Parashat Chukat D’var Torah
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
According to the traditional interpretation of this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Chukat, between the last word of chapter 19 and the first word of chapter 20, thirty eight years transpire when the Israelites tarried in the wilderness waiting for the old generation to pass and a new generation to arise who would possess the faith in God to enter the Promised Land. Thirty eight years amount to a blank space in the Torah, thirty eight years so utterly wasted that the Torah offers not account of them.
With this Shabbat my next to last Shabbat as Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, concluding my thirty-eight years serving the congregation, Parashat Chukat’s thirty eight year blank-space no-account in Torah opened my eyes wide. I cannot conclude my thirty eight years without making account for them in the annals of Temple Emanuel.
Thus I sat down and thought back through the years to recall, at least to the best of my memory, various religious services, programs and events. Some I masterminded. Some I helped facilitate. Some I leave for Rabbi Locketz to claim such as Torah Growers and Visual T’fila, even if I coined the name of the former and had long advocated the implementation of video screens in our prayer spaces to enhance religious services; Rabbi Locketz indeed implemented them. All were in coordination with professional staff, lay leaders and Temple committees, and various constituencies of Temple members. For when and where you helped me or I helped you, or you benefited in some way, I thank you.
So, off the top of my head, without combing through all my files of committee meetings, Board minutes, lesson plans, teaching materials, personal calendars and message logs over the last thirty eight years….
- A new Torah for Temple (see Teaching below)
- Transition from performance style services to participatory services, especially with music and singing
- Shabbat service every Shabbat morning in addition to every Shabbat evening
- Menu of Shabbat evening services to suit various tastes in services and allow for creativity in Shabbat programs
- Yizkor service on Shavuot morning when Confirmation is Shavuot evening
- Leil Tikkun Shavuot when Confirmation is Shavuot morning*
- Torah for Tots monthly services and programs*
- Monthly Home Havdalah hosted by the Mahlers*
- Sunday Morning Minyan
- Tashlich on Rosh HaShana afternoon
- Kabbalat Shabbat services, starting at an earlier time, originally 6 pm, now 6:30 pm. When I arrived in 1980, Shabbat services started at 8:30 pm
- Monthly Family Shabbat service with Torah Center students participating in the service, preceded by Shabbat LaMishpacha Dinners for individual grades and then the congregation at large*
- Special music Shabbats highlighted by Kol Emanuel, Music with the Mahlers and Diskin Music Fund programs
- Zamarim Choir to enhance Shabbat services*
- Lamed Vav-niks; 36 Temple members chosen to participate in regularly in Shabbat services and then to assess what the experience has meant to them
- College Homecoming Shabbat services*
- Kabbalah, Meditation, Chanting
- Cancelled our own Shabbat service on April 28, 2000 so that we could attend at Beth El Congregation which had been attacked by Richard Baumhammers earlier that day
- Impromptu Jewish community-wide service September 11, 2001. Attendance was so large that we opened the Sanctuary’s folding doors, set up additional seating in the Social Hall foyer; many people had to share a prayer book because we didn’t have enough for all in attendance
- Flight 93 Memorial service in Shanksville, Chanukah 2001
- Memorial and Healing Service for Jewish volunteers working to identify the remains of those who perished in the crash of USAir Flight 427, 2004
- A new Torah for Temple (see Worship above)
- Torah Study every Shabbat morning preceding services
- Torah and Tangents, weekly reading and discussing every word of the Torah, starting in 1985 and concluding in 2011
- T’hillim and Tangents following Torah and Tangents, concluding in 2017
- Monthly Downtown Lunch & Learn
- “Midrash in the Morning”*
- Renaming Temple’s religious school “Torah Center”
- Family Days for Religious School families on Sundays and Shabbats
- “Judaism for Gentiles and Inquiring Others”
- “Life’s Long Journey: From Conception to Resurrection” What Judaism teaches about life’s many stages
- “Jesus the Jew”
- “The Napoleonic Sanhedrin and the Emergence of Modern Judaism”
- Jewish Parenting Programs and programs on the spiritual development of children, along with Alice
- “Talmud Torah Teaching Shabbats”; the “how to” of praying
- “4,000 Years of Jewish History in 8 Hours”
- Dor-Ways special leadership development sessions for selected members of the congregation
- Promoted and hosted Melton Programs; at one point Temple had more members who had completed Melton than any two synagogues together in greater Pittsburgh
- Special adult education programs featuring Dr. Ron Bronner, Rabbi Danny Schiff and various speakers and educators
- Introduction to Judaism, History classes, the course team taught by Pittsburgh area Reform clergy
- Taste of Judaism
- Monthly Lunch and Lectures*
- Member of National Association of Temple Educators and Coalition for Alternatives (now Advancements) in Jewish Education during my tenure as Temple Educator
- Conducted National Association of Temple Administrators’ certification course when NATA convened here in Pittsburgh
- 38 years of Temple Bulletin articles
- 38 years of sermons, Divrei Torah and High Holy Day sermon anthologies
- 38 years of teaching our Confirmation students
- 38 years of helping to train our B’nei Mitzvah students
- 38 years of teaching Torah at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah
- Created Temple’s Interfaith Outreach program in the 1980s, the first in Greater Pittsburgh which served as the prototype for other Reform congregations*
- Interfaith Dialogues; many over the years, currently hosted at Westminster Church
- Speaker at area churches: Mt. Lebanon United Methodist, Southminster, Westminster, Christ United Methodist among many others
- Sustaining SHIM’s prominence at Temple and in the community, including participating on the Holocaust Observance planning committee and the Interfaith Thanksgiving service and promoting important SHIM activities such as their food bank and garden.
