Shavuot/Confirmation 5778: Are You Paying Attention?

Dear Confirmation Class of 5778,

A true story.

Fifteen years ago, the year most of you were born, just days after beginning my new job as the Associate Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple, I was invited to participate in a conversion ceremony.  It takes three rabbis to make one Jew—that is to say, a panel of three rabbis is convened to authorize a conversion to Judaism—so I joined my WRT colleagues, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, and our conversion candidate, at the local mikveh, the ritual bath, just two miles up Old Mamaroneck Road at Temple Israel Center in White Plains.  

I was walking back to my car when I noticed a plume of dark smoke streaming from a nearby building.  I turned and said, “That building is on fire.”  Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Buchdahl immediately identified the burning building as our neighboring congregation, Bet Am Shalom on Soundview Avenue.  We rushed to the adjacent parking lot and met the firefighters, police officers, staff and congregants managing the evacuation.  Moments after the fire had been extinguished, but before an all-clear had been issued, Rabbi Jacobs, Bet Am Shalom’s Rabbi Les Bronstein, and their Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller, approached an officer and rushed into the smoldering synagogue pushing hospital stretchers, emerging minutes later with the miraculously undamaged Torah scrolls that they had rescued from the sanctuary.

In that moment, I felt deeply connected not only to my colleagues, to our neighboring synagogues, and to these sacred scrolls that had been saved from danger, but also to Abraham, the first Jew.

Another story, also true—although only metaphorically speaking—this one told by the ancient Rabbis about Abraham:

An ordinary man was going about his business, traveling from one place to another, when he noticed a palace all in flames.  This man, Abraham by name, exclaimed, “Why is no one doing anything?  How can it be that there is no one to look after this palace?”  Suddenly, a voice calls out from the highest balcony—itself almost engulfed in the inferno—saying, “I am the owner of the palace.”  At that moment, the midrash goes, God selected Abraham to bring the Jewish people into the world, and to lead them (adapted from Bereshit Rabbah, 39:1).

The Rabbis wrote this story to answer the question, “Why does the Jewish story start with Abraham?”  What special qualities did our ancestor possess that merited his divine election?  In other words, what did God see in him?  

The answer, according to the parable of the burning palace, is that Abraham walks with eyes open, that he pays attention, that he notices the fire; but it is also that Abraham wonders aloud why this is happening, why is no one else paying attention, why is no one doing anything; and then he demands a response.  What makes Abraham special is that he sees things not only for what they are, but for the way they ought to be, and that he roars out his objection.  

Sir Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, explains:  “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be.  It is in that sacred discontent that Abraham’s journey begins.”  

Perhaps even more fascinating in this story than the character of Abraham is the character of God.  Is God in fact powerless to save the palace?  Or is God, by remaining hidden inside, insisting that the palace will continue to burn until some ordinary traveler notices a plume of black smoke; asks, “What’s going on here?” and demands a response?  

I think the Rabbis wanted to teach that only after human intervention comes divine intervention.  Only after we pay attention does God answer—not as a magical savior, but rather as the One who comes to say to us:  “Thank God you showed up.” 

Out of this little parable emerges an exceptionally deep and insightful understanding of Judaism and the ultimate mission of the Jew, and so I share this story with you today, Confirmation Class of 5778, because the world is on fire, and God—so to speak—is waiting for you to pay attention, to speak up, to demand a response.  Or, more to the point, to be the response.

The world is an inferno.  

Are you paying attention?

The fires of toxic discourse, moral corruption, meanness of spirit, and obstructionism have consumed the last shred of civility in American political life.

The flames of violence and bloodshed continue to lash the Middle East, and so many neglected corners of the world.

The smoke of ignorance and deception suffocate those who are subjected to a daily stream of lies masquerading as the daily news.

The combustion of gunfire has claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives—another mass shooting, just two days ago—in American classrooms, offices, nightclubs, concerts, and public spaces.

The flares of anti-Semitism have grown into conflagrations of white supremacist hatred in places like Whitefish, Montana and Charlottesville, Virginia, even as they have kindled ugly confrontations on college campuses in the form of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions directed against Israel.  Student activists and student governments now routinely single out Israel for special condemnation among all the nations of the world, lobbying school administrators and boards to subject Israel to public excoriation by withdrawing all support—financial or otherwise—for the Jewish State. 

And the scorching heat of racism continues to burn through our country like a fever.

The world is an inferno.  

Are you paying attention?

I wouldn’t blame you for the impulse to look the other way.  After all, we have all learned that the response to a fire is “stop, drop, and roll”—not, “run into the inferno.”  

And I wouldn’t blame you for the impulse to stay in place, aghast but paralyzed as the fire rages.  These are difficult times, and to lead today requires the courage to risk being ridiculed for your beliefs, antagonized for your refusal to accept the status quo, condemned for your willingness to defy authority, to stand up even against your teachers, principals, elected officials—even your clergy.  

When high school students staged walk-outs all over America this spring to protest our epidemic of gun violence, teachers and school administrators were willing to support you, up to a point.  By the second walk-out, they had changed their tune.  “Time to get back to class and pay attention.”  What they missed is that you have been paying attention, which is why you walked out.  And it’s why you’ll have to keep walking out, even when it becomes much more uncomfortable for you, even when the stakes are higher.

