“A Willingness to Learn”
By Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein
Temple Israel of West Palm Beach
Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon – 2012
Before attending rabbinical school, I was part of a group that met each week to study the Torah portion of the week. The group was part of my synagogue, but no rabbi attended, so our eldest, most knowledgeable, participant prepared each week and took charge.
Al was then in his 70’s … he had grown up orthodox, attending cheder [orthodox religious school] as a child, and was later introduced to Reform Judaism by his grown daughters. He embraced the idea that we could challenge what was in the Torah and it was with him that I first read the Torah all the way through, having attended Torah study every week for an entire year. It was truly a Shehechiyanu moment for me.
Later, while I was in rabbinical school, I was able to come home and work at my home congregation in Las Vegas for 4 full-time summers and two academic years, and it was then that I became the teacher and Al became my student … but no matter the title conferred on either of us, both of us always said we learned from, and with, each other.
In my last position in Austin, Texas, I had the honor, and responsibility, of meeting with all the B’nai Mitzvah students to help them learn about their Torah portion and help them write their very first D’var Torah.
During that first meeting, I would ask them, “What is a D’var Torah?” to which they would always say, “It’s my speech.”
It was then I had to tell them that a D’var Torah is not a speech … and then we would talk about what the words actually mean.
Like lots of words in Hebrew, the word d’var, can mean more than one thing … actually, it can actually mean the word, “thing,” in addition to meaning “word.” Then I would ask the kids, but what does the word “Torah” mean?
Pretty much all of the kids said it meant the “Five Books of Moses” and I would get to tell them they were sorta’ correct … yes, that is what A Torah is, but what does the word “Torah” itself actually mean?
After helping them understand that some people say the word Torah is related to the Hebrew word Morah, which means teacher, we would work our way backwards to understanding that Torah can also be translated into several different English words … for example, it can mean “Instruction” or “Teaching” or “Doctrine” … and that on the day they became a bar or bat mitzvah, they were going to give things of instruction or words of instruction to the community, in other words, they were going to be writing a lesson and they were going to be the teacher that day.
And, in order to become the best teacher possible, they were going to have to learn everything they could about their Torah portion … together, we were going to learn from, and with, each other and then, on their big day, they were going to get to be the teacher.
[Formal vs. Informal Learning]
Today marks my 11 week anniversary here at Temple Israel … and, during this short period, I’ve been spending my time doing two kinds of learning from, and with, lots of people here.
The formal learning I’ve been doing has consisted of adult education classes and Torah study throughout the summer and, for the kids, Religious School began this past week. By the way, this is a great time to plug Temple Israel’s fabulous adult education program, Temple Israel Learns … you should have received the catalog in the mail by now – if not, make sure to pick one up while you’re here. Take a look at it and you’ll find classes on so many subjects, like hands-on art classes and art appreciation classes, music appreciation, meditation, yoga, classes on social justice issues, information on our book group, TI Reads, and, of course, lots of fun classes on different aspects of Judaism … I’m even teaching a Hebrew class for people who think they can’t learn Hebrew … anything sound interesting, yet?
But probably much more difficult than the formal learning we choose to do like taking classes through TI Learns is the informal learning each of us needs to do just to navigate our lives.
[Informal Learning … “What Makes People Tick”]
For me, the informal learning I’ve been doing this summer here at Temple Israel has been so much more than just learning people’s names … it has been about learning about the culture of Temple Israel and figuring out how to avoid accidental potholes … I’ve been trying to figure out people’s passions and interests, what they want help in making a success, what makes our congregation tick, what ticks people off, and how can I help them understand that, if I don’t happen to be doing exactly the same thing that’s always been done, perhaps I might have a reason for doing it … this is the hard kind of informal learning going on in my daily life … it’s probably not so different than the relationships in yours.
What’s another way of looking at informal learning about relationships?
