“Toiling for Temple” – A D’var Torah for the Temple Mount Sinai Board

Earlier tonight, I had the honor of offering a d’var torah at my last Board of Trustees meeting at Temple Mount Sinai…

For the past several weeks, our Tuesday afternoon text study group has been focused on Pirkei Avot, a collection of ethical maxims compiled about 1800 years ago which, like so much in our ancient but ever-renewing tradition, remains relevant even now. Given that my mind has been in this book, I thought one of its teachings would make a good point of departure for my last d’var torah at a Temple Mount Sinai Board of Trustees meeting. I’ve chosen a passage from the second chapter (2:2), a teaching of Rabban Gamliel:

וכל העמלים עם הצבור, יהיו עמלים עימהם לשם שמים, שזכות אבותם מסייעתן וצדקתם עומדת לעד. ואתם, מעלה אני עליכם שכר הרבה כאלו עשיתם.

Those who toil with the community should toil for the sake of Heaven; for the merit of their ancestors shall aid them, and their righteousness shall endure forever. And you, [says G-d,] I shall credit you with great reward as if you have achieved it.

There are a few aspects of the Hebrew worth paying close attention to. The first is the verb used to describe what’s being done here: amal, which I’ve translated as “toil,” is stronger than avad, “work.” To my ears, it has a sense of challenge, but also great reward. Ovdim punch in and get paid; amelim sweat the details, and see their work as serving a greater purpose. As members of this Board of Trustees, you are encouraged to think of yourselves as amelim, toiling for Temple, and not merely ovdim, ticking off an item on some to-do list.

The amelim of which Rabban Gamliel speaks toil im hatzibbur, “with the community.” The choice of preposition is important. Your efforts need to be im, with, the members of the congregation. With, and not merely “for,” as though it were your job to be Jewish, or committed, on their behalf. With, and certainly not “above,” as though (God forbid!) being a member of this Board were more about privilege than responsibility. The members of this congregation who aren’t Trustees are neither your bosses nor your underlings. They are your co-workers. Lead from the middle. Be amelim im hatzibbur.

Rabban Gamliel speaks about z’chut avot, the Merit of the Ancestors. It’s an old and important idea in Judaism, that we don’t measure up to past generations, and we’re lucky to have their stored-up goodness working on our behalf. Every time we appeal in prayer to “the God of our fathers and mothers” — eloyehnu velohei avoteinu v’imoteinu–  we are invoking z’chut avot.

What does z’chut avot mean in your context, as Trustees? A few things. First of all, those avot v’imahot who populate our prayers are not at all irrelevant. You are here because hundreds of generations of Jews have drawn strength and inspiration from the past, and haven’t been willing to be the last generation of Jews. We follow in their footsteps, we stand upon their shoulders.

Closer to home, you draw on the strength and the solid work of a few generations of ancestors who preceded you as amelim with this particular tzibbur. You certainly draw merit from Temple Mount Sinai’ forward-thinking leaders of the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries who have entrusted you with a paid-up cemetery and a paid-up building. In this room today are many of those responsible for the third jewel in that triple-crown: a five million dollar endowment. Like all religious institutions in twenty-first century America, you face challenges. But let’s not kid ourselves: every generation of Jews since Abraham has been certain that they would be the last. Are your challenges significant? Sure they are. Are they made less so because you are debt-free, well capitalized, and living within your means year after year? Absolutely. My prayer is that this generation of Temple’s leaders will be wise stewards of those material gifts.

And of our spiritual gifts, as well. Chief among them, the gift of Rabbi Zeidman and his family. The story is told of a Rabbi who inherited his father’s pulpit, and started making changes. The people came to him and said, “But that’s not the way your father did it!” He replied, “I don’t understand your point. I’m doing exactly what he did. Like him, I am making changes.” Temple Mount Sinai is on the cusp of welcoming a new Rabbi with fresh perspectives who will bring a sense of newness and excitement to the congregation. I’m so excited for you, and I’m so pleased that Rabbi Zeidman is succeeding me in this pulpit. I trust that he will do exactly as I have done, and exactly what Rabbi Weiss did before me…which is to say, I trust that he will innovate relentlessly! Let there be no sacred cows, no “But that’s not the way we do things…” You’ve engaged a bright and talented leader. Enjoy the ride! I look forward to hearing great things from this congregation. It will, in many ways, always be my home.

I’ll conclude by invoking our Rabbi and teacher, Ken Weiss of blessed memory. Rabbi Weiss was fond of pointing out that Temple had a Board of Trustees, and not a Board of Directors. I learned from him to cherish that distinction. Directors, he would say, tell other people what to do. Trustees see themselves as stewards and shepherds. Trustees understand what z’chut avot is all about. Trustees are the sort of folks of whom future generations will say, “We stand on their shoulders.”

Be great Trustees. If you are, tzidkatchem omedet la’ad – your righteous efforts will endure, forever.

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