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.