Shana Tovah, my friends.
L’shana tovah tikateivu. May you be written for a good year. We are here together for the first time – I am your rabbi, you are my community…
My original plan – to give myself a little breathing room from the whirlwind that has been my last two months, was to refresh some of my best HHD sermons: you hadn’t heard them, they are good, and I would have a little time to get my feet on the ground. I was going to talk to you about God and sovereignty, one of the key themes of the holy days…
But a voice in my head kept repeating, “This is the time when most Jews get together. This is your chance to tell everyone together about your hopes and prayers for your holy relationship with North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation…”
So I threw even more sleep to the wind, and hineini, I stand before you. So rather than God and sovereignty, I’ll be talking about God and connections. First let me tell you that, like Abraham and Miriam, I am grateful beyond measure for this opportunity to serve you.
A monastery had fallen on hard times. Where formerly its many buildings were filled with young monks, now it was all but deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer, and only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters serving God with heavy hearts. On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there, from time to time, to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: ‘The rabbi walks in the woods.” And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.
One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heavy heart to him. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, as if he had been awaiting the abbot’s arrival, his arms outstretched in welcome. They embraced like long-lost brothers. The two entered the hut where, in the middle of the room, stood a wooden table with the Torah open on it. They studied together.
Then the rabbi began to cry. The abbot could not contain himself. He covered his face with his hands and began to cry too. For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out. The two men filled the hut with their shared pain and tears. But soon the tears stopped and all was quiet. The rabbi lifted his head. “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said. “You have come to ask a teaching of me. I have no words of wisdom. I can only tell you that the Moshiach – the Messiah is among you.”
The next morning, the abbot called his monks together to tell that what the old rabbi had told him. “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”
“What could this mean?” they asked themselves. “Could the Abbot be the Messiah? He has been our leader for these many years, a man of wisdom… Surely not Brother Thomas? He says harsh words… but they are usually right… Surely not Brother Elliot? He seldoms speaks… but is always around when we need him. Surely not me? What could all this mean?”
As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a new and very special reverence. A gentle, warm-hearted concern began to grow among them. When visitors came to the monastery they found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Word spread, and before long people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and to experience the loving reverence in which they held each other. Soon, other young men were asking, once again, to become a part of the community, and the community grew and prospered. In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut had fallen into ruins. Yet somehow, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his wise and prayerful presence.
The loving reverence and respect that quietly nurtured each soul in community – together, they created a kehilla kadosha, a holy community. That is what I have seen here so far: warmth, kindness, humor, caring. Who could ask for anything more? From Ernie Grossman’s gracious leadership of the search committee, to Steve Meyers’ wonderful food at Dragonfly, to Dan Dickerman helping us schlep our TV, to Bob Langsfeld’s gentle yet tough leadership and Sheila Thompson’s expertise in the office, to Judy Friedman and Pam Dickerman feeding me and my family and passing on referrals to everything, to the religious school teaching me their melodies so we can davven together, to everyone who has offered a referral, or just a kindness: my family and I are blessed to be among you.
My prayer is that over the years such generosity and grace are in perpetual reciprocal motion: that we each feel this reverence and respect. That the caring network led by Fred Ilfeld spreads its fingers throughout the community so that each of us touches others in deep, caring ways. The Talmud, the compendium of the teachings of our rabbis and sages through the 5th century CE, tells us that among the duties whose worth cannot be measured (words we will repeat together tomorrow morning) are acts of loving kindness, visiting the sick, celebrating with bride and groom: the seeds of a kehilla kadosha— a holy community are sprouting here.
Then, of course, you recognize the awe, the inspiration, the beauty of this place. This lake, these mountains: this is God’s country. I feel transcendence here, as well as immanence: natural wonders beyond our imaginations and the sense that holiness drips from every rock, each leaf and every pine cone. The prophet Isaiah and the psalms tell us –m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo – all the earth is filled with God’s glory – or better, God’s essence, holiness, fills the earth and everything on it. Everything. Bark beetles and worms. And each person… We see it throughout the world – as the psalm (92:6) says, “How great are Your works, how deep Your thoughts!” [mah gadlu ma’asecha Yah] or as we will also pray tomorrow morning, “How great are your deeds, you make everything with wisdom.” [mah rabu ma’asecha] (Yotzer) This is majesty, these are miracles and here in particular, we can view them with what R. Abraham Joshua Heschel named “radical amazement.” None of us could create anything this amazing. We have limits that the Ground of Being does not.
