My mother’s Yemenite Wedding Ring Havdalah Spice Box (sitting in a stand)
My heart is overflowing with gratitude for the wonderful celebratory Installation weekend this past Shabbat. Thank you for partnering with me on this journey of growth and renewal, Jewish living and learning.
Here are my words from the Saturday evening Installation.
I want to share an artifact with you that adds special meaning to this moment for me. I used it when we made Havdalah earlier this evening. It is a Yemenite Wedding Ring Havdalah Spice box that was my mother’s. She brought it back from Israel on one of her many trips. This special spice box was used to mark the sacred covenant a couple was making with each other and God the Shabbat immediately prior to their wedding.
You and I, Temple Beth Sholom and I have entered into a brit – a sacred covenant – with each other as new rabbi and congregation. It is similar to a marriage as we strive to keep God as part of our relationship as well. I thought that my mother’s Yemenite wedding ring Havdalah spice box would be a wonderful symbol to help imbue tonight with that sense of covenant and holiness, to remind us that our relationship is unlike any other employee-employer relationship.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once said, “The old shall be made new and the new shall be made holy – Ha-ya-shan Yit-cha-deish, v’heh-cha-dash, yit-ka-deish.” Rabbi Kook was the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel during the British Mandate period. Rabbi Kook was speaking about the land of Israel.
His words could have been written for us. As we began this evening with Havdalah, we take the best of who Temple Beth Sholom is and has been and renew it for a future that is strong, vibrant and enduring. We look to bring the best of the past with us into the present, we look to the past to inform the present, but not to burden us or weigh us down. As we look now to revitalize our holy community, we are inspired by our past, we are confident in our present, and we are excited by our future.
We gather together tonight not just to celebrate, but rather to seek a deeper purpose. We are gathered together to make a sacred covenant as new rabbi and k’hilah k’dosha –holy community – embarking on a shared sacred journey of renewal and growth together.
For me, this truly feels like I have come “home.” I knew I had truly found the right place when I was here the end of April for the congregational meeting to vote on accepting me as your new rabbi. I was on the bima after the vote, we recited a shehechiyanu, and then five-year old Cadence Garcia runs onto the bima loudly proclaiming “my rabbi!” as she embraced me with a hug. I have felt welcomed and embraced from that moment on – by all of you, of all ages. I know I am in the right place when our ECC students call out to me every day: “Rabbi Sobel, Rabbi Sobel!” I know I have found my home when our Religious School students look for me in my office, when congregants seek me out, join classes, as our membership numbers have grown and in so many other wonderful ways.
On Yom Kippur I reflected on this concept of “home” from both a personal perspective and then from a communal perspective. So how best to celebrate this “coming home?” To mark the beginning of our sacred commitment as k’hilah k’dosha – holy community – and rabbi? To transition from what “was” to what “is” and what we have the potential to fully become?
I brought a piece of my “home” with me into “our home” in more ways than just using my mother’s spice box. My sense of connection to God and Jewish living was instilled within me from the time I was born by my parents. I have shared with you before that my deep sense of spirituality comes from my parents who started by singing the Sh’ma to me at bedtime from the time I was born. We celebrated Shabbat, holy days and festivals with joy, and observed kashrut at home. My mother loved Havdalah! She used it to mark not only the end of Shabbat, but to mark important transitions in life: engagements, weddings, the eve of her bilateral double mastectomy (my mother was a stage-4 breast cancer survivor).
She used this Yemenite Havdalah Spice Box wedding ring the Shabbat prior to my siblings weddings, because this special spice box was used to mark the sacred covenant a couple was making with each other and God the Shabbat immediately prior to their wedding. The word “havdalah” means “separation” or “differentiation.” When we make havdalah at the end of Shabbat, we are distinguishing between Shabbat which we have just experienced and the week which we are about to enter – trying to take a little of the essence of Shabbat with us into the week ahead, with the wine, the spices and the multi-wicked flames of the candle.
Havdalah can be used to mark other types of transitions as well. So our Havdalah this evening does not simply mark the end of Shabbat, it is also symbolizing our new relationship, the brit we have made with each other, and this journey upon which we are embarking together.
