Friday, March 25, 2011

A new leader for Reform Judaism should blend innovation and humility

The Torah portion of the Week: Parashat Shmini- Leviticus.
When one is promoted to a greater position of responsibility in a job or volunteer position, how should we behave? When the call comes and they say we want you to join the congregation’s board or to become the president of the congregation, what is the proper response? Maybe it depends upon who we are as well as who is doing the inviting. These are all part of the emotional, political and even theological variables that come into play when a new leader takes the reins of responsibility. What we find is that one has to balance that sense of awe of the responsibility with the confidence, passion and authority that percolate inside a new leader. It is not easy. Many have failed at establishing that blend of humility with confidence.  The reform movement is about to see these dynamics take shape in the arena of our national organizational life.
The Torah portion this morning, parashat shmini, leads us into the psychological mindset of a new leader’s initial challenge to balance these forces. We see the final public installation service of clergy, in this case, the high priest Aaron and his sons. In the 9th chapter of Leviticus, Moses says to Aaron, “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and your burnt offering and making expiation for them as the Lord has commanded.”(9:7) What we see here is not only the ritual involved in the public role to play as the high priest but also the priest’s private moral integrity. Public and private sides of the priest underlie his credibility. Aaron is a role model but not better than the people. He must confront his own transgressions first before he can lead the people in expiating their own sins before God.
Can this parasha give us insight on what are the spiritual challenges of not only being a religious leader in biblical times but for all times and especially for our new President of the Union of Reform Judaism?
The rabbis picked up on the idea of Aaron’s rise to high office and saw in it lessons about how people balance these emotions.  They taught about the idea of bushah or humility that the more power and authority conferred upon a person the more careful one has to be in assuming the mantle of leadership.
We see this dynamic happening today within the Reform movement. The world now knows that a new President of the Union of Reform Judaism has been appointed today. Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Westchester Reform congregation in New York, now becomes the President designate until the current head of the Reform congregational arm, Rabbi Eric Yoffee, completes his term of service in 2012. The next year for Rabbi Jacobs will be a preparation process, just like Aaron, the High Priest, experienced not only for the job but for the personal spiritual and moral challenges of the position.
The reform movement has its hopes tied to Rabbi Jacob’s success. He is known as an innovator and change agent not only in his congregation’s success story but for the organizations he has worked with over the years. He will have to balance the financial concerns of maintaining the national URJ’s organizational appetite and then embody in his own persona a hopefully infectious spirit with inspiring new ideas that will return Reform Judaism to a much healthier place spiritually.
At the same time that we applaud a person for being innovative (with his acclaimed green synagogue and noted solar powered ner tamid) and dynamic, my hope is that we will see in him an embracing of people with humility for the great responsibility of setting the tone for the entire reform movement. Our rabbis of blessed memory commented on the verse “Moses said to Aaron,”Go to the altar.”  Aaron supposedly hesitated to approach the tent of meeting so Moses said to him. “Why are you hesitant?” “It is for this that you were chosen.” Moses said to his brother,” It is just because you hesitate and are modest that you were chosen.”(Rashi as interpreted by degel mahanah Ephraim).
There is a caution here which is that part of the success of the high priest or any national religious leader is based upon those who surround him or her. For Aaron he brought his sons to the sacrificial rites before the people. Their credibility stemmed from his own standing before the people. Yet in the next chapter of Leviticus, chapter 10, we read the story of two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Abbihu, who disregarded the proper and divinely ordained ritual process for sacrificial offerings and did their own thing. The tragic result was God sending forth a fire that consumed the sons and took them to their death. Aaron’s response to the horror of the events was “Vayidom Aaron,” And Aaron was silent.”
 This is an extreme situation and an obvious personal setback for Aaron just as he has assumed the position of High Priest of a brand new Israelite religion. Yet he faces it all with deep humility. That tells me a lot about the quality of the man. It seems to me that we need to have a sense of the quality of the new leader Rabbi Jacobs. Position can raise the person to a new level of insight and sometimes the person can redefine the position. The point is that moving forward towards a new future requires the leaders to set a new tone. Yet, it is not only about the ideas themselves. It is also about the integrity of the person who represents the system that serves the people. We should not forget that the cadre of holy vessels that surround the leader also will determine the credibility of the leaders and the mission. It is all tied together. If they can exemplify the same moral tone as their leader then we have synergy which provides the most solid kind of leadership for any organization.
Finally, the reform movement is in desperate need of a broad vision and a new tone. Rabbi Jacobs has been quoted as speaking about stretching a wide inclusive tent over American Jews and the reform movement in particular. Rabbi Jacobs should have the support of all of us at the start of his journey. He will face multiple challenges and competing priorities. The URJ board has called upon him to ascend upon the altar of our movement. He will implement the rituals and give us more than his ideas and more than allocating resources in various new program thrusts. He must first give us himself, the person who is as a leader and, hopefully, demonstrate that his strength and confidence is balanced by an equally powerful sense of humility.
His learning and worship practices are critical to his credibility and, so too, of course, is his ability to reflect and lead us all on a journey of introspection about how we can be wiser and better as a movement. That starts with Rabbi Jacobs which is why this is an awesome moment in Reform Judaism’s history.
Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Deliverance: Receiving Our New Megillat Esther

