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The Symphony of Community: Reflections on Being a Rabbi and Igniting the Jewish Spark

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

My address to our congregation on May 31, 2023

Congregational meetings offer us all a chance to look back and reflect, not just as a community, but as individuals.

Personally, I am looking at my role in this community as rabbi. I have served this congregation for the last 14 years, but one of the questions every rabbi has to answer is the following: do I want to be the sage on the stage, or the guide on the side.

There’s a text that became a guiding piece of Torah for me - and I’ve shared it many times. It is the story of Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hiyya found in the Talmud. In this story, two great rabbis ask themselves a question: if Torah were forgotten in Israel, how would you bring it back?

Rabbi Hanina answered that he would do it with his argumentative powers. In other words, he alone will bring Torah back into the world - to bring Torah back, you have to be the Sage on the Stage. The problem with Rabbi Hanina’s approach is that it is solitary - he will bring Torah back, but who is going to learn Torah to pass it down to the next generation?

Rabbi Hiyya had a different perspective. He said that he would sow flax seeds to make a net, so he could trap a deer, give the flesh of the deer to feed the poor, and use the skin of the deer to write a Sefer Torah. Then he would go to a town without any Torah, he would teach five children the Five Books of Moses, and teach six children the Mishnah. Then he instructed them to teach each other, and then he would leave and start the process over in a new town with no Torah.

In this story, Hiyya is the guide on the side. The problem with his approach is that there is an important role for teachers in our tradition. Granted, the text does not reveal how long Rabbi Hiyya taught his students, but I am assuming it was not a long-term relationship. Also, rabbis should develop lifelong relationships with their students, and students should have someone to look up to for guidance. A rabbi choosing to remain and actively contribute to the growth and development of a community for an extended period of time is a factor that should not be discounted.

Through the years, I’ve realized that there is actually a third choice - a rabbi can be a conductor of a beautiful symphony. I look at our congregation as an orchestra. An orchestra is made up of essential elements: the conductor, the individual musicians with different instruments, an audience to hear the music, and, of course, the music itself.

In our case, the musicians are all of you. Our congregation's purpose statement is the following:

We exist to ignite the Jewish spark within each individual, journeying together as a holy, Jewish community.

That Jewish spark is the tune you play that is in your heart, and the instrument is your body which is how you play that music in life.

The music is our Torah. Words, like musical notes, are eternal, but can also lead to innovation of sound in each generation. It’s how we put the notes or words together that create music in the world.

We live in an ever-increasing individualistic society where it is so much easier to be alone rather than in community. While an individual instrument can make a beautiful sound, a group playing with the right intention can create a beautiful symphony.

The symphonies in life can only be played in community.

I cannot be a rabbi without you. My role is not just to play the music because I do love playing the music of Jewish life, sharing the Torah I learned from my teachers; my task is to show each one of you the beautiful music that you can play. I truly believe that each one of you has a Jewish spark waiting to be revealed. Each one of you has a blessing for the world.

In this week’s parashah, Nasso, we are introduced to the Priestly blessing. This blessing is an integral part of our daily prayer service, and it is the blessing we use to bless our children on Shabbat and holidays.

God tells Moses to tell Aaron and his sons, the priests, that they should bless the people with the following words:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְי וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ {ס}

The LORD bless you and protect you!

יָאֵ֨ר יְי ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ {ס}

The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!-f

יִשָּׂ֨א יְי ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ {ס}

The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

The prayer may have been recited by the priest, but the priest was not the person blessing the people, rather, the kohen acts as a conduit for the blessing. The blessing comes from God and is channeled through the kohen to the people.

It teaches us that no human is divine, but the Divine can flow through us and affect others.

I am so proud of all that we have accomplished over these last fourteen years, and with your blessing, we will have many more years together. As I look back on what we have created together, I am proud of the blessings we have brought to each other in our lives, and the Torah we have brought to the world through our learning, our teaching, and our actions.

I am proud of the music we have created together.

Thank you for allowing me to be the conductor, to bring the best out of all of you - because without you, there is no music, without us, there is no blessing.

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