Rabbi Ben Sternman's D'var for Cantor Reinwald's Installation Shabbat

Shabbat Shalom. This week‟s Torah Portion, Yitro, is one of the impressive ones. It‟s the end of the movie, Charlton Heston is standing at the top of the mountain with his long flowing beard and the lightning and the thunder and delivers the two stone tablets and the Ten Commandments. Very impressive, very. But I‟m intrigued by something a little more quiet and unprepossessing: one little verse 20:22 that I would like to spend a few minutes examining.

God commands Moses: “And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.” The verse strikes me as being a little odd. It calls out to me darsheini — explain me, interpret me. Why can‟t you use tools, why can‟t you use hewn stones? It‟s odd.

Whenever something strikes me as odd, I always go to Rashi first for guidance. Rashi explains that hewn stones are stones shaped by iron tools and iron tools are tools of violence. Swords and knives are made of iron. Therefore, the place where we establish our life affirming relationship with God, should not be shaped by tools used for death. Nachmanides amplifies Rashi‟s comment when he wrote: “The point of the commandment, in the words of our Sages, is that one should not wield the thing that shortens life over the thing that lengthens it. … I say that the tool is called “sword” here because iron is used destructively, as a weapon. … By „wielding your tool upon them‟ you wield over them the murderous, corpse-creating sword, and you profane them. That is why no iron was used in the making of the Tabernacle; even the tent pegs were made of copper.”

The problem that I have with Rashi and Nachmanides is that the whole purpose of the altar is to slaughter animals, dashing their blood upon the altar and burning them up. No violence to humans but blood was definitely spilled. So I continued looking to see what Rashbam, Rashi‟s grandson, had to say about the matter. Rashbam tells us that “When they build something of stones hewn with iron the stonecutters usually carve pictures and images into it.” Given that we had just received the 10 Commandments and been told not to make any sculptured images, it‟s a pretty reasonable interpretation to say we should not put any sculptured images, davka, on the altar of God. But really, the stonecutters couldn‟t control themselves and refrain from carving in images? I have a problem with this explanation too.

Okay. Ibn Ezra — what‟d‟ya got for me? Actually, he‟s not very committal. “We are not supposed to search after reasons for the commandments, but it might make sense that God would not want chips from the same stones that were in the altar to be profaned.” Really? that‟s all you got? God wouldn‟t want the leftovers to be used for anything else? Okay. I guess.

The commentators go on at length explaining this verse, but just as I wanted to examine only one verse in our Torah Portion, the comment that I like the most to explain that verse, is just one short sentence. Abarbanel quotes Ibn Caspi: “Stones in their natural state are preferred to worked stones because nature is more highly esteemed than artifice.” It‟s a brilliant insight. Worked stones take their shape through human creation. But it is God who created stones in their natural state.

The altar, that place where humanity sought to meet the Divine, needed to be created through the partnership of both God and human beings. The altar, built of stones shaped by God and arranged by human beings, becomes the link between God and humanity.

I come to you this weekend, much the way that Yitro came to Moses at the beginning of our Torah Portion. Yitro was a priest of Midian; I am a rabbi. Yitro traveled a long distance from a strange and foreign land; I came from New York. Yitro gave Moses advice on how to run the place; I‟ve been known to speak my mind. It‟s easy to speak my mind about Cantor David Reinwald because I can only tell you good things about him.

Cantor Reinwald is a warm and genuine person who draws you in with his caring. You can sense when you are talking with him that the concerns in your life, truly matter to him because he actively listens. He is a compassionate pastor to his congregation bringing comfort, understanding, and wisdom. The first time he and I officiated together at a funeral in Austin, I was very full of myself as the Acting Senior Rabbi, and I said that since he hadn‟t written many eulogies before, he should come with me as we spoke to the grieving family. We would both write a eulogy so he could learn how to do so without needing to actually deliver it. His was so much better than mine and the family was deeply comforted in their grief to have clergy as compassionate and understanding as Cantor Reinwald.

Cantor Reinwald is an outstanding teacher of adults and children because he is dedicated to doing what it takes to make sure he‟s getting through to his students. I remember one student very, very well because while I am not a doctor to be able to diagnose the issues involved, he had to have been severely ADHD. Let‟s just say he had shpilkes. I remember the gobs of time Cantor Reinwald spent researching how to work with children who have learning differences and experimenting with different techniques to get our student to concentrate, learn and be prepared for becoming bar mitzvah.

You already know how uplifting Cantor Reinwald‟s voice is when he leads the congregation in prayer. A mutual friend likes to describe his voice as being as smooth as melted chocolate. Many times I‟ve lost myself in his singing, experiencing transcendence and feeling the presence of God only to realize that I‟ve missed my cue and forgotten to continue reading the service. But did you know that he is also a talented composer? Do you know his setting for Yih‟yu L‟Ratzon or Oseh Shalom? Or has he been characteristically modest and not yet worked them into services? Singing with him or quietly listening, using his own settings or those of other composers, Cantor Reinwald leads us all to experience God through prayer.

Cantor Reinwald is an accomplished scholar of music history. His specialty is music of the Holocaust and I will never forget the concert and presentation of his research. It was immersive as if we were there in a cafe experiencing the music for the first time. I don‟t speak yiddish and I understand only a few words here and there, but nobody could deny the power of the music, bringing that painful period of our history to life and understanding. There are some cynics out there who might say that when the rabbi asks the cantor to deliver a sermon in song, it‟s only because the rabbi wants a break from writing. Okay, I‟ll admit there is some truth to that. Cantor Reinwald, however, always took several months of research in preparing his sermons in song and every time he delivered one, I felt like I was back at Hebrew Union College listening to one of the weekly cantorial practicums I was so privileged to experience. Never doubt for a moment how much scholarship and learning he has to offer.

It‟s a pretty high pedestal I seem to have put Cantor Reinwald onto, but trust me, if you haven‟t seen it already, come Purim you will see just how goofy and down to earth he really is. And that is what I am here to tell you this Shabbat when we celebrate Cantor Reinwald beginning what I pray will be a long and mutually satisfying association with Temple Beth Shalom here in Santa Ana. Get to know him. Don‟t just look up at him as if he were unreachable at the top of some tall imposing pedestal. Get to truly know the human being that he is.

We were taught by Abarbanel who was quoting Ibn Caspi, that the altar made of unworked stones and arranged by human beings became the link between humanity and God. Well, we have no stone altars anymore. We burn no animal sacrifices in an attempt to experience the divine. What we have today is sacred community. When we join together, clergy and congregation, each of us bringing our talent and our passion, sharing them with mutual respect all towards the common purpose of making this broken world a better place, then in those moments, we create a sacred community. And that sacred community becomes the link between God and humanity. I charge you this Shabbat to truly welcome Cantor David Reinwald as your partner in creating sacred community and experiencing God‟s presence. David Reinwald is an outstanding cantor and one of the finest human beings I know. You might think you know that now; over time, you truly will.

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