Now that the weekend is over—well, almost, and I am in Spokane, after the rehearsal for Bob and Toni’s daughter, Cara’s wedding to Jim Health, tomorrow, I need to express my great thanks to everyone who participated in this wonderful Installation weekend… Especially Heidi Doyle and her committee, Ed Gurowitz for his leadership of the ceremony, Eric Foster and Sheila Thompson for the details of creating the room and other details, Judy Friedman for getting the programmes printed… and Rabbi Schochet for his awesome blessing and words and teaching; R. Beyer for co-leading services with me Friday night, with her beautiful voice and ruach; R. Birdie Becker for traveling so far, co-leading services on Saturday morning – and introducing me and the congregation to Storahtelling, singing me a blessing, and being there; and to everyone who came to be part of it… (and please forgive me for leaving out friends, family and other loved ones…)
The two days were a glimpse of what we can be…
For myself, I felt like we had wandered from the wilderness we’ve lived in these past nine months, into the Promised Land… we are together, all North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation.
Below is my response to the congregational call.
If you want to see the installation service, Diane Black from Temple Beth Or Reno recorded it and posted it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mECJuMx_JQE&feature=youtu.be.
Installation Response from Rabbi Cahn
Shabbat shalom, everyone…
When I officiate a wedding – spoiler alert for the Langsfeld family – I ask the couple to turn and face the congregation and soak up all the love coming their way.
As I look out now, I know what those couples feel at that moment. One of the unwritten tasks on the job description of a congregational rabbi is to love her congregation and the people in it. And here we are – we can check that one off the list, achieved…
I stand here in profound gratitude. Modah ani lefanecha – simply—thank you; more precisely: I stand before you all in awe and gratitude. Let me say that again – modah ani lefanecha…
Modah comes from the same root as hodu, todah rabbah – all those words about thankfulness.
Modah also means to acknowledge… a truth — about ourselves, about our world.
When I say it now, I acknowledge a truth about myself: that I am not here before you on my own, that I would not be here without the love, support, challenge, kindness, and faith of many people. Were I to start naming everyone just in this room to whom I owe thanks, we would be here all night. Instead, you will hear from me this weekend.
- My uncle and aunt – Joe and Marilyn. Who put up with me each week of school. Who challenged me to be the person I wanted to be, but was not.
- Sam and Olya, who let me go, who nurture me every day. Sam and Olya, who see me at my best, my worst, my most middling, and show me every day what love is.
- My friends from Rodef Sholom – especially Women of Rodef Sholom – and from Shomrei Torah.
- Rabbi Schochet and others from AJR… words are not enough.
- And Rabbis Beyer and Becker and Joe Berland, you bless us with divine music.
And Heidi and your committee: wow. Just wow.
And you all here in North Tahoe, who have welcomed Sam, Olya and me, who have put your faith in me, who call me Rabbi.
Especially the Board—a functional working board with the best interests of the congregation in their thoughts.
And especially Bob Langsfeld, the board president, who has been a true ally. And who is here tonight despite the fact that his daughter is getting married on Monday in Spokane – mazal tov to Bob and his wife and past president herself, Toni…
For all that you have done…
Modah ani lefanecha.
In a mountain village in Europe years ago, lived a wealthy man who was concerned about the legacy he would leave to the people of his town. He spent a great deal of time contemplating his dilemma and, at last, decided to build the community a synagogue. He kept the plans secret until it was completed. He spent years and a great sum of money working with contractors and builders to create the perfect structure. Not unlike our building.
At long last, the construction was finished. The townspeople were excited and curious about what they would find upon entering their new synagogue. Early one morning, they came into the building for the first time and marveled at the synagogue’s magnificence. It had rooms of every shape and size, suitable for worship services, classes, meetings, parties, gatherings, and every other conceivable function. And no one could ever remember so beautiful a synagogue anywhere in the world!
Then, noticing a seemingly obvious flaw in the design, one of the townspeople asked, “Where are the lamps? What will provide the light?”
Everyone looked around and found no lights or lamps in the entire building. The benefactor proudly pointed out brackets that were strategically placed all along the walls throughout the synagogue.
He then gave each family a lamp as he explained, “Whenever you come to the synagogue, I want you to bring your lamp, and light it. When we are all here together, our synagogue will be bright. But when you are not here, the lamp will remind you that some part of our building will be dark. I have built for you the structure, but YOU must bring the light. You must share YOUR light with one another so we can all be a community together.”
So it is with us, here in North Tahoe: what we build here together, from this time forward, with our covenant just spoken, is to bring our lights together, to blaze forth. We are here because we have chosen this place – as our Promised Land. As Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th Century rabbi, taught, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” Many of you find your wonder on the water, your spirituality on the ski slopes, and your awe breathing the air of the mountains. You built a kehilla kedosha, a holy community with so many entry points, especially those built on relationships.
Wendell Berry, the great naturalist, might have been describing us when he wrote,
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared… It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”
Tonight, as we entered into our brit, I have committed to do what I can to strengthen the Jewish world here in North Tahoe and I hope you will bring your light, too.
So what does that mean? What might we dream about tonight? How might we brighten the light of Jewish spirituality and community?
