“Bar Mitzvah” Sermon – April 19, 2013

“Zeh Hayom Asa Adonai, Nagilah v’Nismicha Vo- This is the day that God has made. Come and let us rejoice in it.”
Words of gratitude are inadequate to describe my emotions at this outpouring of affection and support. I thank each and every one of you for being with us for this celebration. Forgive me if I speak tonight for a bit longer than my usual twelve to fifteen minutes. There is much to be said and there are many to be thanked. First and foremost, this celebratory weekend is not just about me. It is a commemoration of what we as a congregation have achieved over these last fourteen years, of how clergy, staff, and lay leadership have worked together in relative harmony to create a warm, loving, and inclusive congregation that has survived the most difficult economic downturn since the Great Depression and is thriving. Since Sally and our children arrived here in 1999, we have together achieved all the goals of Project Joseph as well as many we could not envision at the time. We are on the cutting edge of Jewish life, dealing with all the issues, in a healthy way, which confront our Jewish community in the second decade of the twentieth century. The journey has not always been easy. The road has sometimes been rocky, but we have gone done this path together. On this Shabbat we celebrate the family of families that makes Temple Oheb Shalom what it is today, poised for greatness on the cusp of its 160th anniversary.
I begin my thanks by asking Sally to stand. She is my beloved wife of thirty six years and my partner in congregational life. She is my best friend and helpmate, an esteemed educator in her own right and a rabbi’s wife worthy of acclaim. I ask our children, all six of them, Nathaniel, Dana, Miriam, Jared, Benjamin and Harris to please rise. We could not be prouder of them since, as part of a rabbi’s family, they have always coped with the demands of congregational life. We are exceedingly proud of them as they are each devoted, personally and professionally, to strengthening Jewish life and healing humanity. I am so pleased that my Uncle Heim and Aunt Esther are with us, 96 and 94 years old respectively, my Uncle Mel and Aunt Judy, as well as my beloved cousins and dear friends. I thank you for making the arduous trip down the New Jersey Turnpike to join us.
This celebratory weekend has taken hundreds of hours of planning by a hard working and very committed committee of volunteers, chaired by Roz and Len Goldheim. I ask Roz and Len to please rise and receive the applause they so richly deserve. Will all the members of the committee now rise to receive our thanks: Adele Cohan, Adrienne Shutt, Audrey Rothschild, Barbara Frantzich, Bernie Mazer, Caren Leven, Carla Surdin, Carol Milner, Carol Needle, Carol Sevel, Cookie Sless, David Willner, Diane Israel, Emily Singer, Jerald Lurie, Jesse Harris, Julie Dechowitz, Ken Davidson, Lynne Elkes, Marilynn Appel, Maxine Lowy, Michael Pachino, Monroe Zeffert, Nancy Sacks, Rob Strupp, Roz Cornblatt , Len and Roz Goldheim, Sally Fink, Stacy Fox Crain, Susan Albert Rubenstein, Terry Willner, Theodore [Ted] Cornblatt, Vicki Spira, Richard Milner, Ellen L. Taylor, M.D., Cantor Renata Braun, Rabbi Scott Nagel, and Rabbi Donald Berlin. There are several committee members who must be singled out for special acknowledgement. Susan and Ken Davidson, Monroe Zeffert, and my precious machatenesta, Carla Surdin, have devoted hours upon hours in preparing for this weekend. We are grateful to you for all you have given. This list of thanks would not be complete without thanking my friends and colleagues, Rabbi Scott Nagel, Cantor Renata Braun, Rabbi Donald Berlin, Ken Davidson, and especially Maxine Lowy for their contributions. Maxine, I know how proud your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents would be of you for your hard work and devotion to Oheb Shalom. We thank and praise you.
This congregation would not be where it is today without the loving devotion of many lay leaders. I invite all past-officers and board members to please rise. Now I invite all who have given of themselves, financially or with service, to Oheb Shalom to please rise. Now I ask all those who have studied at Oheb Shalom at any point in their lives to please rise. Oheb Shalom has deeply touched thousands of us over the generations and continues to be a source of inspiration in our lives.
I have been a rabbi for thirty four years, the last fourteen at Oheb Shalom. In Hebrew, the number fourteen is equivalent to the word yad, meaning “hand.” I believe that the hand of God has worked quietly and often unobtrusively in helping me be your rabbi. Serving as your shaliach tsibur, a delegate of the community, is a privilege and challenge for which I am continually grateful. I never take for granted the honor of being Oheb Shalom’s fifth senior rabbi, part of the Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the chain of tradition, established by my predecessors, each of whom was a giant of the American rabbinate: Rabbis Benjamin Szold, William Rosenau, Abraham Shaw, and Donald Berlin. Oheb Shalom has become our family and Baltimore has become our home. This congregation, unlike most others, still retains the tradition of Kavod HaRav, respect for the rabbi and especially for the Jewish Tradition he represents. While we no longer rise when the rabbi enters the room, this rabbi understands that respect is tendered in many different ways, most especially in this celebratory Shabbat. Someday, I hope many decades from now, Sally and I will rest for all eternity in the Oheb Shalom Memorial Park, joined with you in death as we have been in life. When a congregation gives its rabbi cemetery plots, the rabbi knows he is at home.
