NAORRR JUBILEE SERMON
Rabbi James H. Perman, NY'67
January 7, 2017 - Scottsdale, AZ


A few weeks ago, Jane and I were sitting in services. There was a couple behind us. They are ‘significant others’ to one another. He had just turned 85. I congratulated them. She said to me, “I never thought I’d be dating an 85-yearold.” He said, “At 85, I never thought I’d be dating!"

And now, here we are, my class of '67 as we celebrate our Jubilee Year, and all of us thrilled to be here as we celebrate 2017 (5777) together— Halleluyah!

In this morning’s reading, we have just witnessed the climactic reunion of Joseph and his brothers. “And Joseph said unto his brethren, ‘ani yosef! I am Joseph!’’ -- no rank, no title, not even his Egyptian given name. In literature this is the “defining moment” when the hero’s
true character is revealed. Let's get inside their heads: The brothers see Joseph and they're bewildered, then astounded. But... Joseph must have been, too! He must have been overwhelmed at that moment: "What's happening? How did I get here? What does it all mean?" He looked back on the long adventure leading to this moment.

We confess that we’re dealing with more yesterdays than tomorrows. There are so many, who can count them? Most of us have come to accept — at least intellectually — that our lives cannot be an ongoing struggle to cling to the persons we once were. We can not do everything we always did. If that’s what we seek, it won’t work. We’re past that. It's a new chapter. So how should we handle that? Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, advises us: “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” Besides, it’s so great to tell our favorite stories
to people who understand them, even if we find ourselves telling those stories again and again and again!

We don’t just live our own stories. We live the times of our lives. Does it make a difference that our class of 1967 grew up in the 1950’s? It sure does. We were shaped by thatdecade: the Cold War, Khrushchev, Sputnik, Korea, then Vietnam, Suez, Sen. McCarthy, “The Family that Prays Together...” From our Bar Mitzvahs through early college, Eisenhower was President. Then the 1000 days of JFK, ending in tragedy. It was the time in-between, before the sixties became The Sixties. Most of us behaved. Why wouldn’t we?

We entered HUC-JIR. The ghosts of old HUC and old JIR still lingered. We were grad students during the week and we played rabbi on weekends. Now we look at those names on our Ordination certificates. Hardly any of the signatories are with us any more. Whatever our memories, we hear the order of the sedras: aharei mot kedoshim emor! Sainted and wise were our teachers; we speak kindly of all of them. What we became reflected their efforts. They were scholars trying to make us into scholars. Usually, it didn’t work. Still, they managed to draw a map of everything they thought we should know. At the very least, we’d reach ordination knowing what we didn’t know. Then we’d spend decades trying to fill in the gaps. In those days, we in New York hardly ever saw our President, Nelson Glueck. But when we did, he told us
how important it was to keep on studying. We became lifelong students out of necessity. Ashrenu mah tov helkenu, how fortunate we were to have been their students!

June 1967. The Six-Day War was June 5-10. Our NY ordination was June 11 (Cincinnati date?) For sure, we were entering a different world when it came to Israel. It was raw excitement and powerful anxiety. Any Israeli could have sung Hamilton’s refrain, “I’m just like my
country, young, scrappy and hungry.” In today's Israel, Mick Jagger runs out onto the Tel Aviv stage, yelling, “Anu Ha-avanim Hamitgalgalot!” and 50,000 Israelis roar their approval. It had to happen. 

Some of us entered the military chaplaincy. For those of us who did, what an eye- popping experience that was! It didn’t take long to figure out what a sheltered life we had been leading. Guess what? Everybody didn't think like we did! The world was so much bigger, so much more diverse, so different than we’d ever imagined. But we were doing important work.

We found different ways to use what we learned. We honed our skills until we owned our skills. Gradually we even gained some expertise, discovered some new strengths along the way. And as we did, so did our spouses. “A woman of valor who can find?” Who? ME! I did. We have been among the most fortunate. And, for better or worse, our children surely had some unique experiences that other kids never have. 

