“Thank You Shabbat One”
October 13, 2017/24 Tishrei, 5778
Tribute to My Students/Teachers, Teachers/Students Over the Years
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Have you ever met a Nobel Prize winner? I had the privilege to meet Elie Wiesel in 1991. I was part of a small group of people invited by the Jewish Federation to meet with Wiesel before he spoke at Duquesne University’s commencement ceremony. You might expect a meeting with a Nobel Prize laureate to be memorable. It was, and much more.
The setting was intimate. Our group numbered perhaps ten people. We met in a small conference room at the University. Enhancing the intimacy, Wiesel was so soft spoken. Rather than straining to hear Weisel, the softness of his voice pulled all of us closer to him. We hung on every word.
More intimate still was the conversational tone of our meeting. Wiesel didn’t lecture. He had no formal topic to present. Rather, we discussed timely events, the recent war in the Middle East – Desert Storm – and the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Wiesel asked us if we had questions. I was quick to respond.
Wiesel had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, but he equally could have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his career as an author, Wiesel wrote fifty-seven books. So my question addressed his life’s work as an author. “What is your muse,” I asked. “Where do you find your inspiration when you write.” Wiesel responded, “My muse is Torah. I find inspiration in Talmud Torah, the study Torah.” Of course, I wanted to leap across the table and hug him, but better judgment restrained me. Wiesel then elaborated.
For many years, he met regularly with his rabbi in New York City to study Talmud. Starting in 1976, Wiesel held the position of Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, teaching in both the Religion and Philosophy Departments. Thus he would often commute weekly from Boston to New York for the sake of Talmud Torah. Wiesel then told how he once scheduled a flight to Israel from New York, so that he would have another opportunity to meet with his rabbi to study Talmud before departing for the airport. When the time came for Wiesel to end their study session and call a taxi, the rabbi asked him to stay and study just a little longer. And so they spent fifteen more minutes studying. Again Wiesel said he needed to leave for the airport, but the rabbi insisted that they study some more. Ten minutes later, Wiesel said he must leave or he’ll miss his flight, but the rabbi again insisted that they study just five minutes more. Five minutes later, Wiesel put on his coat to leave, but the rabbi pleaded for just a little more study. Finally, after just a little bit more study, Wiesel bid his rabbi farewell and left for the airport. He barely made his flight. When he arrived in Israel hours later, he learned that his rabbi had died.
Such is the place that Talmud Torah, the learning of Torah and the teaching of Torah, held in Wiesel’s life, a prominence underscored by the passion for Talmud Torah of his rabbi and teacher.
So too in mine. But there is another essential part.
As the time now quickens to my retirement next summer, people have peppered me with questions about what I plan to do, how I feel about retiring and what challenges may lie ahead in this major milestone and transition. Let me share with you what I appreciate will be far and away my most significant challenge.
A little anecdote will illustrate. A few nights ago, I picked up a new book to read, “Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari. On Yom Kippur, I spoke about Harari’s most recent book, “Homo Deus, A Brief History of the Future.” I found “Homo Deus” so powerful and provocative that I was eager to read the prequel. So a few nights ago, I sat down and opened “Sapiens” with a yellow highlighter in hand, as I have done with the literally hundreds of books I’ve read over the many decades that I have been a rabbi, in addition to the many journals, periodicals and magazines. The technique is simple: I highlight to learn in order to teach. When a book is especially informative, I highlight my yellow highlights with an orange highlighter, and with exceptional books such as “Homo Deus,” I then highlight my orange highlights with a blue highlighter. But it all begins with a yellow highlighter. When I opened “Sapiens” the other night, I looked at the yellow highlighter in my hand, and I then put it down.
My point is that Torah has been my muse, but so too have you. Over the years, most of what I’ve read or heard and learned, I’ve filtered through a thought process of “Can I teach this at Temple? Will you find it interesting? Will Torah then come alive in you?”
For me, Torah has been a microscope to see the aspects of existence that the naked eye cannot see. Torah has been the telescope to view the big picture parts of existence that fill us with awe. Torah has been the pillow that teaches how to soften life’s blows. Torah has been the backbone that steels us with strength and courage, and the heart that feels compassion and love. And when I say “Torah” I mean it in the particular sense of the Five Books of Moses, in the traditional sense of the vast library of Jewish sacred literature, as well as in the generic sense of the intellectual landscape that all these writings still can nurture in the Yiddish kop and neshama, the Jewish head and soul. For example, when I read today’s news, I automatically see Torah in the Iran Nuclear Deal, the plight of Puerto Rico after Irma and then Maria, the suffering in the ashes of the California fires, or I see the lack of Torah in all of the above, or in the sad, sordid saga of Harvey Weinstein. In turn, my mind automatically asks, how can I teach this or that to you. If I were to quantify it over the many years of my rabbinate, I’d speculate that well-more than half of my thoughts have been, “Can I take this thought and teach it to you.”
So whether we have studied together in any of the programs I listed in my e-mail invitation to the congregation this week – a list which I simply gathered from memory rather than combing through all my file cabinets filled with folders of the many programs that I led, or participated in, or created over the years – or whether you just happen to be here tonight because Noah Stein is our bar mitzvah boy this Shabbat, you have been my muse.
Thus, the obvious…. Come next July 1 and retirement, I must say “Shalom” to my muse. Anyone with a modicum of self-awareness must recognize this as a challenge. But this evening, so perfectly timed as Shabbat B’reshit that begins the annual reading cycle of Torah, and until next June 30, I wish only to express my gratitude to you, my wonderful muse and inspiration. Truly if any muse and inspiration can be God-given, it is Torah and it is you. …Not only my God-given muse and inspiration, but also my teachers for the countless times, in a classroom, at a meeting, on the Bima or simply in conversation, when you became the teacher and I became the student, and you taught me so much. From the bottom of my heart to the top of my head, to my soul that is my personal piece of heaven and eternity, I thank you.