My prayer is that we share many opportunities to experience this awe together: whether in nature or in connection with each other – or indeed both! (Just don’t look for me on the ski slopes, unless you plan to visit me in the hospital later…)
One of the first ways you described yourselves to me was that we are a welcoming community: indeed, several of you explained that you were at services, playing mah jongg or otherwise involved because of the welcome you had personally received. Welcoming in our tradition harkens back to Avraham Avinu – Abraham, our first patriarch, who would run out of his tent to greet strangers, even rising from his bed of pain to do so. It is another essential ingredient of a holy congregation, a kehilla kadosha. The most oft repeated mitzvah, or commandment, in our Torah is NOT to make peace, not to feed the hungry, nor turn away from idols, but to be kind to the stranger, because we were once strangers in the the land of Egypt – and indeed in all the lands of the earth since. Each of the greeters here tonight is doing holy work, creating the environment for us to feel welcome in this holy sanctuary.
My prayer is that we continue to seek out and invite others to share this sense of connection, of relationship – to those we don’t know, to guests… And I pray that those of you who are visitors for the first time, or who haven’t yet joined our community, I pray that you experience the sense of relationship we share.
Reverence takes another form with this community. On the Thursday of my interview visit, a group of you sat me down to discuss a comment I had made two days earlier. We talked directly, calmly, listened to each other and agreed that we could disagree. This directness, this engagement, made a profound impression; I fell in love with you.
My prayer is that we always engage with each other with honesty and respect, not allowing anger to fester, and remembering the reverence we owe each other.
For me, a congregation is composed of its members – the people who do the work, raise the money, build the buildings, organize the onegs, contribute to pot lucks, celebrate b’nai mitzvahs together, and come together for spiritual growth, prayer, fun and support. The rabbi – while not superfluous, is NOT the most important part of the community: you are.
I see my role, as your staff member, as one of your teachers, as the one who inspires you to learn more about our traditions and how they inform our present: how we can use the depth, power and beauty of our millennia of thought and practice to help us live in the world today in a moral, upright way. That includes diving into our texts and exploring what the rabbis were thinking and whether and how it still applies to us today. Over the next 10 days, and hopefully, over the next 10 years (or so), we will explore what our patriarchs and matriarchs, our sages, sinners and saints had to say about relationships, about forgiveness and responsibility, about guilt and shame, about happiness and joy, about how to lead a life of meaning.
My prayer is that we spend many hours together—adults, children, teens, seniors, singles, couples—exploring how Jewish tradition and wisdom can contribute to our sense of self and meaning as we live in this world.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I love to pray – alone, in my car, and most especially in community. One of the lessons of my involvement in Jewish life has been that knowledge of prayer enhances the experience, and that our ancestors were brilliant at this area. I hope to share the joy I feel with you all – to infuse true ruach or spirit into our communal prayer.
My prayer is that we come together to pray, that together we create a minhag that brings music, community, intellect and emotion, spirit and heart in a way that fills the seats as they are filled tonight. As the prayer book says,
“a prayer may not bring water to parched fields,
nor mend a broken bridge,
nor rebuild a ruined city.
But pray can water an arid soul,
mend a broken heart,
rebuild a weakened will.”
Another of my favorite verses in the siddur is that we should pray as if everything depended on the Holy One and act as if everything depends on us. You already lead the December food drive, which is honored throughout the community. And I know many of you are forces for good in the greater Tahoe community. R. David Saperstein, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, says that the messianic dream of the prophets for economic and social justice has “afflicted American Jews with a painful sensitivity to social evil and a compulsive need to correct it.”
My prayer is that we find more ways to make an even greater Jewish impact on the community: that we exhibit and promote the social justice agenda that has been a part of Jewish tradition since the beginning, especially the American Jewish tradition.
As we continue our journey from brokenness to wholeness that is the Jewish journey through the High Holy Days, I pray that together, we hold ourselves to the model of a reverent respectful Jewish community in which each of us could be the Moshiach, so that we keep talking to each other with honesty and love, that we hold our relationships and our responsibility to each other and the world around us as sacred bonds, as a kehilla kadosha. Cane yehi ratzon, May it be Your will.
 Mishkan Tefilah, p. 165, adapted from R. AJ Heschel.