In the late 60’s, the Women's Movement blossomed. What did we know? We were men! In those days rabbis were only men. We had to figure out what those women wanted! We knew that this was not what we originally signed up for, and our wives (still those women formerly
called rebbitzens) were trying to figure it out, too. It was a lot of change.

We entered the world of congregational work. Some of us were clueless. We tried to sound like what we thought rabbis ought to sound like. We became the masks we wore. As we went along, we started to figure things out. We became our unique rabbinic selves. We found our own voices. At first, we could only judge today by yesterday, tomorrow by today. But later we gained a longer and wider and better perspective.

Our generation of rabbis needed to prove to our people that we were regular guys and not someone's rabbi stereotype. We never admitted this, but we probably made a few mistakes — "the regular guy" thing may have been overdone, but we wanted to be liked. The rabbis after us
sought to prove that they were authentically Jewish. We, mistakenly, may have seen them as eclectically traditional. But perhaps they might have just been trying to fix that “regular guy” image that we created.

We think of our people — those who just belonged to the congregation and sent their kids to Sunday School — ordinary people. We worshipped with them, celebrated with them and mourned with them. We helped them raise their children. We became part of so many people's lives that, over time, they became part of ours. And the young people: We taught them. We went to camp with them. We showed them how doing Jewish things might be meaningful and sometimes, even 'cool.' We hoped they’d exhibit social interest, and we hoped to see some of their energy ploughed back into the community. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we didn’t. Two of my greatest blessings came from mentoring my assistants, and from college teaching. Some found other directions, perhaps in scholarship or in Social Action. Tom Friedman
says, “Either you are in the lighting business or the heating business.” We had to figure out which business we were in.

Our congregants tried hard to make us more like them, teaching us to value and desire what they valued and desired. We at least got a few to value what we wanted and what we desired. Not all of them, not all the time, but enough to make our work rabinically satisfying. "Thine is not to complete the task..."

And we preached real sermons, just as we were taught to do. But how many hours did we spend in our study, pleading with those books: “Say something! Talk to me! Give me something to speak about!” We knew that we were planting a garden we would never see. That’s all right. It’s how it should be. We sometimes wondered, “Is this is the road I have chosen? Or, has it chosen me?” Was this God’s plan for me? We heard the echo of Joseph to his brothers: “Don’t worry; God put me here for this…” 

We know that we’ve aged, but we’ve also grown. There is a certain rhythm to working. A career is a career, so obviously it has bumps. We surge, we stumble, we stage a comeback, even change directions, and find that we're even better than before. T. S. Elliot wrote, "The end to our
exploring will be to arrive at where we started and to know the place for the first time."

Henry Slonimsky, the irascible, censorious Dean of JIR under Stephen Wise, used to taunt us: “You “boys” are using insights you haven’t yet earned.” Of course we did! How else could we expect to sound wise and mature? But now we might — sometimes, on occasion —actually be wise and mature, and now we have earned those insights. We own them. We know what we know. And it is good. True, we didn’t get to do enough, but no one gets to do it
all. Life is always, and of necessity, incomplete. So, what does it all amount to for us -- what does it all mean?

I'd like to share something about the late Leonard Cohen. (I've just begun to appreciate him since he died.) He wrote a signature song called Halleljah. He always had his doubts. No matter what he did, he knew he could never achieve enough. He lamented, “So what’s the point?” “Does any of it matter?” His answer was, “Yes it does.” He knew his life’s work did matter. It deserves respect. Just like yours. Just like mine.

I did my best, I know it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even if it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelu-yah

So, dear friends, let us enjoy each other’s company. Let’s listen to those stories. Let’s feel good about what we’ve done, and try to do even a bit more. And, when we all come back in 2067 we'll talk about the next 50 years!

