One Mitzvah at a Time -- The Torah Portion "Tsav"

  PRESENTED 3/23/19 AT CONGREGATION BET SHALOM, TUCSON, ARIZONA      

Last year, with the help of my family and a few friends, I founded the San Diego Outreach Synagogue a small, independent congregation in San Diego. We hold Friday night services once a month and began holding holiday celebrations with Purim and look forward to our first Passover Seder. Our Friday night services are held in a local Recreation Center and we provide a vegetarian dinner after the service to 35-45 people. And we’re growing!

         We are required to be completely cleared out of the rec center by 8:00 pm, which means that at 7:35, I announce that it’s time for us all to clean up, and everyone goes into action. Tables and chairs are put away, leftover food is packed up, musical equipment is loaded onto carts, and utensils, paper goods, prayer booklets, etc are all packed into our three portable plastic bins, the floor is swept, and trash is taken out. With everyone’s help, we always have our rented room completely cleaned up and get all our attendees and belongings out of the building by 8:00.

         During this clean-up process several months ago, I grabbed a broom and began to sweep the floor. Someone came up to me and said, “You should not be doing that!” In other words, this was a job that was just too menial for the head of a religious community to be doing. I was moved by her kindness and thoughtfulness but assured her that it was totally fine and I was happy to do it.

         Yet this comment stuck with me. To me, in creating this beautiful community, we are all in it together. Yes, I’m the one leading the service and providing a few words of Torah that I hope will offer insight into coping with the challenges of contemporary life. But really, underneath it all, I’m still just Cheri. The Cheri who drags herself out of bed to go to the gym, who worries about her adult children and little dogs, who is concerned about doing and saying the right thing to those who ask for guidance, etc. So it would just never occur to me that any job connected with our new synagogue would be something I should not be doing. After all, I am part of a whole community, and for that community to actually feel whole, we all have to do our share and realize that no task is too small for any of us to do.

         So, it was of great interest to me to read a commentary by Rabbi Benjamin Spratt of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York about this week’s Torah Portion, Tsav, in which he addresses a really important question: With the incredible amount of sacrifice that went on at the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary the Israelites used in the desert after escaping from Egypt) on a daily basis, who actually was in charge of the daily clean up of ashes and charred remains? The answer is not “the janitorial crew” or even “the Levites.” Actually, it was the Kohanim themselves, including Aaron.

Chapter 6, verse 4 states:

 וּפָשַׁט, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו, וְלָבַשׁ, בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים; וְהוֹצִיא אֶת-הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, אֶל-מָקוֹם טָהוֹר.

“And he shall put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes without the camp unto a clean place.” According to the Biblical commentator Rashi, this was such a messy task that the Kohen Ha’Gadol (High Priest) first changed into dirty clothes in order not to ruin his sacred garments. That would be like asking a surgeon to clean up the operating room to get ready before the next patient comes in for surgery!

There really is nothing wrong or humiliating about having those held in the highest esteem be responsible for this seemingly menial task, which according to medieval Spanish scholar Rabbeinu Bahya, was actually a part of the sacrifice proceedings. We know that there was great pomp and pageantry with the Mishkan sacrificial proceedings and the Kohanim (Priests) were the stars of the show, dressed to the nines, so to speak. Yet they are the same people instructed by God to take out the trash. Daily.

Perhaps everyone needs a daily dose of humility if only to remind us that we are no more important than any other member of our community. As Rabbeinu Bahya notes:  “The smallest act from a place of humility is greater than the largest act from a place of arrogance.”

Many years ago, I was a cantorial soloist at a young synagogue that had transformed a suite in an office park into a working synagogue.  One day I came into what was considered the sanctuary and I watched a woman painting something beautiful above the Ark. It was some kind of Tree of Life. As I watched her lovingly paint each leaf onto the tree, I thought of how it seemed unfair that I as soloist would receive kudos and praise for my voice while this lady, who was bringing such beauty into our environment, would receive very little. It didn’t seem fair. Her part in bringing joy and beauty to our community with her graceful talent was every bit as important as my vocal offering. I hope she felt as much happiness in her work as I felt (and continue to feel) in mine.

