Upon the Mountain: Tribute to Rabbi Levy & Rabbi Reiser – Shabbat Behar 5782

Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, Friday, May 20, 2022

First of all, I want to thank you, WRT Family, for all the care and concern you have expressed during my recovery from Covid.  My blood/chicken soup level is now over the legal limit, and, more to the point, I’m testing negative.    

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Behar, means “on the mountain.”  Mountains figure prominently in Jewish tradition.  On Mount Sinai, God gives instruction.  On Mount Ararat, Noah’s Ark found its shore. On Mount Nebo, Moses breathed his last.  On Mount Tabor, Deborah vanquished the enemy.  On the slope of Mount Zion, David built his city;  On Mount Moriah, Abraham’s faith was tested and, later, the great Temple would arise, Jerusalem’s pride and pinnacle.  

Mountains symbolize great accomplishments and noble challenges, summits attained and new vistas revealed.

So it comes as no surprise that we are making a mountain out of a moment, as we pay tribute to Rabbis David Levy and Daniel Reiser who have served our congregation with such vigor and distinction:  not only climbing the mountain of professional attainment, but, much more, guiding us in our own Jewish journeys up the mountains of faith and learning, of lifecycle celebrations and commemorations.  

And if the last two years have felt especially steep and jagged, then let it be known that Rabbi Levy and Rabbi Reiser have been among our most dedicated and tireless sherpas, helping us all to carry the burden.

Each of our Associate Rabbis has distinguished himself over years of dedicated service to WRT, and, in so doing, each one has lived up to his own Biblical namesake, as I now observe in these remarks. 

Consider Rabbi Daniel Reiser, who has, in so many ways, been for our community like Daniel of the Bible.  

And who was Daniel of the Bible?

Well, he’s a bit of an enigma, to be honest.  

Was he a scholar?  A prophet?  A magician?  An iconoclast?  A charmer?  A charismatic leader?  He was all of these, and more; but above all, Daniel was a dreamer and a dream-interpreter.  He excels in understanding and explaining arcane symbols and codes.  Deciphering a mysterious script written by a ghostly hand at a feast, it is Daniel to whom we ascribe the original phrase, “The writing on the wall” (See Daniel, Chapter 5). 

Described as one of the handsome young Israelites (see Daniel, Chapter 1), Daniel comes of age during the reign of the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar.  In this time of turmoil for the Israelite people, he distinguishes himself for his wisdom and ability to navigate the perils and politics of the Babylonian court.  

Rabbi Reiser came to WRT in the spring of 2016, at a time of unprecedented turmoil and tension in our community, country, and world, and it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing ever since.  For six years he has exemplified all of Daniel’s best qualities:  perseverance in the face of challenges, equanimity of spirit even when put to the test, wisdom, savvy, and earnestness.  

Above all, Rabbi Reiser has shown himself a masterful interpreter of our sacred texts and traditions.  His leadership in adult education has brought us his insightful “Bible as Literature” class and established WRT as Westchester’s first site for the internationally esteemed Florence Melton School for Adult Jewish Learning.  He has led nuanced conversations on race and racism in a Jewish context, which requires not only a depth of factual knowledge but also intellectual and emotional sensitivity.  

To our families, youth, and teens, he has been a compassionate, fun, and engaging teacher and prayer-leader, unlocking for them Jewish spirituality and Torah study as relevant and enjoyable pursuits.  And his artful and humane preaching and pastoring has endeared him to our entire WRT community.  

We know that the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings will be richly blessed by all these qualities, and, especially, by their new rabbi’s gifts as a pastor, teacher, and interpreter of ancient wisdom.  

Daniel, may you continue to live up to all the best within your name, and continue to give a good name not only for yourself, but for your loving family, for the Jewish tradition, for God, Torah, and the People of Israel.  The congregation of Temple Beth Shalom is fortunate to welcome you this summer as their associate-successor rabbi, and we look forward to celebrating within the next two years when you are officially installed as that congregation’s new senior rabbi, becoming only its second senior rabbi in more than 50 years.  

Daniel, may you continue to reveal the mysteries and wonders of the Jewish tradition to our people and all whom you meet, inspiring them as you do.  

And now a few words about Rabbi Levy’s namesake.  Now, all of you Bible nerds can stop worrying:  I offer no ham-fisted comparison to King David, the boy warrior who slew the Philistine Goliath; the leaping dancer who embarrassed his wife by frolicking with the holy Ark in front of the Israelite throngs; or, God forbid, the power-drunk monarch who summoned Bathsheva to his chambers while plotting to have her husband killed in battle.  King David is a lot of things, but a paragon of rectitude is not one of them.

