Friday, October 28, 2011

Tonight's Sermon: or "how to cheer up an overworked rabbi"

Rabbi Yair Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Parashat Noach 10/28/11

They said in seminary there’d be weeks like these. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but at this time of year, I find myself doing more minutiae and less ‘rabbi-ing’ than I’d like. There always seem to be more programs, projects, courses, rehearsals, phone messages and visitations at this time of year, each more important than the last, and getting through them takes some measure of discipline. 

Yesterday was looking like one of those days when I got to my second appointment of the day, already running a few minutes late. 

I was meeting with a young woman, a mom and member of the congregation whose kids attend our religious school. We’d talked a few times and I knew her from Sundays and carpool, and knew her kids, but all in passing. 

She sat down and looked at her hands in a way that indicated she had something important to say and wasn’t sure how to say it. When she’d asked for an appointment she said it concerned ‘family stuff, but nothing bad’; nevertheless, I had steeled myself. 

She started by asking if I knew she wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t; in fact, I make a habit of assuming everyone in shul is Jewish unless I’m told otherwise, and anyway she had seemed awfully knowledgeable. She began talking about her upbringing in the Philadelphia region, growing up nominally Catholic but feeling disaffected from that religion, but then going to a Friend’s School for high school, where all her friends and many of her teachers were Jewish. She talked about dating Jewish boys, going to friends’ houses for Passover, and even being invited to travel to Israel, where she had her most profound spiritual experience standing before the Kotel. In due time she went to college (where she, by chance, joined a Jewish sorority), married a Jewish man, and began a Jewish family, two kids who love religious school and this place. While raising her family, she’d read books by Anita Diamant—first the Red Tent , and then Choosing a Jewish Life. She talked about the ethos she read in that book, and how it touched her very person: that we strive to do right and good in this world for the sake of this world, rather than to enter some reward at the end, and with the hope we would be remembered for blessing. 

 She looked and told me how she felt that now she was ready to convert to Judaism.
Needless to say, that half-hour appointment became an hour, and the rest of the morning’s projects got pushed off to the side. 

Despite my happy jaunts into Kabbalah and neo-Chasidism, I’m not prone to flights of fancy. I tend to view the world fairly empirically, with one exception. I am increasingly convinced that some things happen for a reason, and when one is born with a Jewish Neshoma, that neshoma, that quality of soul will out, and will drink in the Jewish experience as a parched man drinks water. At the high holidays I talked about the idea of coming and searching, and talked about how so often we feel disappointed with our search. But sometimes, sometimes we find what we didn’t even know we were looking for and fall upon it like a lifeline. 

To hear someone’s spiritual journey, and to be given the opportunity to play some small role in that journey, to bring some water to the parched lips, is a special gift. But even greater is the gift for the person who for even one brief moment sees the journey herself, and is able to see everything click into place. For that person, her heritage is secure. 

Thus it is in our Torah portion. It begins: Eilah Toldot Noach, Noach ish tzaddik, which is usually translated as “this is the story or generations of Noah”, but RASHI and the Kabbalists remind us those words could also be understood to mean “these are the chronicles—the life experiences, the stories—that lead to comfort, the comfort of the righteous”. That this isn’t the story of a person; rather, it’s a metaphor for the journey we all take toward righteousness and comfort—the comfort we bring to others and the comfort we ourselves find at last. The Zohar comments that noach, comfort, means ‘returning to the source’; and isn’t that the journey of all of us who strive for righteousness, to return to that source of Holiness, of Oneness, of Unity, that is Torah, that is Humanity, that is God?  Seen in this light, Noach isn’t just a story about some dude with a boat, but is a metaphor for all our stories, our own efforts to reach the Source. 

Art Green reminds us that the journey does not come about from moaning over our human inadequacies, nor from burdening ourselves with overwhelming guilt. Instead, it comes from a place of inner rest and peace. The path to self-transcendence begins with self-acceptance. I was given a gift this week: to witness that act take place, and be given an opportunity to participate. But it was also an opportunity for me to reflect on my own path, my own journey toward the Source. May you be so inspired as I was, and find yourselves as we move past the holidays moving toward the Source, moving toward Peace. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy reading this Rabbi's blogs and sermons as they pose good questions and provide some good responses. However, I must wonder about the gap between this Rabbi's words which show such wisdom and his actions which can demonstrate blatant callousness. And, once again, we have a clergyperson who is willing to invest extra time listening to a non Jew when any time at all spent with a Jew with genuine concerns about his/her place in syagogue life is considered too much time. Will this potential Jew remain so intrigued with Judaism if her destiny brings condemnation to her by the Rabbi and synagogue officials when her needs and concerns are not so inspiring as her current desire to become a Jew? Can a clergy person really move closer to the Source when he/she violates the expectations of the Source (mercy, compassion, tzedakah and all those good things)by showing complete disregard for the impact of his/her actions on a congregant's life? A Jew who loves Judaism and teaches it even into the 7th decade of life; who loves people and shows overwhelming compassion through service to the community and stands up against the most severe blows with courage should also be a source of inspiration, and an act of compassion toward that Jew rather than terminate his/her right to worship in that synagogue would represent a genuine attempt to draw closer to the creator.