And so we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said or did what they did, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you, too, yourself may be a messenger. Perhaps even one whose errand extends over several lifetimes.
-Lawrence Kushner (Mishkan T’filah p. 143)
* * *
In the spring of 1960, a rabbi from Houston, TX gave a Shabbat sermon to Hebrew Union College’s graduating rabbinic class on the eve of their ordination. His topic was: what it means to be a rabbi.
A rabbi, he said, does many things: he teaches and he preaches, he leads services and officiates life-cycle events, he visits the sick and comforts the bereaved, he’s active in civic life and works for justice.
These and many other things are what a rabbi does, he said. But the essence of what a rabbi is….well, that, he said can be captured in one word. One word that gives unity to the many and varied functions we perform on a daily basis.
And that one word can be found in the very title we bear. In Hebrew, the title rabbi is spelled with three letters: reish, bet, yod. And if you take those three letters as an acronym, he said, you get the phrase ro’eh b’nai yisrael – which means: “shepherd of the children of Israel.”
We rabbis do many different things, but at the heart of it all, our role is to be a shepherd: to guide our people in their quest for meaning, purpose, sacred community, and God.
The rabbi who gave this sermon 57 years ago in the spring of 1960 was Rabbi Robert I. Kahn. He was the rabbi emeritus of my home congregation in Houston. He was my mother’s rabbi when she was growing up.
Like Rabbi Azriel is to so many of you, Rabbi Kahn was a larger-than-life figure to me and my family. We revered him and loved him.
I first heard Rabbi Kahn’s sermon, which he entitled “The Faithful Shepherd,” on a CD-recording given to me 14 years ago, soon after I had decided to apply to rabbinic school.
I felt as though he was speaking across the ages, directly to me – calling me to this sacred duty. And it was overwhelming.
Imagine hearing Rabbi Azriel’s voice calling out to you: “I am sending you, God is sending you, to be a faithful shepherd to this people. Now GO!”
* * *
I had not always wanted to be a rabbi. In fact, until I was about 25 years old, it never even crossed my mind.
Back then, I was building a great career in politics. I was working in Washington, D.C. as the press secretary to a U.S. senator. I mean it when I say I never saw this coming.
But something profound happened for me during my first year in D.C. I wouldn’t realize just how profound until years later – but life happens that way sometimes, right? People come into our lives – sometimes in very ordinary or unremarkable ways – and change us forever.
For me that person was a friend named Susan. She and I worked together in Sen. Fitzgerald’s office. Susan was an evangelical Christian and I was a Jew – although, admittedly, Judaism wasn’t a big part of my life or my identity back then.
Susan was quite curious about Judaism and she would often ask me questions about it – questions, I realized, I could not answer intelligently. I felt embarrassed by my ignorance, and I didn’t like it, so I decided I needed to learn more about my own religion. I called up my rabbi from home and asked him to recommend some books for me to read.
And the more I learned, I began realizing certain things about myself: that I was living on the surface; that I wanted more meaning and purpose in my life; that there was a better, deeper, kinder version of myself yearning to come into being.
That was when I first started thinking: “Hmm, maybe I’d like to be a rabbi someday. Hmm…nah, that would be crazy! Too big a change – and anyway, I’m definitely not qualified to be a rabbi. Who knows? Maybe someday, but definitely not now.”
My perspective changed on September 11, 2001. I saw the Pentagon burning from my office window, and we thought the Capitol would be next. It was a traumatic experience, and I was both grateful and amazed that somehow I didn’t die that day.
About a year later, one of my childhood friends died from brain cancer. She was 28, and so was I – and it was then that I finally understood: life is fragile; we don’t know how long we’re going to be here.
For several years I’d been sitting with this idea of becoming a rabbi, but I was too afraid to actually try it. But now I was ready.
I had no idea what lay ahead for me on this path, and yet I felt compelled – called – to take it. Aside from marrying Karen and starting our family, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
* * *
The rabbinate is more than my life’s work; it is the essence of who I am and how I aspire to live in the world.