So, you can all relax, because it is not to a King that our David bears closest resemblance.  I refer, rather, to the Levi, the Biblical priest of the Israelite community, the one who was responsible for safeguarding all the holy laws, traditions, rituals, community gatherings, celebrations, bereavements, illnesses and recoveries.  

The Biblical Levi or priest-servant was all of these things; but above all, he was a sacred caretaker for the Israelite community.  It was the Levi who made sure that the offerings were properly prepared and presented.  It was the Levi who organized the ritual life for the entire Israelite people, making sure that a system of norms and standards could be followed for religious life across all the tribes and their territories.  It was the Levi who ministered to the young and the old, the sick and the frail, and who also oversaw the proper assembly and disassembly of the Tabernacle, the wilderness tent where the people encountered God.

For the last ten years, our Levi, our Rabbi Levy, has been involved in almost everything that happens at WRT.  His attention to detail impressed us from the very first.  

When, in January 2012, I traveled to Cincinnati with WRT past president Amy Lemle and then-president Lisa Messinger to interview rabbinical candidates, David set an almost impossibly high bar for every other applicant because he showed up already versed in every aspect of WRT’s history, mission, and calendar and could ask us questions about programs he had noted on our website that I didn’t even know existed.  The three of us were knocked out.  

In 2015, our temple president Helene Gray and I initiated a Strategic Vision Process for Religious Education at WRT.  Over the next two years, we collaborated with a team of lay volunteers and professional staff to re-imagine our religious school.  Out of this process emerged a groundbreaking Jewish Learning Lab.  And after an exhaustive search to identify a gifted educator to lead the Lab, we asked Rabbi Levy.  

At first accepting the role in an interim capacity, he has now directed our JLL for six years, along the way earning recognition by the Jewish Education Project as one of their “Young Pioneers Award” recipients for the year 2018.  

Whenever confronted with an opportunity or challenge, Rabbi Levy has said, Hineni.  “Here I am.  Put me in.” 

For every hour you have encountered Rabbi Levy–on a bimah, in a classroom, under a chuppah, at a staff meeting–he has invested countless hours in preparing.  He’s been my right arm, anticipating needs and proactively addressing them.  He’s the one with a podcast recommendation for every day of the week; he’s listened to all of them, on double-speed, to maximize his data intake.  He’s the one who comes up with workplace efficiencies like “staff redundancy protocol.”  (Ask him about that at the Oneg; he has a lot to say on the matter!)  

Rabbi Levy has been our institutional memory:  the one who remembers the child who broke her arm three years ago; the one who remembers the clergy Zoom password (the new one, after we had to change it because I messed up the old one by trying to log in with the wrong password too many times and forgetting the answer to the security question); he’s the one who remembers Yahrzeits and anniversaries of B’nei Mitzvah; who remembers the layout for Sukkah slam and which cantors and rabbis need to be at which services for the High Holidays.  

He has, directly and indirectly, guided every student from Kindergarten to 12th grade in their journeys of Jewish education, transforming our Religious School into a vibrant Jewish Learning Lab and earning much-deserved recognition beyond the walls of WRT for his innovations in Jewish education and youth engagement, including WRT’s groundbreaking partnership with BBYO. And our kids love, respect, and trust Rabbi Levy because he will never talk down to them and will never be inauthentic. 

And above all, like the Levi of the Bible, David is a quintessential mensch, whose deeds exceed his speech and whose speech and deeds exemplify integrity and sincerity.  

The last two years have been difficult, and we are grateful that our Levi has put WRT first, as he always has, even while fully devoted to his family.  In this time of transition, we wish Rabbi Levy godspeed in his next engagement as the rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich, Connecticut, a post that he will hold for the coming year.  We know that any community, any congregation, that comes to know Rabbi Levy and to experience his leadership will be held with compassion, care, kindness, and fidelity.  We have been honored and blessed to call you our rabbi, and our Levi.

Thank you, Rabbi Reiser and Rabbi Levy–Daniel and David–for carrying us up the mountain, lifting us higher in times of joy and soothing us in our most trying hours.  

May each of you continue to climb the Sinai of a rabbinate that brings you spiritual satisfaction, health, and healing for the spiritual cuts and bruises you have sustained in the course of your time with us.  May your next chapters be fulfilling, fruitful, and fun.  We look forward to encountering you as you continue to lead, teach, and inspire the Jewish people in moments both lofty and lowly.  

