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June 13, 2014

Farewell Shabbat for Rabbi Rubinstein (Parashat Sh’lach L’cha)

Peter J. Rubinstein

More from this evening's service: listen to and read David Edelson and Howard Sharfstein's remarks, view photos, and watch the tribute video.

Very often, rabbis say “there are just no words,” and then we go on to talk.

The amazing thing about all this is that I had no idea what was happening. And in fact, the perfect means by which this congregation through this year has indicated what meaning I’ve had in your lives, and that you’ve had in mine, is that you made sure I didn’t know what was happening. And therefore everything was a surprise. I was studying with many of these children during Confirmation, and I had no idea that at the time they were saying they couldn’t come to class because they had finals, they were probably here rehearsing for this.

Before I begin my few words, I just want to personally take note of those who cannot be here because they are ill, or in bed and not feeling well enough to have been here. I just want them to know that they are here; though differently, they are as close to me as are all of you.

Fortuitously, the parashah for this week, Sh’lach L’cha, begins with God’s command to Moses to “send forth wise people to spy out the land” which had been promised to the Israelites.

But the words “sh’lach l’cha” can be translated as somewhat more reflective and personal: not really just about sending other people forth, but also about taking seriously for one’s self the same imperative to break momentum and comfort and inertia. And to reflect and to deliberately leave what one is doing and loves—and loves passionately—and step across a boundary into the unknown, a new land and a new chapter.

My body told me it was time to do it. My head did as well. But my heart still aches. And for me that is what tonight is about: the complication and bittersweetness of it all.

You heard that I began this year with a love letter. It was an expression from my heart to yours. I needed to tell you what was on my mind and running through me, that you make my life glorious and lovely.

More so, you have stood beside me, and with me, and behind me, during traumatic times for this congregation and for our nation. And you have embraced me tenderly in ecstatically joyful moments as well, with so many of you being at the wedding in which Kerry and I became husband and wife.

You have given me the luxury of freedom to do what I believed could make this synagogue and the Jewish world better. And you were dauntless in taking outrageously creative chances if that was what was necessary to forge a new expression of synagogue life.

And what touched me even more is that you allowed me my missteps and my failures because you intuitively knew that taking chances was necessary to engage with the unimaginable, and to boldly set out on unexplored byways, and you never made me feel bad about anything. Not even those horrendous mistakes, which you might not have known but I knew, and for which I took full responsibility, though it hurt so much.

You have been amazing and loving and dependable and so very, very compassionate. You see, what we have done, we did together. Look at that wall—some of you remember how when we were nearing the completion of this building, we invited everybody in this congregation to paint some of the stenciling. So many of our children who now have grown up and are adults added their hands to the finishing of that wall, so that they all knew that without their help this building would have remained incomplete.

That is not simply about building a building. It is about what we have created and it is about this evening.

We did not talk about partnership, we just did it. And we did not talk about affection and love, we just had it. And we did not convince ourselves to be courageous—it was in our bloodline.

We believed that there was no challenge too great, no chasm too wide, and no barrier too high that we couldn’t overcome it if we just took each other’s hands and continued to march forward. You were by my side. To play on the poet Robert Browning’s words, we intuitively knew that our reach needed to exceed our grasp, or what is Jewish life all about otherwise?

And I thank you for it all.

I had no idea about the gifts that you would be giving. The raising of the fund, I had some inkling of. The book of sermons, I knew nothing of until just this week. The naming of the chapel… nothing could be more perfect, more staying, more nourishing, and closest to my heart as that will be.

This evening is not only about love and courage, it is also about gratitude, a full bounty of which I feel in my life. I am grateful for God having circuitously led me into the rabbinate. I am grateful for my friends and colleagues for whom I have the bond of shared passion for Jewish life and survival and excellence. And Rick, I am glad to see you here—I didn’t realize you were coming. Through the years, you have kept me strong and focused, and laughing when that was what we needed.

I am also grateful to the leadership of this synagogue, whom I had the chance to celebrate with at the beginning of this week. I know that this congregation knows how blessed we are to have leaders who are wise and fearlessly courageous. I am grateful to the chairs of this evening and the many people who’ve been responsible for all the programs in my honor.

I am grateful for my family: my brothers and their wives who have always been my haven from childhood when I needed a shoulder. I am inordinately grateful to my sons and their families; more than any, they are our future. I would still work to be as good a person as the two of you are. And I am grateful to my parents, who, though not here, I know are loving every minute. My father would just sit here proudly knowing that he bequeathed to his sons a love and commitment to synagogue life and Judaism, and my mom, who would just be here, loving the fact that you were paying attention to her.

Above all, and always, I am grateful for Kerry, who, in the most improbable way, danced into my life and in her own understated and inestimable way makes me a better man and a far better rabbi than I would be without her. My love is so great that my heart still skips a beat every day when she walks into a room, and I always need to see her in the Sanctuary during worship to be fully at peace during services.

I spoke these words at our annual meeting, but they move within me even now: In some ways, we will go in different directions, but not entirely, because my heart remains here. My love for this synagogue is boundless and forever. My hopes and dreams for this congregation, and for myself, are to soar.

About myself I am not so certain. But about this congregation—soon to be in the hands of a great rabbi, a great friend, and, joyfully, my successor, Angela Buchdahl—I know you will soar, because she does. And for that, I am so very grateful, as for my colleagues who support me on this pulpit, this team of friends with whom I work.

The future remains in our hands, and it is bright. Jewish life is in our spirit, and it is glorious. And our Jewish mission pulses through us, and that is our promise, our vision. So we will make it a reality.

In January of last year, when I sat with David Edelson and told him of my decision, tonight was far enough away that it didn’t feel as though I would be in fact feeling the way I feel now. There is no way to foresee the movement of emotion that we have. But I so love this congregation that it hurts, and I feel so much of that love back from you. It’s a gift in my life; you’re a gift in my life.

And though when I walk out of my building, I may make a turn to my right rather than the left, this I know:

We who have suffered and cried together: we will never lose each other.

We who have celebrated and joyfully the watched the birth of new life, and of new marriages: we will never lose each other.

We who have struggled with the problems in our lives, with the vicissitudes of economies and of this nation and of this city, and stood strong in defense of our people: we will never lose each other.

We have traveled this world because we understand that the Jewish community throughout this world has something to teach us as we have the ability to teach them: how can we possibly lose each other?

No, this is not about loss. It is something about heartache, but above all, it is about truth and the wonder of what you and I have done together. Together—and we must never forget that. We have built a miracle. And those children who danced in the aisle this evening someday will look back and be grateful. And that’s the gratitude we deserve.

So I thank you with great love, some pain, but above all, a belief in you, the Jewish people, and our future together.

Thank you.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.