Informal learning is sometimes that kind of learning you might say happens TO you after the fact, only after looking backwards, as we might say, with hindsight. It might even be a kind of accidental learning, a kind of learning you didn’t do willingly, perhaps even a kind of learning you did more learning from an experience rather than learning during the experience? It’s that kind of learning where you wish you had a roadmap or a manual or a set of instructions to look at before starting on the journey … oh wait, we Jews do have that, it’s that life instruction manual we have called the Torah … the Torah instructs us regarding how we are supposed to treat ourselves and others.
[Learning About, and From, Torah]
One of the things I love about learning Torah is that, fundamentally, it is a story about community.
It is the story of a man who took his entire family and set off on a journey to an unknown to a land that God would show him and his descendants.
It is the story about a community figuring out who they were, and who they could become.
It is the story about a community of people learning how to live according to shared values.
It is the story about people taking on the obligation to care for each other.
It is a story about relationships, both good and bad … it is about mending relationships … it is about understanding that one’s tribe or family is a priority, while understanding that those not part of the tribe still matter.
The Torah is an instruction manual for life.
[You Have to Actually Read the Instruction Manual for It to Be Helpful]
But have you ever tried to put something together without reading the instruction manual? How about putting an IKEA bookshelf together without at least looking at the pictures? All those little pieces can feel overwhelming.
That little instruction manual comes right in the box, but for it to be useful we have to pick it up and read it, maybe even twice or three times or four, we have to really digest it, pick it apart and figure out what parts make sense to apply to your life, and put its teachings into action.
Otherwise, as my B’nai Mitzvah kids used to say, the Torah is just a book.
As I have been getting to know our very special k’hilah k’doshah, our holy community, I have been listening intently to learn about your frustrations, hopes, and priorities … best of all, I have heard a tremendous sense of optimism as we try to discover things we can do to help Temple Israel build upon its successes of the past and become an even stronger community than it has been in recent days.
As I sit with so many of you, I am cognizant of the need to learn from Temple Israel’s past, and, together, we are learning to take the chance to become a renewed Temple Israel, just a little bit different than we were before. We are learning together to take a few risks to step outside of the box that has a label on it that says, “the way we’ve always done it” … and we have even tried a few things again that might not have worked in the past, this time trying to learn from our mistakes and approach things from a slightly different angle.
As we continue to experiment, though, please know that I’m pretty certain we are going to make a few mistakes along the way, but I am thrilled with the passion I have heard and experienced regarding a willingness to simply “try.”
Yes, all you have to do is look at me to know that I am different than all of Temple Israel’s prior rabbis ... but I want you to know that I have a willingness to work hard and learn from, and with, you, just as I have seen a willingness from so many of you to learn more about the Rabbi you selected to lead this congregation.
[“Different” Can Be Difficult, But Sometimes Necessary, to Move Forward]
With that in mind, and in the spirit of the holidays, I’m going to ask you all for a favor … if you decide you’re not quite sure whether I’m doing something “the right way,” meaning the way it’s always been done, I ask you to stop for a moment and consider that different isn’t always wrong (and I’m working on remembering that, too, not just in my work life, but in my personal life as well). We all have to remember that different isn’t necessarily bad, sometimes different is just different … and, yes, sometimes, different can be a great learning opportunity for everyone.
Growing up in Georgia, my momma taught me a great old maxim which makes even more sense from an organizational perspective now that I’m a grow-up … she said, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.” This brilliant simple lesson she taught me is perfect for the HHDs season … in other words, we must be willing to examine our prior actions enough to figure out if and when a change should be made.
Here at Temple Israel, we are being very intentional about making the few changes we have made so far. For example, there might be a few things that sound just a little bit different this HHDs season … we are intentionally moving Temple Israel toward a more mainstream-Reform-sounding Amidah, so tonight’s Amidah might have sounded a little bit different than you remember … but, once you get used to the very slight liturgical changes being introduced, I promise it will be easier when you travel to other Reform synagogues.
