Lighting the Lights

on Friday, 09 June 2017.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon On Behe’alotecha 5777 Volunteer Recognition Shabbat

I know I mentioned last week that I would continue to explore over the next few weeks the results of the 6-Day War from the perspective of half a century, the 50th Anniversary of which we remembered on the American calendar this past week.  I promise to return to that subject next week, when it will not be Volunteer Recognition Shabbat, but I do want to begin with one image that connects this signal anniversary with tonight’s special service.

It was on June 7th, 1967 that the holy city of Jerusalem was reunited, when Israeli troops were first attacked by the Jordanian Army and then, in hard fighting, managed to capture the Old City of Jerusalem and all of East Jerusalem.  Har HaBayit Beyadeinu, the famous statement from General Motta Gur was broadcast: the Temple Mount is in our hands, meaning that the for the first time since the founding of Israel Jews could return to the Kotel, the Western Wall, the holiest place in the world for us, to pray and celebrate and cry and laugh.

In the days when the Temple stood on Har HaBayit on the very Temple Mount where today you can see the golden Dome of the Rock, for approximately a thousand years, from about 950 BCE until 586 BCE, and then again from about 500 BCE until the year 70 CE, within that great Temple was the greatest symbol of Judaism.  It was not the Jewish Star of David—that did not become a typical representation of Judaism until the Middle Ages.  No, that symbol, today the official emblem of the State of Israel, was the menorah, the 7-branched candelabrum, made of gold, that served as an important part of the rituals that brought God’s presence to earth.  While we have not rebuilt a Third Temple on that Temple Mount, and we will not do so until the Messiah comes and the end of days are truly upon us—that is, I hope, not at all soon, this week’s Congressional testimony notwithstanding—a reunified Jerusalem reminds us all of our deep connection to our sacred history and heritage.  And we celebrate that this week.

More about the menorah in a few moments.  But now, I must admit that this is one of my favorite Shabbat evening services of the year.  Every year we say we are going to invite up everyone who has volunteered for Temple Emanu-El in the past year—and every year we end up with far more people on the bimah than in the congregation.  The fact is that we have a congregation so dedicated to giving time and energy that there really are more volunteers than participants. 

I have to tell a favorite, true story about a member of our congregation who attended one of our Volunteer Shabbat services.  He hadn’t been around Temple as much as he might have that year, but he happened to choose to attend that particular Friday night.  And as we called people to come forward to the bimah—those who chaired committees and task forces, who volunteered to lead Torah study, and to do our mailings, and to sing in the choir, and to work in the office, to serve on the Chevrah Kadishah and did meaningful social action work, to bake for Taste of Judaism, and to visit the sick and housebound, and to usher and be greeters and to participate on a committee, and chant Torah, and play music, and do our landscape work, and on and on—what always happens happened, and pretty soon everyone around him was up there on the bimah, and he was nearly alone in his pew in the congregation.  The only other person left, in fact, was one other man.

Sheepishly he turned to the other guy and said, “I bet you feel like me—like you’re a shlemiel for not volunteering this year.”

And the other man said, “Oh, no, I volunteered many times—but I had foot surgery today, and I can’t walk right now… I wouldn’t miss this service for the world!”

I’m glad that all of you are here for this service, that you wouldn’t miss it either, for it speaks to something profoundly important in Jewish tradition.  And I know that so many of you will be up here in just a few minutes, demonstrating your own commitment to volunteering, to making a difference.

The truth is that volunteering is a central tenet of Judaism, and at the very heart of the entire enterprise of the synagogue, and the synagogue is both the most ancient and the most important and vital and essential center of Jewish life today.  We know that, as the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, nothing worth doing can be accomplished alone.  And the work of our synagogue is the Jewish work most worth doing in this world.

Your volunteering here, your gifts of time, energy, talent, and love are what makes it possible for us to pray, teach, care for, counsel, and reach out to so many people in our community.  Your volunteering is why we can do what we do, and do it so well.   

The Jewish concept of voluntarism is central to everything we are as a people.  We are now reading in the Torah the section of Beha’alotecha, which begins with a commandment to create a lamp for the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, to erect a menorah that offers light in our holiest sanctuary.  In fact, this menorah was largely symbolic, for there were other lamps in the mishkan, in the ohel mo’eid that was our central shrine.  But it was the menorah’s light that we remember and honor, for it symbolized our partnership with God in creating light in the world.

You see, God’s original creation, God’s very first commanded work in Genesis was light: Yehi Or, let there be light.  God introduced light into the world, emanated energy so that it filled the universe with that divine illumination.

But here in Beha’alotecha we become full partners in the work of creating light.  As we daily lit the lamp in the Tabernacle in the desert, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, we joined in the great, sacred process of bringing light into the world.  It may have been symbolic, but it reminded our ancestors of the constant responsibility to seek to bring brightness into a world that can be so dark.

Today we have menorahs that are only symbolic.  I know, on Hanukkah we light the 9-branched menorah for the holiday regularly and very publicly, one for each night plus the shammes.  But the real menorah, the one that was lit in the Temple, the 7-branched menorah is never actually lit in today’s Judaism, and hasn’t been since Titus destroyed the Temple nearly 2000 years ago and built an arch on a hill in Rome with an engraving of Roman soldiers carrying off that great gold menorah decreed her in Beha’alotecha to be melted down.  We can’t actually physically light that menorah anymore because it is long gone.

But it turns out that that gives us a remarkable opportunity to bring light in many more ways.  For we can fulfill this mitzvah to light the menorah commanded here in Beha’alotecha through our own practical actions, every day.

When you visit a shut-in, or bring her or him some honey for Rosh Hashanah or a challah for Shabbat or a hamantash for Purim, you are lighting that light.  When you help with the Syrian Sweets sale for refugees, or set up food bags for our Rabbi’s Pantry to give out, or ritually wash the body of a Jew who has died, you are lighting that light.  When you chant Torah for Project Ezra or sing in the High Holy Day or Shabbat Choir or welcome a stranger who is visiting Temple, you are lighting that light.  When you help a bar or bat mitzvah with a Mitzvah Project, or work to raise funds to send an 8th Grader to Jewish Los Angeles, or tutor a child or adult in Hebrew and prayer, you are lighting that light.  When you weed the Biblical Garden, or work in the Kiddush Group, or make Hanukkah Dinner for 150 people or write a drash you are lighting that light.

Do you remember a great commercial that used to be on the radio, voiced by Garrison Keillor, the genius behind Prairie Home Companion?  It began “when you pass away no one will say about you, ‘He had a great Lexus’ or ‘She had such beautiful hair.’  Nobody will remember your low handicap in golf, your designer dresses or your elegant suits.  They won’t care about your big diamond ring or your luxurious house. 

“What they will remember is the time, talent, and effort you gave to help others.”  That is, the ways you lit the lights of the menorah. 

Because, you see, it’s not what you have—it’s what you give.  It’s not what you have, but what you give.  And it’s the ways you bring light into the world.

In Judaism, in our beloved Temple Emanu-El, what you give is the key to knowing who you are.  It is the greatest and most important currency of all—and one that defines you, personally, as a free person, as fully human, as a Jew, as a moral being. 

The greatest of our members are, in reality, those who give of themselves in time, dedication, talent, and commitment to this outstanding congregation.  The greatest are those who supply the most important gift of all: the gift of themselves. 

Thank you for what you give.  And thank you for you help us all to become: a temple of holiness, dedicated to God, that works every day to bring more light into our world.

We call on our president, Mona Gibson, a great volunteer herself, to invite you to the bimah now for a blessing that will be but a small token of the great reward you have earned for yourselves.

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