The Latest from BZBI

Eternity in the Everyday

Tzav 5779 / 23 March 2019

March 27, 2019

Shabbat Shalom! It is a blessing to be here this morning. What a joy to celebrate with the Mosenkis family as Bob becomes a Bar Mitzvah once again. And mazel tov to Bob and Naida as you mark 60 years of marriage. I’m honored to share words of Torah with the BZBI community this morning. BZBI has been a home for Yosef and me and our children these past five years. We are grateful to the community for singing with us, for supporting us in times of struggle, for sharing our joy when Zohar arrived in this world four years ago and when Shir was born this past July.  Modim Anachnu – Thank you!

I learned from my parents the importance of being part of a synagogue community. My mother worked at our shul, the Jewish Center of Princeton, for twenty-five years, serving as a teacher and Executive Director. She taught me the power of weaving strong connections in community, of getting to know people of different generations and perspectives.

There is an old joke about an atheist who goes to shul every Shabbat morning and sits next to his friend Cohen. One day, someone asks him why he keeps coming even though he doesn’t believe in God. He responds, “Cohen goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Cohen.”

My mother loves to talk in shul – because she loves people and is eager to know their stories. When she attended services while serving as Executive Director, many of those conversations included feedback about the temperature of the sanctuary, as community members would be sure to let her know if it was too hot or too cold in the building and my mother would adjust the thermostat accordingly. When my mother retired from her position at the synagogue, the congregation asked what they could do to honor her. She said, “Name a thermostat after me.” Lo and behold, in the sanctuary today at the Jewish Center of Princeton, you will find a plaque beneath the thermostat that reads, “The Nancy Lewis thermostat.” God willing, one day, Yosef and I will take our future grandchildren on a pilgrimage to see this plaque. We hope to pass on to our children a love of and commitment to congregational life.

If our Torah portion this week had a thermostat, it would be dialed all the way up. As we read earlier this morning in Parashat Tzav[1]:

וְהָאֵ֨שׁ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ תּֽוּקַד־בּוֹ֙ לֹ֣א תִכְבֶּ֔ה׃

The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out:

 וּבִעֵ֨ר עָלֶ֧יהָ הַכֹּהֵ֛ן עֵצִ֖ים בַּבֹּ֣קֶר בַּבֹּ֑קֶר

Baboker Baboker 

וְעָרַ֤ךְ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ הָֽעֹלָ֔ה וְהִקְטִ֥יר עָלֶ֖יהָ חֶלְבֵ֥י הַשְּׁלָמִֽים

The priest shall feed wood to it, every single morning; he shall lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.

Then, the Torah reiterates:

 אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶֽה׃

A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, never to go out.

In the Book of Leviticus, we read all about the rites and rituals of the priests, the animals and grains offered up on the altar and the fire that will be kept burning for all time thanks to a devoted cadre of kohanim and the efforts of the entire people.

Each morning, baboker baboker, day after day, the priests arrive to clear away the ashes and to place fresh wood on the altar. And every day, our people arrive with our korbanot – with offerings, with whatever it is that we are able to give in the places where we are. We are told to bring gifts in moments of gratitude, wholeness and well-being and in moments of missing the mark, messing up and longing for repair. No matter what happens, no matter how far away we wander, we are promised that the fire will be there, that there will always be a way to reconnect.

For our people in the wilderness, the fire glowed at the very heart of the community, in the mishkan, the geographical and spiritual center of the camp. It was so important to our ancestors to keep the fire burning 24/7, that they did so, even on the road, while traveling across rocky terrain and through sandstorms.

The rabbis in the midrash wonder how we managed to keep the fire burning while we were on the move:

According to Rabbi Yedudah, we covered it with a pot [to protect it from the wind]. Rabbi Simeon said, even while traveling, we removed the ashes from it.[2]

This mitzvah of the “Esh Tamid” – the eternal flame – was essential and life-giving, upheld with unending devotion, with attention to the weather and to the needs of the moment. Baboker Baboker.

The name of our parsha – Tzav, means to “command.” It is related to the word mitzvah, and to the Aramaic word, Tzavta, meaning to join, to attach or to be a companion. Our Jewish ritual system is designed to create connections and to recharge relationships – with God, with one another, with ourselves.

Our sacred work today is rooted in the prototype of the priests (though thankfully, it is more friendly to vegetarians.)