Sometimes things that happen at the last minute can test our patience but when we get in just barely under the wire, it is, in another sense an adrenalin flow too. It could be filing papers in the court, paying taxes, or paying a mortgage. Deadlines do matter even if there is some flex time. Showing up on time to Shabbat services or being prompt at your doctor’s office knowing full well you that you will still have to wait significantly longer than the time you were supposed to arrive for your appointment. It is just part of doing business in America. There are deadlines and there are deadlines.
But when it comes to a deadline of having a brand new Megillah Ester arrive to a congregation the day before Purim then we are talking about the Biblical standard of meeting our deadlines. That is a whole different story. Missing the deadline of sending a brand new Megillah to a congregation the day before the holiday of Purim would trigger any number of divinely inspired consequences that would impact us and the scribe who wrote that Megillah in the first place. Just the idea of stirring up the divine wrath after missing Purim with our newly commissioned Scroll of Esther would preclude me on the Sabbath from imagining the repercussions.
We have waited almost 9th months from the time when the planning started for our congregation to commission our scribe Neil Yerman to not only write a Scroll of Esther for the holiday of Purim but also design and create a beautiful container that would enable us to keep it in the ark of our congregation along with the Torahs. Thanks to another donation last year we also have a scroll from the Book of Ruth, the book we read on the holiday of Shavuot, inside our ark. Now we add the scroll or Megillah of Esther to our collection of holy books. We as a congregation should take great pride at the sight of our expanding collection of holy scrolls and ask ourselves what does it mean for us to increase this collection?
First, the advent of the new scroll of Esther represents another example of Maimonides levels of Tzedakah. One who gives anonymously is considered the second to the highest rung of charitable acts. The first is one who helps someone help themselves. We are grateful to the donor who made this gift possible for us. The donor was part and parcel of the planning and the design of the work of art as well as, of course, the funding of it. We are all most grateful to the individual. We bless this person and all who are near and dear to the individual with continued good health and nachas or satisfaction for their generosity and kind spirit. Giving our financial resources to the Temple is critical for our congregation to survive. It is about the group and not just the individual. The spirit of philanthropy at this congregation is strong not only in mortar and brick but also for the spiritual life of the congregation.
Second, what makes this Megillat Esther special? Besides the fact that it is brand new and written for us and designed by the artist and scribe with us, there is even more based upon the style and structure of the Meggilah that deserves our attention. As I hold it and open it before us, please note that the Megillah is to remain on these spindles to roll as the reader reads it. Why? The two reasons are that we wanted everyone to watch the reader using the yad during the ceremonial reading the Scroll so that the congregation could see the inside of the Megillah itself. Second we were mindful that the Sephardic tradition also contains their Torahs in containers this way rather than taking out the scroll the way we customarily do. Just go into a synagogue from the Sephardi tradition and we will see them open up the containers with the Torah scrolls remaining inside. Also note that the parchment is not lambskin but goatskin and tanned to the dark brown style of texts, both Torah and Megillot scrolls, that belong to the Jewish cultures of North Africa.
Third, this new addition of the Meggilat Esther symbolized another step in the maturation and growth of Bet Yam into a full service congregation. In that way it must also signify the growth and maturation of the Jewish community of the low country. The building is built and that sends a message about the scope of our presence. Now what we focus on is defining the depth of our Jewish community. A beautiful edifice or more Torahs and scrolls of festive holidays like Purim do not automatically guarantee that we are a wiser and more learned congregation. Yet, this new scroll can bestow upon us a sense of authenticity about the ethos of Beth Yam. It means that we respect tradition and that doing things by tradition is a positive value as long as it fits into our sensibilities and values as liberal Jews.
At this point let me share with you more about the Megillah in Judaism. There are actually five megilot or scrolls in Jewish tradition. We read Song of Songs between Passover and Shavuot. We read Eicha or Lamentations on the fast day of the ninth of Av which we commemorate the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. We read Ecclesiastes during the holiday of Sukkot. And, finally, we read Esther on Purim. Each one of them is read from a scroll or Megillah. But we are most used to using the term Megillah to refer to Esther itself.
Jewish law decreed that all of us were obligated to read the Megillat Esther, not just men. Not so different from the laws of sounding the Shofar, the rabbis said that while each person should read it, they could fulfill their obligation by hearing it read in the synagogue.
 Similarly, the Megillah reader must have in mind to fulfill the mitzvah on behalf of the listeners. For if the listeners do not hear every word then they have not fulfilled the mitzvah. It is proper and fitting to have a valid handwritten Megillah that one can say word for word quietly in case one cannot hear the words from the reader. Also, Jewish law stated, women who sit in the women’s section (Orthodox tradition) are encouraged, if possible, to obtain a valid Megillah from which to read for in the women’s section it is difficult to hear the reading and women are obligated to hear the Megillah the same as men. If one is in morning during the week of Shiva, one may read the Megillah at home but the person is encouraged to attend the Purim services to hear it read.  There are many more customs surrounding the Purim and the reading of the Megillah.
Today this Megillah arrived at 1pm. Our scribe flew down to Hilton Head and our President, Ted David, met together and transferred possession of the Megillah to the congregation. This now becomes part of the history of Beth Yam. Now it is ours and we shall read it with great joy. For the Talmud says; “With the arrival of the month of Adar, one should be exceedingly joyful.”(Ta’anit 29a) Our sages added, “Should all other festivals ceased to be observed, the days of Purim will never be annulled.” (Midrash on Proverbs)
Finally, tradition says, “in the time to come all the other parts of the Prophets and the Writings will lose their worth and only the Torah of Moses and the Book of Esther will retain their value.” (Jerusalem Megillah ch. 1.5)
The deadline has been met. Our scribe Neil Yermon has, in the spirit of the biblical btzalel, the artist who designed the Tabernacle, completed his mitzvah and traveled two thousand miles from New York to Hilton Head and back to deliver us this gift.  My prayer is; ‘May the shechinah rest upon all the works of his hands.’ This moment represents an, aliyat hanefesh, an ascent of the soul for us and all those who will read and hear its words for the future.
Deadlines are not to be trifled with in the bible. The world is safe again and the deliverance of the Megillah symbolized the deliverance of the Jewish people from the grip of Haman. Our future is secure once again. Ken Y’hi Ratzon.