Remarks for Rabbi Scott Nagel’s Installation
Beth Ahabah, Richmond, Virginia
November 11, 2016
“Zeh Hayom Asa Adonai, Nagila v’Nismicha Vo– This is the day that God has made. Come and let us rejoice in it!” (Psalm 118:24). What a great honor it is for me to address this great and historic congregation at this auspicious moment in its history. I thank Rabbi Nagel, my student, teacher, colleague, and dearest friend, for inviting me to briefly share his pulpit. I am very glad to see Rabbi Emeritus Beifield, whom I have known for almost four decades. I knew his parents well as I served as their new assistant rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, the congregation in which Rabbi Beifield was raised. I also send my regards to my former congregants and friends, Babs and Larry Jackson, whom I have known for about thirty years, before they moved to Richmond. I hope you are here tonight.
The first time I met Rabbi Scott Nagel was when I interviewed him in New York to be assistant rabbi and director of youth education at Temple Oheb Shalom, the oldest and largest synagogue in Baltimore. It was love at first sight! Next to my wife Sally, over the next twelve years I spent more time with him and was closer to him than anyone else. We have a bromance! I taught him and learned from him. We ate more meals together than we did with our children. My refrigerator is his refrigerator. My medicine cabinet is his medicine cabinet. If we could share each other’s clothes, we’d do that, too.
Truly, daily life is not the same without him. When he left the pulpit and returned to his seat, I would pat his knee, to let him know he did well. He came to expect it as a sign of friendship. Our families would join together each year for break fast on Yom Kippur. Our custom was to begin the meal with a l’chayim from a new single malt Scotch. Randi was always the designated driver that night. Our families supported each other through the vicissitudes of life. Whether it was illness, death, birth, birthdays, or weddings, for twelve years Sally and I were part of the Nagel’s life as they were part of ours. Separating and leaving one another was very hard. It was time, though, for Rabbi Nagel to have his own congregation. He is a star among the rabbinate, one of the finest young Reform rabbis in the nation. Beth Ahabah made an excellent choice in bringing Rabbi Scott Nagel and his wonderful family to Richmond to be their rabbi. Your sister congregation, Temple Oheb Shalom, congratulates you on your wise decision.
Since Rabbi Nagel is still a relatively new senior rabbi, and he cannot rummage through my desk to get what he needs, Sally and I thought we should bring him a “Senior Rabbi’s Survival Kit.” He will certainly need to use these items over the course of a year.
- Sagamore Rye, from a new distillery in Baltimore, for those special times with your friends and colleagues.
- York Peppermint Patties with their own candy dish. Everyone who visits your office likes this low fat treat.
- Tylenol for those inevitable headaches from long meetings and muscle strains from lifting the Torah.
- A box of tissues. Many tears will be shed in your study.
- A handkerchief to wipe away tears when you are not in the office.
- Purell- because you should spread happiness, not bacteria.
- Mouthwash- because you want your breath, as well as your words, to be sweet.
- Energy bars- because you will sometimes need that burst of energy to serve your congregants.
- Last but certainly not least- Rainbow Cake to remind you of how much we love you in Baltimore.
Written in Hebrew letters on our ordination parchment from the Hebrew Union College are the words “Yoreh, yoreh; yadin, yadin.” This means that “he shall teach and he shall judge.” We accept without hesitation a rabbi’s responsibility to teach. His sacred task is to help us understand the eternal message of the Torah. We often forget, however, that an important part of a rabbi’s responsibility is to judge. His task is to push us to become more righteous human beings. His obligation is to encourage his congregation to take sometimes unpopular and controversial stands. The rabbinic role does not always make him popular but it does make him a better rabbi. The founder of the 19th century Musar movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter, once wrote, “A rabbi with whom no one disagrees is not a rabbi; a rabbi with whom everyone disagrees is not a mensch.” Part of Rabbi Nagel’s mandated responsibility is to make his congregation uncomfortable with the status quo. He will challenge you and will urge you to get personally involved in making Beth Ahabah a more inclusive and loving community. He will ask you to look at new initiatives and to adopt innovative practices. He will continue your involvement in the life of Richmond and the nation advocating, in the words of the prophets, that you engage in the sacred work of Tikun Olam, repairing our broken world. It has been said that a “rabbi’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Some of you will, on occasion, disagree with Rabbi Nagel’s position on an issue. If so, make an appointment to sit down with him privately and talk with him about how you feel. I promise that he will carefully listen to your concerns because he is a mensch. You have the right to respectfully disagree and argue with him. He does not have the right to allow you, his congregants, to remain complacent, satisfied with the status quo.
Rabbi Nagel, like all rabbis, is first and foremost a symbolic exemplar, a living example of the values of Judaism. He must always strive to be a paradigm of his commitments and convictions. My first senior rabbi, and Rabbi Beifield’s childhood rabbi, was Rabbi Dr. Bertram W. Korn. Dr. Korn was a distinguished congregational rabbi, historian of the American Jewish experience, and the first rabbi to become an admiral in the United States Navy. In his ordination address to new rabbis in 1968, he said, “In the rabbinate, the man and his message must coalesce…the rabbi cannot hide behind any theological rationalizations. He must attempt to live by his message. The man must strive to bring his life into consonance with his teachings. And his congregants have the right to expect this. He knows, and they must realize, too, that like all other men he has his faults and his imperfections; that he will make mistakes all his life long and, just because he is a rabbi, his failures and defeats will be all the more conspicuous because they are public ones. He knows, and his people must realize too, that he is heir to the same temptations and dangers as all other members of his generation…but unlike other men, he may never take refuge in the distinction between the personal and the professional; he may never justify himself by assigning one action to the rabbi and another to the man. This is the price the rabbi pays for being a teacher of Judaism. People will listen more attentively to his actions than his words. He must strive to be the most authentic illustration for his preaching of which is capable.” I have no doubt that Rabbi Nagel is, and will be, the most authentic spokesman for Torah in his generation.
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, God tells Avram to leave his native land and his father’s house and go to the land that God will show him. Just like Abraham, Rabbi Nagel has left the places to which he was accustomed and comfortable to come to Richmond and serve as the rabbi of Beth Ahabah. Later on, God appears to Avram and tells him, “Fear not, I am shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” Rabbi Nagel will be a living example of Judaism to the people of Richmond. God will certainly strengthen him in his resolve and hold him up when he is in need. His reward will not be expressed in material things but in the great satisfaction of knowing that he has helped create new generations of Jews and has given this kehilah kedosha, this sacred congregation, the best he has to offer. I know that many decades from now people will say of him, “Now that was a great rabbi.”
May God bless Rabbi Scott Nagel, Rabbi Randi Nagel, Daniel, Lev and Ari. May God’s blessing accrue to this great and historic congregation as you and your new rabbi strive together to create community, serve God and the Jewish people, and bring the timeless message of Torah to this venerable city.
Amen and Shabbat shalom