It is rare when I am tongue-tied. It’s usually due to being emotionally overwhelmed In such situations words are simply inadequate. They fail to measure up to the task of truly expressing the depths of my soul.
But I won’t hide behind the inadequacy of words. I want to share this attempt, from March 10th, to somehow verbalize my deepest gratitude.
There’s not a good Hebrew word for “anniversary”. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Maybe the Jewish calendar is already filled up with so many holidays and special fasting days, not to mention every Shabbat… maybe adding anything too personal was considered pahst nisht — something that’s not done. Well, I’m glad I speak English because I think anniversaries are precious. It’s a reason to stop and reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and then imagine the next anniversary.
Twenty years. A time of innocence. A time of confidences. I came in like gangbusters, filled with ideas for change and transition. I was a ready, fire, aim kind of guy. We were in a new building, and the runway looked wide open. I was raring to go.
In all of my exuberance, I did not stop and empathize that Rabbi Miller and Ann Cherenson, the mom and dad of Beth Avodah, were no longer in the house. I didn’t fully appreciate the experience of loss that people felt, and just how traumatic the new rabbi’s arrival would be. That anybody stayed is a blessing. That you didn’t send me back to Texas is a testimony to your patience and forbearance.
Bev Holzman has always been my fiercely loyal critic. The length of my sermons and my beard, my kittel, Hasidic niggunim, all of these and more were topics she brought to my attention. Once she said to me, “I don’t like a lot of this stuff you’re doing, but where else am I gonna go?” I love Bev, her honesty, her loyalty, her ever clicking knitting needles.
We managed to make it work. I tried to listen better, to slow down and let things take their course. You agreed to think about liturgy and sermons and rabbis in a new way. You gave me a chance. Some of you came to me to help me refocus my energy, a gesture I will never forget. You were honest and forthright.
From time to time someone will ask me, “How many Bar Mitzvahs have you officiated at?” I think it would be cool to know the answer. I started officiating at B’nai mitzvah as a student rabbi in 1979. The first funeral service I officiated at was in 1978. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was scary and awesome in the religious sense of the word. It was for Joel Davis’ grandmother. That’s how traumatic it was for me – I remember his name 40 years later.
My first congregation was in Tulsa, OK. I was an assistant rabbi to a very top-down senior. Charles had a book for lifecycle events. He wrote down every wedding, funeral bar/bat mitzvah, confirmation class, bris and baby naming he performed. I think maybe he’s like Achashveros. When he can’t sleep he leafs through those books.
To keep records like that you need to be organized. I know this is big news for you but – I’m not so organized. But it’s more than this. I think the answer to the question, “How many b’nai mitzvah services have you performed,” is a lot. The number simply doesn’t matter.
For me it’s not the number, it’s the relationship that endures. It is what the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber described as an I-Thou experience, a moment when defenses fall away, and all that’s left is an authentic encounter. It’s a moment of mutual respect and celebration. To be sure, this is what I strive for, not what happens all or even some of the time. But I strive to be a human, to be a mensch.
I was not raised in a home where there was a north star example of how to be a mensch. In fact, when Born in the USA came out in 1982, whenever Bruce sang the lyrics, “You end up like a dog who’s been beat too much/Til you spend half your life just covering up” I would get teary. Every time. I knew what that meant. When you spend time covering up, it’s hard to see, hard to feel anything.
Tonight I want to acknowledge my friend David Wrubel, my oldest friend from 9th grade, who showed me a kind of friendship that enabled me, after my father’s death, to unclench and stand up. He showed me a pathway to normalcy. I credit David as the person who taught me how to be a leader, to find my voice, how to stand in front of a roomful of people and feel confident and at home.
I want to acknowledge my dear friends Kerry Stackpole and Hesh Shorey. We three called ourselves the Rowdy Brothers, inspired by Zap Comix or Cheech and Chong. We were all three in homes with utterly overwhelmed mothers and no fathers. We were feral wolves who banded together. We recognized each other from afar. It is not an exaggeration to say that these two men saved my life, gave me a sense of home and safety. I knew that, with them, I would be ok. I still feel that way about them.
Over these past 20 years, you have allowed me into your homes and into your lives. Annie Dillard, a great American writer and thinker, once described clergy as boatmen. Our duty is to board our passengers onto the boat, and then we ferry them across the river to the other side. The waters are sometimes rough and dark, frightening beyond words. On the maps to the far shore is often written the warning, “There be dragons here!” And there are monsters, monsters of loss and pain and sickness and death.
But sometimes the waters are calm, dappled in warm sunlight, and there is no need to fear because the journey is all joy and ecstasy. And every trip is unique, and every passenger carries their own special baggage with them.
I have done my best to keep the boat steady, to navigate the whirlpools and the sandbars. I have always tried to hold the center, to keep the rudder steady but not to hold it too tightly, to follow the current and not fight against it – that is, unless we were drifting too close to a waterfall or other turbulence.
We get in that boat and go, and your trust in me is such a gift. You know that the voyage will be a safe one. I have dedicated my life to you to make sure that the passage will be a good one.
My gratitude for you is infinite and undying. I look forward to the next years together. It’s true what they say in the song: “the best is yet to come.”