A Blessing for our Leaders by Rabbi Pam on Parshat Lech Lecha at Congregation B’nai Emunah
This is Leadership Appreciation Shabbat and I want to offer these words in honor of our leaders with deep appreciation for all you do for our congregation.
I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”
Thanks to teachers, we can read, write and engage in art and science. We can build automobiles, airplanes and buildings. We can play sports and we can do all kinds of other things. Sometimes a teacher is in a school, but sometimes a teacher is the person sitting next to us. Perhaps it is our beloved or our parent or our child. Perhaps it is the clerk at the local hardware store who teaches us how to repair that leak under the sink or how to patch a hole in the ceiling.
Teachers teach ordinary things and lofty things. It says in the Talmud that “Whoever teaches Torah to the child of a friend, it is as if he gave birth to that friend’s child”. That is why we say that the commandment to honor our father and mother also includes honoring our teachers.
The notion that a teacher is like a parent arises from this week’s Torah portion. It says in the Torah that God told Abraham, “Lech Lecha!” “Get going! Go from the land of your birth to a place that I will show you.”
According to the Torah, Abraham and Sarah left the city of Haran and traveled to the land of Canaan, which is now called Israel. They took Abraham’s nephew Lot and they also took all of their possessions and all of the souls that they made in Haran. (Genesis 12:5). The Torah literally says, “v’et hanefesh asher asu b’charan”, “and all the souls that they made in Haran”.
It doesn’t say all the souls that “he” made. It says all the souls that “they” made and the rabbis understand this to mean that Sarah and Abraham made these souls together.
On the surface, this teaching is a bit baffling. What does it mean that Abraham and Sarah made souls? They didn’t have any children yet, so it couldn’t mean that they made babies. Abraham had also not yet had a child with Hagar. In fact, Hagar was not even in the picture yet.
The rabbis decided that when it says that Abraham and Sarah made souls in Haran, it means that Abraham and Sarah taught Judaism to people in Haran and the people absorbed the teachings and became Jewish, and those new Jewish people traveled to the Promised Land together with Abraham and Sarah.
Imagine what it must have been like to be part of the community of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah were the first two Ivrim, the first two Hebrews, in the whole wide world. Imagine the courage and resolve that people must had to follow Abraham and Sarah to a new land and a new life.
This week’s Torah portion spans a period of 24 years – from the time Sarah was 65 and Abraham was 75 – all the way to the time when Sarah was 89 and Abraham was 99.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham and Sarah were leaving Haran and moving to the land of Canaan with those souls who the rabbis think were the new converts to Judaism. Later in the Torah portion, there is a report of a famine and Abraham and Sarah go down to Egypt to escape the famine and it was in Egypt where Sarah acquired Hagar as a slave, and later Hagar became Abraham’s concubine and she gave birth to Isaac. At the end of this Torah portion, God told Abraham to circumcise himself and his son Ishmael and all the men who were with him.
Sometime later, when Isaac was born, Abraham circumcised Isaac on the eighth day, and we continue that tradition of brit milah, the covenant of circumcision, on the eighth day.
The faith of Sarah and Abraham and the people who traveled with them from Haran to Canaan is a faith that we can understand from the sacrifices that we make in our own lives to try things, or do things, or stand for ideals, that are brand new or not yet popular.
Here in our shul, our congregation, leaders do not help for the sake of glory. They do not help because they are waiting for someone to come over and notice what they did. And that is true for both our staff and our volunteers. Sometimes when I am teaching someone or meeting with someone, a volunteer or a staff person will come over and leave something for that person with whom I am meeting and they do it without saying a word.
Emunah means faith. B’nai Emunah means children of faith or people of faith. We are a people who believe that our simple, humble and heroic efforts will make a difference for us and for others. Like those who gathered around Abraham and Sarah, we do not have to have our name up in lights in order help lead the way to the future for our families, our shul and the greater community in which we live.
This past Tuesday night, I attended the final debate with the candidates who are running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for District 4, which is our District here at Taraval Street and 46th Avenue. I attended the debate with a member of our congregation who knows some of the candidates and she introduced me to the candidates after the debate. Each candidate asked me, “where is Congregation B’nai Emunah?” and when I said that we are at 46th and Taraval, their eyes lit up and they knew exactly where we are, because we are in their district and they are running for office to represent our neighborhood on the Board of Supervisor for the City of San Francisco.
During the debate, some of the candidates talked about where they came from and how they happened to come to live here in San Francisco. And some of the candidates also spoke about their parents and grandparents who moved the family to San Francisco from another part of the United States or another part of the world. People come to America as a land of promise. People go to Israel as a land of promise. Most people who move from one place to another are looking for a promise of something.
We, who make Judaism central in our lives, we believe in an implied promise, a promise we may never think about, but it is always in the background. And that is a promise to be decent and caring as Jews and as human beings. By being decent human beings, we are also being good Jews. By being good Jews, we are also being decent human beings.
The people in the Torah were not perfect. Sarah was very harsh with Hagar and during this week’s Torah portion, Hagar ran away and an angel told Hagar to go back and endure Sarah’s harshness. In next week’s Torah portion, Abraham hears a voice and interprets the voice to be telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac. We know that Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac, thanks to the angel who stopped him. But the Torah portrays our heroes as being fallible and that makes room for us to realize that even though we are fallible, we can still walk in the footsteps of the heroes of our people.
We who help to carry our shul day in and day out, year in and year out, we are walking in the footsteps of both the heroes of the Torah and the ordinary people of the Torah whose names are not even recorded. Some of us stand in front of the Aron HaKodesh, the holy ark, and we touch our tallit to the Torah and kiss our tallit. When we come up to the Torah for an Aliyah, we also touch the inside of Torah with our tallit and we also kiss the tallit. We do this to acknowledge that these stories are holy and the commandments that surround these stories are holy.
Our Torah is holy and we human beings are also holy. We make a difference when we help here at shul or when we help at our child’s school or at a homeless shelter or wherever we work or wherever we donate our time and talents. I tip my kippah to all of our leaders and all those who are joining us today and every day in helping to sustain our shul and helping to make the world a better place.