Sermon: Shofetim – Finding Balance and Stepping Forward

August 9, 2013
Rabbi David A. Lipper

I am humbled this Shabbat to be standing in this beautiful sanctuary that is so filled with hope and love.  From the rabbis who have served this synagogue to the vision and inspiration provided by the lay leaders so committed to the future of B’nai Chayim, you have been blessed.  And the work they all have done supports the entire community.   I am truly honored to follow in their footsteps.  Their accomplishments and leadership have set this congregation in good stead and I can rejoice in the inheritance of their labors. 

This is a difficult moment in that these are somewhat my first words to my new family.  First it’s hard because we don’t yet really know each other.  There is only the myth of the rabbi from Texas.  I have met some of you during the visits and over the past days since my arrival.  By the way, promise me something, for the next six months, please reintroduce yourself to me.  Help me along with your names.

For the past few weeks, I have pondered and reflected on the vision I have for any Jewish community.  I am drawn to my favorite phrase in Tanakh … “Bain Hazon Yiparah Am … Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  You will hear that phrase many times as I choose to live my life with a vision of Jewish life that we have not yet achieved.  That vision will hopefully drive this congregation well into the 21st century and create in us a desire to feed our Jewish appetites. 

In my vision of Jewish life there is no ceiling, there is no floor, there is only progress and commitment and covenant and cooperation.   These are the values I have based my rabbinate on. 

As the interim rabbi, I have challenges and responsibilities.   An interim rabbi allows a congregation time for thoughtful, intentional work, strengthening it for a healthy search process.   My greatest desire is to help you to find the best rabbi to help you continue the amazing journey that Temple B’nai Chaim has been on.   Ultimately, the interim process helps to ensure the success of the relationship with the next settled rabbi.

Over the course of the next year, we will study and worship together, we will laugh and cry together, we will spend time in meetings and visiting in homes, hospitals and businesses together, we will celebrate the joys of Jewish living and we will honor the memories of our friends and loved ones.   We will dream dreams of the future and we will carry forward the strengths of the past.   I am here to be your partner in visioning and to help you discover who you really are.

As a congregation, you will learn much about yourselves, about moving ahead and about being strong, about maintaining your identity, as well as considering what you might change.  I will help you to answer tough questions in order to help you establish goals for the future.   Most of all, I want you to know that you are not alone in this journey. 

And we will experiment.  We will try new things and we will talk much about our hopes and desires for this sacred community.   There are a myriad of ideas in this room alone.   My task here is to open up to the endless possibilities that await us.  And there is an interesting tidbit in the Torah portion this Shabbat that speaks directly to our journey this year.  

This week’s Torah portion, Shofetim, contains the divine bidding, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Does this mean “coins, coins, you shall deposit”? No, this is the word tzedek not tzedakah, from the same Hebrew root tzadei-dalet-kof. All Hebrew words derive from a root, most often a three-letter combination. We can see how a Hebrew word grows by observing how it spreads from its roots and branches out into its meanings.

If you were an ancient Israelite shopping for cucumbers, you would bring your selection to the ancestor of all checkout counters and have your produce weighed. Leviticus 19:35-36 is your guide to honesty, for it commands us, “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measures of length, of weight, or quantity. Just balances, just weights…” The scales must be tzedek, correct and of right balance.

If you broke the most ancient of traffic laws and were sent to court, you would hope that the judge had read Deuteronomy 16:18: “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates, which your God gives you, throughout your tribes; and they shall judge the people with due justice, a mishpat tzedek.” You would want the correct and proportional penalty in balance with the infraction.

If you spent a day reading a selection of ketubot, “Jewish wedding documents”; wedding invitations; and even the inscription on wedding rings, you would certainly find this verse from Hosea 2:21: “And I will betroth you to me forever;   I will betroth you to me in righteousness [tzedek], and in judgment, and in grace, and in mercies.”

How can we understand “Justice, justice shall you pursue”? All three of our citings have something in common. What is it? A hint: All things need to be in harmonious balance with one another: the fruit on the scale and the stones used to measure their weight; the sentence of the judge and the crime committed; and the relationship of God and Israel in Hosea, often used as the relationship between bride and groom. Why then must you add more tzedek in the world? What has been thrown out of balance? How many ways are there to set things in balance again?

There is the key … this is a year of balance … where we can all catch our breath, balance our lives and our families and our commitment to B’nai Chayim … a year of balance between the gifts of the old and the blessings of the new … a year of growth.

Divine source of power in our world … Eternal wellspring of truth … tonight is a moment of beginnings.  We begin our journey together with hopes and dreams of a community ever on the rise.   We have each bound our time and energies into this sacred work and tonight we take the first step together.   Empower us together to remember that we are engaged in sacred work and teach us to act kindly and speak softly with each other.   Remind us of our solemn duty to build this community with spirit and courage and to ensure its continued growth for the generations who have yet to appear.  

In this year of transition, keep our minds open and commitments strong as we engage new ideas, try new paths and seek to move our community forward into this New Year.   May Your blessings abound and Your Divine love fill our hearts as we seek to fulfill our covenant with you.