Ben Zoma was one of the sages of Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of our Ancestors, found in the Mishnah, the earliest layer of the Talmud, that great compendium of our traditional wisdom. Nearly 2000 years ago, he posed four questions—and then graciously answered them for us. They offer a framework to help us illuminate our dreams.
Ben Zoma asked:
- Who is wise?
- Who is mighty?
- Who is rich?
- Who is honored?
Slightly out of order…
Who is rich?
He answered: One who is happy with their portion.
I love that we in this holy community enjoy being together—did you feel it tonight at dinner? One of my favorite Shabbats was the Final Friday cultural series with my friend, Rev. Scott Clark. What made it one of my favorite times wasn’t just the joy of sharing Scott with you, or hearing his teaching: it was the dinner before, sponsored by Ed Posin, where a goodly number of us gathered to eat and just be together. The room bubbled with happiness. Not every congregation shares this feeling. Let’s feel justifiably proud and let’s commit to nurturing it and spreading it.
Looking around at us: we are rich. Let us create more opportunities to find our spiritual happiness.
For example, let’s create a space here where our children and youth feel the joys of being Jewish. Where the kids learn to dance Israeli dances and sing Hebrew songs with joy—oh, and eat Jewish food. And, most important, where they learn to be mensches, steeped in Jewish values. Oh, and stay connected.
Ben Zoma asks, Who is wise?
One who learns from every person.
As we have been growing our discussions – Tea, Torah and Talmud in Truckee, Dinner and Discussion at the Lake (Someone recommended we call it Tequila and Talmud for which we might get a minyan – what do you think?) – we have been engaging in the quintessential Jewish enterprise – taking what our ancestors, our tradition, have taught and applying it to our own lives. Jewish tradition holds the Olympics of Argument, the World Series of Ideas striving to achieve the Perfect Game: not Matt Clark’s no hitter, but one where we hear all discussions as the holy words of the living God. Where we learn that Beit Hillel’s words trump Beit Shammai’s because Hillel’s students argued from a place of deep respect, understanding and kindness, as well as knowing from whence they spoke.
I have been blessed to learn from each of you in our interactions. Our discussions have enlightened me, have offered new ways of seeing. If there is a topic you want addressed, or an argument you want to have, let’s do it. For instance, someone suggested a Hebrew class as well as an adult b’nai mitzvah class: if you want to join her, please let me know and we’ll schedule it.
Ben Zoma asked, Who is honored?
His answer: One who honors all the works of creation.
I considered doing a very dangerous thing: list the multitudes of congregants engaged in a myriad of projects—helping the schools, the hospitals, the community, and realized it would not be good if I missed someone. But if you are a congregant volunteering or working for pay for the benefit of Truckee/Tahoe, please raise your hand. Look around.
Our contributions are vital to the North Tahoe community. I have heard from others, as well as the beneficiaries, about the importance of our own Holiday Food and Clothing Drive within the North Tahoe community’s assistance to families in December.
One of my dreams is that we find a way to harness some of that amazing energy into an ongoing Jewish force for good in the community – with regular opportunities to repair our world here together. When we brought the Tahoe Neighborhood Table to our shabbat table, alongside our Christ Life Church neighbors and United for Action partners, we took some steps as we grow to love our neighbor as ourselves… so that we can show how our congregation honors the works of creation. Let’s develop more opportunities.
Ben Zoma asks, Who is mighty (or a hero)?
One who subdues their yetzer hara, their impulse to evil.
That sounds like a sharp statement, but one way of thinking about evil is what we do that hurts ourselves or the people we love or indeed any of the works of creation. Anyone here innocent of that? One of the benefits of being a student and practitioner of Jewish tradition is the recognition that our yetzer hara is within our vigilant control, and that we have the tools, deep in our practice to do just that. Come, let us learn and practice together.
The great 20th century teacher Rav Kook taught that spiritual perfection was in the striving for connection with the power of the universe, in the striving to be the best person we can be. I love this unorthodox definition from a traditional rabbi, because it says that perfection is in the exerting, not the attaining. That we can make mistakes and still be on the right path.
Heschel taught us, “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” Music, tikkun olam, study, being in community, nurturing our children toward menschlekeit, being in nature are all ways to find those moments. Indeed, my teacher, Reb Mel Gottlieb taught us, “Any way is a way if you make it a way.” Here today, as we publicly and openly claim each other, I pray that we commit to being a community seeking to face sacred moments together, bringing our lamps together.
We are Diaspora Jews, from a every stream of Judaism, from all over the country and world, from every kind of belief. Forging a coherent practice for this diversity that honors people’s needs for comfort and spiritual stretching is an ongoing experiment requiring patience and feedback. Let’s continue these holy discussions.
I know that, on my way toward spiritual perfection, I, for all the title Rabbi confers on me and how hard I worked to earn it, will make at least my share of mistakes. I pray that you all, on your way to the same perfection, practice slicha, forgiveness, or at least acceptance. And I promise you to keeping striving to be the rabbi you deserve.
I conclude as I began: Modah ani lefanecha – I stand before you in gratitude, and humility, recognizing the honor and burden and real joy you have offered me as we each bring our lamps, our lights to our kehillah kedosha.