This was my final Shabbat at The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah. I used this opportunity to thank the congregation for enriching my three years in the community and to reflect on the power and importance of strengthening one another at times of transition and adventure. Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek -- Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another!
Strengthening One Another:
Reflections upon Leaving Congregation B’nai Jehudah
When I first interviewed to be a rabbi here at B’nai Jehudah, we were just finishing the book of Exodus. I was invited to offer a teaching to the selection committee, and I chose to focus on the history and meaning of the phrase chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another—which we say when we conclude a book of Torah.
Reflecting on the concept of strength, I taught the following text from the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 32b): תנו רבנן, ארבעה צריכין חזוק ואלו הן: תורה, ומעשים טובים, תפילה, ודרך ארץ, "Our Rabbis taught: Four things require chizzuk (strengthening), namely: [study of] Torah, good deeds, prayer, and derech eretz (which, in this context, means worldly occupation)."
At that time, I might have framed these as four dimensions of the role of the rabbi: to foster Jewish learning, to make the world a better place, to develop spiritual practice, and to attend to the basic operation of a synagogue. However, during my tenure here at B’nai Jehudah, I’ve come to see these as values held lovingly by this community as well. In standing for Torah, good deeds, prayer, and worldly occupation, B’nai Jehudah sustains not only its own membership but also, I can assure to you, its rabbis and staff.
Ours is a learning community. It has been my privilege both to shape and to enjoy our congregation’s pursuit of Torah. Preschool, religious school, b’nai mitzvah, Confirmation, post-Confirmation, and myriad occasions for adult study nourish this congregation and its staff. I came to you one year out of seminary with a bit of experience, a lot of schooling … and so very much to learn. I have been blessed that you have given me the opportunity to serve as your teacher and to learn with you. As Rabbi Chanina rightly reflects in the Talmud (Taanit 7a): “I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my colleagues, but from my students I have learned more than all of them.” Together, we strengthen one another as we engage in the words of Torah.
Ours is also a community committed to good deeds. At times I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of this community. I am awed by the number of drives we successfully conduct, gathering food, clothing, and other supplies for needy neighbors. I am touched by gentle acts of kindness extended from one person to another simply because someone needs help, from delivering a meal to assisting with a move. And I am inspired by the dedication of Mitzvah Meals volunteers, of parents and grandparents in our schools, and of our b’nai mitzvah students committed to heartfelt tzedakah projects; of our Mitzvah Gardeners, Gift Shoppers, and Breakfast Clubbers; of volunteers at the Refugee Birthday Party and at Mitzvah Day; of High Holiday ushers and task force members and the dynamic volunteers who lead these incredible groups; and of all who have taken countless other opportunities to make life easier for someone else. These ongoing deeds of compassion require a tremendous store of energy, and we radiate strength when we share these human resources by reaching in and reaching out.
We are also a spiritual community. I have been grateful since Day One for the uplifting and inspirational tefilah I have experienced here at B’nai Jehudah. Our Tefilah Team volunteers—and the exceptional staff who lead them—immeasurably enrich our community’s prayer life. And for all the energy and elation that uplift our regular Friday night services—not to mention Shabbat Chadash, Shabbat in the Park, High Holidays, and other special occasions—the quiet contemplation of our Daily Minyan service adds an essential note of balance. These prayer experiences are reflected in life cycle events both large and small, from baby namings to funerals, each one of which invites the presence of the divine to dwell in our midst. Over the past year in particular, we have also sought new avenues for spiritual growth, first welcoming Rabbi Nancy Flam as a scholar in residence and then experimenting with monthly Shabbat morning meditations. And be on the lookout for a class on musar—Jewish moral self-improvement—next fall. In these ways and many more, B’nai Jehudah provides strength for all those who seek a higher awareness and a deeper spiritual satisfaction.
And last but not least, our community is wise to the ways of the world. None of this would be possible without the careful stewardship of our board of trustees, who are guided in turn by our officers. As well, in recognition of the enduring value that this community provides, thousands of individuals have chosen to support our work financially, and the congregation thrives because of your generosity. Of course, the dedication and expertise of our staff, led by Rabbi Nemitoff and Jeanne Adler, guide the congregation continually toward excellence and health. Taken together, our synagogue still thrives after nearly 150 years because of these thoughtful considerations toward the practical side of communal life.
