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Kol Nidre 5774

Retirement Reflections
Rabbi Daniel Pressman

This is the last time I will speak to the entire congregation assembled. It’s hard to believe it’s been 32 years — almost half my life —since my first High Holy Days with you.

I can identify with Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, much of which is Moses’s last occasion to speak to the entire people of Israel. There is so much one wants to say.

To state the obvious—I’m no Moses! And I have a stricter time limit. But having spoken and written hundreds of thousands of words over these years, I asked myself, what have I tried to teach?

I identified six recurring themes: community, compassion, Torah, Israel, faith, and gratitude. I spoke about Israel on Rosh Hashanah, so let me touch briefly on the others.

I begin with community. In my first High Holy Day sermon, I decried the false philosophies that tell us “that selfishness is a virtue, that altruism is both foolish and ineffective.” Sadly, diminished fellow feeling and crumbling social connection have only worsened. Individualism runs rampant, and so does loneliness. I have been guided by Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words:  “Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community ….The Jew does not stand alone before God; it is as a member of the community that he stands before God.”[1]

Back then I said that we must reach out to “help everyone feel that they are part of the holy covenant.” Since then, I’ve talked of Bethdavidville, and repeated the mantra of kehillah kedoshah—sacred community.

I’ve seen the truth of Rabbi David Teutsch’s words:

Community would be more attractive to many people if somebody else did it for them. But it doesn’t work that way. The community is mine only if I act like a member of it. The more activities I do in the community, the more interpersonal connections I share, makes each activity all the more meaningful.”[2]

I was gratified to learn that one of the top positives that came out of our recent congregational forum was a sense of community, inclusion and participation. I know that under Rabbi Ohriner’s leadership, Beth David will continue and enrich its efforts to care for members in time of need and deepen connection and engagement with one another.

A second theme is compassion. One of my sermons that first High Holy days was titled, “The Treasure of Compassion.” We see so much callousness and coarseness in the general culture. Humiliation is entertainment and bloodshed escalates to outpace desensitization. In our politics, the reasoned discourse envisioned by our founding fathers is shoved aside by rage and character assassination. Some politicians would misread scripture to justify cutting off food assistance to the poor—ideology blinding them to clear biblical teaching.

Again, Heschel has been my teacher: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” So I have decried the cruelties of reality television, the viciousness of public discourse, and pervasive cynicism about even the possibility of human goodness.

Compassion is the foundation of ethics. I have been deeply influenced by Emmanuel Levinas’s profoundly Jewish idea that philosophy must begin not with abstract discourse on the nature of being, but with ethics. Ethics starts with a response to face of the other. We must truly see the other as a person like ourselves, as someone of infinite worth. As Levinas wrote, “The Jew was never alone with God; it’s always…the Jew, the other, and God, with God revealing Himself only through the other.” If we see the face of the other, we will be kind in speech and in deed. We will act not for personal gain alone, but with consciousness of our impact on others.

Love of Torah is a unifying thread through everything I’ve done. I thank Beth David for its support of my continuing education, in particular my four sabbaticals.

My personal spirituality is grounded in the encounter with Jewish text, and I treasure Rabbi Louis Finklestein’s words, “When I pray I speak to God; When I study Torah God speaks to Me.” And so I have grounded my teaching in text, and I have expressed my own inspiration from the wisdom and insight of our tradition.

Beth David has shared this devotion. I am in awe of some of our life-long Jewish learners, and I admire the way our leadership keep Jewish values in mind even in the mundane daily workings of the congregation. I was quite moved recently when Vivian Golub and Tanya Lorien presented our new Employee Handbook to us. They stressed that it was not only a document for compliance with state and federal law, but an expression of Jewish values—in many cases going beyond the requirements of civil law.

While still a student, an article by Rabbi Daniel Syme prodded me to consider talking more about God and belief than had been common 40 years ago. I have tried to present not only my ideas, but also the thought of some of our great theologians, like Elliot Dorff, Neil Gillman, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others. My adult education class this Fall will continue this theme. I have acknowledged the challenges of belief in a world where atheists write best-sellers crudely debunking religion. And I have publicly affirmed my faith in a loving, personal God despite human suffering and my own personal loss.

I have been strengthened in my faith by the philosophy of Conservative Judaism. I looked at the essays I wrote when applying to rabbinical school. They made for pretty embarrassing reading—who was that callow, shallow guy? I have an excuse: I was but 20 years old.

But I saw some seeds of my later self, and one of them was my fondness for the words of Rabbi Israel Friedlander in his vision of an ideal American Jewish community: “Blending the best they possess with the best they encounter.” This has been a touchstone for my personal faith and practice, the affirmation that one can live a faithful Jewish life and be in and of the world. In Friedlander’s words, “Receiving and resisting, not yielding like wax to every impress from the outside.” Just as Judaism always has learned from its environment, so Judaism has something to teach to the wider world and the way we live in it. If the transient contemporary always trumps Jewish tradition, then we are merely an ethnicity of food and nostalgia, not a world religion with eternal wisdom and ideals.

The last theme has been gratitude. Ingratitude is the enemy of faith, relationships, and happiness.

Rabbi Heschel wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” I aspire to this, and I have know moments when the light setting a trees leaves aglow or the starry sky have filled me with thanks that I live in such a creation.

If we take the world as just being there, unaware of its daily miracles, how will we find its creator peering out at us?

And how can we maintain our relationships with loved ones, with friends, and yes, with our synagogue, if we take who they are and what they do for granted?

