The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, can be translated as near or close. Sacrifice, then, is better understood in the biblical context as the way in which we draw near to the Divine. It is an invitation to achieve a sense of intimacy and communion with God. In our modern context, sacrifice is what we offer of ourselves in our attempt to achieve a deeper connection with those people, causes and things about which we are passionate.
Moreover, the fiery passion that may accompany intimacy, if unchecked, can be all-consuming, excluding to others, and costly to the self. When we care passionately about a person or a cause, we may throw ourselves–our emotional energy, our time, our resources–into the relationship. Sometimes we may even go too far in our zeal, forgetting about self-care and about our other priorities, and excluding the voices of others who may share our passions or who may stand in opposition because of their own hierarchy of values.
Relationship requires sacrifice. If we are to achieve true intimacy, we must be ready to give with no expectation of reward, to assume the risk of being hurt or even of hurting another despite our best intentions. We must be prepared to get messy, because the intensity and zeal that can accompany intimacy is not always accompanied by rational behavior.
But sacrifice also requires regulation and control. The failure to curb one’s enthusiasm can lead to disastrous results, harming the parties to the intimacy and those tangentially related. While we may no longer approach God with sacrifices in hand, we must build sanctuaries in our hearts, with altars fed by our purest intentions, upon which we offer our deeds. And as we bring our souls to the altar of intimate connections, may we not lose sight of those around us ready to do the same.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This past Sunday night, our OJC community and friends celebrated our community. Yes, Rabbi Paula Drill was the honoree for the evening, but—sorry—the night was only in part about her. It was a love-fest that spanned the generations: a night of Jewish learning, music, food and appreciation of one another. The night was about our community: our heart, our simplicity, our humility, our relationships, our Torah, our mission and our vision.
In trying to summarize our community’s success, I realize that we have not relied upon any new strategies. We haven’t created any unique ways of doing business; nor have we abandoned our commitment to traditional models of Jewish life. It is the Jewish values exhibited in the building of the Mishkan (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary), described in this week’s Torah portion, that serve as the blueprint for our own community.
The very idea that the people can participate in a process that will invite God’s presence is enough to inspire participation. Perhaps there is an element of guilt or a desire for repentance in their motivation, but after the debacle of the Golden Calf, the Israelites have a chance to merit a legacy. And the project is as much about the process as it is about the ultimate edifice that is constructed. The freewill service to a higher calling adds meaning and the sense of God’s presence to a life that is otherwise enslaved to fear and uncertainty.
God instructs Moses to engage the community by inviting them to donate to the project whatever they are moved to share. Several opportunities are created for that giving by virtue of the many types of materials being collected and utilized in the project. Engagement is transformed into empowerment as each individual becomes a participant in the processes of manufacturing, design and construction.
The appointment of Betzalel as project manager, the inclusion of artisans, and the participation of the broader community creates a new dynamic for the Israelites’ engagement with the Divine One. Before this change, leadership was purely hierarchical, and the population was steps removed in relation to God. As a result of the new appointee, the community operates in partnership with its leadership. In partnerships, the success of one is the success of all. Relationships deepen between the volunteers who recognize that they are working together towards a shared vision; relationships also deepen between the volunteers and the leadership, who now recognize the value of the other’s contributions towards a shared goal.
Finally, there is the matter of expectations and of how we define our success. Success can’t be about the number of people who participate or about the amounts they contribute. Success is found in the knowledge that the process of building—serving, empowering, partnering and relating—is an ongoing effort.
On Sunday night, we celebrated a milestone for a community in process. God said, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” As we continue the process of building a world deserving of God’s presence, may we continue to merit God’s presence among us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I dedicate my writing this week to the memory of Abraham Mordecai Akselrad, z”l
It is fair to say that I attend more funerals than the average person. I am usually in the room with the family tearing the black ribbon, standing behind the lectern, driving the first car behind the hearse in the processional. The honor of performing the mitzvah of kavod la-met (honor to the dead) or of nichum avelim (comfort to the mourners) is very great but it is also very difficult. As rabbi, I gain strength knowing that I can truly help in many ways: standing steady for a family when the world is tilting, explaining a ritual with compassion, educating a community about how to pay a shiva call, or calling a grieving daughter a month after shiva has ended.
This past week, I remembered with full force what it means to perform these mitzvot, but without the designation of “Rabbi” as I did so. I realized with humility how performing kavod la-met or nichum avelim as a rabbi provides a layer of protection to me as a person in such sad times.
Just before Shabbat last week, Jonathan and I lost a dear friend of thirty years after a heroic battle with cancer. Abe Akselrad loved life completely and fought for every day and every hour he could spend with his wife Claire, his four children, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. The entire community of our synagogue in Caldwell attended Abe’s funeral this past Sunday, and he was buried in a downpour.
As friend in the pews rather than rabbi at the podium, I learned many lessons that I want to share with you. I believe that in the OJC community, we are supportive, appropriate and understanding of the laws of mourning and comfort. But we can also improve and grow. In that spirit, I share my learning of this past week.
One of my friends called me on Friday midday and asked how she could help the family who were overwhelmed by people stopping by with their sorrow, their condolences and their fruit platters. I suggested that they hang a sign on the door: “According to Jewish custom, it is not traditional to visit a family until after the funeral has taken place.” When Jon and I entered the funeral chapel, we saw long lines waiting to enter the room where the family sat before the service. We chose to enter the chapel directly instead and sit quietly. After the service, I saw friends clinging to Claire, crying with her, when I thought that she probably wanted to just get into the limousine and prepare herself for the cemetery. I thought about the way all of us have a need to ensure that the bereaved know we are there for them. Sometimes our need to be known outweighs common sense about what true comfort means. Claire and her family would never complain. I know that they have felt the love of family and friends. My first lesson is that all of us need to check our motivation in comforting very carefully: are we acting out of our own need or what we believe to be the needs of the bereaved?
As Jonathan and I sat in a row waiting for the service to begin, we were joined by friends from the Caldwell synagogue. At the end of my row was our friend Rabbi Michael Jay. Both of us have been well-schooled by Rabbi Scheff to sit silently in the presence of the dead. As rows all around us filled with chatting people, our row, anchored by Michael’s and my respectful silence, remained relatively quiet. The second lesson is that we can carry our learning wherever we go and model behavior that shows compassionate understanding of mourning ritual.
Presiding at the funeral was Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel, the Drill family’s rabbi for more than thirty years. He spoke about Abe as a congregant and as a cherished friend; he presided at the baby namings and bris and b’nai mitzvah of all four Akselrads, and at the oldest, Aviva’s wedding. His words brought comfort and an uplift of the heart not just because they were beautiful, heartfelt words, but because Rabbi Silverstein was speaking from a true relationship with the family. The third lesson I share today is that I came away from the funeral affirmed in the rabbinate that Rabbi Scheff and I have created at the Orangetown Jewish Center. We know you. We know your passions and your sorrows, your celebrations and your questions. “Relationship” is the mantra of our rabbinates. . . and for good reason. Truly knowing you allows us to be there with our full selves, as rabbi and as person, in your greatest joys and times of need. If we don’t yet “truly know” you, call one of us for a cup of coffee or a meeting at the shul. We do not want to wait for a time of loss to establish our relationship with you. Visit with us to make a meaningful relationship so that we can continue to build our community together.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill