Remembering the Message

** An edited version of this article is available in our newly printed D’var**

The upcoming beautiful new D’var is a paradigm shift.  It reflects rethinking how we present what is happening at Temple Sholom.  In this spirit, the following remarks, adapted from my installation address in September, present my take on the future of synagogues in general and Temple Sholom in particular.

When the phone rings during the dinner hour, it is usually a good idea to just ignore it.

Chances are pretty good these days that the caller on the other end is someone trying to sell you life insurance on your credit card, solicit a donation for some charity fund, or poll your opinion on some topic you really don’t care to discuss with a stranger.

These telephone solicitors have so perfected their techniques into an art form over the last few years, however, that once you answer the phone it is virtually impossible to escape their clutches.

The good ones begin by asking for you by your first name only — “Is this you?” Quickly they ask some other innocuous question — “And how is everyone at home today, doing all right?”

Suckered into thinking you are talking to someone you actually know and care about, you respond to the caller with conversation.

Before you know it, you’ve spent 10 minutes listening to a long-winded sales pitch. If the caller is really good, he or she then tries to make you feel guilty for taking up all his or her time by listening, and shame you into signing up for whatever the person is selling. Being polite doesn’t help. Politeness only eggs the person on. Being firm only makes the caller more determined. The only recourse we are really left with is rudeness. Thankfully, it’s only a phone call. We can simply hang up.

These annoying salespeople are perhaps the most petty version of a “false prophet” our culture has to offer. They pretend to have a “word” for you–but all they really have is the need to spread their own message. They have no concern for your life insurance needs or the state of your reading library or the profitability of your business. They just want to make a buck. After a few of these phone calls, however, no matter how clever the solicitor, we can quickly peg them for what they really are.

Still, every time I cut them off with the big hang-up mid-sentence, I feel guilty.  Having said that, I pride myself on being savvy enough to distinguish between the authentic and the phony.  I know I am not alone in this acquired skill.

When it comes to the difference between genuine and fake, our sacred communities are no different. We demand full accounting of where our investments are made and who profits from them. We expect “professionalism” from everyone on the staff–from the senior rabbi to the preschool teachers.

But are we genuine? The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel accused the American Jewish people of being “the messenger who forgot the message.”  Is that us?  Have we focused so much on success, i.e., balanced budgets and more members, that we have forgotten what matters most?

There is no question that the world is changing more rapidly than ever before, and that religious institutions need to be aware of these changes.  And yet, human nature has not changed in thousands of years.  The morals of the Torah are still relevant.  The values of our people still apply.  So I would argue that our authenticity comes from adapting to technological innovation while at the same time remembering our moral center.

What is that center?  What are our values?

I have been here only a short while but I believe that Temple Sholom stands for a more noble way to live.  Temple Sholom is an aristocracy of intelligence, compassion, and intellectual curiosity.  It is a “city on a hill” (or by a lake) that causes me to stand up straighter when I pass by.  (And to sit up straighter in the Sanctuary.)

Temple Sholom, as an amalgamation of the collective strivings, passions and commitment to excellence of those who led, supported, and participated during the last 146 years.  Temple Sholom reminds me of the story of the museum guard, tired of people complaining about this or that masterpiece, who blurted out, “You all have got it wrong.  You are not here to judge these classics.  These classics are here to judge you!”

Likewise, our moving forward as a congregation requires us to on the one hand embrace change while on the other hand celebrate the eternal verities that make Temple Sholom stand for something, and not just stand on the corner of Stratford and Lake Shore Drive.

Temple Sholom says to me: bring your best, authentic self.  That is what I promise to try to do in the years ahead.  I hope and pray you will join me.

In a world of so much false prophecy, let Temple Sholom be a light of truth.