I happen to have been partially responsible for one three years ago that DID work, and after the next summer proved that this was NOT the start of a new trend, but a one shot deal, it appears a decision was made to honor me by making this service my responsibility from now on. Reality says that in the same way I am really NOT responsible for the remarkable performances of our b’nai mitzvah -- the kids themselves deserve that credit – the real credit for the success of that service 3 years ago lay with the kids, and not the Rabbi who worked with them. However, perception will usually trump reality, and such appears to have been the case in this instance.

So, as we prepped the kids to lead this service last Shabbat, I laid it on the line, in my best Bill Murray rip-off from the classic monologue from the movie Meatballs. I fired them up to write the best readings, prepare to read the Torah flawlessly, to sing and play their instruments with skill and heart. We even challenged the ones who ducked participating in the service proper by choosing to become the greeters and ushers to step up, and help us keep the alumni in line, because otherwise it just wouldn’t matter how good the service was. And the kids responded! And led a great service.

And when the Rabbi of the unit got up to introduce the Torah reading (his only part in the entire service), following a typically loud and unfocussed processional with the Torahs around the Chapel in the Woods – a truly mystical and spiritual setting in which more than once, otherwise inexplicable things have happened in my life – one in which there was more talking among friends than focusing on the sifrei Torah as they paraded around, something magical happened.

The main body of the congregation immediately retook their seats, and got quiet. THAT would have been miracle enough! But the area of those still standing and talking was not, as usual, all over the chapel, but rather, was limited to maybe the back 20% of the worship space. And the Rabbi stepped forward and thanked the camp congregation for demonstrating the power of a spiritual wave sweeping from the Ark to the far reaches of the space, and joked that the wave was about to reach the back section. I didn’t shout, I was smiling, deliberately NOT being upset or loud. And in less than 30 seconds from the time I stepped to the microphone, the place was silent, and we were moving on with the worship.

In truth, a larger part of the credit goes to the administration for devising a new seating plan for the service that helped keep the alumni engaged in the worship service. In truth, the kids earned the attention and respect by their efforts. But, as is always the case, who was credited with once again controlling the alumni??

And my reward was two-fold. I have now been informed that even after I retire from active duty on the faculty (yeah – as if THAT might ever happen!), I will be expected to come up for Alumni Day to help lead the service!

But even better, at the conclusion of the service, as we gathered the kids and staff for our unit bonding time over the D’var Torah, I was freed to be able to teach the following lesson – and no joke – this was the ENTIRE lesson I taught:

“There are no capital letters in Hebrew, and therefore none in the Torah. So, sometimes the word Torah is spelled with a capital T, and when it is, it refers to the first 5 books of the Bible, or the scroll they are written on. BUT, sometimes, torah is spelled with a small t, and then it refers to the entirety of Jewish teachings over the ages. Many are contained in texts, some are not.

“Today, you, as a unit, WERE torah. You led by your example, you taught by your example, you earned the respect the rest of camp and the alumni gave you. Anything else I could say or try to teach would be commentary on that lesson, and take away from what you have already learned.”

And then, knowing they needed to move pretty quickly down to the dining hall to set up and prepare to wait tables at lunch, I honestly ended the D’var Torah with the following words that I have been dying to use in such a setting for most of my life (with apologies to Mel Brooks and Harvey Korman): “Now go do that voodoo that you do so well.” And I waved them off with an energetic flourish to go sack the town of Rock Ridge, er, head to the dining hall! Total time: 47 seconds!!

And it was the best lesson I taught them all summer – they got it, they responded with exactly the energy and pride I hoped for, and they sent me off at the end of two weeks on a high.

Tonight can, and should be the same – not just for me, but for us. A time for serious worship and honest searching to be sure. But even more, a time during which we admit that it is okay to ENJOY being Jewish with each other, even if merely to celebrate a couple of significant events. One in which we let the reality of the moment interfere, in appropriate measure, with our normal expectations, without really getting in the way of why we came – either in theory or reality!

So my teaching of small t torah tonight is really this simple – I wish us a happy 10th anniversary together as Rabbi and congregation. I thank you for 10 amazing years – a period that started, when we found each other, with serious concerns and questions on each of our parts about our continuing viability separately, but quickly demonstrated that we made a pretty good match! A period that has contained the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, some real moments of celebration, and times when we all were forced to pull together and overcome. 10 years of incredible growth and learning for me, for which I thank you all, and hope that I might have returned what I have received even a little bit too you – individually and collectively.

And my prayer – may we all be blessed to share another equally powerful decade together (at least) – learning from each other, teaching each other, growing as individuals and as a communal family, and making our world a better place not only for ourselves but for all with whom we come in contact.

That’s my story, I am sticking to it. And if there is anyone who wants to celebrate that with me, great. For those of you looking to celebrate something else with me – take your best shot – I am ready! And thank you in advance for the love and respect that will be obvious in those words as well!

May we always find, when we come together, equally joyous reasons to celebrate together, and the comfort with each other to do so in the most appropriate – and inappropriate – ways possible! KYR

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