- Jewish Chautauqua Society adjunct professor teaching Judaism in the Theology Department at Duquesne University, 1986-1990
- Teaching at Seton Lasalle High School, 2006-2016
- Hosting church groups at Temple, highlighted by St. Louise De Marillac sending their 6th graders here for annual visits starting in the 1980s
- Conducting model Passover Seders for students at various church schools, highlighted by St. Anne’s
- Clair Hospital Annual Memorial Service
- University of Pittsburgh Medical School Annual Memorial service
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote speaker at Trinity Cathedral for the National Conference of Christians and Jews
- Joint programing and pulpit exchange with the Ebenezer Baptist Church
Funds and Programs
- The Sajowitz Endowment Fund underwriting Temple programs, NFTY and Israel scholarships
- The Louise “Sissie” Sperling Fund subventing Temple’s operating expenses
- Diskin Music Fund to create and enhance various music programs
- Ettenson Annual gifts and bequests to Temple
- Larry and Brenda Miller Caring Community Fund to assist in the good efforts of the Caring Community
- Temple Cemetery Fund to maintain and beautify our cemetery
- Shelly Cohen Memorial Classroom Fund to maintain our ECDC classrooms
- Margarie Weiner Fund to support Temple’s youth programs
- Cohn Scholarship Fund for outstanding Temple high school graduates
- Zolot Fund providing scholarships to adults for Temple Israel Missions
- Jacob’s Ladder Fund to support programs for healing and well being*
- Mark Levin Memorial Scholarship Fund for Torah Center students
Social Action/Tikkun Olam
- Recruited an entire busload of Temple members to demonstrate on behalf of Soviet Jewry on the Mall in Washington DC, Freedom Sunday 1987
- Organized Temple members to serve as hosts and sponsors for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union coming to Pittsburgh under the Passage to Freedom program
- Mitzvah Day; 500 Temple members participated in the first Mitzvah Day in 1997 until…
- Mitzvot Days became the subsequent and more accurate name, but participation flagged until they were dropped from Temple’s calendar*
- On-going pipeline for SHIM activities such as food and clothing drives
- Family Promise participants in aiding the homeless in the South Hills
- Organized city-wide Mission to Washington following 9/11 to advocate for Israel, then the largest such Jewish Mission to DC in history; sessions with elected representatives and State Department officials
- Organized a Temple Mission to Washington conducted by the Religious Action Center, 2012
- Established lines of communication with the superintendents of area public school systems, both proactively and reactively, to help remediate various issues that arose
- Cheerleading our self-motivated and dynamic Social Action Team to pursue activities ranging from crocheting caps for Cancer patients to participating in rallies and demonstrations for Tikkun Olam causes
- Organized six Temple Emanuel Missions to Israel, and guided upwards of 100 people around the places I know so well and love so much
- Co-led a unique Jewish, Christian and Muslim interfaith Mission to Israel, 1996
- Participated in a Union for Reform Judaism Mission to Israel, 2001
- Participated in a Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Israel, 2006
- A strong voice of Israel advocacy, a sober voice of Israel criticism
Healing and Well Being/Tikkun Olam
- Caring Community to respond to our members in life’s varied experiences
- Crisis counseling coordinated by Alice after community tragedies and traumas
- Jacob’s Ladder programs focusing on various special needs
- Monthly Bereavement group
- Monthly services of healing*
- Including the Mi Sheberach prayer of healing to Shabbat evening services and the Sunday Morning Minyan
- Torah Yoga and Hatha Yoga
- From the original Gates of Prayer to the revised (gender neutral) GOP
- To Mishkan T’filah, including the wise decision to buy the two volume edition, separate Shabbat and Weekday/Festival prayer books, rather than the one volume edition
- From Gates of Repentance to Mishkan HaNefesh, the first Reform synagogue in Greater Pittsburgh to adopt it for the entire congregation
- Hundreds of baby namings and Brit Milah
- 300 weddings
- 1200 b’nei mitzvah
- 700 Confirmands
- 950 Funerals
- Countless tears
- Innumerable smiles
Physical Plant Expansion, Improvement, Maintenance and/or Beautification
- 1991 expansion of Temple adding bath rooms, elevator and access ramps making Temple fully ADA compliant, even though we were not required
- 2001-2002 major expansion of Temple to alleviate “Temple moments” with the building bursting at the seams; 13,000 square feet added to the building including the Beit HaT’fila, Pollon Family Library, community room and an entire new wing with classrooms, youth lounge and WRJ Room.
- Cooper Gardens
- Mahler Garden
- Holocaust Memorial Garden created by Marga Randall
- Soodik Walkway
- New Torah covers in the Sanctuary and Beit HaT’fila
- Tree of Life/Paradise woodcut in the Sanctuary Ark
- Introduced the first computer to Temple, and Apple ii+, part of my studies in the MSIS program at the University of Pittsburgh; the rest as they say has been a veritable explosion of information technology here at Temple
- Shabbat Shel Home dial up access to religious services, innovative in its day
- The Temple Bulletin had been mimeographed for years before I arrived
- Transitioning our b’nei mitzvah recordings from cassette tapes to MP3s.
- Video cameras in the Sanctuary and Beit HaT’fila for recording our b’nei mitzvah services
- Overseeing the installation of sound system for the Beit HaT’fila and a new sound system for the Sanctuary
- When will we start streaming our services?
Special Events or Celebrations
- Temple’s Double Chai 36th Anniversary
- Temple’s 50th anniversary year featuring Temple’s “Alumni Rabbis” Harold Silver, Jon Stein and Jim Bleiberg
- Israel’s 50th anniversary when we turned the Social Hall into Jerusalem’s Old City where we ate a Middle Eastern Shabbat dinner in our “Shuk” and then celebrated Shabbat and Israel Independence Day at our “Kotel” constructed, painted and decorated by Temple members to look amazingly like the actual Kotel
Fundraising and Financial
- Capital Campaign 1991-1992, solicited and secured lead gifts
- Capital Campaign 2001-2002, solicited and secured lead gifts
- Capital Campaign 2013-2017, solicited and secured lead gifts
Temple Long Range Planning Committees
- Joshua Mission I, 1998-2000
- Joshua Mission II, 2007-2008
- Secured a $1 million contribution to the Jewish Federation
- Secured a $25,000 contribution to SHIM
- Served on the Jewish Federation’s 1984 Demographic Survey committee
- Served on the search committee for the Educator to lead the Agency for Jewish Learning
- Jewish Family and Children’s Service Board member
- United Mental Health Board member
- Founder of the Greater Pittsburgh Reform Rabbis’ group, 1986
- Chair of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Fellowship, 1986-87
- Resolutions Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis
- Israel Committee of the CCAR
- Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America
- Journal of Judaism; publication of Temple members’ various expressions of how they have lived as Jews and what Judaism means to them.
- Cheshbon HaNefesh, “Surveys of the Soul” to gather information about Temple member’s Jewish knowledge, beliefs and observances; a treasure trove of who and what we are*
- Emanuelites to integrate new, young Temple members into Temple life*
- Made a photographic log of Temple’s 2001-2002 construction and expansion project
There’s likely more, but I just can’t quite recall all of them. Time to retire!
* Examples of something we instituted but ultimately fell by the wayside, whatever the reasons may have been
Last Shabbat we gathered in Bird Park for a “welcome to summer” picnic and service. It was a beautiful evening in a beautiful place, surrounded by friends of all ages. For many of us, it was truly the start of summer break – a perfect way to begin the ‘lazy days of summer.’ Running through the park, sharing a meal, talking to each other as the the evening cooled and the busyness of the week faded… Shabbat, and the sense of calm that it brings descended as we prayed together – led in worship by Rabbi Mahler, Rabbi Locketz and Rebecca Schwartz. We were inspired through singing songs and sharing the spirit of Shabbat with each other. Thank you to Rebecca for a powerful message about the work that needs to be done within a community; and for reminding us that we should all be proud of our contributions to it.
After the service, it was time for s’mores….what could be better than that?!?!?!
Join us for our next Service in Bird Park on Friday, September 7th. We will once again come together for a picnic dinner at 5:45 pm followed by a brief Shabbat service at 6:30 pm. And of course there will be S’mores….yum!
Mark your calendars; be sure not to miss it!
Remarks at Retirement Gala
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
June 3, 2018/20 Sivan 5778
Before I offer my prepared remarks I must note that I had hoped to have the opportunity to express my gratitude personally and directly to everyone who has come this evening. Try as I may, I managed to do so with only perhaps half of you. To the other half, please accept my regret but more important please accept my gratitude that you have come this evening.
How well I remember that Dr. Solomon Freehof described the rabbinate as a “happy profession.”