Shabbat Shalom, and Halleluyah!
PRESENTATIONS
FROM
THE
34th
ANNUAL
CONVENTION
OF
NAORRR

JANUARY
2017

PHOENIX/
SCOTTSDALE
ARIZONA

INSTALLATION REFLECTION
Installation of Connie Golden as President of NAORRR
by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

When I first met Connie and Jerry Golden, our seats were together on a plane to Jerusalem for the 1988 Central Conference of American Rabbis convention. For most of the eleven-hour journey Jerry slept while Connie and I talked.

On that flight I learned that in her pre-rabbinic life Connie had worked first in publishing and then as a casting director for stage and television productions. Her unease in that role was one of the factors that moved Connie toward the rabbinate. “As a casting director,” she said, “I could make one person—the one who got the part—happy, but it meant making fifty or sixty others unhappy. I wanted to make more people happy.”

I learned on that flight also that Connie and Jerry had met while she was providing extraordinary pastoral care to Jerry’s first wife, who was dying of cancer. His wife had told him about a woman rabbi who had been visiting her, and as a bereaved widower Jerry sought counsel with the rabbi who had done so much to ease his wife’s final journey. So began a beautiful love story.

Probably the most important thing I learned on that flight, though, is that Connie is the perfect example of the famous teaching: “God gave us two ears but only one mouth so that we would listen twice as much as we speak.”

In fact, by the time we landed I was sure that God had blessed Connie Golden with a third ear, one attached to her heart.

Whether in a huge congregation in Memphis or a tiny one in Meridian, Mississippi, whether at a hospital bedside or on a cruise ship, Connie’s ability to really hear what others say and feel is extraordinary. No wonder the CCAR entrusted her with the most sensitive issues involving colleague misconduct by putting her on the Ethics Committee, where she served for 8 years.

Yes, Connie listens, but when she expresses herself—as her many published poems attest—she does so with skill, precision, empathy and eloquence.

Those who have studied with me, or read my books or web page essays, know that for me the most vital reason to study Torah is to find ourselves in the biblical text.

So when I study the parashah, Vay’hi, at the end of the Book of Genesis, I know beyond doubt that it is “The Connie Golden Story.” Like Connie, Joseph listens with an ear that hears more than the words his brothers speak. Joseph knows that when his brothers approach him, they are afraid, thinking “loo yist’meinu Yosef? what if now that Pop is dead, Joseph takes revenge on us? (Genesis 50:15)”

In the brothers’ fright, they tell Joseph a tale of how Jacob, before he died, told them to urge Joseph to forgive them. Yet surely Joseph would have known that if Jacob had wanted to say such a thing he would have said it to Joseph himself. But no matter.

Joseph responded to his brothers’ understandable anxiety the way Connie responds to us, with empathy and love: “Vay’nacheim otam vay’dabeir al libam. He comforted them and spoke tenderly to them. (Genesis 50:21)”

Thus the Book of Genesis ends the way this Convention ends. All issues are dealt with, all conflicts resolved, and “they all lived happily ever after.” So enjoy this moment of joyous felicitations, Connie!

Now if that were truly the end of the story we would not have to ask the Eternal One to bless Connie at this time. All we would have to do is say, “Mazal Tov!” But “The Connie Golden Story” will continue, just as does the story of our People. As we know, the “happily ever after” at the end of Genesis turns, as Exodus begins, into the avodat pareich, the hard labor, of Presidential responsibility. Beginning soon—maybe even tomorrow—Connie, the phone calls, texts and emails will begin, and the privilege of the Presidency will meld into the duties and responsibilities which we know you will deal with so capably.

Yes, as surely as Genesis turns to Exodus, Connie, you will indeed need the help of the Eternal One to deal with the many burdens we shall lay before you. For that reason, I ask our colleagues to rise and join me in asking God’s blessing upon you:

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yish-m’recha
Ya-er Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka
Yisa Adonai panav eilecha, v’yaseim l’cha SHALOM!

Amen