Temple Israel, Cape Town, SA
July 2019 – Tammuz 5779
God spoke to Abraham:
לך לך מארצך ממולדתך אל הארץ אשר אראך
Get yourself up and go…from your land, from the place of your birth…to a land that I will show you.
Who does this? Who gives up all that they have known…family, friends, memories of favorite places…to go to some far off place that they do not know?
Well, there’s Abraham and Sarah…and then there is Rabbi Emma!
Now you might stop and ask yourself “why?” Why would someone do such a thing? You know, the rabbis asked this about Abraham, and the volumes of midrashim about Abraham’s early life, his selection by God, and his decision to go teach us only that the rabbis have no idea…he was taught about the flood and about God’s ways by no less than Noah and Shem…his father was an idol maker and Abraham had to smash the idols and blame it on the biggest one in order to teach his own father about the falsehoods of idol worship, and he wanted to teach people about God and God’s ways.
Now without trying to elevate my daughter the rabbi (whom I love dearly) to patriarchal or matriarchal status, I will suggest to you that she, too, was motivated by her love of God and her desire to teach people about God’s ways.
As you might imagine, one Biblical revelatory experience could not be enough for our Emma, and so she took a page out of the Book of Numbers…an episode about which we read only two weeks ago.
A year ago February, Emma came to “scout out the land” and to bring back a report. Is it a good land? What does it look like? What about the people who live there? Of course, there were the nay-sayers: It’s too far away! It’s not safe! There’s not enough water! The people are like giants! You will feel like a grasshopper to them! They sound funny when they talk! And they drive on the wrong side of the road!
But Rabbi Emma was like Joshua (and I will confess to playing the part of Caleb…in a supporting role). Emma brought back a positive report: The land is exceedingly beautiful, with mountains and seas! A land overflowing with Roibus tea and honey! Their prayer book is so ripe and full with poetry and prayers that it takes two men to lift it up! And the people are warm and welcoming, generous, loving and kind.
And so, like her ancestors in the Bible, like many of our ancestors in more recent times, Emma decided that this was the moment…to get herself up and go, to respond to God’s call, to say “Hineni”. Here I am. Ready. To go.
What does it take to make such a response?
First it takes tremendous courage and self-confidence, and in these qualities Rabbi Emma has no equal. Second, it takes a leap of faith, a deeply held and unshakeable belief that God’s purpose can only be revealed if one is willing to take the plunge, like Nachshon at the Sea of Reeds. And third, it takes a love of God that is pledged with heart, soul and might, and confidence in God’s love and mercy.
Emma’s favorite liturgical text is the last paragraph of Adon Olam
בידו אפקיד רוחי
בעת אישן ואעירה
ואם רוחי גויעתי
יי לי ולא אירה
Into Your hands I entrust my spirit
When I sleep and when I wake
And with my spirit, I give you my entire being
…All that I am, all that I have…
God is with me, I need not be afraid
And with this, Emma comes to you, the newest member of your rabbinic team.
But what is it that she brings to the rabbinic team, and to Temple Israel?
We are told that the world stands on three things:
על שלושה דברים העולם עומד
On Devotional Service
ועל גמילות חסדים
and on Acts of Lovingkindness
The synagogue also stands on three things:
It is a Bet Midrash, a Bet Tefillah and a Bet Knesset.
As a Bet Midrash – a House of Study – a synagogue must be a place of learning. For Jews of all ages, from pre-school to those of later years, there must be opportunities for ever increasing knowledge. The primary role of the rabbi is to teach, and it was out of a love of Jewish teaching, nurtured in her at Temple Har Zion and Temple Kol Ami in our home town of Thornhill, near Toronto, at the Leo Baeck Day School, and at the URJ summer camps in Warwick, NY, Zionsville, IN and Parry Sound, Ontario, that Emma entered the rabbinate. Throughout her rabbinate, Emma has seen herself as a teacher on many levels. She has devoted herself to teaching Jewish children, believing that our children are the true guarantors of Torah, and that the continuity of the Jewish people lies within them. But Jewish learning is not for children alone, and so Emma has devoted much of her rabbinate to teaching Jewish adults as well. Your new rabbi has always understood her rabbinate to be about teaching Jews and others about our way of life, and enabling them to increase their level of Jewish learning and practice.
As a Bet Tefillah – A House of Prayer – a synagogue must be a place filled with the joy of worship and blessing. I believe that music is the key to warmth and participation in communal prayer, and Emma brings her love of liturgical music to the bimah. Rabbi Emma is a particularly gifted pulpit rabbi, and if you don’t want to take my word for it (thinking that I may be just a bit biased in her favor) listen instead to the collective voices of her teachers and colleagues and the leaders of our Movement who, when Emma was a student at the Hebrew Union College in New York, invited her to serve as intern in the URJ’s Department of Synagogue Worship. Your new rabbi is exceptionally talented and innovative, and she is recognized among her peers for her special abilities to lead a congregation in a celebration of their spirituality and connection with the Holy One of Blessing.
As a Bet Knesset – A House of Communal Assembly – a synagogue must be a truly caring community. Aware of the diverse needs of its members, it must become like an extended family to them. Welcoming others, being tolerant fo individual differences, and affirming each person’s value, are hallmarks of a true community. You are most fortunate to have brought to Temple Israel a rabbi who is committed to sustaining a community such as this—a place where God can reside. In such a place as this, you may know with certainty that it is possible to meet God here.
A new rabbi brings new ideas and suggestions of new ways of doing things, as some of you have already discovered. A new rabbi will always try to challenge you, as a community, to grow individually and collectively through openness and experimentation. And through partnership and interaction with the clergy, staff and members of your community. I know that she, too, will grow and change, thus ensuring not only the vibrancy and dynamism of the community, but of her rabbinate as well.
And so we celebrate the addition to this community of Rabbi Emma Gottlieb. Emma, it is our collective prayer that you will be blessed with wisdom and strength to teach and lead this holy congregation, that they might better understand Torah, and be drawn to live by its precepts, drawing themselves nearer to God. It is our prayer that you will help them to see and hear and feel the beauty of our heritage, that they will come to know that the experience of our ancestors is our experience, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Joshua and Claeb and Nachshon is our God, and the Torah our way of life.
May God bless the work of your hands, my love. The work of your hands, may God bless.