For weeks after I sent the letter announcing my retirement to the congregation, my mind wandered back and back again to when I first decided to become a rabbi. Every remembrance was a happy remembrance about a happy decision. I also recalled how happy I was when I was accepted to rabbinic school. I trust that my all of my clergy colleagues here this evening felt the same elation when they were accepted to seminary, as we all felt elation greater still when we were ordained.
Tomorrow, I will mark the fortieth anniversary of my ordination, so this evening I have the perfect vantage to confirm the accuracy of Dr. Freehof’s description.
Temple members should remember that I’ve been pondering such a notion for the past forty-five years, ever since I dreamed a dream in Jerusalem shortly after I arrived for my first year of rabbinic school in the summer of 1973. The dream ended with me an old man getting ready to go to festivities at my synagogue on the occasion of my retirement. In the dream, my mood is pensive and kvetchy, but with me are three sons sitting in my bedroom, joking with me and lifting my spirits. Of course when I had this dream in 1973, I had no sons nor daughters, but I did have Alice.
While getting ready to come here this evening, I asked my sons Ari and Moshe and my future son by marriage Ed to sit down on my bed and pose for photographs. I then asked my daughters, Shani and Shira and my daughter by marriage Lacey to join them for more photographs. Here I must add that I love the expression, “son or daughter by marriage,” an expression I learned from Rabbi Bill Sajowitz, of blessed memory, especially here at Temple Emanuel. Alice and my sister Jackie then joined in the photographs. Altogether it was a happy prelude to this evening’s Gala.
Temple members may also remember that this dream began at a party in Weehawken, New Jersey, hosted by a Genie who said to me, “Mark, you will have everything you want in life.” Such an extravagant promise stunned me. “Everything?” I asked. “Everything,” the Genie replied. He then dipped a cup in a punch bowl, handed it to me and said, “Drink this.” I drank. Suddenly I was that old man in his bedroom getting ready for festivities in honor of his retirement, pensive and kvetchy, with three sons sitting on his bed, lifting his spirits.
When I awoke that morning in Jerusalem, the dream perplexed me. If indeed I would have everything I wanted, why was I pensive and kvetchy at the end of the dream?
The Talmud teaches that just as there is no wheat without chaff, so too there is no dream without nonsense. This evening, I believe that I can separate the wheat from the chaff of this dream.
First, I am not nearly as old in reality as this dream portended. Indeed, one of the great blessings of my forty years in the rabbinate has been my remarkable good health. Thank God. In this regard, Dr. Freehof was right. Yet perhaps the Genie was also right that a long life awaits me.
Second, forty-five years after dreaming this dream, I’ve realized so much of what the dream foretold, and more. A beautiful wife, with beautiful children – daughters as well as sons – with grandchildren the cherry on top. And more. Thirty-eight years at a congregation I was proud and honored to serve. Good friends and respected colleagues here and across the community. And much more….
The God of our people, who is ever-present, under the Chupa with bride and groom, manifest in the mutual endeavors of professional staff and lay leaders, in the naches we all shared in Temple’s amazing children, and in the comfort we found when many of you and I walked together through the valley of the shadow of death. The imminent God, the shepherd God, happily proves Dr. Freehof and the Genie right. And still more….
The God heaven and earth, the transcendent God, the indescribably awesome God, now proves the wisdom of Rabbi Ely Pilchik, who first guided my application to rabbinic school and then installed me as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in 1985. When he was president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Pilchik gave a presentation on “Finding Religious Awe in the Rabbinate.” Rabbi Pilchik began, “Each time I must speak to the Jewish people, I am gripped by the sense of awe that nowhere is God more present than in the presence of the Jewish people before whom I stand. This sense of awe overwhelms and humbles me.”
In the history of the Jewish people, who stood in the presence of God more than Moses? Who had to speak to the Jewish people with greater urgency and surely more lastingly? Therefore who knew this sense of overwhelming awe better than Moses? No wonder that yesterday’s Torah portion described him, v’ha-ish Moshe anav me’od, “And this man Moses was very humble, more so than any other man on earth.”
Dr. Freehof and the Genie were right: the rabbinate is a happy and fulfilling profession.
Rabbi Pilchik and Moses were also right: The rabbinate is also deeply humbling, perhaps more so than any other profession on the face of the earth.
Every time I had to speak to the Jewish people or about the Jewish people, I was gripped by a sense of overwhelming awe. …Never more so than this evening. So I have done my best to muster these grateful and humble words.
Thank you to our lay leaders who impressed upon me that this evening is indeed important to them as well as to me.
Thank you to everyone who participated in this evening’s program, starting with M.C. and past president Mel Vatz, colleague and friend Rabbi Danny Schiff, so many Temple presidents, and dear Temple member Deb Levy for the time and effort you devoted to preparing and the appreciation and affection you’ve given me.
Thank you to Susan Hommel, and to everyone who helped you plan and put together this evening. Please understand that if I cannot name all of you by name, it is because this committee was very good at keeping me as far away from this loop as I should have been.
To our professional staff and our support staff for whatever assistance you offered in making this evening, thank you. Since I also thanked our superb support staff in detail in my May Temple Bulletin article, I look forward to offering further thanks to Temple’s professional staff – Rabbi Locketz, Leslie Hoffman and Iris Harlan – at next Sunday’s annual congregational meeting.
Thank you to dear friends, rabbinic and clergy colleagues and Jewish professionals who have come from across greater Pittsburgh.
Thank you to our “surprise guest” Dale Gonyea. When he entertained us in 2015, I was so impressed with his talent, wit and creativity, that I told him I hope we can bring him back sometime in the future. How wonderful that this evening became that occasion.
Thank you to beloved family who have traveled from far and wide.
Thank you to all the well-wishers who expressed their regret to me that they could not be here this evening.
Thank you to every one who is part of this wonderful congregation, but most especially thank all of you for coming to this singular and memorable evening in my life.
Finally, thank God for holding off the rain until everyone could get here safe and dry.
“Who is a Jew? Amiens, France, 1940-1945”
A set of photo identification cards of Jews from Amiens, France is now on display in Temple Emanuel’s “Thou Art” Gallery (near the Pollon Family Library). This new exhibit, “Who is a Jew?” is the product of historian David Rosenberg’s research.
As a member of the Adult Education/beit Hamidrash committee, Dr. Rosenberg — who is also a long-time Temple member with his wife Davant — offered to create this exhibit, which explores how French Jews self-identified when forced to register during the Nazi occupation of World War II. His research provides a chilling glimpse into the past and a reminder of a time in history that must never again repeat.
Speaking about the exhibition, Dr. Rosenberg says, “The lessons of the Shoah are important for Jews and non-Jews alike. This research has led to some hopeful developments abroad, including the dedication last October of a commemorative plaque by the city authorities of Amiens at the site of the WWII-era synagogue.”
Stop by Temple anytime during normal business hours to view the exhibit or call ahead to arrange a guided tour for three or more people.
Thank You Shabbat Five
March 23, 2018/8 Nissan, 5778
Synagogue Sine Qua Non – Volunteers
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
This Shabbat is the fifth of nine Shabbats leading up to my retirement that I’m devoting to offering my thanks to different groups of people whom I have served and who have helped me serve our congregation and community over these thirty eight years at Temple Emanuel. This Shabbat in particular, the recipients of my gratitude are so vast that in order to fully express my gratitude I must first offer a forward, followed by an introduction and then a preface.