And then there is the change of the Shabbat service time … and the new philosophy and structure surrounding celebrating Shabbat.
You know, Temple Israel has been through a lot of different service times in the past 12 years, and I know this because our great Executive Director, Linda Solomon, gave me the times for the past 12 years … and, from speaking with lots of members, we’ve learned a lot about service times … we’ve learned that families believe 730pm is too late for bedtime, which is why it has been a rarity to see children at services.
We’ve also learned that people like the idea of making an “evening out” of seeing their friends and praying as a community, so we are working on creating an entire “Shabbat experience.” To that end, Michael Jonas brought us the idea of a pre-service Oneg, which we call a “Proneg” as a way of having a light bite and maybe a glass of wine, to help folks wind down from the busy week before Shabbat services.
With a 530pm Proneg, people can come straight from work and have something to tide them over until after services at 630pm, then they can stay for our fabulous dessert Oneg. But, 6:30 is also flexible enough so that, if someone wants to go home after work, they can pick up their family and still have time to come back for services … and we’ve learned that people who like to eat dinner after services can do that, too. Being both family-friendly and adult friendly … we’re trying to learn from our experience about what people say is important to them and we’re trying something new to see how it works out … together, we are learning to be open to taking some risks.
Temple Israel is also being intentional about helping members learn how decisions are made and how things get done around here. In seven sessions from February to May, we will be inviting interested folks to participate in our new Leadership Development Program, chaired by our Past President, Roslyn Leopold. The goal of this program is to give people an insider’s view regarding how Temple Israel works: how our Committees get things done, how the Board is selected, and how we will be working together with other Jewish institutions in the future to strengthen the entire Jewish community, so please consider stepping outside of your box and trying something new this winter … please let me and Roslyn know if you are interested. We think this will be a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone involved and can only strengthen Temple Israel and secure its future.
[The World Stands on Three Things: Torah, Worship, and Acts of Lovingkindness]
There is a wonderful, often-quoted, line from a section of the Talmud called Pirkei Avot, which is usually translated as the “Ethics of our Fathers,” which says the following:
Al shlosha d’varim ha-olam omeid: On three things, the world stands … al haTorah, v’al haAvodah, v’al G’milut Chasadim: the world stands on three things: on Torah study, which means learning, on worship (or service) to God, and on acts of loving-kindness.
The sages taught that, when the second Temple was destroyed, there was no place for the sacrifices God had commanded us to do to be performed. In their stead, and I would say thankfully, our way of communicating with God, showing God respect, and continuing our relationship with God, changed from acts of sacrifice to these three acts upon which the world stands: acts of studying Torah, that is, learning about our relationships with ourselves and others; acts of worship or service to God; and acts of loving-kindness. Like a three-legged stool, we are taught that all three of these are needed to maintain balance in our relationship with God.
Tomorrow morning, we will discuss the second of these three items on which the world stands: what it means to be in service to God and, on Kol Nidre, we will discuss the third item, the impact of acts of loving-kindness for ourselves, our families, and the greater world.
Tonight, though, when you leave, I want you to think about Torah being an instruction manual for our lives, and how we can incorporate Jewish values and traditions into how we make decisions, how we act, how we treat others each and every day … .
I want you to think about how we can incorporate intentional, proactive learning into our daily lives and how intentional, proactive learning can bring greater meaning to how we see the world … .
I want you to think about how we can learn from, and with, each other in order to better navigate the world in our personal lives … I want you to think about how we can learn to appreciate differences we find in others and the things that make each of us unique … and I want you to think about how we can learn new things together and move forward united as a stronger community.
Yes, even though it’s only been 11 weeks, I’ve already learned so much from, and with, so many of you … as we continue to learn together, maybe taking a few risks here and there along the way, stepping outside our comfort zones along the way, and maybe, just maybe, if we are willing to check out God’s little instruction manual every once in a while, I think we’re in for one heck of a ride.