The State of the Congregation

June 17, 2011

In our Torah reading for this week, Shelach, God tells Moses to send twelve scouts, one from each of the twelve tribes, to reconnoiter the land of Canaan, to investigate the state of its defenses, the heartiness of its people, and the fertility of its land. After a forty day expedition through the length and breadth of the land, the scouts come back and reported that the land is indeed quite fertile but that the inhabitants are so strong they appear to be giants. Ten of the scouts despaired, saying to Moses, “All the people that we saw are of great size. We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.” God and Moses grew so angry at the people’s lack of faith that the entire generation, with the exception of the two optimistic and faithful scouts, Joshua and Caleb, were condemned to die in the Wilderness. In a related Midrash, God says to the scouts, “I am ready to put up with your saying, “We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers.” I do, however, take offense at your asserting, “And so were we in their eyes.” Could you possibly know how I made you appear in their eyes? How do you know but that in their eyes you were like angels?” (Sefer Ha-Aggadah from Midrash Tanchuma).

We rarely understand how we are perceived by others. In fact, Temple Oheb Shalom is perceived quite well by our community. Our membership is up, our Learning Ladder is full, religious school grew this year by 18%, and our Beit Midrash classes are overflowing with young parents. As of today, we project 46 students will be in next year’s third grade. We have surpassed our goal for annual giving and more families contributed this year than last. By any standard, we are doing well. I think we have reached the proverbial tipping point. If you are familiar with the concept from the popular book, the tipping point is reached when influential people initiate a trend followed by many others. Belonging to Oheb Shalom is now “cool” in Baltimore. What led to so many young families affiliating with us? The stability and capability of our clergy and senior staff, the dedication of our lay leaders, the fine upkeep of our facility, the quality of our programming, and our warmth and welcoming atmosphere. We are certainly not angels, but we have finally seen our efforts acknowledged and rewarded. For all their hard work, I thank Rabbi Nagel, Cantor Braun, Ken Davidson, Sally, Maxine, Aileen, my assistant, Lee Weinstock, along with all the members of our support staff who give so much of themselves every day. I am grateful to our officers and board members who are so devoted to this holy congregation. We appreciate their love and support.

I am trying to keep this very brief, so please forgive me for not waxing on about all of you who are so important to this thriving congregation. Just a few personal words before I conclude. I am beginning my thirty-third year as a rabbi and my thirteenth year as your senior rabbi. Whatever success I have had is due to my loving and loyal wife, Sally, who shares my commitment to Jewish life. If you think I look younger than sixty, it is also because of Sally’s efforts. Sally is the finest adult educator in Baltimore and one of the finest in the country. We are privileged to have her. I am thankful to have her as my wife, team mate and partner.

When I was forty, I had not yet achieved my goals of earning a doctorate and becoming senior rabbi of a major congregation. I achieved both these goals before my fiftieth birthday. Now at sixty, I am exactly where I want to be. I am senior rabbi of a congregation poised for greatness and am accepted and respected by my congregation. I realized the latter in just the last few weeks, when several of you introduced me to friends and future in-laws as “my rabbi” and “our rabbi.” You did this with such affection and pride. That is when I realized that I am truly part and parcel of your lives, that I have earned the most important appellation of all, that of being “Your rabbi.” Besides having a wonderful wife and children, being your rabbi is all I have ever wanted in life. Now that I am sixty, my wish is fulfilled.

I conclude with these words from Psalm 116:

How can I repay the Lord for all His bounties to me?
I raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people,
In the courts of the house of the Lord, in the midst of Jerusalem.


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