Ever since I announced my retirement come June 30th, people have asked me the natural question, what do I plan to do? I have several items on my retirement agenda, but the answer I offer most often is to get back to writing “my book.”
During my summer sabbatical of 1996, I began writing a book to update the 613 mitzvot of Jewish tradition that begin in the Torah. Given at Mount Sinai, these laws comprised the constitution of ancient Israel and the spiritual and ethical backbone of biblical Judaism. Throughout Jewish history, the 613 mitzvot have been updated as changing times necessitated. Alexander the Great’s conquest and hellenization of ancient Israel created the need for an Oral Law to interpret the Written Law of the Torah. When Rome destroyed the Second Temple and crushed two revolts by Judea, the Oral Law itself was then written down in the Mishnah, followed by the Talmud. Over the ensuing centuries, the 613 mitzvot have been transmitted in various iterations of codes, commentaries, and rabbinic responsa, again as the ups and downs of Jewish history dictated.
I had many good reasons to begin writing in 1996. For one, the most recent Jewish law code, per se, is the Shulchan Aruch, written in 1565. To this day, the Shulchan Aruch remains authoritative among Orthodox Jews. In the 1840s, the authority of the Shulchan Aruch was precisely what the founders of Reform Judaism roundly rejected. With the Holocaust and the creation of the modern state of Israel, Jewish history has changed dramatically in the last seventy-five years alone, how much to more so since 1565 and the 1840s.
When my summer sabbatical concluded in 1996, I had compiled an updated list of 613 mitzvot with biblical citations, along with commentaries on approximately ninety of the mitzvot, and an introduction that clearly described my book’s intentions.
The forward now leads to the introduction.
A central point I make in my book’s introduction answers the question, what exactly is the meaning of the word “mitzvah?” If you asked the average Jew on the street, he or she answer would answer a “good deed” or a “commandment.” Both answers are right, almost.
A mitzvah is more than a “good deed” because it is good not only in and of itself, it is also something that God asks of us. A mitzvah therefore asserts God’s presence here on earth, God’s goodness and caring for humankind. A good deed is certainly good, but a mitzvah is also holy. During these often profane times, when the word “holy” has all but vanished from common parlance, let alone exists as a virtue that people live by, the full meaning of mitzvah is all the more timely and vital.
A mitzvah is also less than a “commandment” as well as something more. A commandment is an edict, a fiat, a decree that must be obeyed, or else! Starting in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the Bible is rife with episodes when people defy God’s decrees.
A mitzvah is what God asks of us, but a mitzvah is something we do out of free will. Thereby keeping a mitzvah is an act of mutual love, reciprocal love, of God’s love for us in giving us the mitzvah and our love for God in doing it. So a mitzvah is something less than a commandment because it lacks the power of a commandment, but it is something more than a commandment because it is motivated not by power and authority but by voluntary love.
My book’s introduction now takes us to the preface for expressing my gratitude this evening.
Toward the conclusion of the Torah, Moses gathered the people before Mount Sinai and said, “You are standing this day, all of you before Adonai your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you, to establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not here this day.”
Just in case you missed it, Moses concluded with a remarkable statement: Moses was speaking not only with those who were there at Mount Sinai but also with those who were not there.
Every rabbi wishes that he or she had Moses’ gift to speak with those who are not here this day. For me this is especially true this Shabbat, when I offer my gratitude to everyone at Temple who has volunteered their time and talent on behalf of our congregation. Who do they include?
They include the twenty-four members of our Board of Trustees, the chair people of our various committees, advisory boards, endowment funds, auxiliaries, along with everyone who has served on them. Yet altogether they are merely part of the many people who offer their time and talent to our congregation.
And what do they do? They sound the shofar, chant Torah, read Haftarah and lead services on the High Holy Days. They lead Shabbat services, Sunday morning minyans, Shiva minyans, Passover Seders and study groups. They sing and play instruments to enhance the beauty of our services and to entertain us at social events. They create educational and social programs, determine policies and practices, set budgets, track finances, sign paychecks. They erect our Sukkahs, decorate them and then take them down. They stuff envelopes with Temple mailings. They cook for our Memorial Day and Labor Day picnics, help with our model Seders and prepare food for meals of condolence for families sitting Shiva. They collect food and life’s necessities for the South Hills Interfaith Movement to distribute to the needy. They feed and shelter people overnight in the Family Promise program once a month. They crochet caps and knit comforters for the sick. They inspect our building to ensure its upkeep. They tend our gardens, as well as our cemetery. They maintain our website. They march here and lobby in Washington for righteous causes. They counsel the bereaved and care for the needs of the ill or the elderly, providing rides and shopping for groceries.
I am certain that I have omitted something, perhaps many things, for which I might apologize. But let me expand the circle of my gratitude to embrace every member of Temple Emanuel today and over these thirty-eight years, in other words to speak not only to those of you are here this evening, but like Moses, to speak to those who are not here as well.
For the truth is that Judaism is a voluntary religion, it always has been and it always will be. Love cannot be commanded. Love can only be freely given. Love can only be freely accepted. Genuine love, above all other things in life, is voluntary.
Especially today, anyone and everyone who belongs to Temple Emanuel, or any house of worship for that matter, is here, or there, voluntarily. Especially today when synagogue affiliation nationally continues to decline – less than one-third of American Jews now belong to a synagogue – the simple act of synagogue affiliation is indisputably a voluntary act.
Indeed one of the 613 mitzvot in my book is “It is a mitzvah to support a synagogue.” So too all of the voluntary acts of our members that I cited previously, from sounding the shofar to shopping for groceries for the ill and the elderly, are among the 613 mitzvot I include in my book. But there are many more mitzvot that could be kept and should be kept, given that the mitzvot in their entirety are the measure by which we Jews live up to being created in God’s image.
I conclude with good news and bad news.
First, the bad news. When I finished writing at the end of my summer sabbatical in 1996, I had written one-hundred thousand words. At five-hundred words per page, that’s two-hundred pages right there, including commentaries for only ninety of the 613 mitzvot. Simple arithmetic said that if I accomplish all that I envision, my book was on the way to being at least a million words and two-thousand pages long. Good luck to me finding a publisher willing to publish a multi-volume edition of a book written by a previously unpublished author! In 2006, I sat down to edit what I had written. Instead, I quickly wrote another twenty-thousand words. Recognizing that my book was not only a matter of writing words but also wrestling with words, I put the book on the back burner until I retire.
Now, the good news….
It is the nature of the 613 mitzvot that not all of them are intended for every single person. Even when the 613 of the Torah comprised the constitution of biblical Israel, many of the mitzvot applied only to some of the people – for example, only to the kings, or priests or Levites of ancient Israel – while many other mitzvot applied to all of the people – among the many, for example, the Ten Commandments. Nonetheless, any one of us has more than enough mitzvot to do voluntarily, lovingly.
