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So Many Blessings

Sermon: Installation D'Var Torah / 8 November 2015

November 9, 2015

So many blessings. Rebecca, you make all of this possible. You make our house a home, you give me strength and courage, and you bless me with your love. You have always made it possible for me to do this work I love, and I am grateful beyond words. I feel blessed to be here today with our children, with our parents, siblings, and extended family.

To my Rebbe and teacher Reb Mimi Feigelson, thank you for teaching me the Torah of וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ and then walking that Torah with me in the world.

Rabbi Michael Knopf, my brother in the fullest possible sense, I meant what I said yesterday: די לעולם אני ואתה.[1] I love that we get to do this together.

To my colleagues, the rabbis and cantors of the greater Philadelphia area who have joined us here today, thank you for welcoming me so warmly.

I thank the members of the search committee for your two years of dedicated service to our community, and for placing your sacred trust in me: Daniel Eisenstadt, David Lerman, Harris Devor, Arlene Fickler, Art Fischman, Bob Fleischman, Rela Mintz Geffen, Sheri Rosenberg Kanter ע”ה, Melissa Lerman, Sara Weinberg Laver, Josh Levy, and Suzanne Litke. I am also grateful to our current board of trustees for your support and faith in me. It is a privilege to serve here.

Finally, I open my heart to BZBI’s staff, who worked tirelessly to make this day, this weekend, and every day possible: Donna, Cindy, Brooke, Phyllis, Denine, Terri, Tracy, Gregory, Alicia, Brian, and Joel, I have already been touched by your dedication, commitment, and kindness. We’re going to do great things together.

I have always needed to work in hevruta, and I couldn’t have asked for better partners than Cantor Sharon Grainer and Rabbi Yosef Goldman. In our short time together, both of you have given so much of yourselves, and I honor your enthusiasm in taking this adventure with me.

Rabbi Stone, thank you for offering me so much of your time, support, and encouragement. That BZBI holds Torah and community as its central values speaks to the imprint you have left here, and I am so happy you will be with us for this next chapter as well.

So many blessings. Our Sages saw blessings as a tool for cultivating a perspective of gratitude in life. Food on the table? There’s a blessing for that. Good health? There’s a blessing for that. Flowers in bloom, a beautiful sunset, safe passage through a difficult time — blessing, blessing, blessing. Any of us who had an opportunity to see Pope Francis in person when he was in town — there’s a blessing for that, too. Massekhet Berakhot, the first tractate of the Talmud, concludes with a litany of these blessings, for good news and not-so-much, miracles and ordinary occasions, all the possible circumstances of life. Among these blessings, our Rabbis taught:

הרואה את אכלסין אומ’: ברוך חכם הרזים, לפי שאין פרצופותיהן דומין זה לזה, ואין דעתן דומות זו לזו.

One who sees a throng should say, “Blessed is the Sage of Secrets,” since one’s appearance does not resemble another’s, and one’s awareness does not resemble another’s.[2] 

A Jewish person, spiritually awake, looks out upon the crowd, sees the full range of human diversity — not only on the outside, but on the inside as well — and feels inspired to bless God, the One who created all this diversity out of a single Divine Image.[3] Although we know that each person stands unique, unlike any other, our limited human awareness can never fully comprehend how another person feels or thinks; but חכם הרזים, the Sage of Secrets, the Master of the World, gazes out upon the same throng and knows each of our hearts.[4]

Standing here today, looking out at all of you, brings to mind a teaching of the Hasidic Rebbe of Izhbitz that I have learned many times with Reb Mimi. Starting with God’s command to Moses and Aaron to “Lift the head” of each Israelite, he explains:[5]

(במדבר א, ב-ד) שאו את ראש וכו’ תפקדו אתם לצבאתם אתה ואהרן ואתכם יהיו איש איש למטה. ענין נשיאות ראש היה כפי מה דאיתא בגמ’ (ברכות נח ע”א) “אין דעתו של זה דומה לשל זה.” כי הש”י חלק לכל אחד טובה וחיים בפני עצמו ואין אחד דומה לחבירו.

Lift the head… you shall list them, company by company, you and Aaron; and with you will be a person from each tribe.[6] The meaning of “lifting the head” is according to what is stated in the Talmud, “This one’s awareness is not like that one’s.”[7] For Blessed God allotted to each one good and life all his own, and one is not like his fellow.

In contrast to the plain meaning of a census count, the Izhbitzer Rebbe connects “lifting the head” to the notion of human diversity inherent in the Talmud’s blessing: “This one’s awareness is not like that one’s.” Notice that here the “awareness” goes beyond a mental or emotional faculty, instead representing a person’s entire posture in the world. “Blessed God allotted to each one good and life all his own, and one is not like his fellow.” He continues:

ע”כ נאמר “שאו את ראש” היינו שתעמדו כל אחד על מקום השייך לו. ועי”ז יהיה במקומו מדוגל ומנושא.

Therefore it states, “Lift the head,” meaning to stand each one up in the place that is associated with him; in that way he will be, in his place, distinguished and elevated.

Here the Izhbiter Rebbe shifts our attention from expression — דעת, awareness; טובה, good; חיים, life or vitality — the things we bring into the world — and instead directs us to reception, the way we find our place in the world. Each of us, he teaches, has מקום השייך לו, a place that relates specifically and only to us; and we attain distinction and spiritual elevation to the extent that we find and engage with that place.

