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April 21, 2023

To Life…Lived Together

Ari S. Lorge

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

"To Life…Lived Together"
Rabbi Ari Lorge

If there is one Hebrew phrase that people know, one exclamation that, even if you’ve never met a Jewish person, you can likely recite, one Hebrew idiom so ubiquitous that it just had to be the title of the showstopper number in the world’s most iconic musical about Jews, what would it be?

L’chaim. To life. There is nothing more Jewish than that.

It is that sentiment that leads commentators to puzzle over the opening detail in this week’s Torah portion. We learn that birth creates impurity. This seems incongruous with all that Judaism stands for. Life is the principle that supersedes all others. So, how can the creation of life cause impurity?

One commentator, Rabbi S. Ludmir, wisely notes: Life alone is not the true end in and of itself. Life can be squandered if it is unexamined or lived selfishly. Even worse, life can be devoted to wicked or destructive aims.

God endowed all human beings with dignity, but what we do with that dignity and the one life we get to live matters. Jews venerate and value life not for its own sake, but for the potential it holds to serve God and perform Godly acts. As Martin Buber taught, “God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.”

For thousands of years, congregational communities have been the best venues wherein we sanctify our lives by taking actions that make God manifest in the lives of others. I learned on my first visit to Central Synagogue that this was a community that took this core tenant of Judaism seriously.

I was running late, which many of you know for me means I was only 5 minutes early, having wandered around the sanctuary building looking for where I was supposed to be. Then finally finding the community house, a beloved member of our security staff, Atzmon, stopped me at the entrance. He asked me who I was and why I was there. I replied sheepishly that I was interviewing to be the assistant rabbi. He stopped, sized me up, and said, “If you want to be a rabbi here, the first thing you need to know, is that we take care of each other.” I stood there stunned thinking: This must be a pretty special place if the guard could speak the community’s mission so clearly. While his words moved me at the time, after serving this congregation for 10 years, what moves me more, are the ways we act and prove his words true.

We take care of each other. Each of us might glimpse a moment here or there, but one of the privileges of being a rabbi in a congregation, of having served here for ten years, is the vantage point to see so much of the Godly work of the congregation. Watching the quiet and unassuming ways we show up for one another during illnesses and loss. How members rally around folks in the community when needs arise—rides to school or to shul, looking after kids, groceries for a neighbor, visits to the hospital, a hug in a moment of turmoil. Seeing volunteers come forward to call every member of the congregation during the pandemic multiple times. How, time and again, when tragedy strikes a community elsewhere, our synagogue wants to know how we can give aid and provide relief. And there is the deep understanding that taking care of each other, means more than serving our own; but also ensuring that, like Abraham and Sarah, we care for all those in our orbit: resettling refugee families, helping the formerly incarcerated reenter society, mentoring teens, teaching English to immigrants, creating and sustaining a community fridge, and serving meals weekly to those in need. I marvel at the countless quiet, anonymous, daily acts of goodness performed by members of our community. Each of these acts we take reveals God’s goodness in the world. You may have other language for it, but Judaism’s assertion is that we are doing nothing less than that. Every moment of choosing, every time we reach for kindness or the loving thing, we shoulder the responsibility and the privilege of making God real in that moment.

For ten years, I have been one of the luckiest rabbis in the world. I am part of a congregation profoundly interested in the great Jewish mission: not living for the sake of some hereafter, but living so that we can make this world, this life, our lives and those around us, as close to an Eden as we can. Judaism is wise enough to know you can only do this work in a community with shared vision, with a deep sense of dreaming and daring, and with hearts open and adamantine.

I am humbled beyond words to be honored for my 10 years of service. But this is not solitary work. While I am aware Dave may play me off if I linger too long at this podium, please indulge me a few moments of gratitude.

First, Emet, who is hopefully asleep at home, and Alexis, I love you so much. Alexis, I’ll simply quote from the tradition:

שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלָּכֶם שֶׁלָּהּ הוּא.

All that I am, all that I have to give, is because of you.

My parents, you showed me the beauty and power of this heritage and encouraged me on this path…even when it led me out of the Midwest. Thank you.

To my sisters, my family, and friends, thank you for your constant support. You are my strength.

Rabbi Buchdahl, you are my consummate teacher, guide, and compass. There is a rabbinic saying: “If we want to see how well a Torah scholar has learned, don’t test their knowledge, watch their actions.” How lucky are we to be part of this congregation with you at the helm, leading us. Thank you for guiding my rabbinate, but even more so thank you for being My rabbi, supporting us in difficult moments, rejoicing with us in our simchahs, and always being there.

My heart is also full of gratitude for Rabbi Rubinstein’s generosity in my first year, and for his friendship beyond it.

Marcia Caban, thank you for your support and all the ways you’ve helped me become a more adept leader at so many things they don’t teach you in rabbinical school.

And to Livia Thompson, thank you for your guidance and care then and now. 

During these ten years I’ve been fortunate to work alongside incredible members of Central’s Clergy team. Not all of them are here tonight, but I want to thank you all for the camaraderie, the laughter, sharing your strength, your passion, your commitment, with me.

I have learned a lot of practical rabbinics on the job, in great part thanks to the incredible Board of Trustees and lay leadership of Central Synagogue. My gratitude to the current and former members of the board. You are the backbone of this community. These are leaders whose menchlekeit and devotion know no bounds. During my tenure they have been led bravely, boldly, and with wisdom by David Edelson, Abby Pogrebin, Jeremy Fielding, Shonni Silverberg, all of whom dedicated more time and energy than most of us are aware, and I would ask us to give a yasher koach to them.

Central is blessed by a staff invested in our mission and purpose. On all levels they are incredible professionals with huge hearts. I feel so lucky to work alongside you.

And I want to thank all of you, this congregation, for welcoming me into this community and weaving me into our shared story. You are what make this congregation extraordinary—you and your kindnesses are what made New York City feel like a home when I worried I would be a stranger in a strange land. Now our chapters are bound up together. Ours is a grand narrative rooted in kindness, enlarged by fortitude and tenacity, enriched by sacrifice and toil, and magnified by love and compassion. As we look forward, I share the same blessing I offered in my first Rosh HaShanah sermon. May the stories we author together be like seeds of goodness and greatness that sprout forth on some distant day to inspire a new generation. 

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.