Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ekev 07

The following is a D’var Torah I delivered on August 10th.

This will be the last service I’ll be leading for a while and so my last D’var Torah as well, and like the fellow who watched his mother-in-law go over a cliff in his new car, I have mixed feelings. I am very happy and relieved that the Search Committee did such a great job and in six months’ to the day from the departure of Rabbi Postrel, we have a new Rabbi starting next week. In addition, I’m thrilled with the selection of Rabbi Persin – she is young, energetic, creative, and will be a breath of fresh air.

At the same time I am sad about handing over the reins of which I’ve been caretaker for so long – I’ve loved leading services, preparing divrei Torah, and have even had the opportunity to officiate at life cycle events, a rare privilege indeed. And I’m concerned as well, and in this d’var Torah I’m going to attempt to communicate my concerns.

This week’s Torah Portion, like all Parashot, is named for its opening words or in this case word, Re-eh – see. The full first verse is “”See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day.” The Rabbis make much of the use of the word “see” here rather than “hear.” They say that the difference is that when the Torah says “hear,” we are called to understand deeply, and to contemplate – as in “Shema Yisrael,” but when we are told to “see,” we are meant to act – what we understand we may think about, but what we see in our mind’s eye we are moved to act upon.

So let me call upon you – Re-eh. See. See what our congregation could be like a year from now as we approach our second High Holidays with Rabbi Persin and after she and we have been together for a year. First, see what that will be like if, for the next year, we watch critically to see how this new young Rabbi will fit in with us – how well does she fit our pictures of what a Rabbi should be, how much do her services match dim memories of what it was like when we were kids, how do we like her, do we agree with her on everything, you get the idea.

Not long ago someone (who shall remain unnamed) said to me that he didn’t like Mishkan Tefila, the new Siddur. Now as you know we’ve been working for almost two years now with a copy of the galleys of a small part of this new prayer book, a situation I don’t much like, but by and large we’ve had good feedback on it. The transliterations next to the Hebrew, the progressively more poetic translations of the prayers, the gender-neutral language all seem to work pretty well, but this individual didn’t like it. OK, he’s entitled to his opinion, but here’s the kicker. This is a very good guy, a friend of mine, and someone who has contributed a lot of time and energy to the Temple but he doesn’t come to services!! He comes on yontiff, when we don’t use that Siddur, he comes to Bnai Mitzvah and other life cycle events, when by and large we don’t use it, but I can’t remember the last time I saw him on a Friday night when we do use it.

Don’t get scared, this isn’t going to be a “come to services” rant. I have a different purpose in sharing this story – this gentleman is entitled to his opinion – we all are – and we are a people for whom 100 members of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, are said to cast 150 votes on any issue. Still, as I’ve always wanted to tell the Pope on another subject, “if you’re not going to play the game, don’t try to make the rules!”

My point is this – we Jews and we NTHC members in particular, can be awfully critical, and on some pretty flimsy grounds. Like my father, when someone gets 95% we first ask “what happened to the other 5 points,” and then, maybe, we bestow a compliment. Our relationship with Rabbi Postrel was difficult, and he certainly contributed to the difficulty, but so did we, and if we approach Rabbi Persin in the often well-meant spirit of telling her how she can improve, I fear things will not go well for her or for us.

Now, again, Re-eh. See. Picture a year from now and see what it will be like if, for the next year we engage with Rabbi Persin like she was God’s gift to us and just what we need and want. If we support her and encourage her and be sure to tell her every way she’s doing a great job and let her know what we like about her and what she’s doing. I’m not saying there’s no place for feedback and requests – as chairs of the Rabbi Liaison Committee and the Ritual Committee, respectively, Greg Shorin and I solicit and will welcome your input. But I am suggesting that we have our eye on the 95% first and that feedback and even criticism is very different when it is given in a context of satisfaction and support than when it is given in a context of complaint and judgment and disliking what is going on.

I teach a lot in my work about the importance of appreciation, and one of the things I emphasize is that the word appreciation has two meanings – to regard positively is one, and the other is to increase in value. Criticism has only one meaning in everyday usage – to evaluate negatively, to find fault with. As my Korean dry cleaner in Oakland said in a sign by their cash register, “none of us is perfect but God,” and I am certain this includes Rabbi Persin and every one of us. In my d’var Torah last week I suggested that separation is an important issue. Adam and Eve’s recognition that they were separate from God was the knowledge that they gained from the Tree of Knowledge, and I believe with many Jewish and Christian thinkers that sin is really anything that separates us from God. Given we are b’tzelem Adonai, in the image of God, I think that sin is also anything that separates us from each other as well. “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day.” Said another way, blessing if you draw close to God and stay close to each other and curse if you separate from God and from each other.

The month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year, which began on August 15th. Traditionally in Elul we prepare for the High Holidays by undertaking a Cheshbon Ha-nefesh – an accounting of the soul. We look with God at what we have done and left undone over the past year, whom we have wronged to whom we must make amends, and where we have fallen short of God’s, others, and our own expectations. Next year at this time we will look back at the first year with our new Rabbi. I invite you, I ask you, I plead with you, g’mar chatima tova – let us be inscribed for a good year – in this regard.

So See, this day God sets before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you embrace and join with the Rabbi God has sent us and curse, if insist that your critical view is so important that it must be delivered forcefully, and let someone else handle the positive stuff.

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