Confirmation Class of 5778:  Your rabbis and cantors have loved teaching you this year, and I will confess that one of the reasons we have loved having you in class is because, by and large, you are a class full of rule-followers.  You were so nice!  So caring and thoughtful!  So easy!  Maybe it’s just you; maybe it’s that WRT’s post-B’nei Mitzvah program self-selects for the most eager learners, the students who just really like coming to temple, and we are so grateful that you do. 

But, for the right reasons, at the right moment, would you be willing to speak up — even to your teachers, even to your temple, even to your rabbis and cantors?  To challenge authority?  To defy courtesy and comfort and compliance in the service of a higher cause?  Are you willing to be part of the “Youthquake,” the word that Oxford English Dictionaries crowned as its word of the year back in December, defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people?”  Are you paying attention?

I think everyone in this sanctuary knows that 2018 has been an excruciating year for our community.  We began the new year with the horrific news of the crash of a small airplane in Costa Rica that killed 12 people, including an entire WRT family.  Ever since we have collectively grieved the loss of Bruce and Irene, Zachary, William, and Matthew Steinberg whose bright lives, so filled with promised, were extinguished in an instantaneous inferno.  

I want to share a few words composed for his Confirmation in 2015 that Will Steinberg shared with our congregation from this bimah exactly three years ago, as part of a personal statement entitled “Defending our Faith,” which he offered right before the Shema.  Will said:  “I believe that as a member of the Jewish community, it is my duty… to remember my ancestors and follow their traditions.  It is also my duty to help protect and advocate for all Jewish people around the world….  As a Jew, I cannot wait idly by while the Jewish People are subjected to anti-Semitism daily.  I believe that as a result of my years spent at WRT, the traditions in which I have continued to partake, and my support and love for the State of Israel, I have developed a strong Jewish identity, which I can utilize for the betterment of the Jewish People.”

Will followed in the footsteps of Abraham.  Will paid attention.  In the face of the fire, Will stood up and spoke out.  Will you?  

No sooner had we begun to pick ourselves up from the shock and sadness of the Steinbergs’ deaths, did our community suffer another terrible blow just two weeks ago, when we learned of another small aircraft disaster, this one claiming the life of Rabbi Aaron Panken, who was a beloved member of WRT, whose wife Lisa served as president of our congregation, and whose children Eli and Samantha have been role models for Jewish learning and leadership, including participating in Confirmation in recent years.

Rabbi Panken was the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where all Reform Rabbis, Cantors, and other Jewish professionals train on four campuses, in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.  At the beginning of this sermon I taught you that it takes three rabbis to make one Jew, but did you know that it takes only one rabbi to make another rabbi or cantor?  Rabbi Panken, in his role as President of HUC-JIR, would, each year, place his hands on each student, and in that moment of blessing, he or she would take on the title of rabbi or cantor.  The ritual of s’micha or “laying on of hands” is one that we rabbis and cantors never forget, and our hearts both rejoice and mourn with one of our newest Rabbis, our Intern Eliana Fischel, who received the hands and the blessing of Rabbi Norman Cohen, standing in for Rabbi Panken, at her Ordination ceremony just two weeks ago today. 

Every single one of your rabbis and cantors at WRT, past and present, is a graduate of HUC-JIR, the College-Institute that Rabbi Panken led with boldness and vision, and always with the aim of producing Jewish professionals who would lead with intellect and compassion.  His death is a tremendous loss for his family, for WRT, for the Reform Movement, for the Jewish People, and for humanity.

Just five weeks ago, Rabbi Panken sat on this bimah to help WRT celebrate our 65th anniversary, participating in a panel discussion with other Reform Jewish leaders.  When I asked him “What keeps you up at night,” he answered without hesitation.  He said:  “There is a leadership crisis in this country which, I think, is an emergency.”  “We’re missing vital, important opportunities to stand up for what we need to stand up for,” he said.  He spoke unflinchingly about the mistreatment and unfounded suspicion of immigrants and refugees in Israel and the United States.  He spoke of the challenges faced by people living in poverty—again, in Israel and the United States—and of the plight of poor Israelis alongside the plight of Palestinians.  These are not uniformly popular opinions; for a rabbi to speak openly from a bimah about them is to invite criticism and even anger.  Nevertheless, he spoke.  

Rabbi Panken followed in the footsteps of Abraham.  He paid attention.  In the face of the fire, he stood up and spoke out.  Will you?  

Will you join the youth who have made the shooting in Parkland, Florida, their “never again” moment?

When you turn eighteen in just two or three years, will you exercise your freedom to vote for leaders whose vision of America is not the way things are, or the way things used to be, but the way things could be?

When you head off to college, will you be an Abraham for Judaism, for the Jewish people, for Israel, for those on the margins of society, for those whose lives don’t matter as much in our society, for those whose voices might otherwise not be heard?

Confirmation Class of 5778: Outside this safe and beautiful House of God, an inferno rages.  Are you paying attention?

A final thought.

In Hebrew, “pay attention” is worded in a beautiful and meaningful way.  When we want someone to pay attention, we say, “Sim Lev,” literally, “Put your heart in it.”

Sim Lev, Confirmation Class of 5778, Sim Lev, and the Holy One of Blessing will emerge from the fire to pay attention to you, to put God’s own heart into all that you will do.  

And then God will say:  “Thank God you showed up.”