Study, good deeds, prayer, and worldly occupation: Four vital aspects of communal life that require strengthening to succeed.
And as we learn in our Torah portion, these are also four aspects of individual, personal flourishing; indeed, they contribute to what it means to be fully human.
In our parashah, Moses selects twelve leaders of Israel—one from each tribe—to scout the Promised Land. He instructs them to assess the bounty of the land and offers them one final instruction before they depart: וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ, "Now strengthen one another to bring back the fruit of the land" (Num. 13:20).
This curious phrase has attracted the attention of Jewish sages across the centuries. Most commentators speculate that Moses somehow knows that the inhabitants of the land are threatening and that he wants to caution the spies to prepare themselves to face their adversaries (cf. commentary ad loc. of S’forno, B’chor Shor, and Chizkuni). But at least one sage—the K’li Yakar from 16th-century Lublin and 17th-century Prague—offers an additional view. He teaches that this instruction might mean: התחזקו והיו לאנשים כי ה' עמכם, "Strengthen one another and become men, for God is with you" (commentary ad loc.).
In other words, Moses may be reminding the spies that they are people who have a sacred relationship with God, not animals destined to run, afraid, from seemingly larger threats. Be human beings, he says, and have faith that the future can be different than natural reason might predict.
Moses instructs the spies—and in so doing, reminds all of us—that being fully human requires strengthening. This strength comes not just from the self but from other people, from working together and building relationships, strengthening one another in community. And it is at times of transition, such as the embarking of the spies or the setting off to a new city, that this communal strengthening is particularly needed.
On a personal note, I feel so blessed that this community has always come through for me when I’ve needed strengthening. Just as you’ve given me the sacred privilege of being there for you in your own times of struggle and celebration, you’ve also been there for me at the birth my daughter, at the death of my grandfather, and at various other high and low points along the way. As I reflect on these three years of service, I am filled most of all with gratitude. So as I conclude, please permit me a few words of thanks.
I am grateful, of course, to Rabbi Nemitoff for giving me this opportunity to grow, for serving as a mentor and a partner, as a sounding board and a guide in my developing rabbinate. As well, I’ve deeply appreciated the opportunity to work alongside so many other outstanding colleagues—too many, I’m pleased to say, to mention by name. And I owe a special thank-you to my family: to Jessica, whose passion and insight have made me a better person and a better rabbi since the day we met and to our children, Jeremiah and Esther, who have brightened our lives and brought out so many smiles in this community.
Finally and most significantly, I offer my thanks to all of you. To be a Jew, a Yehudi, is to be one who says Modeh Ani, I am grateful. So truly, and from the bottom of my heart, modeh ani, I am grateful: for this time, for these experiences, and most of all for the relationships I’ve built with the people here and so many more in and around Kansas City. My time at B’nai Jehudah is ending, but I carry with me all that I have learned and all the relationships I have formed; they, and you, will continue to strengthen me on the road ahead. Thank you.
When we conclude reading the Torah—so I taught at my interview three years ago—we say chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. Tonight serves as another fitting conclusion for these words, which punctuate and guide our Jewish journeys.
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.
Let us go from strength to strength, hand-in-hand, together.
 Note that the parashah opens with God’s instruction to Moses שְׁלַח-לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים, “Send for yourself men” (Num. 13:2) only later specifying כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם, “Each one a prince among his tribe” (ibid.). On this verse, the K’li Yakar cites a midrash in which God says to Moses that God believes women would make better spies—for they would truly love the land—but will nevertheless leave the appointment of the spies up to Moses, who will no doubt choose men for the job. His full comment to Num. 13:2 is here:
ד"א לכך פרט אנשים, לפי שארז"ל (ילקו"ש פנחס תשעג כז) האנשים היו שונאים את הארץ ואמרו נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה (במדבר יד ד) והנשים היו מחבבות הארץ ואמרו תנה לנו אחזה (שם כז ד) וע"כ אמר הקב"ה לפי דעתי שאני רואה בעתיד היה יותר טוב לשלוח נשים המחבבות את הארץ כי לא יספרו בגנותה, אבל לך לדעתך שאתה סבור שכשרים המה ואתה סבור שהארץ חביבה עליהם תשלח אנשים וזהו שלח לך לדעתך אנשים, אבל לדעתי היה יותר טוב לשלוח נשים כאמור.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”