My Four Sermons
Farewell Sermon upon Retirement
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
June 26, 2020 – Tammuz 5, 5780
About 10 days ago I received a notice that one of my college Hebrew instructors, one of the local reform rabbis in Boston, had died at the age of 93. He required us to learn certain verb forms that appear in biblical Hebrew, but that are not used anymore. Some of the class complained to him, saying “Israelis don’t use these forms.” I, on the other hand, was delighted since my aspiration was rabbinical school, where I would need to know all these forms.
It got me thinking about all the influential teachers I’d had throughout my life who inspired or taught me. I would love to indulge in a nostalgia fest now, but that would not be an exercise in substance. There’s a dictum in the Pirkei Avot Chapter 6, Mishnah three, where we are taught
הַלּוֹמֵד מֵחֲבֵרוֹ פֶּרֶק אֶחָד, אוֹ הֲלָכָה אַחַת, אוֹ פָּסוּק אֶחָד, אוֹ דִּבּוּר אֶחָד, אוֹ אֲפִלּוּ אוֹת אַחַת – צָרִיךְ לִנְהֹג בּוֹ כָּבוֹד
Which means “if you learn from someone a single chapter, a single law, a single verse, a single sentence, or even a single letter-you must behave respectfully towards that person.” The rabbinic shorthand for that is that you say something “b’shem omro/ in the name of the person who said it”; in modern parlance it means you have to at least cite them in a footnote.
One thing I read a long time ago is that most clergy really have only three, or maybe four sermons in them. Perhaps occasionally five. Most of their sermons, this article said, boiled down to one of those handful of ideas; they were variations on a theme, or different commentaries on an idea. To my great shame and disappointment, I can’t remember who wrote this. I will, however, acknowledge the basic truth of the statement. And tonight, I’d like to take one final opportunity to underscore my handful of messages, the core of my teachings from which everything flows. Oh, and while a century ago clergy may have preached for 45 minutes, that won’t be happening tonight.
I’m a fourth-generation Reform Jew, and I’m well aware of the many changes and innovations that Reform Judaism has brought to the table of over the last 200 years. There were a couple of clunker decisions. For example, at one point in the 19th century, it was forbidden to make noise during the reading of the Megillah, the book of Esther on Purim; if you did, you could be fined. When I first came to B’nai Sholom I think there were people of this mindset. But there were some sublime changes as well, and one of the greatest I believe was the changing of the Torah portions on Yom Kippur, especially when we moved away from the table of incest in Leviticus 18 and moved to the holiness code in Leviticus 19. I am sure there was no desire among the reformers to legitimize incest with this change, but rather- in the Victorian age- to highlight this magnificent section at the center of the Torah. קדשים תהיו “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai, your God am holy.” Putting aside for the moment what קדשיםmeans, what holy means, we get the basic instruction to imitate and emulate God.
What does God do? If we look through the narratives of the Torah, we see a lot of things that God does. Our sages amplified what they saw in the Torah as well. God created people, and took care of them by giving them a place to live. God’s design provides for us all kinds of food. God rested. God provided clothing to protect us from the hot sun, and from the cold winter. God is the Oseh Shalom, the maker of peace. Thus, we imitate God by providing shelter to the homeless, and food to the hungry. We imitate God by being advocates for peace, and for providing clothing to those in need. We imitate God when we rest on Shabbat. We imitate God when we show forgiveness, and patience, and love.
You get the idea. “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”
Number 2: Thirty-seven years ago, my ordination present to myself was an old Gibson mandolin, a 1921 model A. Thirty-seven years later, am I a mandolin player? Not yet. The early 20th century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was famously asked if he put on tefillin. His answer, even more famously, was “not yet.” “The idea of “not yet” teaches us that there’s always room to change, to grow, to improve, to consider new possibilities. Each of us has things we want to do that we haven’t gotten around to yet. We all have plans or hopes for the future which may or may not come to fruition. Still, we keep them on our “to do” list.
Not everything is personal, though. The great tasks are not ones of personal betterment, but of communal improvement, of healing and perfecting the world. The holiness of God that we emulate is intended, in the long run, to the creation of an ideal world. Boy, do we know that we are not in an ideal world! In the last few weeks I’ve spoken about pandemic, racism, and civil unrest. I haven’t even talked about war lately. I haven’t talked about the planned annexation of the West Bank, which-if I can use a term I’ve never used before-is the Hail Mary pass by a politician under indictment. No, the world needs lots of help.
