January 30, 2015
A Celebration of Miracles (Parashat Beshallach)
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On Shabbat Shirah, we celebrate our liberation out of Egypt. We acknowledge the supernatural miracle of the Red Sea splitting, our people crossing the threshold to freedom and celebrating with vigorous song and dance. For many, this is the quintessential miracle of our shared narrative—rooted in God’s nautical wizardry.
The scholars are not sure this event actually happened. But I’m not sure it matters whether it’s provable or not. From my perspective, the miracle lies in the powerful portrait of Jews holding hands, wading into the water, trusting that it would divide, believing they would make it across despite a staunch enemy in pursuit.
In Maimonides’ twelfth-century book The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides shares that “a miracle cannot prove what is impossible; it is useful only to confirm what is possible.”
Jewish courage has been possible. Jewish survival has been possible. And Jewish celebration is probable: we find a way, over and over again, not just to go on but to celebrate it.
Central Synagogue is a personal miracle for me. Okay, it may be hyperbole to call Central the Promised Land, but for a cantor from Halifax, it’s pretty close to it. This is, undeniably, a dream realized. And when I crossed the proverbial Red Sea —okay, the Saw Mill Parkway—from my beloved Congregation Kol Ami, my first professional miracle, I was dancing and singing on the banks of Lexington Avenue, just as the Israelites danced and sang.
Now I know Central congregants don’t often dance. But I hope you’ll indulge in some robust—and maybe a little unorthodox—singing tonight. Not just because it’s Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, when we’re supposed to raise the roof, but because no cantor can raise the roof alone.
And my hope tonight is that by sharing a little of my family’s story, which for me is its own miracle by itself, that you too will think about the miracles in your lives, large and small
I am a first-generation North American Jew and the son of Lithuanian refuseniks. My parents’ upbringing in Lithuania required them to hide their Judaism for fear of being perceived as anti-communist. Having established themselves as Jewish musicians (my mother a pianist, my father a violinist), they were victimized through violent acts of anti-Semitism. My father was forced to learn self-defense and was likely the only violinist in Kaunas trained as a boxer and outfitted with brass knuckles. Every time my parents and their families entered synagogue, their presence was noted by the government and their emigration papers delayed another year.
My parents were denied permission to leave Lithuania for fourteen years, and eventually managed to escape Soviet Russia with the help of the Dutch Embassy working in concert with the State of Israel. In one hand, my father held forged papers and in the other, my two-year-old sister. My mother and my grandmother also anxiously travelled to Israel via Germany and Italy.
Their story was one of courage and ingenuity, and was ultimately even broadcast on the BBC news. There’s no question that my parents’ history informed my connection to Judaism and ultimately my decision to become a cantor.
Clergy often speak about their “calling,” which I realize can sound overdramatic or highfalutin’. But I have to confess that that’s what it feels like: a powerful, magnetic, urgent call to carry something on. To protect something precious: Jewish sound. Jewish freedom. Yiddishkeit. It’s not enough to love it myself, I want to share it—to help others who love it continue it, and to help others who never heard it discover it.
Mom and Dad, you have lived in three continents, learned five languages, and done everything in your power to ensure my success and my sister Shragit’s, and there are no words for your unconditional love.
Among the definitive miracles in my life is my wife Rachel’s willingness to tolerate and humor me, to teach and inspire me in the countless ways she does. Rachel, I hope you know that you and our sons, Lev and Jonah, give my life exquisite joy and purpose. I love you all infinitely.
To my sister, Shragit: I’m not sure that either of us could imagine that life would take us from Halifax to New York. That’s a miracle in its own right. I feel so lucky to have landed just a few blocks away from you, your husband, Steve, and my sweet nephews, Zane and Noah.
I will try not to overuse the miracle metaphor, but in truth, my mentors have been miraculous teachers and I am so grateful that they could be here this evening.
Rabbi Shira Milgrom, a seventh-generation rabbi, you are a powerhouse gifted with endless wisdom and creativity. Spending Chanukah with you, David, your four children, and 613 grandchildren is akin to celebrating with the Jewish Kennedys.
Rabbi Tom Weiner, you have carved out a rabbinate rich in youth engagement and meaningful pastoral care. You have helped me keep perspective and a sense of humor. It has been 18 years since you served Central Synagogue and I still hear from people who say you affected them profoundly.
Cantor Dick Botton, our beloved Cantor Emeritus, you are arguably the most spiritually-connected person I know. You are a soulful singer whose rich voice unlocks the heavens. You are a cantorial legend who also has a rare authenticity and I’m sure our entire clergy would agree you always have a home on our bimah.
Tonight’s festivities are co-chaired by Bonnie Tisch and by Carol Ostrow.
Bonnie, you and Dan are dear friends and Rachel and I cannot thank you enough for tonight. You are a true blessing to our lives and a blessing to the Jewish people.
Carol and Michael, you have opened your home several times to welcome Rachel and me to this community. If there were a hosting hall of fame, you would be the first elected family. Carol, as the chair of the cantorial search committee, I am eternally grateful to you and your committee members for the rigorous and authentic process that has brought us here.
I am equally grateful to the executive committee and board of trustees and certainly grateful to David Edelson for entrusting me with this position. Without recounting David’s “wildest dreams,” I will just share that on the coldest day of the winter David noticed that I was inadequately dressed and insisted that I wear his winter coat. David’s gesture is one of many warm welcomes that I have experienced throughout my first six months at Central.
Livia, you and your staff have nurtured a sense of professionalism that is exemplary to many congregations and I want to thank you for welcoming me and encouraging me in all the ways that you have.
Rabbi Buchdahl, Cantor Buchdahl. Angela, you are known in our movement as the finest prayer leader of our generation. You have welcomed me, inspired me, and made musical space for me. Yours are big shoes to fill… and this congregation is incredibly blessed to have you as their leader.
Andy, Ari, and Mo are my remarkable colleagues who make each day fulfilling and genuinely joyful. Mo, my formidably named colleague and dear friend, what a pleasure it is to work with you. Julia, how lucky I am to get to program great music with you. I cannot thank you enough for the leadership role you played in pulling tonight together.
We are blessed to work with some of the finest musicians in New York City and Dave Strickland, you and your team pray with your instruments and bring us all to a transcendent place.
Music is obviously the soundtrack of our lives—we remember our childhood lullabies and nursery rhymes, our first albums and the song that played when we walked down the aisle. Our Jewish canon has not just sustained but evolved, so that Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach” now feels as familiar as Avinu Malkeinu. As I stand symbolically on the shoulders of those who came before me, I hope you’ll permit me to draw both on ancient wisdom and modern melody. I believe that both the old and the new can connect us, and I know I find my Judaism in both.
Recently, I recorded an album entitled “Soul on the Seventh Day.” I worked with 15 musicians to create a Motown-like prayer experience which would hopefully engage people in their 20s and 30s, because I truly believe our liturgical music is durable enough to groove a little harder. Not all the time, but in the right moments.
Tonight we are joined by my recording partner and producer Robbie Grunwald. Robbie, I am honored that you would join us tonight to bring Jewish soul music to life.
Psalm 150 celebrates all of the instruments used in ancient Israel. The final verse does not list an instrument: it calls upon every soul. Perhaps the psalmist knew that the meeting place between our head and our heart is our voice. Tonight I invite you to keep your mind open to new sounds, to release the expressions of your heart as we celebrate so many miracles. I am eternally grateful for the miracle of this congregation and the opportunity to sing with you.
Kol haneshama t’hallel yah. Halleluyah!