A Cornerstone of Renewal
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Rabbi Andy Bachman
Congregation Beth Elohim
September 18. 2009
Buildings tell stories, they say, and there’s no reason to think things are any different here at Congregation Beth Elohim. There’s the famous picture of LBJ coming down the steps of the Main Sanctuary at Representative Manny Cellar’s funeral; or Mayor Koch’s visit in the early 1980s; Zionist leader and American rabbi Abba Hillel Silver addressing the opening of the Temple House in 1929 with Charles Evans Hughes. There have been thousands of bnai mitzvahs with countless tales of cracking voices, brilliant speeches, infamous photographers and dee-jays. Hundreds of confirmation students. Just today, a long time member called to say his mother died. And as we planned the funeral—to be held in the chapel on Monday, after the holy days, he said, “Well, I became Bar Mitzvah in that Chapel, was married in that Chapel, and now I’m going to bury my mother out of that Chapel.”
This is fundamentally who we are. Not just two buildings but the souls which occupy them and make them breathe. The souls that inhabit them with life, with learning, with questions and answers, with joy and celebration and comfort. This is fundamentally who we are.
When we are good at what we do, we are rightfully filled with joy and celebration. And at this time, we humble ourselves before our shortcomings, perhaps best exemplified in our opening prayer for this evening, the Hineni Prayer:
“Here I stand, deficient in good deeds,
Overcome by awe and trembling
In the presence of One who abides
Amid the praises of Israel.
Do not charge them with my sins
May they not be blamed for my transgressions
For I have sinned and I have transgressed
May they not be shamed by my actions
And may their actions bring me no shame
Accept my prayer as though I were
Supremely qualified (implication being I’m not!) for this task
Imposing in appearance, pleasant of voice
And acceptable to all
Help me to overcome every obstacle
Cover all our faults with Your veil of love
Turn our afflictions to joy, life and peace
May truth and peace be precious to us
And may I offer my prayer without faltering”
These are words of profound fear. These are words of deep humility. Words loaded down, rooted into the earth with the awesome responsibility of leading a community not only through the mundane acts of the day to day but in the most urgent hour of need, before an Ark which is rendered into the very Gates of Heaven, repository of the Book of Life, which, now open, will contain the names of all who will live and all who will die in the year 5770 on the Hebrew calendar.
The Rabbis call this moment a moment of פחד יצחק—the Fear of Isaac—so laden is it with sacrifice, with the liminal space between life and death. There is something deeply essentialist about this prayer. It affirms the twin themes of awe and humility central to our message during these Ten Days of Turning. And with the opening word, HINENI, HERE I AM, it is a wake up call, like the one Levi Isaac of Berditchev received one day, at the beginning of Elul, when a cobbler passed by his window asking, “Have you something to mend?” And Levi Isaac realized immediately that he had neglected his own soul!
Of course we have something to mend. And if we’re truthful—hence the reason for our awe and trembling—we can admit that the list is great.
It is said that Jews are people of action—the People of the Book, yes, but also the People of Mitzvot, of Deeds, of Actions meant to bring Redemption, to lay cornerstones of justice and righteousness for the repair of an imperfect world. And so God, in this prayer and elsewhere, is defined as “gracious” and “merciful” חנון ורחום. Because though we are limited, we are in partnership with the Source of Life. We are not alone. And no amount of shortfall should prevent our striving higher and higher each year.
We are here for a purpose and despite our fallibility, we are called to that purpose year after year after year, to stand before the one to Whom we can admit the deficiencies of our lives, be received openly, lovingly, with grace, mercy and compassion, and be given the tools to mend our selves, our families, our communities but we need a place to do it.
Since our founding as a synagogue, we have let that place take care of us. And tonight I ask you to consider reciprocally about taking care of this place.
This is the central to the message of our time together here in this room, this year. We are here not to search our souls only but to make our way on life’s journey together, in this sacred space, covenantal partnership with God and our Tradition, charged with the task no less than that which challenges us to bring peace and lovingkindness to the world. Inspired in this building, even by this building, to heal ourselves and heal others.