Twenty-four years ago I told you about Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s friend whose mussar group prescribed an exercise for improving their sense of gratitude. “The leader suggested that they consider something they usually do or have and think for ten minutes about its ramifications.” The friend drank a cup of coffee every morning, so he chose that as his subject. He wrote down his thoughts, and was astonished to find that ten minutes turned into 35 as he followed the coffee beans from their harvest in Brazil, through roasting, grinding and packing, then their shipment to the port in Haifa and thence to his grocery store in Jerusalem. So many steps and so many people were involved! Pliskin writes, “For the first time, he became aware of the thousands of people whose work was necessary for him to have that drink of coffee. This awareness led him to a most intense spiritual experience. His prayers for the next few weeks were permeated with a deep feeling of gratitude to the Almighty.”[3]

That story tells us how gratitude leads to happiness, just as ingratitude guarantees misery.

Taking these themes all together—community, compassion, Torah, Israel, faith, and gratitude—I see how they dovetail with Jewish concerns with God, Torah, and the Jewish people. They are reflected in our synagogue’s mission to be a house of prayer, learning, and community. And they have enriched my life as a Jew and my work as a rabbi.

Finally, having cited gratitude, I must conclude with some thank-yous. Thank you to my parents, who raised me in an observant Jewish home and gave me Jewish learning and experiences that kindled my love of Judaism. Thank you to Camp Ramah and USY, who showed me living Conservative Judaism and introduced me to life-long friends, and to my future wife. Thank you to those teachers who not only taught me text, but were also models of piety and compassion. Thank you to my first pulpit, Congregation Ner Tamid, for deciding to hire an untried 27-year old to be their rabbi. You should thank them. They were my beta-testers.

Thank you to all of you—my congregation and community for almost 33 years. You supported me, you listened to me—often enough—and you taught me.

On my twenty-fifth anniversary with Beth David, I said, “One of the gifts of being a rabbi is the perspective I get of the congregation and its members. No one told me at the Seminary that I would be inspired by congregants’ examples, but I have. I’ve learned from your words and your deeds. I’ve treasured your piety, commitment, goodness, learning, and compassion. I have found among you good and loyal and supportive friends.”

And, of course, I will be grateful for as long as I live for the way you supported Beverly during her illness and me after she died. That experience of genuine Jewish community was a ray of light in a time of darkness.

Thank you to my children, for putting up with the weird burden of being a rabbi’s child. I am grateful that they all stay in touch, that they are flourishing as adults, and that they get along so well with each other.

Thank you to Beverly, my childhood sweetheart and wife of 39 years for being a wonderful wife and mother, for her beautiful voice that rose out of her lovely soul, and for making me a better person than I would have been without her.

And thank you to God from whom all blessings flow. Growing up in a rabbi’s home, seeing him attend funerals and visit hospitals, I never thought that there was life free of suffering. I know that faith is constructed with that knowledge. And I feel grateful for my life and for the opportunity to serve you, to grow with you, to learn from you, and to know you.

Now I have a request—two requests, actually. To the older generation: the founders and pioneers; the congregants who created the wonderful Beth David culture and built this building. You gave us this great gift: now you are called to help preserve it for the next generation. Help with the renewal of the building and share your wealth with the endowment, so the Bath David can become decreasingly dependent on dues as the years go by.

To the younger generations: those of you in your thirties, forties and fifties: These good people built for you. Their financial support and hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer time are why Beth David exists. This is a time of transition not just for Beth David, but also for American Jewish life. I urge you joyfully to accept this generational hand-off; to give of your time, treasure and talent: for the sake of your children, and other people’s children. For the sake of your Jewish growth, and outreach beyond our walls. For the sake of Beth David’s future and the nourishment of your souls.

I began my first High Holy Day sermon in 1981 with a story, with which I will conclude:

Rabbi Isaac lived in terrible poverty in the city of Cracow. He dreamed that in Prague he would find a great treasure under the bridge that leads to the King’s palace. He dismissed the dream as a wishful fantasy born out of his need, but it kept recurring. So he set out for Prague, where he indeed found the bridge exactly as he had envisioned—with one new detail: the bridge was closely guarded day and night. Obsessed, despairing, R. Isaac came day after day to stare at the bridge and walk about it, in the hope that he would find an opportunity to unearth his treasure. Finally the captain of the guard called him over and asked him in a kind way why he had been coming every day to wait by the bridge. The captain laughed sympathetically. ‘Dreams can make you crazy. If I believed my dreams, I’d be in Cracow now, for a dream once told me that there is a treasure buried beneath the hearth of some poor Jew there named Isaac son of Yekel. My friend, it’s best to go home and not waste your time on dreams.” R. Isaac thanked him and hurried home, where he indeed discovered a fabulous treasure, which enabled him to live as a wealthy, and generous, man for the rest of his days.

That’s our story. We have gone out into the world and prospered. American Jews enjoy freedom, success, achievement, and influence without precedent in Jewish history. The success of American Judaism is still an open question. I look out at the ruined moral landscape of our world and the shallow empty calories of popular culture and I am more convinced than ever that Judaism is a treasure that can heal, nourish and enrich our lives. We just need to accept and use this great gift.

Judaism flourishes when we treasure it, when we learn its lessons of community and compassion. When we find strength from God and Torah. When we feel connected with Jews everywhere, especially in our miracle state of Israel. I have tried to impart Judaism’s joy and richness, its wisdom and guidance. Along the way I have learned much and known many wonderful people. Thank you for your support, your friendship, and your inspiration. May Congregation Beth David go from strength to strength.

[1]      Man’s Quest for God, p.45.

[2]      Spiritual Community, by David A. Teutsch.

[3]      Pliskin, p. 43.