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A Love Letter to Our Community - Thank You For Standing With Me©

A man was lying in bed on Shabbat morning refusing to leave the room. Finally, his wife said to him, "get out of bed and go to shul."

"I don't want to go to shul", he said, "and there are three reasons for that.

First, I am tired. Second, I don't like the congregation, nor do they like me. Third, I really dislike the sermons. The Rabbi goes on and on, and usually has nothing to say.

So the wife said, "Those excuses are no good. Get out of bed and go to shul for three reasons:

First, it is Shabbat and you belong in shul. Second, for the reputation of the family, it's not nice for you not to show up in shul. And third, you are the Rabbi!"

Let me begin by saying there is no other place I’d rather be standing than here today, just one day before our high holidays begin. I thank you all for a new tradition, giving me your rabbi an aliyah before our high holidays – let’s face it, it’s better to get this aliyah than the curses aliyah. I know people want an aliyah during the high holy days because it’s a great honor. There are hundreds of people looking at you, listening to you. But to me, this is my great honor – to stand before you all, before the big show with a much smaller crowd, but a group of people who have stood with me, and family, for most of the Shabbatot and Yamim Tovim during the past year.

In our Torah portion this week, Nitzavim, we also read about standing – we read these famous words:

“Atem Nitzavim - You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God--you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all of the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer… - Deuteronomy 29:9-10”

It is an incredibly inclusive statement – no one is left out – it shows that spiritual communities are not just made up of rabbis and cantors, board members and machers, but of everyone – men, women and children, strangers who come in as they fill up gas and see, ‘hey, there’s a shul there!’. Of the incredibly wealthy, and those without means, and everyone in between.

We stand, together.

There is an old statement: Ein Navi B’Iro – there can be no prophet in his town. In other words, sometimes, you need someone from the outside to tell you how it is, to help you see what you cannot always see.

This summer, I was with a rabbi friend who has been serving a small congregation like ours since he was ordained. Last summer, we both had some big decisions to make about our future. We spoke about our hopes and fears, but he had some more challenges than I did. We hadn’t really talked this year, so we didn’t know what we both decided about our future. I told him that we would be CSK for the foreseeable future, but he told me a different story. Long frustrated with his community, like many rabbis, he has decided to leave the pulpit. He looked at me and said, “You are blessed to have your community. I can see it in your face when you speak about them.”

Another friend had a similar story, and he visited us as a guest teacher. He too left the pulpit and confessed that he’ll never go back. But after a Shabbat with us, he said, “Seeing you on Shabbat was beautiful. You looked so happy with your people.”

Sometimes, as rabbis, we miss these things: I can’t see my face when I’m teaching, preaching, and serving.

I’m grateful for a community that has gone on a journey with me; that has stretched out and at times gone out of their comfort zone. A community of people who stand week after week drinking my words of Torah in - or at least drinking scotch at kiddish - whether you loved my words, or whether you disagreed with them and you continue to stand with me.

A community of people who let me serve not just our congregation, but others on the outside, like young people who are looking for some Torah at Hillel, or the day school, or the Rabbinical Assembly as I sit on their executive council, and helping me attend conferences and fellowships like the Institute of Jewish Spiritually’s clergy cohort where I am learning how to bring more spirituality to our community, and Camp Ramah to help further develop my rabbinic voice and learn from others so I can share even more Torah with you.

And when I’m not here, you continue to stand.

A community that gave me the time to rest during my sabbatical, and to let me mourn and heal after loss.

If I didn’t give you the time you deserved this year, I’m sorry, but despite when I’ve disappointed you or let you down, you continue to stand.

And so, I thank you all for standing here, not just today, but all year.

A question I often receive from people is, why did you decide to become a rabbi? After much thought and reflection, I think the answer is that I feel I owe something to God and to our people. As a grandson of four survivors, I really shouldn’t be here alive, standing here, today. So much of my family was murdered, and my grandparents had so many close calls during those dark days. I stand here today, a surviving remnant from a lost civilization. And so, when I stand here in front of you, those who were lost stand with me also.

That’s why I became a rabbi, that’s why I decided to serve the Jewish people in this capacity. But that’s not the reason why I remain a rabbi here at Shaarei Kodesh.

In his book Spiritual Cross-Training, Rabbi Ben Shalva, another rabbi who decided to leave congregational life, talks about a question he received from one of his board members at his last congregation: “What makes your heart sing?”

He left his synagogue because he could not answer the question there; I stand before because I can answer that question.

I remain a rabbi here because of you, the tribal heads, the elders, the officials - all of the men, and the women, and the children; the strangers who come into our gates, the woodchoppers and water drawers. Because I see a divine light in each of you that must come out to the world, and I know we have the potential to do something special with that light – standing here. It seems we are a unique congregation, but my hope is that more congregations can become like us, that we become less unique, and that more rabbis can be as fulfilled and happy as I am.

This parashah, Nitzavim, was a re-covenanting ceremony – before the people would enter the land, they would have to say: Yes, we believe in each other, we are tied together – we stand, together.

Let us all take that same pledge, now, together – that we are tied together in covenant, both as a holy community and as a people.

I thank you this Shabbat for your presence, for your Torah, for your incredible contributions over the year, and I thank you in advance for the holy moments and contributions you will bring in 5784.

My bracha is that you continue standing, not just on the holidays, but during the holy moments in between.

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