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Rosh Hashanah Sermon

09/07/2021 11:27:28 AM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

Rabbi Sam Gordon Headshot

As you all know, this is the last time officially, formally, I will be speaking to all of you on Rosh Hashanah morning. So, I thought you would indulge me in a little bit of nostalgia as I look back at my own experiences as a rabbi over these 40 some years.

My very first pulpit as a student rabbi, leading services for Rosh Hashanah, was in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Now there's a little Twitter because some of you may understand that “Muskogee” was a word that had meaning in terms of the culture wars of the 1960s and 70s. All I knew about Muskogee, Oklahoma, was from the Merle Haggard song, “I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee…” Some of you probably do remember.

I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee/We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like living right and being free…

It went on to say,

We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do/I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball.

So, when I went back to Cincinnati to Hebrew Union College, and they told me that that's where I was leading services, I was a little intimidated by what I might expect in that town. I went to Muskogee with long hair and a shaggy beard. But it turned out that the people of Muskogee were very kind and generous to me. I was there for 10 days, often on my own. One day I was sitting in a diner at the lunch counter minding my own business when an older gentleman came and sat next to me looked me up and down and said, “What's the matter? Can’t you afford razor blades?

I laughed. I said, “Ha-ha, yeah.”

He said, “No, I said: ‘Can't you afford razor blades?’”

So I said, “I guess not,” and I tried again to laugh it off

He said, “I said: ‘Can't you afford razor blades?” And then he said, “You from around here?”

I said, “Nope.”

Just passing through, huh?


So how long you here for?

I said. “Ten Days.”

He said, “You’re a con man, huh?

I said, “No, sir, I'm not a con man.”

He said: “then what are you doin’ here?”  

Then with as much dignity as I could muster I said, “I am the rabbi for the Jewish community of Muskogee, and I am here to lead worship services for the Jewish High Holy Days.

He looked at me and said, “Oh, you must know my wife, Hazel. She plays piano for the choir.” But he wasn't going to let me off that easy because then he said, “Hear’s as how you made a couple mistakes the other night.

I learned something very important there at that lunch counter in Muskogee, Oklahoma. It's all about relationships. It's all about relationships and knowing somebody and being able to relate to them on a personal level, and that's what saved me from what was, if not a bar fight, somehow a mid-afternoon fight in a diner.

I would say that in the 45 years since Muskogee, Oklahoma, my rabbinate has been defined by relationships, connections, and networking, and building friendships. Indeed, that's the way in which I have even understood our tradition, our texts, the Torah. I have been reading the Torah portion for this morning for these 45 years, and sometimes I’ve looked to Kierkegaard or Buber, or Agnon or Rashi. But most of the time I've looked at this story as a story of relationships, of Abraham and Sarah, of Sarah and Hagar, of Sarah and Isaac, but most of all, it's about the relationship of Abraham and Isaac. I hope some of you may remember this sermon of a few years ago based on this subject. It really is my favorite of all the interpretations that I've ever received of the Akedah, of the story of Abraham and Isaac.

It came from my watching A Chorus Line, the play. It's based on one monologue, the monologue of Paul San Marco. Paul San Marco is a young, gay man coming from an immigrant family, very conservative, Catholic, never coming out to his parents. But having been beaten up at parochial school a number of times, he drops out of school, and he gets his first job in a drag revue appearing at the Apollo. They're about to take the review, the show, on the road to Chicago, and he arranges for his parents to come at the very end of the evening to bring his suitcase with some extra clothes. But they show up too early. He's in full drag, and he passes his parents on the steps. He tries to avoid them. But he hears his mother say, “Oh my God,” and she turns ashen. He goes back to the dressing room, takes FC his makeup, changes clothes, comes back out, and this is what he says: “All they said to me was, ‘Please write, make sure you eat and take care of yourself.’”

And then Paul goes on in his monologue to say, “And just before my parents left, my father turned to the producer and said, ‘Take care of my son.’ That was the first time he ever called me that.”

