2007 Ne’ilah sermon delivered at the Great Synagogue, Sydney.
1997 marks 25 years since my assumption of office at the Great Synagogue. It has been a large slice of my life and a not insignificant period in the long history of the congregation. I vividly remember – as do others – my family’s arrival in Sydney, and gratefully recall the friendship and support we have had from so many people over the years. Much has happened in all our lives. Congregation and rabbi, as is right, have been intertwined with each other. We have laughed and cried with each other, worried and hoped, rejoiced and, sadly, had occasions to mourn together too.
In the Shule I have been part of everything and have moulded and influenced events, policies and movements. The Shule has become warmer and more friendly, though I have implacably upheld its minhag and dignity. Not all the changes have been for the better: the demise of GSY, for example; was one of my saddest days. But many of the changes have been remarkable and exciting, for instance the new moves for greater participation by women, and our new e-mail Torah facility, which a subscriber in New Zealand has said is “an absolute lifeline”.
I have had really two full-time jobs – one with the congregation, the other with the community. I have consecrated synagogues, cemeteries and classrooms, inducted ministers and been mentor and peacemaker for congregations all over Australia and NewZealand. I have been intensively involved in inter-religious work and in public movements (especially freemasonry), government committees and great events. I have lectured at universities, given keynote addresses on national occasions, appeared on the media and been part of the debate on a great range of issues.
All this stretches the rabbi, and it is good for his congregation; it reinforces the synagogue’s pre-eminence and involves it in wider issues and concerns. But is this how I primarily see myself, as ambassador, orator, negotiator, networker and spokesman? If I were vain I would feel flattered to be, as a journalist described me, “urbane and widely respected”. But I am not interested in a personality cult and, more importantly, what I have tried to be, above all else, is a rav, a teacher, and I hope quite a good one
What have I sought to teach? The answer is simple: the Judaism of tradition. A teacher has a responsibility and sometimes must say unpalatable things; but as a teacher I have tried to be true to myself, to the Almighty, to the Torah and to Jewish history and destiny as I articulated and shared the obsessions that rule my thinking and my life.
What are my obsessions?
God – more than ever I am convinced we are living in His presence, though I have major problems with things that are done in His name.
Torah, which insists that a Jew who never studies will never be an adequate Jew, whatever else they get out of Jewish identity.
Halachah, which gives pattern, form and stability to one’s life.
Israel – my heart is there as well as here, and I yearn for the day when both my grandchildren, and Palestinian grandchildren, will never know fear.
The Holocaust – I weep at the tragedy, but I rejoice at the vibrancy of today’s Judaism and wonder why Holocaust memorials usually only look back.
The synagogue – as a refuge, and a challenge.
Shabbat – as the day that unites us with creation and then re-creates us, though the other days of the week should not be empty of Judaism either.
Marriage, the micro-community where God is the third partner (but why do some play games with marriage and the family and some hijack the very terminology?).
The Mashiach, who will come, says Rav Kook, when the world is good and bad at the same time; I believe we have to help the Mashiach along and find messianic potential in every human life.
Broad culture – there is no distinction between sacred and secular; all things are one; every work of the human mind and heart is part of God.
These are my obsessions, as are justice, truth, peace, decency, modesty and menschlichkeit. And so is eternity, for many live only in the world of today, but we Jews are privileged to live also in yesterday and tomorrow.
How effective has my teaching been? Has there been a response? There are often moments when I am sure no-one is listening, and then I remind myself that at least I have to remember the agenda myself. But then there come days when a word I have said makes all the difference. Which has been more characteristic of the years – silence or response? Only history will tell, but I have to say that I did expect that on some things at least the response would have been more visible.
A congregation has a rabbi not because congregations need rabbis, but because both together can achieve wonders for Judaism and Jewish destiny. For my part I echo the words of Moses when he inducted the Levites into office, “Fortunate are you that you have the merit to be ministers to the Almighty”. I am fortunate in my profess ion, and, despite the occasional rebuke when, for instance, you are too talkative in Shule, I am immensely fortunate in my congregation.
May God continue to bless our partnership.