Neilah Sermon – Farewell Address by Rabbi Adrian M Schell – Yom Kippur 5781/ 2020
My dear friends, chaverot and chaverim,
The doors are closing. Figuratively as we end Yom Kippur – our liturgy reminding us, that our time to repent is getting shorter and shorter – and literally, as I will close the doors of Bet David behind myself for the last time, very soon.
And so, I want to open my last sermon for this High Holy Days by recalling for us the story of Korach. While the story has a lot to teach about our inner urges, which challenge us on our path of righteousness, it also has a wonderful story between the lines, I’d like to elevate this evening:
This dramatic story tells of Korach, Moses’ first cousin, stirring up a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, with the aim of replacing Aaron as High Priest. Korach had a number of followers, one of whom was called On the son of Pelet – At the last moment, so the story, On dropped out of the dispute, and thus was spared the terrible fate of Korach and his supporters.
The Talmud asks: What saved him?
Apparently, it was On’s wife –She convinced her husband not to join the rebellion. She understood that the effort was misguided. In doing so she saved her husband and her entire family from destruction. When highlighting this episode, Scholars teach that On’s wife exemplifies the special gifts given to women at the time of creation saying- “An extra measure of understanding was given to the woman,” Women have a special spiritual power. It is a Divine gift.
Along this line, the Rabbis teach – regarding the generation of Israelites who were slaves in Egypt –that while the men had fallen into hopeless despair which would lead only to destruction, the women had hope and faith and therefore succeeded in preserving the existence of the Jewish people. Through their merit were the Israelites redeemed.
Indeed, this is borne out by the 4 women of the Exodus. The story begins with Batya, Moses’ adopted Mother. She was the daughter of Pharaoh, bathing in the Nile one day when she finds a child. She knows he must be an Israelite and should be killed according to her father’s decree.
But, she can’t do it. When she sees the baby, the text tells us she took pity on the child. The Midrash teaches that because she adopted this child, God adopted her. Batya personifies compassion and feelings, understanding the needs of others.
The story continues with Yochevet, Moses birth mother. Batya hires Yochevet to nurse the child. Our sages explain that she was the one who taught him Jewish values during the most formative years of his life. She reminded him who he was and where he came from. Yochevet represents the Jewish value of teaching our children.
And then there was of course Miriam. Moses’ sister was a feisty, bold, organisational woman. She had a mouth and she used it—to sing, to challenge her brother and to lead the community. Miriam was the first public female figure in Jewish history.
And finally, there was the fourth woman in Moses’ life who made a quite different choice. Zipporah, Moses wife. a stay at home mom who raised two sons, nurtured her family and upholding the Jewish tradition. And more so, she was the bridge between the Israelites and their neighbouring tribes.
4 different women,
4 different ideals in our Jewish tradition.
And I have had the privilege of encountering all 4 at Bet David, both personally and professionally.
I have found a home and a community. I have grown as a rabbi, as a partner and as a Jew.
During my tenure here, you have shared your lives with me- I thank you all that you have formed this congregational family by including all of us in your joys and sorrows, in your hopes and dreams. In opening your hearts for me, in “adopting me” into your lives, we all became Batya.
You have inspired the Yochevet in me to pass on our beautiful tradition to the next generation. I thank Giddy, Kendyll, Thandi, Kani and Diane for their talent and creativity and for allowing me to share my passion for Judaism and in some small ways to help shape the Jewish identity of children and Jews by Choice.
The past 6 years have been a time of growth and innovation in our congregation. You have invited my input and included me in the planning of many new initiatives. You have embraced the skills of Miriam in me. I sincerely thank Desmond and Eric and the many members of ManCom for allowing me to serve as your rabbi.
At this point, I must thank Glynnis a million times for having my back any given time and keeping me organised. I am sure most of you remembered when I asked in a children’s service who my boss is that the answer was “Glynnis”. Nothing wrong in there, still.
Thank you to Di, to Justice, Sipho, Elias, Dorcas and to the many past staff members of BD. Bet David has always had a strong professional team, working hand in hand, and it was a great pleasure walking with you these past years.
A special place in my heart is reserved for Kehillah. While I only could play a little role in their holy work, it still makes me proud and humble at the same time to see that Bet David is more than a building.
Here we have a spark that brings light into the world. You are the Zipporah of Bet David nurturing those who are often forgotten by the world.
If you share my sentiment that a rabbi should internalise those four divine gifted ideals, then you will also share with me that a rabbi needs inspiration in order to nurture them…and my husband, my role model and my best friend, Chayim, surely has been an inspiration to me- I thank you Chayim for serving as my unending well of strength and helping me become the rabbi that I am.
Chaverim, as much as my heart feels heavy because of my departure from you, the closing of the door to this chapter, the lighter tone of the Neilah liturgy reaffirms in me that a new door, a new chapter will open right behind the first one, and that I – we all – will walk though that door, knowing that we are so very blessed by the Divine gifts that Bet David has bestowed upon us. You all have brought joy and holiness into my life.
Thank you and Gmar Chatima Tova.