I came out of the theater, and I immediately wrote down on my calendar for Rosh Hashanah that year, “My son,” because this to me was a revelation. Was the story of the Akedah, of Isaac saying to his father, hinei ha esh, ve’haeitzim, veayeh haseh l’olah? “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the offering?” And Abraham says, “Adonai yireh haseh l’olah, v’nei.” “God will see to the lamb for offering, my son.”

And I wondered, was that the first time Abraham had ever called Isaac, “my son?”

And I wondered, as well, if Isaac was walking with his father thinking, “Wow, three days alone on a hike with Dad, what could be better?”

It's all about relationships, that relationship of Abraham and Isaac, of a father and a son, and how that gets repeated over time. You can look at all of Genesis in much the same way and discover the relationships of Isaac and Rebecca, and then the battle within the womb of Jacob and Esau, wrestling through their lives until, at the very end, there is a reconciliation because Jacob wrestles with an angel and Esau goes to greet him, embraces him and then two of them walk off together, with Esau matching the pace of Jacob, who is limping from the wrestling match.

There is the relationships of Joseph and his brothers, Jacob and his sons, the hatred between Joseph's brothers towards him, and the eventual reconciliation in Egypt when Joseph says to his brothers: “Ani yosef achicha-- I am Joseph, your brother. Do not beat yourself up on how you treated me.

And finally, Genesis ends with Jacob taking the sons of Joseph, Ephraim, and Menashe, placing them on his knee, adopting them, and Jacob becomes the first grandfather. There are no other grandfather-grandchildren relationships in all of Genesis, only Jacob. And so that's the ways in which I have viewed the text story the narrative over all these years. The Torah of Genesis is a story of relationships, and it is also how I have viewed my own work as a rabbi these 40 some years.

If I have had some measure of success, it has been through a career of building relationships, not only between me and you but between you and each other. Most of you have heard my definition of success of the congregation in that you have found a good friend, a best friend, or if you brought a good friend into the congregation, and in the course of let's say five years of membership, you have come to rely on another congregant for friendship and support and for encouragement.

That has been what has led, I believe, to the success of Sukkat Shalom, but it's also been how I’ve defined my own career. I have studied in universities and colleges and seminaries. I've spent many hours in study halls and retreats and lectures. I've read my share of books. I've been fortunate to sit with some of the giants of Jewish thought of the 20th and 21st Century, and I hope I've learned something from all of that.

But ultimately, I have learned the most at your kitchen tables, in a hospital waiting room, or in a hallway, in informal encounters in the grocery store, or the cleaners, at Starbucks, and at other diners, at wedding receptions and shivas, and baby namings, and bar and bat mitzvah receptions. That's where I have learned the most and been influenced by those relationships.

From that lunch counter in Muskogee, Oklahoma, to here on the North Shore, each encounter has been an opportunity to be in a relationship, and it has been a true gift.

I believe in the sacredness of these holy moments. Martin Buber, in his book, I and Thou, explains that God is encountered in the other person, not just in the other person but in the space in between us.

This may be one of my last opportunities to speak to the entire congregation in this form, so with what teaching can I leave you? Rabbi Rami Shapiro, when he came to Sukkat Shalom many years ago, told of a mystic legend, that in front of each one of us, as we walk down the sidewalk, there is an angel, not seen but there, who calls out to the other angels on the sidewalk: “Make way! A container of the Divine is walking down this sidewalk.”

Each of us is holy. Each one of us is a manifestation of the divine presence, and that is what we find in our relationship with each other. It is the source, at least for me, of my fulfillment. It has provided great meaning and love and support for me. Victor Hugo, before it was a lyric in a song, wrote: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

You have blessed me with the opportunity to find God, to find meaning and inspiration in my relationships with you. I am forever grateful.

Shanah Tovah.

Sat, June 3 2023 14 Sivan 5783