Rabbi Chai Levy’s Installation

V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham (Ex. 25:2) – build Me a MIKDASH [holy place], and I will dwell in them (in us). [sing it with the kahal]

It was around 15 years ago that Debbie Friedman z”l wrote a melody for this verse ‘v’asu’. Our building committee had adopted this Biblical verse as a theme for the campaign. It was a time of transition and hope for all of us, and that song became an anthem of hope and possibility. Earlier today in this celebration you heard another version of that dream. When we played: ‘Oh Lord Prepare to be a sanctuary’ – the melody was different, but the message remains the same – hope, transition, change, and possibility.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what that verse means. God dwells ‘betocham’ – in them – meaning, in us – in people. When we look into someone eyes, if we focus and attend, we can perceive the godliness in the other. But eyes are also reflective – they mirror back the godliness in our own neshama (soul). When the verse says: “I will dwell in them” [betocham], it’s talking about us. We touch the kedusha [holiness] in the neshama of each other. There’s a story told about Rabbi Levi Kelman (no relation!). As a child, he once asked his father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman z”l, how he knew that God exists. His father was taken aback and told him to come back tomorrow because he needed to think about an appropriate answer. When Levi returned the next day, his father said: “I have thought a lot about your question. If you want to know that God exists, go look in a mirror!”

We still have a question: why build a Mikdash (a place of kedusha) if in fact, holiness lies only in us and between us? We, you and I and our new rabbi stand at a liminal moment. I’ve come to realize that while each of us has a neshama, a soul, the synagogue has one too. Have you ever noticed the lettering on the outer wall of the building.? Engraved in front of our name, Netivot Shalom – are two Hebrew letters: kuf”kuf that stands for Kehilah kedoshah – sacred community. Every time we walk by that sign to enter, it should remind us of what it means to be a kehilah kedoshah – a place which can enable us to grow spiritually, and a place that can enable us to do those mitzvot that lie outside these walls, while simultaneously helping each of us grow internally, spiritually. That for me is the essence of being a synagogue. Our verse, ‘v’shachanti betocham’, has an elusive letter ‘bet’ {betocham} which I would translate both as ‘in’ and ‘among’ – in – because it reflects that interpersonal holiness; ‘among’ because it gives us the space to do it in.

This afternoon is less an installation and more a celebration. I was asked to provide some practical pieces of eytza [advice, suggestions?] – to Rabbi Chai. However, each of these 8 eytzot I want to share are as much for you (us) as it is for her. Here goes:

  1. Although it will be hard at times, try, try to see the kedusha in everyone. Each of us, thank God, has a voice willing to give you advice. Be sure to look inward to trust your own sense of the holiness of the task while still listening to those voices.
  2. This shul needs to be a mikdash – a sanctuary –a place where people can feel safe. This doesn’t mean that we have only one voice. We are 400 or so households or so maybe 2000 voices, but like Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in the days of the Talmud, when they parted having struggled and argued vigorously, they felt part of a connected and safe community where issues could be discussed with passion – but safely and without rancor.
  3. Practice the art of tzimtzum – of contraction, of making space for others to accept responsibility. In yesterday’s parasha, Yitro, tells us that Moshe tried to do it all himself, and finally realized that he couldn’t. He needed to establish a way in which he could withdraw and let others share the tasks of leadership. I like to think of Netivot Shalom as a covenanted shul; a partnership between rabbi and membership. And yes, YOU do carry the mantle of mara d’atra – the owner of the final word, the bottom line.
  4. music – keep on playing. Last Shabbat in your drash, you said, quoting Damien Chazelle the writer and director of LA LA Land: “If you feel something enough, you break into song’. There certainly are moments when you break out into song, but song, music, and a wordless melody (a niggun) also have the power to break into you, connecting you to a higher plane – to the Holy One. So keep playing and singing for yourself and for us – and have fun doing it!
  5. have a private life. Take time for study, for meditating, for renewal. For colleagues, and most important, for Rodger and Ezra. I have a close non-Jewish clergy friend who once said to her congregation after having worked her fourth 15 hour day in a row : the day is made up of three parts: morning, afternoon, and evening. You can have two of them!
  6. keep in mind your title: teacher. Paraphrasing the words of Rebbe Nechunya ben Hakane in Pirkey Avot 3.2. When he entered the house of study to teach, and when he left, he would offer a short prayer: on entering he said: ‘may no one be injured because I taught something incorrectly’, or my paraphrase – ‘may my words cause no harm to anyone’; and when he left, he would give thanks for what he was able to do – to teach. Give thanks for your role as a teacher, and keep in mind that great teachers are also great listeners.
  7. You have a unique privilege and with it comes awesome responsibility: You are daily, to quote Lin Manuel-Miranda – “in the room where it happens’. You will enter the rooms of people’s lives at the most vulnerable, the most joyous, the most tragic, the most frightening, the most baffling and the most anxious times in their lives. They invite you in. Be grateful for these moments of kedusha. Treasure them. Sometimes, we, your congregants will be looking for answers; sometimes we will just want a compassionate ear; and sometimes we will need to just think out loud in order to find our way together.
  8. Chai, after we’ve read from the Torah and have put it back in the Ark, we sing the very last line: Hashiveinu …. “Turn us toward You, Adonai, and we will return to You; “Chadesh yameynyu kekedem” – make our days fresh, as in the old days’. The verse does not say: we want to go back and do again what we did in the past. It says: make our days fresh – as in days of old.

My blessing to you – and to all of us: May your days and ours here always be fresh and new to you and to us and may they be linked to our past with deep roots in our tradition. Through music, song, prayer, learning and community involvement, help us Recapture the emotions and the energy and the passion and the dedication that got us to where we are today.

That is my blessing for you.

V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham (Ex. 25:2) – build Me a MIKDASH [holy place], and I will dwell in them (in us).