So the better news is that each mitzvah that God gives to us is an act of God’s love for us, and through us for the whole world. Each mitzvah that we keep is an act of our love for God and for the whole world. In a world where too many people are desperate for such love, or doubting and dismissive that such love exists, in a world so close to becoming everything that God created it for, yet so very far, I can’t think of better news. Can you?
I am honored to be appointed as Temple Emanuel’s Interim Rabbi for this coming year. I can’t tell you – but I think it will show – how much I enjoy the role of Interim Rabbi. I have served as Interim Rabbi for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL and Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA. I am currently at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, NJ. Temple Emanuel will thus be my fourth interim congregation.
As an Interim Rabbi, my first priority will be to be your Rabbi, there for you, the members, in all the ways a spiritual leader should be, providing all the clergy presence you have come to expect and deserve. During our year together, I, partnering with Rabbi Locketz, will be there for you to celebrate and sanctify the joyous times and to stand with you during the difficult times of illness, heartbreak, and loss. One of my strengths has been the ability to connect with people heart to heart in a relatively short time, which has served me well in officiating at life cycle events for individuals and families whom I have just met. In that regard, I know that the families of youngsters becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah are naturally concerned about a Rabbi whom they do not know working with their children alongside Rabbi Locketz and being part of this most important family life cycle event. One of my first priorities will be to reach out to the Bat/Bar Mitzvah students and create opportunities for us to get to know each other.
An Interim Rabbi is more than a clergy placeholder until you get your next Senior Rabbi. My other mission is to help Temple Emanuel through this year of transition. It will be an important time to regroup after 38 years of Rabbi Mahler’s dedicated leadership, experience what his retirement means for the congregation, to mix continuity with change, and to pursue the search for the Rabbi you believe will best serve your needs and begin with you the next chapter in the life of Temple Emanuel. The fact that Rabbi Mahler has had such a long and energetic tenure at the Temple is a precious blessing. It says a great deal about him, about the Temple, and, most importantly, about the relationship between Rabbi and community. Of course, the blessing of a long-term rabbinate also presents a challenge. What will Temple Emanuel be like without Rabbi Mahler at the helm? How will the Temple change and how will it remain the same? Without Rabbi Mahler, will it still be Temple Emanuel? (Not to give too much away, but the answer is yes.)
In one way or another, Temple Emanuel faces the same challenges that most synagogues and churches face: demographic shifts, financial concerns, a shrinking volunteer base, and a general cultural climate in which “I” over-shadows “we.” But from what I saw and what I learned from speaking with people in and out of the congregation, Temple Emanuel is well-poised to meet these challenges in positive and creative ways. I am looking forward to partnering with President David Weisberg, Rabbi Locketz, Leslie Hoffman, Iris Harlan, and the rest of the dedicated Temple leadership and staff.
Just to be clear, the term of an Interim Clergy is one year. I have no intention of becoming your “settled” Rabbi nor would it be appropriate. My job is to serve the clergy needs of the members for this year and to set up the congregation so that it can find the best clergy fit for its future.
Prior to my interview visit, I had only been to Pittsburgh once for a rabbinic convention. The Pittsburgh area looks to be a wonderful place to live – small enough to be manageable, but large enough in vision to offer a treasure-trove of cultural resources. Fran and I are looking forward to living in the community, making new friends, and taking advantage of all that Pittsburgh offers!
Thank You Shabbat Four
March 9, 2018/23 Adar, 5778
Jews who Choose Judaism
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Jewish tradition may ask us never to call someone who has converted to Judaism a “convert.” Rather he or she should only be called a “Jew.” Nonetheless, Jewish tradition extols converts in ways that make converts exemplars of Judaism to all Jews.
The most famous and oft-repeated tale from the Talmud emanates from conversion. In fact, it is so famous that I’ll simply start it, and someone can then can volunteer to finish it.
One day, a man went to Shammai, a great Tanna, “Teacher,” at the turn of the common era, who earned his livelihood as builder. The man said to Shammai, “I will convert to Judaism on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Deeming such a request impudent, Shammai brandished one of his builder’s tools like a weapon and chased the man away. The man then went to Hillel, the greatest Tanna of the time, and repeated the same request: “I will convert to Judaism on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”
Who would now like to finish the story with Hillel’s response?
…“What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”
If you are familiar with Christianity’s Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” based on the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament, where do you think Jesus learned this? Modern scholars have every reason to believe that Jesus was a disciple of Hillel.
Modern scholars also have every reason to believe that Hillel became the greatest Tanna of his day and the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, precisely because he hailed, not from Judea the Jewish nation, but from Egypt. The message he gave simply by his origins is that you don’t have to be a Judean to be a Jew. Judaism is not a religion of nationality, how much the more so geography. Unlike Zeus on Mount Olympus, Poseidon in the seas and Hades in the Underworld, God is the universal God. Thus Hillel became the champion of the great age of proselytism for Judaism across the Roman empire. So successful was Jewish proselytism of the day that the historian Josephus reported that one out of every ten citizens of the Roman empire was Jewish. By comparison, today’s American Jewish community is a mere 1.6 % of the U.S. population.
Once Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire circa 312 of the common era, conversion to Judaism and proselytism for Judaism became capital offenses, punishable by death. But when and where they could, people continued to convert to Judaism.
The story is told that the kingdom of the Khazars, a people residing on the Asian steppes between the Black and Caspian Seas, converted en masse to Judaism sometime roughly between the seventh and tenth centuries. Rabbi Judah HaLevi based his philosophical treatise, The Kuzari, on the Khazars’ mass conversion. The conversion of the Khazars also gave rise in our own day to Arthur Koestler’s best seller, The Thirteenth Tribe. However, modern scholars debate whether the Khazars’ mass conversion lies somewhere between fact and fiction. Nonetheless such grey areas have given light and inspiration to Judaism and the Jewish people ever since the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Torah.
Another such story is much closer to our time. Polish Count Valentine Potocki, was burned at the stake on Shavuot, 1749. While living in Paris, Potocki befriended a Jew who introduced him to the faith of Israel. The more Potocki learned, the more he was enchanted, until he converted to Judaism. When he returned to his native Poland, he was arrested for heresy, and tortured to recant his conversion. He refused. Facing execution, he was asked a final time to recant. Potocki responded, “I have discovered a chest filled with precious treasure. Why should I now give it away?”
Shavuot commemorates the revelation at Mount Sinai, the moment when all Jews embraced our covenant with God. Accepting the covenant is the essence of Judaism, and as such, the essence of converting to Judaism. As the story is told, as the flames engulfed Potocki, he recited Shema Yisrael.
The special grace note for Shavuot and conversion is the Haftarah assigned to the Holy Day: the Book of Ruth, highlighted by the words that Ruth spoke to her daughter in law Naomi, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people and your God my God, where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” Ruth’s words of devotion became the biblical benchmark for conversion to Judaism.
And lest we otherwise overlook it, Abraham and Sarah were the first Jews but they were not born Jewish. Therefore Abraham and Sarah were also the first converts to Judaism! What we may have overlooked was not lost upon our ancient sages. They ruled that the person who converts to Judaism is greater than the person born Jewish, because the person who converts has received the Ruach HaKodesh, the Divine Inspiration to convert, just as Abraham and Sarah received that Divine Inspiration. Therefore when a person converting to Judaism takes on a Hebrew name, he or she is noted as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah.
