Just yesterday I visited 90-year-old congregant Bella Foster at Miriam Hospital. She has pneumonia and is slowly making progress back to health. Yesterday I was also celebrating Purim with Sophie and Aeden at JCDS, this amazing little Jewish day school in Providence. Since it was Purim, I was of course wearing my bearded lady glittery diva dress, some kind of king awkwardly transitioning into Queen.
There I was walking the halls of the hospital in my dress with home made hamantaschen from Valerie’s Kitchen in hand.
And all the doctors and nurses were trying not to stare or get too close…
Why is there a rabbi walking around in a big pooffy glittery dress?
I told them I was delivering yummy treats to a friend, that it is a special mitzvah for Purim called mishloach manot.
BTW Yashar koach to the Caring Committee and all our school families who made and personally delivered mishloach manot to homebound congregants this week.
This is the highest and deepest simcha of Purim, because it’s that surprise joy you get when someone reminds you unexpectedly that you are known and loved, that you are not alone.
This kind of overflowing joy can spill over into the rest of the year in every moment of face-to-face connection: every Shabbat when we smile at someone and say Shabbat Shalom and together have a great hug; or when one of our children needs help and there’s a loving bubbe around every corner; like when a group of adults from our community came in on a Sunday morning to wrap our bar and bat mitzvah students in tefillin for the first time; or when we watched the sunset together at Beach Shabbat and felt the glow of this holy day together.
It is these magic moments, these face to face connections that save us from the loneliness of life. This is how a kehillah kedoshah grows, by weaving together a tapestry of holy connections that becomes the very fabric of our lives.
When I arrived at her hospital room, Bella was tired but surprisingly sharp. I told her how Anita Olinsky had sent me an urgent email to go visit her. When Anita was growing up at the synagogue, their families were so tight, Bella is still like her surrogate mother.
Bella requested that we sing the Mishebeirach healing prayer together. And we did, with tears in our eyes.
She told me how sad she was to miss my installation.
So I said to her, “Now that I have blessed you, will you bless me too for my installation?”
Without hesitation she closed her eyes and shared this beautiful prayer. She said, “God, Creator of all things, bless this community with strong leaders, bless them with Your wisdom, Your spirit, and Your light, so it will return to the glory and vibrancy of the days when my family were the leaders." Then she looked me straight in the eyes and said, "May all the hard work of their hands be carried forward to future generations.”
I have to say that I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of being "installed." I remember ordination day at JTS, when my mentor Rabbi Lebeau said to us, “You are being ordained today, but remember you won’t really become a rabbi until you have a community to serve.”
So the big question of the night is…
How many Jews does it take to install a rabbi?
I guess the answer is… all of them!
I love how Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it. He says that God learned early on, it doesn’t work to count on one man like Adam or Noach to be strong enough to stand up to the negative influences of the world. God needed to fashion an environment, an entire community of people who are all trying to be good, in the hope that they will support and sustain each other, and bring out the best in each other.” That, friends, is why we are here at Torat Yisrael. We can bring out the best in each other.
After decades of leadership when Moses is finally ready to pass the torch, the midrash has him wrapped up in his big white Tallis and praying:
“God of the spirits of all flesh please help me appoint a successor, a leader that is more skillful than me. Someone capable of addressing all the needs of the people.”
He waited to be shown a vision of Joshuah, but instead God shows him all of the future generations of prophets and judges and all the great Jewish leaders until the Messianic era. And explains to Moshe that, “Each of these individuals has but one disposition and one spirit. Only at the end of time will there arise a leader who will be able to carry the weight of the spirits of all the people.”
This midrash is a humbling reminder to me that no one leader can possibly meet the needs of every individual in a community.
Rather, it is the cooperation between leaders within and across the generations that enables us to at least come close…
In every generation our people face new impossible seas that we have to cross with great faith. So now here we are in East Greenwich, new rabbi, new location, new emerging leaders. How do we do it? How do we gather our collective strength and enthusiasm to begin again?
Miriam teaches us the answer when she gets the people chanting, drumming, and dancing after they crossed through the Sea.
And that answer hasn’t really changed much.
You’ve seen how the hora starts at weddings and bnei mitzvah celebrations right?