From one perspective, this notion is great: my מקום השייך, my specific place, means that life has meaning and purpose; I possess some characteristic, some skill, some insight that the world needs and which only I can provide. From another angle, however, it presents a challenge: my life has meaning and purpose only insofar as I live within my מקום השייך, only to the extent that I act from a place of integrity and authenticity. If I aspire to someone else’s goal, if I conform my life to someone else’s ideal, I deny the unique gifts of my soul.

The Izhbitzer Rebbe offers some guidance about how we can begin to discern our מקום השייך:

וע”כ נאמר “אתה ואהרן,” כי אהרן הוא נגד “חיילין דמשכנא” (זוהר, במדבר ח”ג קיז ע”ב) היינו עבודה ומשה הוא נגד “חיילין דאורייתא” (שם). ובשני אלו היינו תורה ועבודה נכלל כל החיים של ישראל.

Consequently, [the verse] calls for “[Moses] and Aaron,” since Aaron corresponds to the “hosts of the Mishkan,”[8] meaning Service, while Moses corresponds to the “hosts of the Torah.”[9] And these two, that is, Torah and Service, constitute the entire life of Israel.

A Jewish life is lived along two axes: Torah, the concepts we use to organize our self-understanding; and עבודה, Service, the actions through which we express Torah in the world. Both are essential to finding our מקום השייך: like map coordinates, my relationship to Torah and עבודה pinpoints the location that belongs to me, and me alone.

And yet this is not about personal fulfillment. We exist, as Jews, not in isolation but in relationship to one another. Consequently, the teaching continues exploring the end of the verse:

(במדבר א, ד) “ואתכם יהיו איש איש למטה” לפי שהנשיא היה יודע לכל אחד איזה מקום שייך לו בהשבט, כי באם יחליף מקום אחד אין מצב השבט בשלימות, דרך משל מי שנוטע פרדס בסדר נאה ואם יחסיר או יחליף נטיעה אחת ניכר שאין הפרדס בשלימות. וישראל נקראים (ישעיה סא, ג) “מטע ה’ להתפאר”:

“And with you will be a person from each tribe,”[10] since the prince of each tribe knew each individual, which place in the tribe was associated with him; for if one place was exchanged, the tribe’s situation would not be in wholeness. By way of metaphor, someone who planted an orchard in beautiful order — if a single sapling was missing or exchanged, he would recognize that the orchard was not whole. And Israel is called “the planting of the Lord, that [God] may be glorified.”[11]

Each of us has a מקום השייך, a dedicated place; but rather than isolating us, these dedicated places fit together into a broader picture that unites us as a tribe. Each of us stands as a tree in a spiritual orchard whose “beautiful order” becomes manifest when each person, each tree, stands in its appropriate place; and as a result spiritual leadership demands that the leader — the prince of the tribe, the rabbi of the community — come to know each and every person on her own terms, to understand her soul, her מקום השייך, to see her gifts and help her develop along the axes of Torah and עבודה, Service. Just as the orchard’s beauty comes from its proper alignment, our greatness as a community derives from the careful placement of each person in his מקום השייך.

The Izhbitzer Rebbe’s teaching contains an inherent paradox: we must create a beautiful, united whole out of an infinite number of diverse parts. אין דעתו של זה דומה לשל זה, “This one’s awareness is not like that one’s.” How do we create a sense of cohesion without dulling the sparkle of each individual’s uniqueness? How do we foster a strong sense of individual purpose and meaning without eroding the bonds of community?

In the final line, “Israel is called ‘the planting of the Lord,’” I believe the Izhbitzer Rebbe acknowledges this challenge. Each of us seeks to know our own מקום השייך, our distinct place in the order of the world; the נשיא, the spiritual leader, must understand how all of the individuals fit together; but only God is חכם הרזים, the Sage of Secrets, able to see each of us for who we are and could become, and to know with perfection each person’s place in the universe. So long as we live human lives, bounded by material existence, we must understand these questions as aspirational, something to be sought even if never fully attained. “Israel is called the planting of the Lord, that [God] may be glorified;” each step we take toward our individual מקום השייך, each movement toward “beautiful order” in our spiritual orchard, makes God’s glory more manifest in the world.

Today, we enter into a sacred covenant, defined by two quests: an individual search, each person on his or her own terms, for a unique spiritual location; and a collective exploration of the spiritual orchard, discovering how each individual location relates to the others. We aspire to pursue both missions at once, highlighting each person’s unique gifts, in his or her distinct place, within the bigger picture of how we all fit together. As we walk this path together, we become “מַטַּע ה’ לְהִתְפָּאֵֽר”, “the planting of the Lord, that [God] may be glorified.” From the fullness of my heart, I thank you for inviting me to walk this path with you.


[1] Shabbat 33b.
[2] Tosefta Berakhot (Lieberman ed.) 6.2.
[3]  Maharsha, Hiddushei Aggadot, Berakhot 58a.
[4]  Rashi, Berakhot 58a.
[5] Mei HaShiloah, Bemidbar.
[6]   Num. 1:2-4.
[7]  Berakhot 58a.
[8]  Zohar, Bemidbar 3:117b.
[9]  Ibid.
[10]  Num. 1:4.
[11]  Isaiah 61:3.