In just about every service in which we read from the Torah, we sing the words of Shimon Hatzadik, Simeon the Righteous to a melody by Israeli composer Chaim Zur. This saying is one of the many sets of “three” teachings contained in the Sayings of the Sages, Pirkei Avot. We know this one well in English and in Hebrew: The world is sustained by - or stands upon – three things – on Torah, on worship, and on loving deeds” - OR - Al sh’loshah d’varim ha-olam omeid. Al hatorah, v’al ha-avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim.
This is more than an ancient teaching, and more than a mere “filler” that we sing as we are undressing the Torah after it has been carried around the sanctuary. It expresses the very foundation of everything we do at Temple. Imagine that you are an anthropologist or sociologist who is reporting on the life of a Jewish community, and all you have to go on is this saying from Pirkei Avot. You are charged to observe Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces for a week. What would you see? You would see our Religious School begin each new week on Sundays with bright faces of children engaging with enthusisasm in TORAH – Jewish learning. You would see the containers in the entry foyer for contributions to the Casa de Peregrinos food pantry and the El Cadito soup kitchen. The donations of food brought by congregants express the value of G’milut Chasadim, performing loving deeds. You might see students bringing tzedakah to their classes to be given to a cause of their choice. On Monday, you would see me and Paulette in the office, getting everything set for the week as the Mah Jong group arrives. Currently on Monday nights, the Proverbs class focuses on a classic wisdom book from the Bible. On Tuesday, the Knitting group would be in the library while the office bustles with activity. On Wednesday, the breakfast group features speakers on a wide variety of topics, followed by the Torah study group. Both gatherings touch upon TORAH in its broadest sense. Hebrew school in the afternoon and the Judaism: Roots and Rituals class in the evening round out TORAH on Wednesdays. On Thursdays, Paulette and I might be finishing up the Adelante newsletter or preparing for an important program or for the monthly board meeting that evening. You might come upon the ways-and-means committee meeting that night in recent weeks. You would see Linda Kruger and others working in the Library during the week, further organizing our still-growing collection of books and resources. There may be members coming in to set up the Social Hall just right for an upcoming event. Then comes Friday, when we make final preparations for Shabbat. On Friday evening, as Shabbat begins, we experience our main time of AVODAH, worship that gathers us together to pray, to sing, and to be a community in person. On Shabbat morning, the Talmud study group engages in lively discussion as it has for years. The service that follows on Shabbat morning includes peer study of the PARASHAT HASHAVUA, the Torah portion for the week. The handouts prepared for this meeting tell the rest of the story, including special programs and holiday celebrations. The weekly eblast, the Temple website and the Temple facebook page keep members near and far current with what is happening here. For all that we do, the foundation is TORAH, AVODAH and G’MILUT CHASADIM – studying and discussing together to share our ideas and accumulated wisdom, praying and singing as a community to give voice to feelings deep within our souls about life and its value and meaning, and extending our hands to help each other and to improve the quality of life for our community and the world.
Pirkei Avot Chapter Two includes a series of “three teachings” from five students of first century rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. The “set of three” that resonated with me the most was by Rabbi Yosay Hakohein. He taught: “Let your friend’s property or money be as dear to you as your own. Discipline yourself to learn Torah, for it is not something you inherit. And let your every deed be for the sake of heaven.” The first of those declarations directs us to think about our fellow community members as being in the same position as we are – having to use their resources and wherewithal for personal sustenance and well-being. Temple’s involvement in CAFÉ – Communities in Action and Faith – bears out this teaching. CAFÉ encourages us to engage in one-on-one or small group conversations about the values and causes in the greater community that matter to us as individuals and as a congregation. Such discussions, along with our lively discourse in our study groups, have the potential to illustrate these words of Maya Angelou: “I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” The Transition Committee, headed by Jim Rosenthal, has been greatly helpful for me and for Rhonda in this area. It has enabled us to smoothly integrate into the congregation to foster a high level of mutual respect, understanding and kinship. My installation in December marked an important point in that process. The Transition committee has been and is essential for us to continue to understand each other and to keep us on the same page.
