Friday, June 28, 2013

Summer Sermon Series #1: Leading With Our Narrative - Pinehas 5773

I rarely have time for television, and in fact there have been times in recent years when I have questioned whether paying for cable is indeed a fiscally-sound choice.

However, two years ago Judy and I acquired a guilty pleasure: Mad Men, the series about a 1960s-era Madison Avenue advertising agency. It is an extraordinarily well-crafted show, and we take great pleasure in watching the characters and storylines unfold from week to week. Mad Men has just concluded its sixth season, and just a few episodes ago we realized that the series creators planted information in early episodes that fed into the later ones. I really do not have time for this, but it makes me want to go back and review those early episodes to put the entire puzzle together (fortunately, I have them on DVR.)

Mad Men Season 6

That is the power of narrative. It connects us; it draws us in.

Usually, I give a sermon once a month or so. This is the first time that I will be doing it for seven straight Shabbatot. I have been inspired by Mad Men to plot out these seven sermons very carefully so that they all fit together in a natural progression. What we will have, after this seven-part series is complete, is a blueprint for a vision of what Temple Israel is: who we are as a community, what we stand for, what we believe. So the topics that we will be discussing today and the next six Shabbatot are as follows:

1. Leading with our narrative (Pinehas)
2. Welcoming Others (Mattot - Mas'ei)
3. Learning / Torah (Devarim)
4. Egalitarianism (Va-ethannan)
5. Israel (Eqev)
6. Repairing the World (Re’eh)
7. Tradition and Change (Shofetim)

Why do this at all? Why not merely discuss the weekly parashah?

Having been here in Great Neck for six years, some things have come into focus. We now have a professional staff in place that is solid, works well together, and is supremely capable of making things happen. That is very good news for this community, because when the professionals work well together, we are able to build. And our ultimate goal is to continue to build – to build a congregation of shared Jewish values, of close-knit social involvement, of personal connections forged in the context of qehillah qedoshah, a holy community.

And of course, building means attracting others to join our qehillah. To do so, we need to be the kind of community that people want to join. And that's not such an easy sell nowadays.  Most Jewish involvement today can be characterized as “episodic.” That is, people show up from lifecycle event to lifecycle event, or perhaps from holiday to holiday. For the vast majority of us, the days of regular attendance at synagogue events, that is, services or dinners or volunteer activities or events, when many American Jews saw the synagogue as the center of their social lives, are largely gone. And that makes the task of attracting others even harder. After all, how can you justify spending thousands of dollars on synagogue dues when you will rarely take advantage of what the synagogue offers?

As a rabbi, my primary goal is to teach Torah, in the widest sense of that word, as I discussed in this space two weeks ago. We as a congregation can spread more Torah if we have more people tuned in to what we offer. And the way to reach more people is as follows:

  1. We must have a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for. Now, of course we do not agree on everything. But there are some basic principles here that differentiate us from other congregations, and those are the items upon which we must focus.
  2. We have to invite people in. If nobody new comes in, and we do not reach out to new people, Temple Israel will not continue long into the future. I will be speaking more extensively about that next week.
  3. We have to tell our story more effectively - that is, who we are, what we stand for, and why being a part of this community is worth your time and your financial investment. Telling our story will strengthen our core and draw others in.

And that is today’s theme: We must lead with the narrative of who we are.

So who are we?

The sign out front on Old Mill Road defines us as a “Conservative, Egalitarian Synagogue.” That's a good start; we are committed to the principles of Conservative Judaism, including an open approach to Judaism that incorporates contemporary scholarship when studying Jewish text, a sense that Judaism has always been open to change and outside influence, that halakhic observance is important, but not necessarily the only or even the highest aspiration of Jewish life, that men and women are considered equal under Jewish law and tradition, and that change within Judaism comes about conservatively, that is, through careful consideration of the relevant sources and customs (hence the name of our movement). But that is not enough.

Our congregational narrative, that is, story of Temple Israel’s past, present, and future, includes not only those things, but also the following:

א. That Rabbi Mordecai Waxman served as the Senior Rabbi here for 55 years, and during that time not only wrote the book whose title became the unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement in the latter half of the 20th century (i.e. “Tradition and Change”), but also became a pioneer in egalitarianism by calling his own wife, Ruth Waxman, to the Torah in 1976, far earlier than most Conservative synagogues. As such, this congregation has been something of a standard-bearer for the movement and for egalitarianism for half a century.