None of us will make things better, let alone perfect. We are taught in the Mishnah
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
“It’s not upon you to complete the task. However, you are not free to ignore it.” This is my second sermon. We can’t just do nothing, even when we know it won’t be enough. And while it’s true that I usually apply this to the great issues of Tikkun olam, of repairing our universe to its primordial perfection, I suppose we can apply it to smaller and more mundane tasks as well. You could apply it to, to… Cleaning out the garage! You have to start somewhere, and you have to be part of the solution; sitting around and leaving the tasks to others is contrary to Rabbi Tarfon’s dictum here in Pirkei Avot. Your involvement is required.
I like this phrase so much that I have it enshrined on my license plate: AVOT 221.
My third recurring theme is מעלין בקדש ולא מורידין “in matters of holiness, we always increase, and don’t decrease.” A debate is recorded between Hillel and Shammai in the late first century BCE. Shammai wanted to light eight lights on the first night of Hanukkah and to decrease it each night by one light. Hillel wanted the opposite: one light on the first night, two lights on the second night, and so forth, just like the way we do it today. Hillel won the argument by citing as a general rule the principle “in matters of holiness we always increase, and don’t decrease.” This is far from the only time it’s used in the Talmud, but it’s a good example.
In our own lives, we should always aim for increasing the good, the praiseworthy, and yes, the holy. What each of us considers to be “holy” varies. I’m not going to specify at this moment what is holy for you; everyone can make that judgment themselves. I have my own ideas of what I think are holy behaviors, and I’ve been working on increasing them: a few months ago, I started in the Daf Yomi program, a 7 ½ year cycle of daily Talmud study. I’m fortunate that if I get a little behind, I can catch up on Shabbat. The “increase” in this Talmudic dictum comes from the same root as “Aliyah,” the term we use for settling in the land of Israel. Ma’alin baKodesh/ ascend in holiness: some years ago the idea came to Sharona and me that moving to Jerusalem would be an ideal way to spend the final chunk of our lives. Living by Jewish time, when the municipal siren goes off a few minutes before sundown on Friday, or sounds on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust memorial day, and people stop where they are, even pulling their cars to the side of the road in getting out, and stand at attention for two minutes of silence; they do the same on Yom HaZikkaron, memorial day for soldiers as well. Or when the cashier wishes you Shanah Tovah, or Shabbat shalom, or Hag Samei’ah. And when you are never assaulted by the majority culture which is not your own. For us, this is a step up in holiness, casting our lot with our people in our ancient homeland.
Which brings me to my fourth sermon. So far, I’ve had one from the Bible, and two from the Mishnah. The fourth phrase comes from the mid-20th century prayer, one called in English “The prayer for welfare of the State of Israel.” It was written jointly by the Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbis of Israel in the fall of 1948; Nobel laureate SY Agnon is said to have been asked to assist. The phrase characterizes the state of Israel as ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו -the beginning of the blossoming of our redemption. This is an incredibly powerful phrase, and it took me years to understand, appreciate, and accept its truth.
I’ve come to see the creation of the state of Israel as one of the great events in Jewish history. About every 500 years something huge happens: David makes Jerusalem the capital; the Babylonians destroy it; after it’s rebuilt, the Romans destroy it; the Talmud is completed; the Crusades decimate European Jewry; the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion; the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. These are all transformative events in the history of Judaism, watershed events, when the after can never be like the before.
We are living in the early post-statehood era. Just as Holocaust survivors walk among us, testifying by their presence the dangers of being a landless, homeless people, so are the Halutzim, the Zionist pioneers still among us. The millennial aspirations of Judaism, to be returned to our homeland, are now possible. And a new Judaism is forming, one that will transform our people for the future. Israel is a petri dish. Lithuanian orthodoxy, Eastern European Hasidism, Balkan and North African Sephardim, the Mizrahi culture of Syria and Iraq, Yemenite Judaism, Anglo and French and Ethiopian Jewish culture, reform Judaism rooted in the 19th century, and 20th century conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, 20th century Zionist and socialist thought: all these come together in the state of Israel today, and we learn from each other in the streets, on the Internet, as next-door neighbors. It’s an amazing time to be a Jew. Moreover, we have control over our destiny. For the last half of the 20th century we rolled our eyes in amazement at those 19th century German Jewish philosophers who believed that Germany was the high point of civilization. Now, in the 21st century, we laugh at those who said that America was the high point of civilization, that it was a safe haven for the Jews. The restorative healing that must come to this country will take a long time to drive the forces of evil back into the shadows.
So my friends
- be holy קדשים תהיו
- do something לא עליך
- increase holiness מעלין בקדש
- appreciate the time in which we live. ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו
These, my friends, are the significant messages I have tried to communicate over the years. I pray that as they have been meaningful messages to me, they will be for you as well in the days and years ahead.