And on this Shabbat Behar, this Shabbat of summits attained, may God grant each of you, and your loved ones, the gift of a new vista, a new perspective, that will allow you to move forward with confidence and hope.

Amen, Shabbat Shalom

To Vax or Not to Vax? Sermon for Shavuot & Confirmation, 5782

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Confirmation Class of 5782!

Thank you for sharing your words with us this morning.  It’s now my turn to share a word with you.  Literally, one word.  

Wait, before you get too excited:  my remarks are more than one word.  

Let me explain.

Every November, the Oxford English Dictionary selects its “Word of the Year.”  In 2021, the OED chose the word “Vax,” spelled V-A-X (though two x’s are acceptable).

Your Confirmation year has seen spikes not only in Covid, but also in words related to vaccines and vaccination:  words like unvaxxed, double-vaxxed, anti-vaxxer, and my personal favorite, vaxinista.  

Given all this, “vax” makes perfect sense for “word of the year.” 

As a shorthand for “vaccine” or “vaccinate,” “vax” also comes with a fascinating backstory, one that you’ll be happy to hear on an empty stomach.

The word “vaccine” comes from a Latin word for “cow,” vacca, similar to the French la vache, as in the immortal line, “Fetchez la vache!” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, meaning, “Fetch the cow!” of course.  

But what do vaccines have to do with cows?  The unappetizing true story goes like this:

As the 18th century was winding to a close, an English physician named Edward Jenner set about to determine whether there was any truth to an urban legend of his day: milkmaids who got cowpox… didn’t get smallpox. This was a big deal, because a case of cowpox would typically leave a person with a self-contained and localized ulcer or two, usually on a hand, while a case of smallpox would likely cause disfiguring scars at best and full-on death at worst.

In a process that likely would not get FDA approval today, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy (one James Phipps) with material [pus] taken from a milkmaid’s cowpox sores. (We warned you.) After the boy contracted and recovered from cowpox, Jenner went on to inoculate him with smallpox. The boy was, to our great relief, immune, and did not contract the disease. Jenner repeated this process with 22 more lucky folks and published his documentation of it all in 1798, in a slender volume called An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, using the Latin term that charmingly translates as “cow pustules.”

… [The word] “Vaccine” quickly came to be applied in English to the cowpox inoculum, and then broadened semantically to cover other kinds of inocula as well.

“Because of Jenner’s work,” our lexical researchers conclude, “the horrific scourge that was smallpox was eventually eradicated. It goes to show that science doesn’t have to be pretty to be pretty awesome, and neither does etymology” (From “Vaccine: The Word’s History Ain’t Pretty,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/vaccine-the-words-history-aint-pretty).

Now, I could just end here and let us all go have lunch, but in the interest of providing us with some time to recover from the linguistic shot in the arm I have just administered, I will endeavor to make sense of this, or at least, to make a point.

Since the time of Dr. Jenner to the present day, vaccines work by introducing an agent that prompts the body to recognize and fight specific pathogens.  That agent might be a virus, in a weakened, inactive, or modified state, or a piece of a virus, or, in the case of the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines that most of us have received, a specially configured agent teaches our cells to make a protein that mimics the one on the surface of the coronavirus. Once our body creates this protein, the immune system learns to recognize it as a target and gets ready to fight against the real virus when it comes along.  

The science evolves but the basic principle remains the same:  introduce an organic agent into the body that makes it harder for unwanted pathogens to harm us or kill us.  

Of course, Jenner’s original hypothesis holds true:  people who are infected—and who are lucky enough to recover—often develop some degree of natural immunity.  

As concerns Covid, according to most experts who study infectious disease, one likely trajectory seems to be that, over time—between vaccines and boosters and the natural immunity provided by infection and recovery—this no-longer-so-novel coronavirus will become a thing we adapt to live with, most of us coming down with Covid every few years or so.  That’s a best-case scenario, and one I certainly don’t relish, but it also beats a million dead Americans every two years. 

The hope is that the thing that used to kill and cause irreparable tissue damage will become something to get through and get over.  

What is true of viruses and vaccines is also true of damage to the human psyche, of injuries to the human soul, and how we figure out how to adapt and recover and move on.  

Early or late, life will show itself mercilessly indifferent to your feelings.  Nature will show itself monumentally indifferent to your sense of fairness, your own hopes and aspirations.  In the wake of the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde and Tulsa, and in Philadelphia just last night, what further evidence do we need for the prevalence of random violence, evil, and chaos?  What greater proof do we need that, so far as human suffering is concerned, there is no upper limit? 