This is how a Holy Community grows.
A few inspired people hear the music and feel the rhythm.
Like magnets they instinctively grab each other to begin circling and chanting.
But how often do we find ourselves outside this circle – standing, smiling and watching. Thinking, “Wow that looks fun, but I’m not in the mood, I’ll stay over here where I feel safe. I don’t really like to dance anyway. I will watch and clap along – that’s good enough for me.”
Then one of the Miriams from the inner circle grabs you by the hand, and all of the sudden you’re in it. Your heart is pounding, you’ve lost control, and you become part of a swirling sea of shining faces. This is how a holy community grows. And someday with God’s help the whole world will reach a tipping point and dance together.
Our sages teach that, “In the future, God will lead the circle dance… All of us will rise up with agility, buoyancy, and energy, and we will point to God (as it were) in the center of the circle. There we will point across the center to the shining faces on the other side and together we will say, ‘Zeh Eli l’olam va’ed- This is my God, forever and ever.’”
And then God will say “Amen.”
When we were designing the new siddur for tonight I insisted that the cover have a picture of our menorah windows lit up from the inside, the way it looks when you come in on Friday night. You know, this is the secret of Torat Yisrael’s symbol: This building is like a great menorah shining holy light out to the world. And we are the ones who fill it with light. Our prayers, our joy, our Torah, our love is what fills this building with God’s light.
I want to thank Andy, Susan, Josh, Stephanie, Sheryl, Anita, Rachel, Steve and Elaine and all of the Board members who have been so helpful and supportive to my family as we made the transition into a new home and a new community.
I want to thank Dori and all of the Cohen School Teachers and tutors. Dori you connect us with the best people in the RI Jewish scene. Not only have you already worked with everybody, but you’re related to most of them. Thank you for your openness, patience, and diligence, and thank you for introducing me to the Rhode Island shtetl.
I must thank Mom and Dad who had no intention of raising a rabbi, but every intention to show me by example how to really love and be proud of the work that you do, and how you can do tikkun olam – and heal your corner of the world through your work and with your family. Dad you’ve taught me invaluable leadership skills and a deep unshakable devotion to the Jewish people. Mom you showed me the joy of working with children, how to take creative risks in education and you led me to discover the wonders of nature.
I also thank my parents in-law Jayne and Stu, my sister Jessica, brother in law Ben, Aunt Donna and Uncle Ray, Aunt Roxanne, Cousin Drew (happy b-day), Grandma Elaine, Bubbe Roz and Zayde Fisher for all of your love and support.
Thank you Ben, Nili, Adam. Having you speak at my installation means more to me than you will ever know. Nili you introduced me to the world of Jewish Outdoor Environmental Education, Ben you introduced me to the world of Jewish songleading, Adam you have always been there for advice and inspiration for great Jewish Education.
And my Grandpa Mitch, Alav Hashalom, “Grandpa your little meatball thinks about you every day. You said it made you so happy that your Grandson is a rabbi, like you hit the lottery in heaven. I love you and I miss you and think of you every day, and I am still doing my best to make you proud.
And my boy Aeden and my girl Sophie. I know it’s not always easy when your abba is busy being everyone’s rabbi. I love you both endlessly, every day you make me so happy and so proud to be your Abba.
And finally, Valerie… We met almost 20 years ago at UMass Hillel, and ever since we have followed each other to live in Israel, Massachusetts, NYC, San Francisco, Pennsylvania, and now Little Rhodie. It’s been an adventure, but I know that our adventure is really just beginning, in a good way. I am so blessed to spend my life with you. Thank you for believing in me, feeding me, and letting me be the one. I will love you forever.
And thank YOU all for coming tonight, because as they say, it takes a whole lot of Jews to install a rabbi!
Rabbi Aaron Philmus
Rabbi Aaron brings a traditional style and approach of prayer to the conservative synagogue. He has a background in ecology and Jewish education and teaches Torah through agriculture and wilderness skills, and plays guitar as a way to bring music to the synagogue. He’s a naturalist who believes that everything stems from nature, and he understands the plight of others who are less fortunate, and how to use the land to enrich ourselves.