Rabbi Shohama delivered these remarks on Friday, March 27, 2015, to kick off the celebration weekend of Rabbi David’s installation.
It is a joy to share some words of Torah with all you on this Shabbat- Shabbat HaGadol, it was named. The Great Sabbath. The Rabbis of old named this the Great Sabbath because it is the one that comes just before our holy festival of Passover. Tonight is indeed the Shabbat before the beginning of Passover, just a week away. For us, here, it is also the Great Sabbath because we have a celebration unprecedented in the history of “Your Shul by the Sea.” We will be acknowledging and blessing a newly minted rabbi, one who has over the past 6 years earned a place in our hearts and souls as a spiritual leader and guide. I am ever so happy to share this rabbinic pulpit with Rabbi David.
There is a theme that runs through our Torah reading tomorrow, our celebration of our newest rabbi, and the upcoming holy festival of Passover, and that is – how do we prepare and bless spiritual leaders, and what qualities do we seek in them? Tomorrow’s Torah reading speaks of the customs surrounding the installation of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest Aaron and also his sons, the Kohanim, the Priests. I am reminded of a rabbi who lived about a hundred years ago, a descendant of the Kohanim, the Priests of old, who was known both for his learning and his caring for all people. People called him the Chofetz Chaim, which means the one who desires life, because it was the title of a book he wrote based on this line from Psalm 34. “Who is the person who desires life, who loves days of seeing good? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”
Just as the Chofetz Chaim was known for his exceptional qualities of lovingkindness as well as his command of Jewish law, so too Passover is about becoming a better person as a means to spiritual freedom, and about the laws of preparing our homes and Seder tables. This connects to our Torah reading because The High Priest Aaron was legendary for making peace between one person and another; as it says in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 1:12): “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow-creatures, and drawing them near to the Torah.” Aaron was the model for Elijah the prophet whom we invite to our tables at the Seder. The haftorah, the Biblical reading from the prophet Malachi assigned to this Shabbat says, in the name of God, “Hinei anochi sholeychachem et Eliyahu hanavi (behold I will send you Elijah the prophet) lifnei bo yom Adonai hagadol v’hanorah (before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.)” This great and awesome day, says Malachi, is when the hearts of parents will be turned towards their children and the hearts of children to their parents. We can understand this not literally as about parents and children, but about the reconciliation of all humans who struggle with each other in relationship.
It was to this cause that the Chofetz Chaim devoted his life. Here’s a well known story about this great rabbi. There was a young Jewish student (let’s call him Abie) who lived before World War I, at a time when various secular movements were gaining favor as a way to make peoples’ lives better. Abie was torn between his Jewish studies and way of life and joining one of the increasingly popular secular groups, one of them being Communism.
He decided to travel to the Chofetz Chaim’s home town in Lithuania and seek his advice. When he arrived, he was told that the rabbi had just gone into his room to pray. A woman from another village had arrived and asked the Chofetz Chaim to pray for her baby who was on the cusp of life and death. Abie decided to wait outside the house of the Chofetz Chaim. When his curiosity got the better of him, he walked over to the window of the Chofetz Chaim’s room and peeked in. Standing there in awe, he saw the loving face of the Chofetz Chaim drenched in tears, as he cried out to Heaven on behalf of the baby. Abie stood by the window deep in thought and decided to return to his Jewish school, not even waiting to speak to the Chofetz Chaim. Years later, when Abie became a head of his own large Jewish school, he told his close disciples that it was when he saw the Chofetz Chaim weeping and praying for this child that he realized he was given the answer he was seeking. What was that answer?
The path which can produce overflowing love for a single human being is the path that can lead to a new and better world for all human beings.
This Sabbath, this Shabbat HaGadol, reminds us of this core Jewish teaching, that we are here to care for each other. In addition, unlike Abie, we do not need to choose between the secular and the Jewish; we can live them both. I love this shul, our members and our friends, because we are a community that shows up for each other. Thank you all for showing up this weekend to celebrate our shul’s 81st anniversary, and to honor our former Board member Michael Eiron and my new rabbinic partner, Rabbi David Evan Markus. May they continue to be blessings to us and to all they meet. Let us say, Amen!