Over the years, I have worked with literally hundreds of people for conversion. I once asked Mrs. Marcovitz, the woman who ran the Mikveh for decades until the new Mikveh opened last year, “Which rabbi brings the most people to the Mikveh for conversion?” My question was borne of idle curiosity. She said, “You do.” Her answer surprised me then, but as I look back over these thirty-eight years that I’ve served the Pittsburgh community, Mrs. Marcovitz may indeed be correct.
Working with people who choose Judaism has been gratifying for me, in part because at times, I’ve sensed how difficult it has been for them.
For instance, I received a phone call on Monday from a person telling me that he’d like to convert to Judaism. I informed him that one of the requirements for conversion is attending the Introduction to Judaism course, which in fact began last night. With time of the essence, I suggested that we meet yesterday morning. He agreed. Yesterday morning came and went, and he never showed up, nor did I receive a phone call telling me why. This scenario was not all that unusual. If experience is any teacher, he may call me again and request that we reschedule our meeting. Experience also teaches that I may never hear from him again.
For every person I’ve guided in conversion over the years, there may be another person whose story is similar, if not identical, to yesterday’s no-show. More typically, they are people who meet with me once and never meet with again, nor with any other Reform rabbi, nor I am quite certain nor with any Conservative rabbi, and as logic would dictate, how much the more so, nor with any Orthodox rabbi.
I don’t think it’s necessarily easy to convert to Judaism. Perhaps this is true for every religion, but I speak with authority only regarding Judaism. I might cite dozens of different anecdotes describing the challenges that people face on their journey to Judaism, but ultimately one anecdote may tell all.
Years ago, I was meeting with someone who had completed all the requisites for conversion: Shabbat and holiday observances in the home and here at Temple, regular meetings with me for counsel along the path, completing the Introduction to Judaism course, team taught by the area Reform clergy, along with recommended readings. All these endeavors had taken the typical year or more. She was ready for her interview with the Beit Din and immersion in the Mikveh. She said to me, “How much chicken soup do I have to consume before I really feel Jewish?”
I have repeated this anecdote countless times because it is so illustrative of what being Jewish is and isn’t. There is no mitzvah among the 613 mitzvot that says “Thou shalt eat chicken soup.” But there are mitzvot to feed the hungry, to shelter and clothe the needy, to redeem the oppressed, on and on. Judaism is not a religion of common culture. Judaism is a religion of moral virtues and shared values, of rituals celebrated with family and community. One of the many reasons that synagogue affiliation is declining is because too many Jews have believed that eating bagels and lox while reading The New York Times on Sunday mornings are fundamental Jewish acts. Ditto now hummus and felafel. Or they shep naches, “take pride and delight” when Jews win Oscars, although this week not one Jew won a major Academy Award. …Or they feel shame at the antics this week of Sam Nunberg.
Neither is Judaism a religion conveyed by genes. My daughter Shira texted me this week that her fiance Ed has discovered through his father’s recent genetic testing that his DNA is 2% Jewish. Knowing that Ed is working his way through all the requisites to convert to Judaism, I texted back, “Pretty soon he’ll be 100% Jewish.”
Truth be told, we are living in a time when all of us, even those of us who were born Jewish, choose to be Jewish, or sadly, not to be Jewish. To wit, every demographic survey indicates that the fastest growing Jewish population in the U.S. are those who have no religious affiliation with Judaism.
Questions such as “How much chicken soup do I have to consume to feel really Jewish?” clarify and refine what it is to be Jewish. Being Jewish is not a “feeling.” Being Jewish is “doing;” keeping as many of the mitzvot to bring God into your life and mine, to assert God’s goodness in this world that sorely lacks for goodness.
A Midrash teaches, “The convert is dearer than the Jews who stood before Sinai. Why? Because had those Jews not heard the thunder and the blasts of the shofars, nor seen the lightning and the mountain quaking, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the one who converts has neither seen nor heard any of these things, yet has come and surrendered to the Holy One and accepted the reign of heaven on earth. Could anyone be dearer to God?”
To all of you who chose to be Jewish, thank you for making all of us better Jews.
By now, you’ve heard that Rabbi Don will be our Interim Rabbi starting in July. When he and his wife Fran visit Pittsburgh in early April, the congregation will have a chance to meet them at the First Friday Shabbat Service.
In the meantime, he has given his permission to share the personal statement below, which was included with his application. Reading it is worth your while, as his compelling words shed some light on who he is as a rabbi.
My grandfather used to tell me about conversations he had with his dental patients concerning my plans to become a rabbi. The reaction from his Christian patients was invariably, “How wonderful!” The typical response from Jewish patients was, “Why would he ever want to do that?”
I wish I could go back and speak to those who wanted to know why I would ever want to do “that.” Now in my fourth decade in the rabbinate, there are so many answers I could give, so many ways in which this sacred calling has brought me more meaning, satisfaction, sense of higher purpose, and deeper joy than I ever could have imagined.
In the beginning…
Looking back, there were a number of factors in my early years which generated my life’s passion for Judaism and community service and which shaped my rabbinate. The death of my parents when I was a young child and my upbringing in the home of my grandparents were the most definitive experiences of my life. My brother and I were raised as fifth generation members of Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul. Ours was a synagogue-centered, community- service oriented life. We had close ties with the rabbis which included W. Gunther Plaut, Bernard Martin, Frederick Schwartz, James Michaels, and Leigh Lerner. Each of them in some way helped create a strong foundation for my rabbinate.
In the beginning, God…
As a Jew, I am on a journey to and with God; and as a rabbi, I am blessed with opportunities to share that journey with others as they share their journeys, their doubts and their challenges with me. For me, God is real. I find intimations of a caring transcendent Reality in the pull of a moral matrix which orients those who would so align themselves. I sense divinity in the energy that sustains the relationships which create worlds on the cosmic, subatomic, genetic, and interpersonal levels. I hear the sacred Power of Life in the voice of the angels which bid each blade of grass to grow. That unifying Reality has many names, the most essential of which cannot be uttered, only breathed.
Eitz chayim he – Torah is an ever-growing tree of life…
At the core of Jewish living is Torah. Torah and life are inseparable. I view Torah as the Jewish People’s cumulative response to the questions posed by life’s mysteries: “Who am I? Who are we? What is the transcendent “big picture” and what is my place and purpose in it? Does something of me remain after I die?” And beyond these universal human questions, the particular and essential Jewish question asked in every age has been: “How do we live together in the presence of a Creator who calls us to justice, righteousness, and holiness?” Through the centuries, Jews have offered and lived multiple and often conflicting responses. As a rabbi, I have tools which enable me to mine and share the richness of these responses and which guide me as I empower Jews of each generation to offer and live responses of their own. Whether on the pulpit, in the classroom, under a chuppah, in my office, sitting against a tree at camp, or playing soccer on the National Mall with a Confirmation class, I try to honor each opportunity to bring Torah to life.
