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.
This is an incredibly special time of the year. In a few weeks we will celebrate, separated but still together, the High Holy Days; Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, then Sukkot and Simchat Torah. With all the uncertainties that surround us these days, the High Holy Days will be very different this year. But what remains constant is the ability of Bet David to enter the High Holy Days on a path toward forgiveness, repentance, reflection, and renewal. We have worked hard and thoughtfully to ensure that these spiritual themes and prayerful experiences, as much you seek them, find their way to you.
The Torah declares:
“Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Nitzavim, Dtn. 30)
On Rosh Hashanah we affirm that we can change. We proclaim that we can fix our mistakes and mend our ways. We believe that human beings are capable of repentance and change. Change however comes with difficulty. We know that we all have a tendency to resist it. This is part of our human nature. Everyone wants to hold on to the past and their image of the past. However, when we attempt to hold on to such imaginings, we never serve the future. We find ourselves alone and comforted only by memories. Thus, change is necessary. It is required for our society. It is required for our people. It is required in our personal lives. We must regularly reinvent ourselves.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate our ability to change. We dip the apples into honey and say, “May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to renew this year for us with sweetness and happiness.” The Hebrew word for renew is chadesh. We make new. We make the old new. We are never trapped in our old ways. Our lives are not predestined. Our choices are not predetermined.
Too often we feel that our lives are beyond our control. The past six months have proven that there are things that we cannot determine. Our health is not entirely in our own hands. Often, other people’s choices affect us and direct our lives in uncharted territories. Yet our choices remain in our own hands. This is what we can change. And this is what we mark on Rosh Hashanah.
For Chayim and me these High Holy Days will be a time of a huge transition, moving from Johannesburg to the UK. The beginning of 5781 will also be the end for us of six wonderful years at Bet David. It is a time to say goodbye, but also to embrace the change that will be happening. I know that Bet David is in good hands and that you will continue to go from strength to strength.
Chayim joins me in wishing all of you and your families a blessed New Year filled with love, peace, joy, health, prosperity and Yiddishkeit.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell
The past few weeks have been difficult here in South Africa, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished friends, family members and congregants who were laid to eternal rest due to the pandemic. As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption this crisis has caused, both close to home and to society as a whole, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.
Last week, we marked the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a path that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s Temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked, along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.
I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon are exemplary for the profound mourning of our people’s loss:
There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…
How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right-hand wither…
Still, as we read Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of sorrow, messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Mo’ed, a festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)
These texts and our tradition hold all our emotions that feel so right for this moment in our world. We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit with anxieties and fears in this time of transition, and still we find a way to express our hope for the future.
We need to grieve. We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with this crisis and we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all these things at the same time.
I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to walk through this crisis.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell
See it again, my sermon from last Shabbat on why Progressive/Reform Judaism is AUTHENTIC Judaism.