A friend once asked me about my approach to the role of being a rabbi. After searching fruitlessly for something profound to say, I came up with this: “I guess I just try to be myself.”
I think of myself not as a hired professional, but as a member of the community – and I try to lead that way.
I genuinely enjoy people, and I hope to be not only your rabbi, but also your friend.
I love to teach and learn – and I’m excited to study with you because I believe that Judaism’s sacred texts can help us – you and I, alike – navigate the unique circumstances of our own lives.
In giving sermons and divrei Torah, I try to draw not only on my knowledge of Jewish sources, but also on insights I gain from you, along with my own experiences, in order to speak authentically to the struggles and aspirations we all share.
As a prayer leader, I strive to pray not on your behalf, but with you, so that together we can rise to toward the heavens.
I try to lead with compassion and humility, because I am ever mindful of what Rabbi Kahn said:
that, although I am a rabbi – and a shepherd – of this community, the more important truth is that “I am creature and not creator; that I, too, am a sheep in God’s pasture.”
I make this promise to you tonight: that I will go out there every day and try to be myself, because I believe that, in the end, all of us are seeking the same thing: to feel loved, to find meaning and purpose in life, and to be embraced by people who genuinely care.
In my view, it is the synagogue’s mission – and the shepherd’s mission – to create this kind of community for its people. All the rest, as they say, is commentary.
* * *
And yet, the commentary is important, too.
Temple Israel is a diverse congregation: we have members from many different backgrounds, in all stages of life – and each of you has your own interests and spiritual needs. That means each of you has, or will have, your own entry point – or what I call a “portal” – into Jewish life.
For some of you, it may be deep and rigorous Torah study that stimulates your mind, challenges your assumptions, and invites you to think differently about the world.
For some of you it might be soulful prayer, with a beautiful tapestry of music and words that lift your spirit, and help you penetrate into the recesses of your being and connect to the sublime mystery of existence.
Some of you may find that caring for people in need, working for justice for the vulnerable, building this amazing Tri-Faith Initiative for peace and understanding is your portal, because serving humanity is the essence of what it means to serve God.
Whatever our own personal portal is, I believe that when we finally discover it, something happens that ignites a spark in our soul and changes our life forever.
For me it was study – thanks to Susan and my feelings of inadequacy at being unable to answer her questions. For you it may be something else.
My job – our job – as your clergy is to be your shepherds – to help you discover your own personal portal…
so that when you walk through it, you will experience the transformational power of Judaism, connect with people who share your values, find meaning and purpose in your life, and feel the loving embrace of God and community more deeply than you ever have before.
But Cantor Shermet, Rabbi Berezin, and I can’t do this alone.
As Rabbi Kahn put it, we are shepherds but not sheepdogs. We can’t help you find to your portal unless you are willing to participate actively in the journey.
So I invite you tonight to join with us in sacred partnership in our mutual quest for Jewish meaning and purpose.
Open your heart to it; open your soul to it; share your time with us; show up, be here, walk with us – and I promise you, your life will be enriched by doing so.
We can do this together, and for each other. Because, as Lawrence Kushner writes:
We understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said or did what they did, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you, too, yourself may be a messenger. Perhaps even one whose errand extends over several lifetimes.
The prayer on the opposite page, Shalom Aleichem, is about opening ourselves to the possibility of being transformed in unexpected ways by God’s messengers, who are often the ordinary people who come in and out of our lives.
I believe Susan came into my life for a reason. Rabbi Kahn came into my life for a reason. Cantor Shermet, and Rabbi Berezin, and Rabbi Azriel – they all come into your lives for a reason. We have come into each other’s lives for a reason.
So now that we’re here, let’s join in sacred partnership, and discover how we can transform each other, our community, and our world together.
Shabbat Shalom, and Shalom Aleichem.