The synagogue is the heart of the Jewish People…
The central institution of the Jewish people through which Judaism has been taught, lived, and meaningfully perpetuated is the synagogue. As a rabbi, I have had the opportunity to realize a vision of what a synagogue community could and should be: an extended family devoted to learning and living Torah, nourishing the soul, pursuing tikkun olam (social justice and interpersonal righteousness), and celebrating in the midst of a diverse, welcoming and non-judgmental community. Such an institution adds meaning and joy to Jewish persons, strength to the Jewish People, and satisfaction to the Holy One of Being. I have shared this vision in a way which has inspired many to want to be a part of it and support it spiritually and financially.
Serve Adonai in gladness, come before God in joyous song!
For me, worship provides opportunities to create a sacred community of seekers, aware of their connection with each other, with the tradition, wisdom, and spirituality of Judaism, and with the transcendent Presence around, within, and between. Those connections are best made when both left and right brains are engaged. The right brain yearns for joy and uplift; the left brain seeks depth, thoughtfulness, and challenge. Both feel affirmed in community. Joy and inspiration are best experienced through music, both “passive” and “participatory.” Having grown up playing Sulzer and Lewandowski on the piano just for fun while being a high school friend of and early advocate for Debbie Friedman, my tastes in Jewish liturgical music embrace the rich spectrum of its many expressions. Depth and challenge are presented through the written and spoken word. My sermons are designed to connect the wisdom of our heritage with the real lives of those before me, providing Jewish answers to human questions. The writing of sermons is an art form, crafted with the tools of study, reflection, experience, creativity, and humor.
Healing the broken-hearted and binding their wounds…
Having lost both of my parents to cancer before I was five years old, I have had a heightened sensitivity to persons facing illness and death, especially, but not exclusively, children. I see the act of bringing personal rabbinic presence to the bedside of the ill or to the living room of the bereaved as one of my most sacred privileges. Embodying God’s love and compassion in such settings provides one of the most potent opportunities to make a positive difference in people’s lives in the times of their greatest needs. Listening deeply to what people say and what they communicate without words allows me to craft eulogies which put the life of their dear one in a frame of understanding, compassion, and meaning. Not infrequently has counselling combined with eulogy opened the door of healing for emotional wounds left by a less than positive relationship between the mourner and the mourned. For this reason, I always prepare a text of the eulogies I write, given that families often request a copy as a keepsake.
Do not separate yourself from the community…
I am deeply passionate about my work in the Jewish community and the community at large. We heal more of the world’s brokenness when we join together. But beyond that, as a Jew and a rabbi, I am keenly aware that I represent my synagogue in the Jewish community and represent the Jewish community and the values of Judaism within the wider world. I take the responsibility as “symbolic exemplar” most seriously. The rabbinate privileges me with opportunities to bring people together, to help them understand issues in light of the Jewish tradition, and to speak out with a rabbinic voice, advocating for justice, for compassion, for accountability, for Israel, and for love and reconciliation. I believe I am able to speak with moral conviction and credibility, not because the title of rabbi bestows it, but because the position allows and continually challenges me to earn it. My interfaith and inter-racial work has brought me great meaning and satisfaction through the years, as well as some of my dearest friends.
My Heart is in the East
Israel occupies a very special place in my heart. One of my most transformative experiences was the year in which I spent at the Hebrew University. It was the year of the Yom Kippur War. As part of an entertainment group, I spent time with members of the IDF in their training camps, in just about every hospital in the state, and, in the immediate aftermath of the war, in their outposts across the Sinai. I also spent time with the wives and children left behind. This experience seared into me an abiding love for the land, language, and especially the people of Israel and a commitment to the wellbeing of the Jewish state and all who live there. My vision for a Jewish, democratic, and pluralistic state has been expressed through my labor within the CCAR where I had the privilege to give voice to our collective rabbinic commitment to Israel and to the Israeli Progressive Movement. From the pulpit, I have been an advocate for Israel, but not uncritically. I have shared both the Jewish and Palestinian narratives, each containing important elements of the truth, neither having a monopoly on it. In my eyes, the stance vis-à-vis Israel which I find must disturbing is indifference. I encourage my congregation to learn about Israel, visit Israel, and to support those causes whose vision of Israel most align with theirs; for I believe that no matter where we stand, we stand with Israel.
The end of the matter…
My core belief is that we are here to serve God by serving others. As a rabbi, I am blessed to serve individuals and families during the happiest of times and the most tragic of moments in a role available to no other professional or friend. Being totally present, I have an opportunity to touch the tzelem Elohim, the Godliness of each person, to frame her joys Jewishly, to soften his sorrows compassionately, and – with the wisdom of Torah, human understanding, and experience – to lend meaning, depth, healing, and hope to life’s many journeys. In each of these encounters, I get a glimpse, if but for a moment, of why I am here.
So I ask you, dear reader, who would not want to do that?
Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ Board of Trustees is pleased to announce the appointment of Rabbi Donald Rossoff, D.D., R.J.E., as interim senior rabbi of the South Hills Reform congregation. Rabbi Rossoff’s contract was approved at a congregational meeting on Sunday, February 11, 2018.
Rabbi Rossoff will begin his year-long tenure at Temple Emanuel on July 1, 2018. Outgoing Senior Rabbi Mark Mahler, who has served the congregation for 38 years, will retire June 30, 2018.
Board President David Weisberg is pleased that the congregation approved Rabbi Rossoff’s contract and is looking forward to the future. “Rabbi Rossoff will serve as a bridge for our congregation, from the strong foundation that Rabbi Mahler helped build to a future where we can continue to flourish,” he says.
Over the next several months, Temple Emanuel will begin searching for a settled rabbi and Rabbi Rossoff’s experience assisting synagogues in transition will prove invaluable.
“The Interim Search Committee has no doubt we found the right person in Rabbi Rossoff, and we are thrilled he will be joining us,” says Search Committee Chair Michelle Markowitz. “His experience and demeanor made him the ideal choice to lead us through this important transition.”
Rabbi Rossoff will move to the South Hills with his wife Francine, a registered nurse. The couple has four adult children: Marc, Jenna. Ilana and Nathaniel. He is excited about working at Temple Emanuel and understands the particular role of an interim rabbi. “I will walk with and guide this sacred community on a journey that will take them through the loss they will feel from Rabbi Mahler’s retirement and on to the visioning of the future they would choose for themselves,” he says. “It has been a joy and a privilege to walk that journey with three other congregations and I am excited about the opportunity to join with Temple Emanuel on the journey that lies ahead for them.”
Rabbi Rossoff served as interim rabbi at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lake, NJ (2017-18), Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA (2016-17), and the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL (2015-16). He also served as senior rabbi of Temple B’Nia Or in Morristown, NJ from 1990-2015. Additionally, he authored the children’s book, “A Perfect Prayer.”
“Thank You Shabbat Three”
January 12, 2018/26 Tevet, 5778
When Life has Met Death
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
This Shabbat we continue with my Thank You Shabbats, this evening for the people whose loved one’s funeral I officiated at. As a prelude to my thanks and to offer them fully, heartfully and soulfully, I begin with four personal reflections.
First. When I was accepted to rabbinic school at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the dean asked to meet with me. Our conversation was brief but to the point. The dean said to me, “Mark, being a rabbi is a difficult job. On any given day, you’ll have to deal with different emotionally charged situations. You may officiate at a funeral in the morning, then a wedding in the afternoon and then a Shiva minyan in the evening.” Waving his hand in front of his face to emphasize his point, the dean then said, “In these situations, what you have to do is change the mask.”
