- Posted by Elaine Zecher
- On June 15, 2018
- 0 Comments
Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings.
This week, the portion is out of order. Two weeks ago, I shared with the Qabbalat Shabbat congregation my reflections on my anniversary of 30 years in the rabbinate. I offer them to you, here.
I have been reflecting on graduations and milestones these days. Last week, we watched as our youngest was graduated from college, one of those delicious parenting experiences. I think it was pretty great for her, too. These moments open windows to look back and forward.
Thirty years ago, I stood on the bima of Temple Emanuel in New York, in its eight story high transcendent and awe inspiring sanctuary to receive ordination. Back then, the President of the Hebrew Union College, Alfred Gottschalk, placed his hands on my shoulders and asked me the same question he would inquire of each ordainee: are you prepared to be a rabbi and to serve the Jewish people?
We were permitted a one word response.
My presence here for 28 of those 30 years is my answer. Each day, since that magnificent moment, has provided me with the opportunity to respond with a resounding, yes.
Yes to BEING a rabbi.
Yes to serving the Jewish people and all those in its orbit along with the many others who surround us.
In this brief time of offering some words of Torah, I dedicate these words to the experience of serving as a rabbi on this, my 30th anniversary of my ordination.
As I studied this week’s Torah portion, I looked through the lens of what it means to be a rabbi and discovered a cornucopia of insights, which I now share with you.
The portion opens with light as part of the final touches for the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary. Aaron, the priest, was to lift up the light so that it brought illumination to the front of the menorah, the seven branch candelabra. The text informs us:
When you light the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand. (Numbers 8:2-3)
And then it says: Aaron did so.
On the surface, we might see this as the first clear instruction of “Do your job”. Aaron did what he was supposed to do, but it wasn’t a mindless act. The rabbis who commented recognized that attitude accompanies action. Each time he lit the menorah, his enthusiasm did not change, but, practically, he had to be steady so as not to spill the oil. As a result, his energetic eagerness turned inward like a fire burning inside his soul. Each and every time, he showed reverence as he enabled the light of the menorah to shine.
But we have to ask, how did he do it? I think it comes from the actual way he lit the lights. Usually we say, Lehadlik ner, to light, ignite, cause a candle to burn, but here in the portion, the verb provides a deeper meaning-b’ha’alotecha—alah-going up, elevating, lifting higher.
What happened then, is that the very act elevated Aaron as well. To engage in the sacred work of the sanctuary not only brought light to others, it brought a spiritual vigor returned back to him.
As rabbis and cantor, we do have the responsibility of lifting the light, of ensuring the sacred enters into what and how we do. And even though sometimes we can’t seem to light the Shabbat candles right here next to us, this I know, the act itself returns to us tenfold–not to enervate but rather to energize. To bring a child into the community, to stand with a wedding couple under the chuppah, to sit with a family in mourning and to use remembering as a sacred tool for comfort and solace, or to be present in the high and low moments of life is for sure the most holy of privileges we have.
But we don’t do it alone.
The portion turns to the Levites, brought forward from among the Israelite community to serve as guarantors for the sacred service. We often think of them as the administrative assistants to the priests, but they were consecrated to the Divine, a replacement for the first born Israelites belonging to God. “I have taken them for Myself in place of all the first issue of the womb, of all the first born of the Israelites.” (Numbers 8:16) What made them set apart was that they came from among the people but at the same time, they drew closer to the people who consecrated them because the Israelites laid their hands upon them. They created a beautiful moment to be dedicated to the divine. The best part? The community enabled it to happen.
As a congregation, we are all Levites in service to the service of our synagogue. Where I grew up, the sanctuary was the all purpose room. I learned early about people coming together to set up, to clean up, and the last one out of the building turns off the lights. The work of the Levites reminds us of the significance of how we arrange our worship environment. One can never underestimate the importance of where and how we put the chairs. Even more important though, is the symbiotic relationship we have with one another and this space. For the effort we exert returns back to each of us as sacred involvement in the spiritual life of the community. We witness this every day here.
What I learned early in my rabbinate here at TI is that without ownership and empowerment of the congregation, we cannot survive. It seems obvious now; it didn’t decades ago. That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned from Rabbis Mehlman and Friedman.
Toward the end of the portion, God instructed Moses to gather 70 experienced leaders to take their place with Moses at the Tent of Meeting. There, God says:
I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them. (Numbers 11:17)
This action is likened to the way one candle can light another candle but not be diminished itself. Moses had become overwhelmed with the people’s complaining. The Torah shows us that shared leadership is a divine act. Moses lost nothing of himself but gained much more for his very being.
These three parts of a very long Torah portion share an important facet of the experience of being a member of the clergy and for me, in particular, as rabbi of this congregation: The sacred work I do as rabbi to serve this congregation and the Jewish people in general is not uni-directional. It is a labor of love where love and honor come back in a warm embrace.
This year on the anniversary of 30 years in the rabbinate is another expression of my joy to BE a rabbi among and with the Jewish people.
The Hebrew letter for 30 is lamed. When the letter lamed begins a word as a preposition, it is directional—to or toward. It signifies possibility and opportunity lay ahead for all of us.
I am grateful to God, to my colleagues, to my family, and to all of you. You have kept me alive, sustained me and I am thrilled we get to celebrate this moment and the future together.
Qabbalat Shabbat begins at 6:00 p.m. Live stream HERE. Torah study begins at 9:00 a.m. with a short Shabbat morning service.
Connect with me HERE.