Havdalah does not negate Shabbat as the new week begins – Havdalah tries to give us some physical reminders in the way of taste, smell and sight of those things that we want to bring with us from Shabbat into the coming week. The wine reminds us of the joy of Shabbat, the spices represent the sweetness of Shabbat, the candle: the light of God’s presence and the song: Eliyahu Hanavi: the notion that Shabbat represents the time of perfection in our world.
The multi-wicked candle represents each of us taking our own individual gifts and joining them with those of others to create something that is sacred, beautiful and unique. All of us together must decide what we will create communally with our combined gifts. This will not be an easy task, as each of us tonight comes here with our own hopes, our own dreams, our own frailties and our own fears. What we do together as a k’hillah k’dosha is meant to shape a world of holiness, dignity and equality for God’s children everywhere.
The flame from the braided candle rises higher and shines most brightly when all the wicks are united together as one. This reminds us that we can work best together and learn about each other’s unique gifts by listening to the voices of others as we share our innermost thoughts, feelings and ideas. When we sit and look each other face to face, gaze each other in the eye and try to listen carefully to the words both spoken and unsaid, be thoughtful and reflective – we will uncover the gifts of each other. When I am truly present for you, I look at you and can see the face of God reflected in your face. As modern Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said: “when we engage in meaningful relationships with others, we gaze deeply into their eyes. That mere gaze demands a response from us.” When we each bring our own gifts to our community and offer them with love and gratitude, it is the reflection of God in our hearts. How can we, as a congregational community enhance these connections? There can be nothing more beautiful, more sacred than that.
The spices from Havdalah are sweet. Jewish tradition teaches us that learning should be sweet: when our students first start studying, we give them some chocolate to encourage them to want them to continue. How do we engage others in the timeless truths and texts of our tradition? What type of learning will encourage and motivate others to become part of our wonderful community? Temple Beth Sholom has an exemplary record with our youth, camp and adult education. Now we’re in a period of regrowth and renewal. How can we expand on this so that we can encourage those who are disconnected from within our own community to find their place here? How can we engage those from outside our own community who have a tenuous connection to Jewish life to become more involved? We have a wonderful ECC whose enrollment is more than half Jewish – a wonderful opportunity for growth.
In the Torah portion from last week’s Shabbat, Abraham’s tent was open on all sides, so that all who came his way would be welcome to enter. But Abraham didn’t just simply sit and wait for people to come his way. He rushed out to greet them, to find those who had not yet come close. If we follow Abraham’s approach to rushing outside of our doors to meeting people where they are, we will be successful in creating a community of meaning and substance for all.
The wine symbolizes joy: As a synagogue community, it is incumbent on us to be there for each other in times of rejoicing and joy; and to comfort others in times of illness, sorrow and difficulty. This world needs more compassion. This world needs more caring. And this community, to be as holy as it can be, must lead by example. Our compassion and caring for each other can be strengthened in so many ways, as we can find new ways to be there for one another, for good and for bad. This is what it means to be a sacred community. Our Caring Community, Brotherhood, Sisterhood, Social Justice Committee all work very hard at reaching out. And yet, I know there is still so much more that we can do together to be there at times of sorrow, celebrate each other’s simchas and assist when we have tzuris. I look forward to working together with all of you to explore how we can meet the needs of our community in new and innovative ways, raising ourselves to even higher levels of holiness.
At the end of Havdalah we sing: “Eliyahu Hanavi”. Our Social Action Committee is now re-engaged with Mitzvah Meals twice/month and organizing the Mitzvah of the Month, yet there is so much more we can do. We’re seeking a new Soc. Action Committee chairperson. We are living in difficult and troubling times. We know that so many of our congregations of all ages, youth to “age of wisdom” want to take action to make a difference in our world. We firmly believe that each of us is made “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the image of God and that we must heed the words of the prophet Isaiah: who railed against injustice, poverty and hunger, who cajoled us to fight to end oppression and bloodshed and war.
These are exciting times to begin our new journey together!