This has always been the case. Not only our generation but every generation. Since time began. The rabbis teach us that God’s presence in the Garden of Eden was called Makom—place. That Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah found God in a place called Makom. And that when the 1st and 2nd Temples stood, God’s presence there was called Makom—place. And that now, in the Diaspora, in synagogues wherever Jews gather, God, Makom, that place, is present.
What we do with that place, how we care for that place, is the sacred obligation of every generation. Tarfon said famously, we’re not meant to complete the work, but neither are we allowed to ignore it.
And so in many ways, Talmudic as it is to say so, the question here is not did we do it all in the past year but did we do enough? Like many things in life, it’s a matter of scale. And perspective—spiritual, emotional and historical perspective.
Tonight we gather in our Main Sanctuary, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary.
I often share with people the inspiring fact that Congregation Beth Elohim was founded in 1861 in the midst of a Civil War between the States, when slavery existed, when women could not vote let alone serve as rabbis, when gays and lesbians were forced to closeted lives. And in speaking of our founding in 1861, it’s always fun to simply ask aloud: could the founders of our congregation ever have imagined the world we inhabit? What our membership looks like? Who our President is? (And here I refer to our President in Washington. Our congregation’s president, David Kasakove, with mutton-chop whiskers and the right spectacles could, if he wanted, look like any number of the fine 17 German men who began our synagogue 150 years ago!)
But time moved on from 1861 and by the early 20th century, our synagogue’s leaders made the bold and optimistic decision to move from Pearl Street to State Street before permanently locating the embodiment of our communal aspirations to Park Slope.
Thanks to the archival work of our congregational scholar, Rabbi Dan Bronstein along with trustee Nancy Rosenberg and our archivist Martha Foley, who are gathering priceless material in celebration of our 150th anniversary and whose work is on display in the Temple House lobby right now, the historical record is quite clear on what was said when the cornerstone was laid for this very building in 1909.
So let’s focus momentarily on that day.
500 people gathered on May 3, 1909. This silver trowel was used and dedicated. Rabbi Alexander Lyons led the assemblage in prayer and song.
As a lover of history like I know so many of you are, I could go on for quite some time about what a scene this must have surely been. There are many eras of history I’d like to visit up close and the onset of the High Holy Days, when Jewish time seems to collapse, paradoxically, into a window on Eternity, only heightens this connection to generations past, present and future.
But two aspects of that founding ceremony require illumination. In remarks made by Michael Furst, president of the YMHA, he complimented the founders on their choice of real estate, saying, “In addition to its eminent suitability, this spot is hallowed by historic memories. Here the patriots of ’76 struggled for civil and religious liberty, in this immediate vicinity they fought one of the fiercest battles of the Revoltion.” Like so many Jews of his generation, Furst created a direct link between Jewish and American historical values and reality, equating Jewish and American ideals in the quest for freedom, justice and righteousness. And they saw the realization of those ideals in this room where we gather tonight.
Abraham Abraham, (whom it’s said had the unusual title of “President President”) of the Jewish Hospitals, said that day, “A house of worship, aside from its instilling reverence of God, from whom all blessings flow, develops a higher type of manhood and inspires a social ideal of helpful co-operation and fraternal love in all beneficent works. It is the center from which emanate and radiate all altruistic and philanthropic activities that tend to the uplift and betterment of mankind. It is here where charitable and educational endeavor has its inception and its impelling force.”
I insist that you be impressed with his prose!
Let me repeat. This room where we gather--
“…is the center from which emanate and radiate all altruistic and philanthropic activities that tend to the uplift and betterment of mankind. It is here where charitable and educational endeavor has its inception and its impelling force.”
About the impelling force of history, the Sages taught that when our ancestors returned from Babylonian exile, 3 prophets returned with them: one to teach them the dimensions of the Temple’s altar; a second to teach them how to make sacrifices on that altar; and a third to teach them how to write a Torah scroll.
2500 years ago and 100 years ago, those who came before us were deeply serious about their sacred structure. And they saw this building, the cornerstones they laid, not merely as metaphors but as actual walls, a roof, a dome, as the bricks and mortars, as the beginning steps on that journey. And we are here tonight as the inheritors—not only of a metaphoric journey but as the inheritors of a place, a Makom, a real, physical place.