ב. That the growth of this congregation, one of the largest Conservative congregations in the New York area, came after World War II, when many Ashkenazi Jews were leaving urban enclaves for leafier suburbs, and that the last quarter of the 20th century brought an influx of Jews who had left Iran in the wake of the revolution there. This synagogue, therefore, is unusual in the Conservative movement because of its rich ethnic diversity, and this is a strength upon which we continually draw.

ג. That Rabbi Stecker, Cantor Frieder, Rabbi Roth, Danny Mishkin, Leon Silverberg, Rachel Mathless and I, and a complement of lay volunteers are working very hard to maintain our level of quality in programming, educational offerings, and ritual services. Furthermore, we, in partnership with the laity, are committed to developing a vision of the Temple Israel of the future, a vision that will incorporate all of the items that I will be discussing over the next six Shabbatot.

ד. That although Temple Israel of Great Neck is one of the oldest congregations on this peninsula, the landscape has changed. We are now one of 20 or so synagogues, most of which are Orthodox. Just as we embrace diversity within our immediate community, we seek to maintain diversity and cooperation without.  It is of vital importance for TIGN to survive as the sole Conservative congregation and thrive on the peninsula for the sake of Kelal Yisrael, the idea that all Jews are interconnected as a nation. But it is also essential that we look outward as well. I mentioned two weeks ago that I hope that in the near future we will look for opportunities to reach outside these walls, particularly through learning Torah together with our neighbors.


This communal narrative must be told and retold. The way that we build connections between people is by having them share their stories: our individual, personal stories and collective stories. Our congregation is not just a place to come to services or to get “bar mitzvahed”. It is a strong, vital community of more than 900 families, each with their own stories, and each a part of our communal narrative. Narrative, storytelling, builds connections, and builds community.

Parashat Pinehas is the parashah that we read from most frequently throughout the year. It contains instructions to the kohanim / priests for the sacrifices that were performed in the Temple in Jerusalem for every holiday. Today, we continue to read this passage about how to perform rituals that have not been performed for 1,943 years, as of the 17th of Tammuz, this past Tuesday. That is the day that the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) identifies as the date when the daily Tamid offering ceased, when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Since then (more or less), we have given the words of our mouths and hearts as offerings to God in place of animal sacrifice; I think that this is a much better path to holiness and communication with God.

But here’s the important part: the rabbis could have decided, in the wake of the Temple’s destruction, that reading the parts of the Torah related to sacrifice, such as this one, was no longer relevant to us and thus could be omitted. Instead, they insisted not only that we read them, but that we read the entire Torah every year. Instead of casting them aside, we incorporated the story of the sacrifices and the destruction of the Temple into our national story in many other ways as well: we mention it at various points of our tefillot; we invoke it at various holy moments, such as when we add salt to our hallah at Shabbat meals, or when we break a glass at the conclusion of a wedding; and of course it is the theme of the Three Weeks that stretch from last Tuesday until Tish’ah Be’Av, the Ninth Day of Av, this year on July 16.

The Torah is the essence of the Jewish narrative; as Jews, we lead with that narrative, and it has been a rallying point for millennia. It has kept us Jewish, and enabled us to thrive through centuries of oppression and wandering.

Our communal story here at Temple Israel, as we have begun to discuss this week, is the focal point that makes us strong as a community, that keeps us coming back to the synagogue, and that attracts new members. We need to tell it and retell it, just like the Torah.

Next week, we’ll talk about inviting people in. Shabbat shalom!


  1. Very Organized. Abe Lincoln would be proud.
    Ron G

  2. Rabbi Adelson, it is almost sundown, and I've just read your Sermon #1 introduction - What a wonderful way to begin Shabbat!!

    And re Mad Men, Season 6: The first episode of the season begins with our main character, Don Draper, reading a paperback as he lazes on a beach in Hawaii. Incongruously, it is hardly "beach reading" but a copy of Dante's Inferno that we learn in a later episode has been lent to him by his mistress, the very Catholic wife of his Jewish friend and downstairs neighbor (oy vey!). A very plain, prose translation of Inferno's first lines are: "In the middle of my life, I lost my way..." [More literal: Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
    In dark woods, the right road lost.] How appropriate for a series of sermons!!

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Elissa Schiff