The View from Mount Nebo: Leaving in the Middle

May 31, 2013

A joke I’ve told before:  What’s the difference between God and a rabbi?  God doesn’t fantasize about being a rabbi.

Feigning humility, though, we rabbis are more likely to compare ourselves to Moses.  The rabbis of old called him Mosheh rabbeinu, “Moses our rabbi,” the model for all who would follow.

And wouldn’t all rabbis like to stay in the same congregation, like Moses, for 40 years?  My own goal was only slightly more modest:  36 years of service at Temple Beth-El would have taken me to retirement at 65.  dayyeinu.  It would have been enough.  But that was not meant to be.  And tonight I would like to ask you to consider that the 21 years we had together were in many ways dayyeinu, a blessing we can celebrate together.

Even Moses wanted even more than the four decades of leadership that he was granted.  God ended Moses’s tenure before fulfillment of his stated mission.  Children of Israel would enter the Promised Land under a new leader.

Moses, like all of us, leaves in the middle.

In some way, large or small, we all share that experience of leaving with so much more to see or to do.

Let me share a personal recollection:  When I graduated high school, I felt a sentimental sadness at having to leave TOFTY, our Texas-Oklahoma regional youth group.  The officers who followed my classmates and me were friends of mine, too; and I was distressed that I would not be there to enjoy and participate in their senior year.

More significantly, we have all lost loved ones – some too early, of course, but right now I’m focusing on those who died at the end of long, full, happy, good and productive lives.  Even after all those years and decades, we are left wanting more.  We still wish they were present at moments large and small, even long past any reasonable human lifespan.

Whether leaving high school or life on Earth, a job or a community, we all move on, aware that others will continue without us.  We will all leave in the middle

Only if we are truly blessed will we have the good fortune Moses experiences at the end of his life.  God brings Moses to Mt. Nebo, permitting him to look out from its heights and survey the entire Land of Israel below to the west.  Moses leaves with a sense of where the Children of Israel have come under his leadership; he knows that he leaves them in a good place.  In fact, the rabbis teach in midrash that Moses’ job is complete.  He has led the people out of slavery and prepared the congregation of Israel to enter their Promised Land.

Today, I mark a full year from the day I ended my active tenure as your Senior Rabbi.  In this last year, many of us have continued to share sacred moments.  We have all had a chance to get used to the reality that I’m leaving.  And I’ve had a good long look from my own version of Mt. Nebo, a vista I would like to share with you now.

Unlike Moses, I am able to look in two directions.  One of them is forward, to the new challenges and opportunities that await me at Congregation B’nai Israel, to the new home and the new friends already embracing Toni, Robert, Daniel, and me in Little Rock.  But tonight, our focus is on the other view, into the past, into what we have accomplished together, the blessing that remains even after leaving in the middle.  I am boundlessly grateful that we have journeyed to this place, you and I, together.  And, like Moses at Mt. Nebo, I am confident that you will journey into a promised land, with a new leader, in the years to come.

Not a single one of these blessings is of my own making.  You have bestowed magnificent staff partners upon me, and together we have been enriched by the extraordinary attention lavished upon this Temple by lay leadership at every level, and by every congregant who have supported this holy Temple.  I cannot say enough about my staff colleagues, my dear friends, with whom I’ve been privileged to share this sacred work, or about the elected Temple leaders – the Presidents, above all – who have shared the vision and the burden.

There is a temptation to enumerate every one of our achievements together, from a magnificently preserved and reinvigorated Temple facility to a revived Brotherhood, from full inclusion of a diverse array of congregants and families of every kind to the meaningful social justice investment we have made in our immediate neighborhood.  And we have maintained and grown strengths of Temple Beth-El that long preceded my tenure here:  an unparalleled commitment to our youth, here and at Greene Family Camp; and uncommon participation in San Antonio’s faith community, Jewish and beyond.  All will continue to bless Temple Beth-El into the future; none depends on me.

The same is true of the development on which I would like to concentrate tonight, the single accomplishment of which I am most proud as I look back with you tonight, the blessing we celebrate here every week at this hour:  Friday nights at Temple Beth-El.  You and I have nurtured a congregation that is warm and welcoming and embracing of diversity rare in American religious life.  We doubled Friday night attendance in the last decade, in part due to a thoughtfully evolving worship pattern.  Even more, though, the tremendous weekly gathering here is testament that Temple Beth-El is your community, your synagogue home.  You come here on Friday night, knowing that you will find people who care about you, and people whose well-being really matters to you.  Whether you will be led by Rabbi and Cantor or by volunteer shlihei tzibbur and musicians, you come here confident that the music will take you where you need to go spiritually, that the Torah reading will challenge you, and that the sermon or D’var Torah will energize and inspire you.

More than anything we have done together, though, is the feeling I have for you, the members of Temple Beth-El.  The rabbis teach that there is no love like the love of one’s youth.  Temple Beth-El is not the last congregation with which I will fall in love, but you will always have been the first.  We have shared so many special moments, one-on-one and collectively – the most saddening losses, yes, but also the greatest simchas.  Being your rabbi these 21 years, I have eulogized dear friends, honoring men and women at the end of their lives after having shared a goodly portion of those lives.  More happily, I have officiated at countless B’nai, Mitzvah of young people I named and blessed, and at more than a few weddings of kids I taught in Confirmation.  I had looked forward to so much more; losing those blessings is the hardest part of leaving.  But that would have been true at retirement, too.  No matter when I left, I would have left in the middle.

Decades before Moses ascends Mt. Nebo, he commissions spies, charged to examine the Promised Land and bring back a report.  The story is in this week’s Torah portion.  Unanimously, the spies agree that the land flows with milk and honey.  But there’s a problem:  Other people are there.  They are strong, and their fortifications appear impenetrable.  Ten of the twelve spies fear defeat, and the Israelites follow them into despair.

Friends, I’m sure that we too are unanimous:  Temple Beth-El flows with Torah and activism, music and community, heritage and excellence.  But we also know there is much to overcome.

I ask you to look forward with the faith of this portion’s heroes, Joshua and Caleb.  They are not in denial about the challenges that lie ahead, nor should you be.  And yet, Caleb hushes the Israelites’ despair, proclaiming that, with God’s help, the Children of Israel will surely prevail.  And Joshua leads the Children of Israel into their future.

Do not despair.  The future of Temple Beth-El is a land of promise.

My journey with you ends here.  I will not be part of charting the next direction.  Nor will I be returning to officiate a Bar Mitzvah or a funeral, to consecrate a wedding or to name that baby.  As much as it may pain me, I will not call to follow up after you are discharged from the hospital.  No, I will not stop caring.  Toni, Robert, Daniel and I will always have friends here, and we have family.  But I will no longer be a rabbi of Temple Beth-El.

Recently, I ordered more personal stationery.  I expect to write lots of notes, destination San Antonio.  I pray that more will be congratulations than condolences.

And so I leave you in the capable, caring hands of Cantor Berlin, Rabbi Crystal, and Rabbi Koppel.  And I leave them and all of my staff colleagues and friends in your capable and caring hands.

And I charge you as Moses beseeched Joshua:  Hazak v’ematz!  Be strong and of good courage.  Partner with your new rabbi to face the challenges together, with God’s help.  When despair rises, hush it like Caleb before you.  Together, may you march with faith into a new promised land, under your dome, and reaching beyond.

Amen.  And Amen.


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