The brilliant Austrian physician Viktor Frankl, who was imprisoned in four Nazi death camps in the space of four years, exemplified this axiom.  His wife was murdered by the Nazis in Bergen-Belsen, his father in Terezin, and his mother and brother in Auschwitz.  Frankl, miraculously, survived.

Following the war, Frankl happily remarried, had a child and a distinguished career in psychiatry, published 39 books, received numerous awards for his contributions to science and the humanities, and lived to the age of 92.

Some people, confronted with ultimates of brutality, develop a kind of “immune response.”  Reflexively or by choice, they inoculate themselves against feeling pain.  They survive by desensitizing themselves, immunizing themselves against further psychic injury.  When they next encounter a harmful agent—in the form of a loss, a betrayal, or a source of physical or mental agony, they may respond in a number of different ways that expose how their suffering has shaped them.

They may require treatment for PTSD for the rest of their lives.  They may shut down emotionally, or retreat into a prison of self-pity.  Or, they may self-medicate, soothing themselves and seeking solace in alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or any number of diversions that can become distractions that can become full-on dependencies.  

They may continue to survive, but at a terrible cost:  their bodies will live on, but their souls—by which I mean their capacity for empathy—will have died.

Frankl seems to have achieved the opposite.  Frankl resisted the tendency to turn inward by intentionally orienting himself outward, toward others in need.  

In reflecting on having survived his own unfathomable traumas, Frankl went on to publish his magnum opus, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he famously wrote:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  

Watching you, our students, grow from childhood to adulthood over the course of years; watching you take your halting first steps into a new age of Jewish maturity at B’nei Mitzvah and, from there, to reflect on, and refine, your Jewish identities in the year of Confirmation; watching you take your Jewish identities and construct lives of meaning and purpose, of empathy and commitment, of hope and possibility through High School graduation and well beyond—these are among the greatest privileges of my rabbinate.  

And to have watched many of you grow up here at WRT to arrive at this bimah, on this bright and beautiful morning, fills me with the hope that the Jewish tradition is in very good hands, and that the human family will be enriched and blessed by all that you will bring to its betterment in years to come.  

And yet, each of us acknowledges how much you have endured this year, these two years, and more:  how each new wave of pestilence has stolen from you a share of freedom and human connection; how some of you have witnessed illness ravaging a loved one; how each mass shooting has piled up another stratum of horror and sadness, of rage and despair; how each advancing year of no real action on climate change brings us closer to a terrifying abyss; how the chaos of all-out war in Ukraine has undermined our confidence in the stable Western democratic order that most of us have long taken for granted; how each new psychic injury that has pummeled you and your entire generation—even here, in the relative peace and prosperity of America, even now, in 2022—has proved profoundly destabilizing.

We would not blame you, Confirmation Class of 5782, if you were to vax yourselves against it all, become numb to it all, give up on any hope in your ability to do much more than protect yourself against future injury.  

But I hope you won’t. 

At the risk of making you lose your appetites all over again, I want to conclude with a few words about a favorite verse from the Torah.  In Deuteronomy chapter 10, verse 16, Moses adjures the people of Israel to “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and be stiff-necked no more.”  

In this mixed and mangled anatomical metaphor, the Torah speaks with uncanny insight to the challenge of this moment.

The Israelites have wandered for forty years in the wilderness.  They have seen disease and bloodshed, idolatry and rebellion, thirst and starvation, plague and poverty.  Tens if not hundreds of thousands have turned to dust, their carcasses left as silent witnesses to the ravages which only the lucky have withstood to tell the tale.

And what Moses wants most from his people, before they leave this godforsaken place to enter a land of promise, is that they cut away the accumulated dead tissue around their hearts—that they un-inoculate themselves to suffering, that they become people of empathy, word that literally means “to feel alongside,” that they become people of compassion, a word that literally means “to be with the suffering of another person.”  

Confirmation class of 5782:

Even as we pray that you will become emotionally resilient people, people whose strength of character will prepare you for the wilderness of life, in all its hardness and all its hurt, please—we beg you—do not vax yourself against the suffering of others.  Do not vax yourself from feeling the world’s pain, fully and deeply and intimately.  

Allow it, rather, to course through your veins.  Let it move you to respond, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.  

And when you do reach out with empathy for those whose suffering is greater than yours—for there will always be someone who needs your compassion—you will give them God’s own love, God’s own blessing.  

Amen.