Archive for June, 2019

The Meaning of Selah

Last Sermon in Tallahassee

I begin with a quote from Psalms 39:5 and 6.  Hodi’eini Adonai kitzi, umidat yamei ma he, eid’ah mah chadeil ani.  “Tell me O God what my term is, what is the measure of my days that I may know how frail I am.”  Verse 6 continues, “You have made my days like handbreadths; its span is as nothing in Your sight; no man endures any longer than a breath, Selah.”

The first verse seems somewhat mysterious, if not redundant; for the words “my term” and “measure of my days” would appear to mean the same thing.  But the Hebrew words are very different.  The word kitzi, translated as “term,” also means end. The word midat, translated as measure, also means “type” or “quality.” The Psalmist is asking two things. One is to know the length of life, through the number of days.  The other is to know the tenor of what will fill those days.  The rest of the quote is a declaration of the shortness and fragility of life, punctuated at its end by the Hebrew word, Selah.

Is this an impossible request?  Perhaps.  There are moments we can know the limit of our time, or how long a “term” might be. But we can never foresee the quality that measures our days.  We do not know what we will learn and what we will fail to learn.  We do not know who we will meet and who we will wish we might have met.  We do not know who we will impact or who will impact us.  We cannot know the fullness of each day, each moment, until we experience it.  We cannot know if our time together will be rewarding or not, happy or sad, short or long, loving or hateful.  All we can ever know, with surety, is that every segment of time eventually comes to an end.  We are finite Creatures.  Any of our time is merely a “breath.”

“Tell me O God what my term is, what is the measure of my days?”  I had no idea that I would spend an 18 year career at Temple Israel in Tallahassee. My original contract was for 3 years. For Audrey and me, coming here was an experiment, a diversion from the comfortable path we had by staying in the Philadelphia area.  I had an offer there, 30 minutes from our home.  We decided, however, to try something different, by moving to a place in the south, a place I had never imagined I would even consider.  Our thought was if it did not work, then we would just transfer to a congregation in an area that felt more like home.

At the end of my 2ndyear here, the president, Ed Stafman, came to me and said it was time to negotiate my next contract. I already loved my work here, the relationships being formed with members of Temple Israel, the progress in education, the quality of services, and the connections I had begun to make to some people around the community.  I knew, however, that unless Audrey felt comfortable, we could not stay.  We had already made dear friends here, and she had found a job she loved.  So when I told her it was time to make a decision her response was, “You are not going to make me leave here, are you?”

In 2007 I faced another decision.  The director of rabbinic placement suggested that I apply to two large congregations.  Both were in need of stability.  In addition, one of my mentors said the experience of applying would help me learn whether or not I truly wanted to do my career in Tallahassee.  I had no interest in one of those congregations. The other, however, was in the north, close to family, and a very historical place.  Being the senior rabbi there would have given me the chance to be part of national leadership.  As the interview process went forward, I became one of the leading candidates. When I went to my on site interview, I took the approach of needing to learn what I truly wanted.  While I was there my career choices became clear.  If I took that job, I would be a CEO.  If I stayed at Temple Israel, I would be a rabbi. While interviewing there, it became obvious I wanted to be a rabbi, and that I was unbelievably lucky to be serving in this wonderful congregation in Tallahassee.  As I was flying home I called our president at that time, Wendy Wiener, and told her I was not leaving.

I have a number of rabbinical colleagues who are serving or have served in toxic congregations.  I have always told my colleagues that Temple Israel is the complete opposite of toxic.  It is warm, relaxed, moral, flexible, yearning for more education, dedicated to helping improve our general community, and incredibly respectful of clergy. As I retire from serving you, I must thank you for being a congregation that has made my life feel so meaningful.  I thank you for providing the best environment any rabbi could ever imagine.

There is a story I have told before, but will tell again, as I see its context for all of us.  It is about a man and wife who are very poor.  They had heard a rumor of the existence of an island on which the ground was strewn with diamonds.  All someone had to do was to get to the island, and fill their pockets with diamonds. The husband told his wife that he had to try and find that island, to get the diamonds, so that they would no longer be poor.  His wife reluctantly agreed that he should do the search, so he left.  He traveled to many shores, seeking word about the island, but heard nothing; of no ship that had passed it, of no sailor who knew of its existence. Finally, in a distant port he heard a rumor of a sea in which the island existed.  He boarded a ship that was journeying to that sea, which had never been explored by this group of sailors.

They found the island.  The man asked to be let off and to be picked up when the ship would return to the area.  The captain informed him it would be at about a year until the ship would return.  The man went ashore.  Indeed, the diamonds existed all over the ground.  But, as diamonds were so common, the island’s culture did not treasure them as the man’s home did.  In order to survive, he had to earn a living, so he learned a trade; to create something he could trade for food and clothing.  He became a candle maker.  After some months he became the best candle maker on the island. His ability to make candles enabled him to acquire anything needed.