This new journey for us as a k’hillah k’dosha – a sacred community – will be a journey of discovery and meaning. I am so excited and thrilled to part of the traditions that have made Temple Beth Sholom so vibrant and strong over this past almost 80 years. I eagerly look forward to the truths we’ll uncover together and the beauty we’ll create as we embark on the next decades leading to our centennial celebration here in Orange County. This is a time of great potential, a moment of transcendence, a day of endless possibilities.
I look forward to seeing where we’ll go together, all of you who are here tonight and those who are not able to be here tonight. You are my partners on this sacred endeavor. You are my great gifts and my blessing.
And I bring others with me as well, those who have helped to shape me into the rabbi and person I am today, those who I will rely on for advice and counsel, and those with whom I will partner going forward. So a few moments of thanks:
I stand on the shoulders of those who came before. I, have learned – and continue to learn, from those who have been my rav and chaver. I have been blessed to have the guidance and friendship of Rabbi Lawrence Englander for over 34 years, as my colleague and friend from Toronto going back to when I was first ordained. I was his niece’s rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple, his wife – and my dear friend, Cheryl worked with me at ARZA Canada. They travelled with me as I led a study to Central Europe and Israel. They are my trusted advisors and dear friends. We learn in Pirke Avot: “Make for yourself a teacher, and you will find for yourself a friend.” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6) Larry and Cheryl, your friendship, sage wisdom and counsel always inspires me, guides me and sustains me. Rabbi Shelton Donnell, TBS’s Rabbi Emeritus, we are so blessed by your presence this weekend and with your teaching, learning, wisdom, learning and menshlikeit.
My dear friends Cantor Judy Adelman Gershon and David Gershon – I’ve been blessed with the gifts of your friendship, your music, your collegiality for 34 years as well. It means so much to me that you have been part of this Installation weekend, elevating it with your beautiful music.
TBS’s Cantorial Soloist Mark Thompson who stepped in this year as Interim Soloist while we are in transition, enabling us to continue our tradition of musical excellence, and one of our greatest blessings, Michael Sumague, who blesses us with his violin often. We will be celebrating Michael’s official entrance into the Jewish people at our Shabbat service on December 23rd. Music is key to our worship and celebrations and we are so grateful for all that you do to enhance our experiences. You make our hearts sing, our feet tap and our faces light up every time we listen to your beautiful music!
The community this evening is a broad and far-reaching community. In the congregation this evening – linking past to present to future, are friends and family from every part of my life: my dear cousins Lynn, Gerry and Dan Rakos from Connecticut, my friends from Toronto and New York. Each one of you has given me something special and unique that I now bring to my new congregational home. Todah rabbah – thank you so much – from the bottom of my heart.
Where would we be today without the tireless hard work and efforts of our President, Mike Winston, his team of Co Executive Vice Presidents, the committee chairs and the entire Board? I am so grateful to all of you, and to the Search Committee and Transition and Installation Committee, led so capably by Lori Griffin, Linda Weissberg, Caron Winston and Joyce Mogabgab.
And I would be remiss if I did not thank all those who keep Temple Beth Sholom functioning day-to-day so smoothly: Ruth Irving, our Executive Director, Tamara Levin, ECC Director, Lena Shupper, Religious School Director, Mara Lazenby, Jill Weinthal, Cindi Dubrow, Octavio Montanez, Fabian Raygoza, Juan Carrero and Angel Hernandez. You might think they are doing the everyday ordinary tasks of keeping this place running, but in reality, their work too, is holy work, for without their efforts, nothing else could take place.
“And the old shall be made new and the new shall be made holy.” Ha-ya-shan Yit-cha-deish, v’heh-cha-dash, yit-ka-deish. Temple Beth Sholom is right to be proud of its history, its accomplishments and its traditions.
Together, this great community is building on its foundations – we are renewing ourselves. As I look around the room, as I sense the enthusiasm, the energy and the desire to move forward together, I know we have what it takes to raise our community to even higher levels of holiness as we strive to reach our centennial anniversary over the next few decades. For us. For the Jewish community. And for the world. Kein Y’hi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will.
Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom
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