These stories, like refreshing water, like sweet honey from the rock, these words flow over us, nourishing the bonds that link us together as a sacred community and link us to those past and those future members of Congregation Beth Elohim who will one day occupy this space—long after we are gone.
Altruism; philanthropy; charity and education: each the fuel for a better world. What rang true in 1909 rings true today. Walking up the block this morning after dropping the girls at school, I saw a huge banner hanging outside the Garfield entrance to the Temple House that said, “Shabbat Shalom,” as dozens of families brought their children to the Early Childhood Center. Our Yachad program now teaches more than 300 children and parents each Saturday morning with a learning program that has caught the attention of the Jewish world. Our Chesed Committee bakes and delivers food to families in celebration and mourning, acts of generosity that develop sustaining bonds for our membership. And this very Sanctuary, besides serving as the seat of our spiritual strivings, also has hosted dignitaries and authors, artists and musicians, philanthropists and politicians—all in an effort to articulate not only who we are but who may yet come to be as a people, as a community, as a synagogue.
I so love what we do here together. My only wish is that we could do so in a space made as beautiful and cared for as our acts of lovingkindness.
And so in the spirit of the Hineni prayer, I must confess to a certain deficiency in good deeds. As your spiritual leader, I confess to not doing enough to rally this community around the sacred task of laying the new cornerstones of a renovated sanctuary space so that not only our generation but the next generation beyond ours may enjoy the privilege of building community, of learning, and knowing God here at Congregation Beth Elohim.
Look around if you will at our enormous needs: from sound-system to ceiling; from windows to pews; from lintels to rooftops. There is much to do in order to restore this grand sanctuary to the glory of its inception. In a conversation with Rabbi Weider earlier in the week, he told me that in what felt like moments after he arrived here more than thirty years ago, the ceiling of this sanctuary collapsed. His first five years were consumed with the maintenance of an old building, in need of repair. And here I stand, in brotherhood, aware of a similar need. We finished the replacement of the Temple House roof last year; and moments after, the men’s locker room floor nearly collapsed. These days it seems like everywhere we turn, there is a repair to be made.
Again, Tarfon. We’re not expected to complete the task, but we can’t sit this one out, either. This is our time, one hundred years later, our covenantal responsibility. This is our task. To love this Main Sanctuary as it was meant to be loved at the moment of its inception. Like Jacob who dreamed great dreams, and discovered that where he lay his head, on the rock, in the desert, was a Beit Elohim, God’s house, so are we obligated to cause God’s presence to emanate from these walls, to illuminate our neighborhood as a center of learning, charity and goodness.
Thousands will continue to sit in these seats, in this room, on these holy days, years into the future. Let us enable them to see and be seen in splendor. In glory. Let them be heard, and understood, through a sound system that works!
“This neighborhood is well populated, not one sparsely settled,” said Supreme Court Judge Samuel T. Maddox at the 1909 ceremony. “And consequently the greatest good will flow to the greatest number and the influence for good will be the more widely exerted and appreciated. The work to be done is grand and noble and the fruits of your labors shall live for years and years, maybe centuries after the youngest in years here present have been gathered to their fathers.”
In this grand and noble sanctuary; on the eve of the New Year; before the Gates of Heaven and the Book of Life, here, in our Beit Elohim, let us dedicate ourselves in the coming year to be not deficient but proficient in deeds. O’ God, let the work of our hands and hearts, in awe and humility, recognize that what was planted for us, we received from others.
Let us lay a new cornerstone of repair and renewal and by renewal I mean the abstract, the existential, the spiritual, along with the renewal of bricks and mortar, of sound and light, of chair and floor—to honor the 100th anniversary of this sanctuary and soon to be celebrated 150th anniversary of the founding of our synagogue.
And with this renewed dedication to our purpose, may we plant for those who come after us, just as those who came before planted for us, that others may learn words of Torah, perform acts of lovingkindness, and build a better, more peaceful world.