After a year, the ship returned for him.  So he gathered his candles, and sailed home. When he arrived his wife asked about the diamonds.  He showed her the candles, but he had forgotten to take the diamonds with him. At home, the candles were almost worthless.

The candles, of course, represent the nitty gritty of everyday life and functioning – things that must happen in order to live normally.  The diamonds, however, represent those precious moments that stay in our souls.  They are gems we can appreciate because of their high quality, their beauty, their durability.

My friends, we can enumerate many candles that we have done together.  Religious services occur as scheduled every week.  Religious school happens as it should with few problems.  Over the years I cannot even count how many children have had their bar or bat mitzvah.  A huge number of teens have either gone through Confirmation or our current teen program.  Babies have been named, people married.  There have been over 100 converts to Judaism.  We have had 4 adult b’nai mitzvah classes.  We have done study sessions of the entire Torah and almost all of the prophetic books of the Tanach.  In 2007/2008 we rebuilt this sanctuary and part of the building into the beautiful rooms they are.  There have been many Intro to Judaism classes as well as other adult education classes. If we bother to measure these items by numbers, then we are saying we have been successful at making candles.

But I believe that we have NOT made candles.  Together, we have collected diamonds.  Each Shabbat service, each High Holiday, each bar or bat mitzvah, each wedding, each class with the teens, each adult education class session has been a moment to treasure.  Together we have laughed and cried, prayed and sang, argued and agreed.  Every one of these moments has been precious.  For me, they are diamonds.  I will never forget working with FSU musical students in leading services. Two became actual cantors.  I will never forget the incredible ruachthat Stefanie and Angel have created in our choirs.  I will never forget the fun of our special Chanukah services, or the laughter of our Purim celebrations.  I will never forget how the 12 week Lunch and Learn class from the winter of 2002 became an 18 year unique interfaith deep learning class, in which non-Jews have learned to appreciate the depth of Jewish learning.  I will never forget the creation of Bagels and Biscuits, or how wonderful it has been to lead services with Brian and to work with him and Melanie to create a beautiful teen program.  I will never forget working with wonderful Temple presidents.  I will never forget the countless great conversations with Lisa as we tried to handle a wide range of issues and subjects.  I will never forget how dedicated Akol is to doing anything necessary to improve our congregation.  I will never forget how Alex Molina grew from an 8thgrader who seemed to always be in trouble to a deep hearted human being who models true caring for all people.  I will never forget how Angel has become such a treasured part of our congregation.  I will never forget how Stefanie has been my beloved partner in deepening Jewish life for our community.  I will never forget the exceptional quality of you, the members of this congregation, who have caused me to love every moment of my service here.  Each of these is a diamond.

“You have made my days like handbreadths; its span is as nothing in Your sight; no man endures any longer than a breath, Selah.”  These words from Psalm 39 are the essence of our relationship with God and time, as explained by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  God IS that which is eternal.  We are temporal.  The dissonance between us and God is caused by that fact.  We are constantly reaching to understand that which is eternal.  We are rarely open to hear or feel God’s reaching out for us.  That openness, says Heschel, must begin with the sense of radical amazement.  Radical amazement is the realization of the grandeur of creation itself. It is the realization that our time in that creation is precious, and not to be wasted.  It is the realization that our use of that time is what will connect us to each other, and ultimately to God.  Our time together, 18 years, has been just a breath from the perspective of God’s existence.  But I believe it has been a holy breath.  Through you, I have felt the presence of God.

The verse from Psalms ends with the word selah.  Selacan mean 2 things within a Psalm.  Selahcan be the command for vocal silence, so that the instrumentation may take over.  After this Shabbat, my voice as your rabbinic leader comes to an end.  But the instrumentation of this congregation will continue.  You will decide which symphony it is that you will play.  Choose well.  Make music of beauty and harmony.  In Rabbi Michael Shields, you have a high quality person and rabbi joining your orchestra.  The combination of a new voice with your instruments should not result in a cacophony, but in a symphony.  Selahis the command for all of you to participate in a harmonious way.

However, Selahcan have another meaning.  Selahcan mean the raising up, the exultation of a voice.  While either your or my time is limited, Selahis the command to raise our voices, even though they will last for only a breath!  Selahis the call for us to do the most with our allotted time.  Selahtells us that our time together, while ending, is something to celebrate, not mourn.  Selahis the word telling us we are allowed to sing HalleluyahSelahtells us that we are not only to experience sadness at the end of a time, but the gladness of a beginning – for you and I are both at a time of beginning something new.  Selahtells us not to cry, but to sing.  It is a word that punctuates the music of our lives.  So I now end my words by simply telling you, Selah!

(Our soloist then sang and led Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluyah”)


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