Just in case you were wondering: December 12 is my birthday, which is not my way of soliciting cards or gifts.
I share my birthday with the late “Chairman of the Board,” Frank Sinatra.
Mr. Sinatra sang these words, among many others:
And now the end is here
And so I face the final curtain
My friend I’ll make it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more
I did it, I did it my way
Frank Sinatra was a good friend of the Jewish people. As the nascent nation struggled for its independence, he smuggled armaments to the land of Israel. The Frank Sinatra International Student Center on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University is an eternal reminder of his love for Israel.
Therefore, I would have liked to offer Mr. Sinatra a small Hebrew lesson.
There are two Hebrew words for “journey.”
One word, derekh, usually means an old, familiar, well-traveled path.
The other word, orekh, usually refers to a new path that individuals have to forge for themselves. In other words, and “frankly” — “my way.”
That teaching has always been central to the way that I understand myself, as well as modern Judaism. I have become an expert in discerning my own orekh, the path through my career and Judaism hat I have had to create for myself.
But, is there a theme for those wanderings – one large idea that has captivated and motivated me in the way that I approached Judaism?
I think there is.
We find these teachings in the words of the Sages (Talmud, Sotah 39a):
A group of disciples asked Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua : Why have you merited such a long life?
He answered: I never made shortcuts through the synagogue
I never trampled on the heads of this holy people.
And whenever I lifted my hands for the Priestly Blessing, it was always with love.
I never made shortcuts through the synagogue. There is an ancient rabbinic dictum that states that you should not make shortcuts through sacred spaces.
For example, when I am in Jerusalem this week, and I am somewhere in east Jerusalem, and I need to get to west Jerusalem, I cannot simply cut across the Temple Mount, and then come down near the Western Wall, and then cut through the Jewish Quarter and out the Jaffa Gate. The Temple Mount contains the Holy of Holies; you cannot simply cut through it or across it.
But, I believe that this law is a metaphor.
There are no shortcuts through the sacred. The sacred – sanctity, holiness, transcendence, the encounter with God – these are their own reasons for a journey. They are sufficient, in and of themselves.
And, if we cannot use the Temple Mount as a shortcut, then we cannot use the contemporary temple, the contemporary synagogue, as a shortcut as well. There are no shortcuts through Jewish life.
I believe that the singular power of Judaism is that it is a counterculture – that we do not simply say the same things that you can hear anywhere else – and that what has sustained us, over the millennia, has been our uniqueness.
The essence of my teaching – for more than forty decades – is that Jews cannot become too comfortable, cannot become too complacent, cannot become spiritually or morally lazy. God did not choose us to trade in our uniqueness for mere acceptability. It turns out that yes – antisemitism is growing – and that yes, here is the paradox – the most admired religious and ethnic group in America just happens to be the Jews. It is because of who we are, and what we represent.
What we represent is our Velcro. I believe that the Velcro of Judaism is the idea of mitzvah – not as a deed that is good to do – but as a deed that I must do. It is mitzvah as obligation – because (pick one) God, history, and/or my people compel me to act.
I never trampled on the heads of this holy people.
What did that mean, originally? It meant that the teacher should never be the last person to enter the classroom – lest they have to jump over the heads of the people who were sitting there.
But, it could have meant something else. To not trample upon the heads of this holy people could also mean: Do not insult people’s intelligence. Take Jews seriously.
That is what I have tried to do – to offer Jews and others a Judaism that takes their intelligence, their accumulated life wisdom, their way of seeing the world seriously. Create a sophisticated Judaism for sophisticated people – even and especially for young people.
A number of years ago, in a former congregation, I was present at a religious school committee meeting. The parents were in open rebellion
“We want religious school to be fun!” they were yelling.
Finally, one of my lay leaders stood up, and said this very calmly.
“There are many places in my kids’ lives where they can have fun, and we make sure that they have fun.
“But,” he continued, “There is only one place in my kids’ lives where they can find a combination of meaning and community and joy – and that is here in religious school.”
For a number of years, I would give a final examination to all kids who were becoming bnai mitzvah: “What is the difference between fun and joy?”
One kid answered it this way: “Fun you have, and it’s over. Joy you have, and it lasts forever.”
Go for the things that last forever. Torah does that. It lasts forever. It momentarily takes you out of this world, and returns you to the world, better equipped to face this world.
Whenever I lifted my hands for the Priestly Blessing, it was always with love.
I am thinking of that old song by the Monotones: “I wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder who – who wrote the book of love?”
We Jews wrote our own book of love.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, imagined a love song that all Jews carry within themselves:
Some sing the song of their own life, finding everything within themselves.
Some leaves the circle of themselves, and they sing the song of their people – and they share in its distresses, and delights in its hopes.
Some sing the Song of Humanity, hoping for the highest perfection, the splendid dignity of the divine image.
And some rise even higher, uniting with all creatures, with all worlds, filling the universe with song.
The Song of Self, the Song of Nation, the Song of Humanity, the Song of Creation – they all become a symphony within us at every moment and at all times.
That is the Jewish book of love – a love that ultimately extends to all creation.
But notice something – it starts with a love of yourself, a song of your own life – and then it extends outwards – first, to your people, and then to all peoples, and then to the universe.
Years ago, the great writer, Cynthia Ozick – who recently turned 95 years old – noticed that if you blow into the wide end of the shofar, you get no sound. It is only through blowing at the narrow end that the music emerges. You have to start small. You have to start with yourself.
But nevertheless – in more than four decades of being a rabbi, whenever I lifted my hands to bless – a newborn infant, children in religious school, a bar or bat mitzvah, confirmands, Jews by choice, wedding couples, even and especially those who were dying – I summoned up within myself the deepest reservoirs of ahavah, of love. I sought to connect to the wellsprings of love that poured forth form Abraham and Sarah, through Moses and all the subsequent mothers and fathers of our people – of the generations I could never know, and would never see… to be a channel, a conduit of soul wringing love – for this people, Israel.
I end with the following teaching from this this past week’s Torah portion, Korach.
Korach has rebelled against the authority of Moses. He himself is a Levite; he himself is of the clan that has sacred responsibilities, although his ego and ambition pushed him to want even more power and influence.
God, therefore, reminds Aaron of the sacred nature of the Levites, of the sacred work that they must do in maintaining the ancient desert sanctuary.
Here are the words.
“You and your sons shall be careful to perform your priestly duties in everything pertaining to the altar and to what is behind the curtain.
V’avad’tem avodat matanah eyteyn et-kehunatam.
“I make your priesthood a gift of service.”
And then, as a sign of the sanctity of the Levites, Aaron must put his staff into the ark, and there it blossoms into an almond tree.
A Hasidic commentator writes: Worship itself is at its best when we see it as a gift.
Over the past four decades years, what has sustained me is simply this: I have seen my ability to serve, and teach, and lead, as a gift.
And, over the past three years, what has sustained me is simply this: I have seen my ability to be with this congregation – to grow with you, and to grow from you – as a gift.
We have blossomed into an almond tree.
An almond, which is both bitter and sweet, as we have encountered each other in bitter times and in sweet times.
An almond, which in Hebrew is shaked, which are the same letters as kadosh, as holy.
For the past four decades, and beyond, I have been on a sustained search for the sacred — in this tradition, in the world, and in life itself.
For those moments when we have helped each other find glimmerings of the holy, I am deeply grateful.
(These are the words that I spoke to my congregation, Temple Israel of West Palm Beach, Florida, on the occasion of my retirement. You can watch the service here — the sermon starts at around 50:00)