I rarely speak about or call attention to myself. That is not the way of the rabbi. The rabbi is a teacher whose subject is Torah, a mesader kiddushin, a facilitator of holy moments, and a representative of the Jewish community. On none of these occasions is the person of the rabbi to be featured. If the rabbi becomes the object of celebrity, something deeply wrong is taking place. I am emotionally overwhelmed by the attention given to me and am a bit uncomfortable with it. I have tried my very best, in the words of my first senior rabbi, Bertram W. Korn, to be an exponent of Judaism, a teacher, preacher, pastor, counselor and leader, whose mission touches every fiber of my life, and who strives to be a living example of my commitments and convictions. I have endeavored to bring my life into consonance with our sacred teachings. This means that my inevitable inadequacies and failings will be ever more conspicuous because they are public ones. This is the price the rabbi pays for being a teacher of Judaism. His actions are more important than his words.
While my dear parents, Minnie and James Fink, programmed me to become a professional, they were mystified by my choice of the rabbinate. That is because being a rabbi is a profession like no other. If a rabbi views his career as being like that of other professions, he will be severely disappointed and will soon leave the field. The rabbi must feel that his or her life is a calling, that in some existential and unfathomable way, God is reaching out to him and requiring him, like the ancient prophets, to serve as His messenger, a spokesman for the values of Judaism and one who testifies to the presence of Adonai in our lives. The rabbi is a symbolic exemplar, the one who “reveals the presence of God in his personal life and who does his utmost to live by the teachings of God’s Torah. “This does not mean the rabbi can serve as a mediator between his people and God. It does mean that many people will come no closer to God than the rabbi who believes in God, the one who reveals God’s presence in his life.”
The rabbi revels in the joys and triumphs in his congregant’s lives and stands with them during the times of darkness, as they walk through the valley of deepest shadows, when disillusionment and despair are all around them. “Daily he confronts personal grief and social evil, yet still cherishes the Messianic hope” that someday there will be a better world, that humanity, in partnership with God, will bring forth the age for which we daily pray, “Thus it has been said, Adonai will be Sovereign over all the earth. On that day, Adonai will be one and God’s Name will be one.” The rabbi must be a champion of hope, one who stands for human dignity, righteousness and peace. I pray every day that I am worthy to be a member of this holy profession.
Why did I become a rabbi? I look back and try to understand my motivations. I think there are three reasons, all of which, in retrospect, seem to make sense. The first is family. I grew up in a close, loving, and supportive nuclear and extended family system. I always felt best in the midst of family. Growing up in a time when anti-Semitism was rife, my experiences outside of family and Jewish community were negative, while those within the family were overwhelmingly positive. Ever since, I have desired to base my life within the extended family of the Jewish community where I am most at home and accepted. This congregation has truly become my extended family.
The second reason is values. I came to realize at a relatively young age that in order for values to make a difference they must be based on something permanent rather than upon that which is ephemeral and changing. Our Jewish values are based in the teaching of the Eternal One. While our understanding of God’s values is evolutionary, the Source of all value is permanent.
The third reason is a search for meaning. Our lives mean little if we do not become part of something greater than ourselves. There is nothing that provides greater meaning than being part of the brit, the eternal covenant between God and Israel. Our task as Jews is to live by the terms of this covenant by striving, as this week’s Torah reading tells us, “to be holy.” As we will learn tomorrow, we become holy not just through words but through actions. We become holy in relationship with other people. Holiness is not a state we permanently enter. It is an ongoing process which we may temporarily achieve and towards which we continuously struggle. God has set us apart from other peoples to be holy in our deeds, to serve as a moral beacon to others, and as light unto the nations to the entire world. That is our task as Jews. It is my privilege as your rabbi to serve as a guide for you in our ongoing pursuit of holiness.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom


i Dr. Bertram W. Korn, Ordination sermon to HUC-JIR, June 9, 1968.
ii Ibid.

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