Rabbi Yosay’s counsel to “discipline yourself to learn Torah” reminds us that, no matter what our background, we need to create our own foundation of knowledge and experience. My 30 years in the rabbinate prior to coming to Las Cruces prepared me well to be your rabbi. Serving as your spiritual leader means understanding how you see yourselves as individuals within this Temple and as members of this Jewish community. I am not the same rabbi that I was a year ago, and that is a good thing, because it means that you have changed and challenged me. Partnership in worship and study is, for me, at an all-time high in my rabbinate here at Temple Beth-El. There is even more that we can do to energize committees that deal with education, membership, fundraising and special programs. The new Temple Board and I will be reviewing the valuable ideas contained in the Temple Beth-El future planning document created two years ago. We will also continue conversations with congregants in informal settings to help us set our course for the coming years. “Discipline yourself for Torah” also means that our partnership in applying Jewish tradition to our lives needs to be based on regard for each other and for the teachings of our heritage. I try to be flexible with certain rituals and standards when I believe that principles like “love your neighbor as yourself,” “we are all created in the divine image,” and “do not separate yourself from the community” might override other considerations. I also want you to know that I may not readily answer emails on Shabbat because Shabbat, in certain respects, is important in our life and home. It can be important as well in the life of any congregation. For most Reform congregations, some degree of Shabbat practice and worship has always been axiomatic and essential. Find out what Reform Jewish camps do on Shabbat and you will see what I mean.
Finally, Rabbi Yosay said, “let all your deeds be done for the sake of heaven.” Judaism teaches us to strive for goodness at all times and to recognize that everything that we do has a higher purpose. David Katowitz, a consultant with the Synagogue Strategies group, advises congregations mostly on financial issues. Yet, the questions he first asks Temple leaders are about something very different. Here are the questions that he believes every Temple member should consider:
What does Temple mean to you? How has Temple impacted your life? What is your vision of Temple in five years? How can we strengthen Temple to be an even more vibrant sacred community?” The deepest and most significant questions about a congregation are in the realm of the sacred. Once a Temple creates a holy community, a KAHAL KADOSH, then everything that the congregation does, by definition, can be for the sake of heaven, reflecting the highest values of Jewish life. That is a charge that all of us can fulfill together.
In so many ways, the pictures that I shared on the handouts for the meeting reflect the many dimensions of our KAHAL KADOSH, our holy community at Temple Beth-El. Those photos show that every face, every person is important to Temple life. This congregation, from the start, had an immediate impact on Rhonda and me as we began to set down and deepen our roots in southern New Mexico. That process continues with each new day. Paulette has been a great support in the office. Mark Steinborn has been a generous breakfast partner and a concerned and committed comrade in leadership. Those who serve on the Temple Board and committees; our Religious School faculty and students and parents; study group participants; Sisterhood, Mensch club, and Beth-El Temple Youth leaders and members; the Temple choir; and everyone who has attended worship and Temple programs have enriched my life greatly over these last 11 months. As I told the Religious School families and teachers on Sunday, Rhonda is the one faculty member who has followed me wherever I have served as rabbi. I am fortunate to have her by my side with her wisdom about life and her passion for Judaism. You should know that when our son Adam left here in December following my installation, he said, “I am glad I came, because now I know for sure that you are in a good place.” I promise to continue to give of my energy and talents to you and I trust that you will offer your best in return as we join together to sustain and enhance this sacred community.
There is one more “teaching of three things” that I want to share tonight. Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel said, “The world sustains itself by three things: by justice, by truth and by peace.” In that spirit, let us always strive for respectful decision making, fairness, honesty and openness. All of those approaches and qualities combined will lead us to peace and completeness at Temple Beth-El that will continue into the future. So may we do – and let us say Amen.