And the same is true for the people who work behind the scenes to keep our new community functioning. Those who bring food to share, give people rides to our services, help set up our room for services, greet people as they arrive, distribute flyers and help promote our events, offer their home for a holiday celebration, meet to share ideas on service projects are each working in some small way to help build and sustain our growing congregation.  Every small action contributes to creating a vibrant and — I hope — meaningful community. Because as Jews, we need community, and we need each other. Every act counts. Every task matters.

The Torah portion teaches us that the priests were responsible to keep the fires burning constantly as a sign of the commitment of the Israelites to God. Today, we have the opportunity to show our commitment to God – and to our community -- one task and one mitzvah at a time.

So, while I will continue to be the face and leader of our fledgling and growing congregation, I’ll also continue to sweep up the floor or take out the trash when it’s needed. And I’ll be happy and proud to do so.

Living Openly as a Jew

Dear Friends,

The inaugural Kabbalat Shabbat service of the San Diego Outreach Synagogue took place on Friday, October 26, 2018.

How could we know that just a few hours later, we would awaken to the news that eleven of our Jewish brothers and sisters would be struck down by an evil madman? That hatred so deep would claim the lives of eleven innocent souls? We are only beginning to cope with the grief we feel for the families in Pittsburgh and for the entire Tree of Life community as they mourn their unimaginable loss.

But what is next? To that end, I want to share a brief story with you:

In the fall of 1982, I was a 21-year-old college student traveling through Europe. While in Paris, in addition to seeing the iconic landmarks (Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum etc.), I was eager to walk through what was known as the “Jewish Quarter.” It was my understanding that many Jews lived in this part of town, and having lived most of the previous year in Israel, I was especially eager to connect with them. Yet while walking through the neighborhood, I noticed that my companion and I were among the very few people walking the streets. I was confused. Was I in the right place? Where were all the people? Where were the Jews?

Two years earlier, a bomb had exploded in front of a synagogue as worshippers began arriving in celebration of the start of Shabbat, killing four and wounding forty-six innocent people. In the aftermath, two hundred thousand people marched in solidarity and protest. Just a few months before I arrived in Paris, the violence against the Jews continued as gunmen murdered six people in a kosher restaurant. Now, instead of enjoying the beautiful sunny day, the Jews in that community were nowhere to be seen.

Then suddenly I was filled with a profound sadness as I realized: They were afraid and they were in hiding. They were afraid to live an openly Jewish life. With all that they had experienced, who could blame them?

In the wake of the horrific act of violence and display of virulent anti-Semitism that happened on October 27, 2018 at the Tree of Life Congregation, we stand in solidarity with our fellow Jews in Pittsburgh. We mourn. We cry. We attend vigils. We march. We express our outrage. We encourage each other to get out and vote because the importance of this election cannot be overstated.

But when the initial shock has worn off, will we ask ourselves: Is it safe for me to go to synagogue services? Or a Jewish community celebration in a park? Or to the Jewish Community Center?

Is it safe for me to live openly as a Jew?

I, for one, will not be silenced.

I will not live in fear. I will not be bullied into hiding who I am and my Jewish faith. I will continue to live an open and ethical Jewish life in accordance with the Jewish values on which our lives are based: On Torah. On worship and service. On acts of loving-kindness. (from “Pirkei Avot”)

Many of you may already members of various synagogues. I implore you to continue to attend the religious services and classes and functions at your places of worship. I encourage you to attend the many wonderful Jewish celebrations and community events that occur throughout our city each year.

For those of who will continue to attend the monthly services of the San Diego Outreach Synagogue, I want to assure you that security measures will be in place.

Wherever you are, I encourage you to continue living an openly Jewish life with pride.

If you feel the need to speak to a member of the clergy, please know that I am here for you. Please reach out to me, and I will be glad to support you in any way that I can.

Blessings,

Cantor Cheri Weiss