The dean was correct. Being a rabbi can be an extremely difficult job, fraught with emotionally charged situations. But the dean was also wrong, at least for me. I wasn’t about to contest his well-intentioned advice, but even as a young man just accepted to rabbinic school, I knew that I could never be a rabbi who merely “changes the mask.”
…Which leads to the second reflection. During my first two years as a rabbi, we lived in an apartment in suburban Philadelphia. One morning as I was walking into the building, I exchanged greetings with a neighbor, a young surgeon who was walking out. I said to him, “Off to the operating room?” He answered, “Yes, I’m going to slash for cash!” I replied, “I don’t think you want your patients to hear that.” He said, “Of course not, but I’m sure that you reach a point as a rabbi that you’re emotionally detached, for example, when officiating at a funeral becomes routine.” “Oh no,” I replied, “I have to give my heart in every circumstance.”
Now almost forty years a rabbi, on the days when I had a funeral in the morning, a wedding in the afternoon, and a Shiva minyan in the evening, as well as during the ups and downs on any given day, I have done my best to give my heart.
Third. It wasn’t easy. Years ago while visiting us in Pittsburgh, my sister Jackie observed, “Every time the phone rings in this house, the tension goes up.” The explanation is simple. So many times when the phone has rung over the years, it is a congregant or a funeral home calling for the saddest of all possible reasons.
Fourth. In fact at times it has been extremely difficult. Alice was invited to speak when Temple honored me on the occasion of my twenty-fifth year at Temple. She and I didn’t discuss beforehand what she could or should say. No need: no one knows me better, no one loves me more. Something she said struck deep: “With every death in the congregation, Mark dies a little bit.”
Indeed, sometimes it has been crushing. For each of your loved ones whom I buried, I mourned in my own way, with personal rituals to navigate this difficult emotional terrain.
I always touched the coffin and bid a personal farewell.
For anyone who ever wondered why I always drive myself to the funeral and the cemetery rather than by a funeral home’s limousine, a limousine was once late to pick me up, which then made me late for the funeral. Once was too often.
Over the many years, en route to the cemetery the only music I’ve listened to is Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, which for me sounds the perfect harmony of the beauty of this world with the mystery of the next world. Otherwise I listen to the news or turn off the radio altogether. Jewish tradition insists that the overall mood of L’vaiyat HaMet, “Accompanying the Dead” be solemn. Kalut Rosh, “Light headedness,” is explicitly discouraged. When people have joked with me at the cemetery, I am always uncomfortable but always polite.
O how I’ve worried each time pall bearers bear their burden at the cemetery. Every pall bearer is unnerved by how heavy any coffin is. Pittsburgh’s hilly cemeteries and frequent inclement weather render their burden even more daunting. As I lead the pall bearers to the grave, while reciting the traditional liturgy, I am quick to point out potential hazards: a muddy patch here, uneven ground there, or slippery artificial ground cover leading to the grave. Then comes their moment of truth when they must mount the planks on either side of the grave – the narrow flexible planks that spring under the weight of each step – in order to place their burden safely on the two narrow straps of the lowering device.
As the coffin is lowered, I recite the traditional Tziduk HaDin, Psalm 49, referring to God as a “Rock,” a poetic image as the coffin descends into the earth. I also watch the little bolt on the lowering device that spins around as the coffin descends. The little bolt stops spinning when the coffin comes to rest at the bottom of the grave. As I watch the bolt spin and then stop, I meditate on the simple yet profound fact that this human body had been in constant motion from the moment it was created at conception. Even after death it continued its unique journey to the funeral home, often to Temple and then to the cemetery. But having arrived now at the bottom of the grave, it has come to eternal rest. How appropriate that we identify this finale with “Rest in peace.”
I also observe a personal Shiva for your loved ones. For many of them, I had been praying for their healing daily for weeks, for months and sometimes for even years. I guesstimate that on any given day, I pray for fifty people or more, having memorized their names alphabetically. Memory then has no “delete” key. After people on my prayer list have died, force of habit keeps me reciting their name in the daily prayer for healing. Each time I do, the pain of their loss resurfaces. It generally takes me a week – Shiva – to remember to forget. Sometimes longer. And sometimes even after years, I remember a name during the prayer for healing that I had once prayed for years ago.
Moments of reflection such as this Shabbat evening demand an honest question. Could I have done better? The honest answer for me, and for everyone with at least a modicum of humility, is “Of course,” but I was always trying to do my best, to give my heart. However I thank you for making me feel that my best efforts were always more than good enough.
For your words of gratitude, I thank you. Given your grief, please know that I never counted on encomiums. Therefore I appreciated them all the more when you expressed them.
I thank you for your expressions of gratitude that my words in memory of your loved ones were indeed fitting tributes to their memory that you so cherish.
Everyone grieves differently, some effusively and emotionally, some stoically and privately. Sometimes it has been difficult for me to discern exactly how close I should come or how distant I should remain. If I erred in judgment, I thank you for your forgiveness.
No less is this true for dying as well as death. Sometimes I am greeted in the time leading up to death as a source of strength. Other times, I am spurned as death’s herald. Here too it has been difficult to discern which impact in particular I will have upon people, merely by my presence. Again, if I erred in judgment, I thank you for your forgiveness.
Sometimes your loved one’s funeral was quickly followed by someone else’s loved one’s funeral. Over the years, on average I’ve officiated at twenty-five funerals annually. Dying and death are never spread out smoothly at two or so per month. Often they have been preceded by vigils in the hospital, in hospice or in the home which also require my attention, to give my heart. If you understood these pastoral demands upon me, I thank you.
All funerals are sad, but some are tragic. These especially required me to give my heart. And such are the funerals that broke my heart. But they never shook my faith in God.
A final reflection….
When I was a young man first considering becoming a rabbi, I was inspired by several people, most of all by the rabbi who became my rabbinic mentor and who installed me here as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in 1985, Rabbi Ely Pilchik of blessed memory. When I first met Rabbi Pilchik in 1972, among his many virtues, his eyes fascinated me. He had eyes like Albert Einstein: eyes that had seen eternity. I wanted to have those same eyes. I wanted to glimpse eternity. Little did I appreciate then exactly how one earns these eyes. Many decades later, I look at myself in the mirror, I see these eyes, and I understand what it has taken to earn them.
Indeed I have glimpsed eternity again and again:
Each time my phone has rung with the saddest of all possible news.
Each time we met thereafter and you’ve told me your loved one’s life story.
Each time I have written the eulogy honoring your loved one’s memory.
Each time I officiated at your loved one’s funeral.
Each time I have led the pall bearers with their heavy burden to the grave.
Each time I have watched that little bolt stop spinning.
Each time we tossed dirt into the grave.
Each time that we recited Kaddish together.
Each time that we have tried to make sense of life in light of death.
Each time that we pondered immortality’s unfathomable possibility measured against mortality’s inescapable reality.
I thank you for extending your hand and heart to me. I thank you for the trust you gave to me. I thank you for taking my hand. I thank you for touching my heart with yours.