Baboker Baboker –
Each morning, day after day, one day at a time,
we work to access eternity through our relationships.
Here at BZBI, we see this as our beloved community members rise up early to make a minyan, to say kaddish and to stand with those who are in mourning.
As community members set up kiddush and run the gift shop and roll the Torah scrolls and design the memorial book.
As BZBI-ers cook food to share with new parents and with those who are coping with illness.
As we bake challah and work to end food insecurity.
As we collect toiletries to share with our unhoused neighbors.
As we welcome the Muzungu-Mbonigaba family, refugees from the Congo, into the BZBI family, doing what we can to support them in making a home and a life here in Philadelphia.
Baboker Baboker
As we read books with students at Steven Girard Elementary School.
As parents and teachers share their time, talent and Torah with the students at our Laurie Wagman Playschool, Abigail R. Cohen Preschool and Neziner Hebrew School.

Baboker Baboker, community members greet one another
with caring, curiosity and lovingkindness.
We mark Jewish time together, shaking groggers and lighting candles as days and years roll one into the next.
We celebrate together, we mourn together, we eat together.
We are a community, in it for the long haul,
doing the work every day to keep the fire of Torah burning,
to keep the lights on, to shine light where it is needed
in our hearts and in our world.
Baboker Baboker.

In a convocation speech in 2005 at Yale Divinity school, theologian Emilie Townes described an ethical concept that she calls “everydayness.” She says:

“it’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation
and action
the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk to hear what they are saying
the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh ourselves through prayer or meditation
the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths
the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives
the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or writing or thinking
the everydayness of sharing a meal
the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment
the everydayness of joy and laughter
the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere or at least point them in the right direction
and walk with them
the everydayness of blending head and heart
it’s the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right
it is in this everydayness that “we the people” are formed”[3]

Baboker Baboker. We come into being. As we read in our morning liturgy:

המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית

“Ha’mehadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh b’reshit –
God, in infinite goodness, renews the works of creation each day, for all time.

  בכל יום תמיד – B’chol yom, tamidEach day and always.

Our Jewish tradition insists that each day we are here matters infinitely. The world moves fast. Our lives are full of distractions. In this era, we are plugged in and networked and too often, disconnected from one another, from our bodies and hearts, from our life force, from the Holy. And each day, our Torah, aglow with mitzvot, calls us home. Each mitzvah is an opening, an invitation to live our days more fully.

As the writer Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” These days, I spend a fair amount of time commuting. I often listen to podcasts from the meditation teacher Tara Brach. This week, she shared a powerful story about a woman who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after giving birth to a daughter. The woman is told by her doctors that she will likely not live past the year. Faced with limited time with her baby, the woman adopts the mantra:

 “There is no time to rush.”

She commits to being as awake and as connected as possible each day she is given. Baboker Baboker. There is no time to rush because all around us, every day, hidden in plain sight, are sparks of the eternal.

Baboker Baboker. There is no time to rush. And for our holy work, we need each other. I was reminded of this last Friday. Upon hearing the news of the massacre against the Muslim community in Christchurch, New Zealand, along with our rabbinic colleagues, Yosef and I attended a Jummah prayer service to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors. We visited Masjidullah, a mosque in West Oak Lane, housed in a building that was the original Temple Sinai and later, a church, before becoming a home for the Masjidullah community a few years ago.

When it came time for prayer, the Imam and lay leaders encouraged us all to stand as close together as possible, with no spaces in between us. After the service, I asked a leader, Shirley, about the meaning of this custom of having no gaps between the members of the community in prayer. She said, “When we are close together, our prayer is stronger. When we become distracted, we can bring each other back.”

This is our work in religious community –
Baboker, Baboker – day in and day out –
to stay connected, to strengthen one another.
With all we carrying – to have each other’s backs, to bring each other back.

בכל יום תמיד

B’chol yom tamid,
Every day and always,
May we notice the holy sparks within us and around us.
May we do all we can to sustain the life-giving fires of our Torah.
Baboker, Baboker – one day at a time,
May we live wholeheartedly, awake, and accompanied as we pursue mitzvot.
May we bring warmth and light to our BZBI community,
and to all those we meet on the way.

Shabbat Shalom.

Boker Tov.

[1] Leviticus 6:5-6

[2] Bamidbar Rabbah 4:17