December 4, 2023 -
The blog post below is excerpted from remarks shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, during Kabbalat Shabbat Worship on Friday, June 14, 2013. They were made in tribute and honor to outgoing Fairmount Temple President Jim Levine, at the conclusion of his three years service as our synagogue president. Effective July 1, Stephen Schlein will become Fairmount Temple President. We encourage you to add your voice, and share your thoughts and thanks with Jim Levine, drawing lessons from this passage from Rabbi Nosanchuk’s D’var Torah, as you may wish.
Our Torah portion for this Shabbat – Parshat Chukat, includes a story-line that shows just how Biblical leaders Moses and Aaron are tested in the wilderness, in the midst of a long road of rebellion, outburst and misjudgment.
There are powerful ways in which the portion resonates with the tests leaders face in our time. For instance, the crises Moses and Aaron face do not come one at a time, in discreet portions, with time for a break to reflect on each of our decisions that we have made and that we intend to make. It is the same for the leaders whose judgment we count on to govern our communities. There are often only split seconds between a feeling of triumph and a sense of abject failure whether you are leading a squad of fighters, a group of ballplayers, a cabinet full of ministers or secretaries leading a government, a Passover or Thanksgiving table full of family members, a meeting’s worth of work colleagues or as the chair of the board at a congregational meeting.
In the portion, when Miriam dies,the community in which Moses and Aaron lead, while they still clearly struggle to mourn for their sister, is put upon by a drought. No sooner does she die than the Torah says the people had no water. Immediately we see the people are suffering in this drought, and so Moses and Aaron have the kehillah (“community) draw close in their face in a quarreling manner.
My teacher Rabbi Norman Cohen in his book Hineni: Lessons for Jewish Leaders, points out that the Hebrew phrase Vayikahalu al, means “they gathered upon their leader,: rather than gathering about, or gathering in front of him. They didn’t approach Moses and Aaron to pay their respects or to make a condolence call on these leaders, but rather to kvetch. The rabbis envision them in the midrash quarreling with Moses: “How long are you going to sit there and weep?” Moses responds: “Shall I not weep for my sister who has died?” They reply and test Moses further: “You are only mourning for one soul. But momentarily countless souls will die because of this drought.”
This is hardly an advertisement for engaging our next generation of leaders for the Jewish people. For a multiplicity of factors and pressures are faced by our leaders, calling upon them to balance their sense of judgment with a broad-minded and open-ended value of compassion. In other words, we want our leaders to aspire to the very same qualities we count on from those that empower their lives in the first place: their families of origin, the ones they have made, and the source of all being itself, their spiritual strength and sustenance they gain from God.
Just a short while back in the Torah, Miriam and Aaron were rebuked for their questioning of Moses leadership by God who went on to extol the special and unique relationship he had with Moses, which was surely a privilege. But this portion brings Moses right back down to earth, where an intense heat awaited him in the kitchen of Israelite leadership.
There are nevertheless great rewards for standing in the heat of the moment, and pressing your community forward!
I can tell you from the close working relationship I’ve developed with many congregational leaders over the years, that they can surely relate to the multiplicity of issues that can arise all at once in rapid succession. Yet as well, we’ve come to know that where there is passion, where there is patience, and where there is the desire to promote others welfare, a community like our Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple rises and its lay leaders see the rewards of having deeply immersed themselves in the life of community. There are sacrifices to be sure, but the rewards are exponential!
Which is why I hope that tonight among our community here which includes past and future leaders of temple, you will see why I hope our temple’s outgoing President Jim Levine, his wife Jennifer and their incredibly supportive family on each side, are as proud of themselves and of Jim as we are of him and in gratitude to them.
Jim, there is a teaching in a wonderful book about Jewish Values in Social Justice, written by upcoming Fairmount Temple speaker this fall, Rabbi David Saperstein. He says that in each case where leaders are tested to determine the best course of action, “someone will decide. The only choice is whether we will participate in shaping those decisions or allow ourselves to be passive spectators or victims of those decisions. If we remain silent, the outcome may wreck our values…[But] a handful of passionate people can change any community, for good or ill.” He adds: “God gave to human beings alone the ability to understand the differences between right and wrong… the ability to love, to empathize and to dream.” To love, empathize, to dream, to choose between goodness and lack of goodness, these are your gifts!
Jim, we’ve known each other for over four years. I remember meeting you when you came to Reston, VA as part of the scouting team to look me over and see if I might be a partner for leadership with you and your board, the leaders Brian Young led before you, and that Stephen Schlein will soon lead after you. You were looking to find a team player and head coach for my clergy team, and someone to empower the incredible team of staff and committee chairs who’ve stepped up during your tenure to participate in determining the best courses of action for our synagogue.
I know I can say without hesitation that our entire community is grateful to you for your stewardship, your clear sights that are high and ambitious for our temple’s future, and your tremendous attention to the well-being of this institution, both fiscally and physically, both spiritually and spaciously. You’ve been and we are counting on you as immediate past president to be, continually energetic, patient and shrewd.
In this community, blessed by the presence both in person of your family today, and in remembrance of the numerous inspiring ways in which your parents before you gave so greatly to this synagogue, we offer you our thanks, and Cantor Sager and I would like to invite you to the steps of this bimah to offer you a ritual of blessing, ordained in Torah.
May God bless you and protect you.
May the light of God’s teachings shine upon you and through you.
May God’s face turn toward you now, along with all those who came before you on your wings, and grant you only what you’ve sought to lead us for and to, Shalom, Wholeness, Peace.