Rabbi Boettiger’s Talk

We’re just coming off a special weekend at the JCA, in which Elise and I were officially initiated into the life of the community. I was particularly pleased that my old rabbinical school compadre, Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, came over the mountains from Bennington, VT, to offer us a word of Torah on Friday evening. His teaching generating a lot of interest and enthusiasm, so I am including it here:

D’var Torah – Parashat Yitro
17 Shevat 5771

Shabbat shalom. It is really an honor and a pleasure to be here tonight to help begin the celebration of Rabbi Weiner’s installation weekend, and of JCA’s official welcoming of Ben and Elise.

As Torah portions go for rabbinic installation weekends, this is a doozy. We have the revelation on Mount Sinai, the giving of Torah, which is nothing less than the prototype for all future Jewish understandings of encounter with the sacred. This is a good parasha for installing your rabbi. If there was a “Music to install rabbis to” collection, parashat Yitro might be a featured track. But I want to qualify that by clarifying that it is a good parasha for installing this rabbi. And I’ll speak more to that later.

What do we imagine happened on Mount Sinai all those years ago? What are the repercussions and consequences of what we imagine?

We may disagree, as Jews – and we do – as to what happened on Sinai, but I think we all agree that whatever it was, the collective memory of that experience calls us forth, it calls us deeper into the world, into action, deeper into our lives. We tend, in progressive religious circles, definitely in Reconstructionist communities, to be accommodating in relation to people’s conceptions of Gd, or not Gd, as the case may be. I think, however, what is special about the Sinai story is that it seems to say that it is a universal human need to be able to access the sacred, to have a path, a language, whereby we can encounter the sacred. Another way of putting this, and I’m quoting Rabbi Ira Stone here, is, whether or not you believe in Gd is not a Jewish question. A Jewish question is, how true are you to your experience of holiness in the world?

In that spirit, one way of understanding the moment of revelation at Sinai is as a sacred encounter, the beginning of covenanted relationship. To paraphrase Martin Buber famously said that life is encounter. And the Torah is ultimately a story of encounter. The absence of encounter, the longing for encounter, the memory of encounter, the complexity of encounter, the rules of the game for encounter, the promise of the encounter to come. The ten commandments, indeed the whole Torah could then be described as a path towards sacred relationship – in both a vertical and a horizontal sense. Given the experiencing of the sacred, of revelation, how do we turn to one another? How do we act?

If the ten commandments speak to how we are to be in relationship, I want to look at part of what we indentify as the second commandment, the second utterance. “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Ex. 20:4-5).

This is the commandment against idolatry, right? But if revelation is relationship, it is as if the Torah is saying here in the second commandment, the greatest threat to relationship is that it becomes static, or fixed.

In a committed relationship, we see a partner on a daily basis, a friend on a weekly basis. We become very accustomed to them. Gradually we start to think that we know who our partner is, who are friend is, who our parents are; that we know the breadth, width, and depth of who they are. We take them, sometimes, for granted, we see them as if they were a sculptured image, a fixed thing. And – the Torah says, holiness cannot be fixed, cannot be concretized. It must keep moving, it must keep growing, expanding, contracting. Otherwise there is no revelation.

A dear friend of the family, Sibylle Baier, used to offer the blessing all the time, “May your beloved always be like a stranger to you.” And she would say good advice for relationship is to have one partner stand on the side of the road and hitchhike, and have the other partner drive by and pick them up. Really, the second commandment is saying then, in effect, every so often, have your beloved go hitch-hiking, pick them up, and look at them with fresh eyes. “Don’t make a sculptured image.”

I think the same thing goes for a relationship between a community and a rabbi, which is a sacred relationship, a covenanted relationship, that calls us forward, as any true revelation does. It’s a relationship, like others, that can become fixed or rigid, where we don’t give the other a chance to change, to grow; where we set the other in stone. Where we imagine we know – if we’re the rabbi, who the individuals in the community are; and – if we’re people in the congregation, who the rabbi is.

Having come to know Rabbi Weiner over the years, I know it is his commitment to being a learner that underlies and informs his commitment to being a teacher. I know that he will be committed to his own unfolding path, and that he will be ever becoming. That he will honor each of your paths as holy ones, ones that are also in the process of becoming.

Of course, all of us forget this, and so we have this reading every year – to remind us that covenanted relationship means being awake, aware, means responding to shape shifting, changing circumstances in our lives, beginnings, endings, ways that the holy moves between us, in our relationships with one another, and how community is a container that can hold it all.

There are many things I could name about Rabbi Weiner. I have witnessed him probably most importantly, most spectacularly, marrying Elise. But I’ve also witnessed him dj’ing parties in Philadelphia nightclubs, studying Talmud, playing Dylan on guitar, translating Yiddish, dancing at simchas – his own and those of his friends, spouting outlandish rhetoric and propaganda about the Red Sox and their chances for glory (I’m a Yankee fan, so this has long been a bone of contention between us). If there was one aspect this evening I could hold up of who Ben is, though, it would be to name Ben’s essential kindness, to tell you as you no doubt already know that your new rabbi has an integral kindness that is at the center of his being and shines forth in whatever he is doing in the world.

I want to welcome Ben and Elise here from a place of what you could call enlightened self-interest. The self-interest part is that my wife, Vanessa and I are selfishly glad about this new arrangement, because we will get to see them more often. But knowing also that the JCA is a special community and has a special history, I know this partnership will nourish both parties.

Some of you may know the Bob Dylan song, Highlands. It’s a song Ben and I are both fond of. Dylan’s describing a kind of mythical homeland he’s got his eye on, and it’s really more of an internal than an external place. Not a place that’s set in stone, to follow the theme here – more a place of sacred relationship, where we see and are seen. Kind of like Sinai, perhaps. A verse reads, “Well my heart’s in the Highlands wherever I roam/ That’s where I’ll be when I get called home/ The wind, it whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme/ Well my heart’s in the Highlands /I can only get there one step at a time.”

May this installation be a moment of dwelling in the Highlands for both the JCA and for Ben and Elise. May you all, as rabbi and community, continue to encounter the sacred in one another, a sacredness that is ever-flowing, ever growing. Shabbat shalom.

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