I’ve been spending time recently re-reading sermons, divrei Torah, and bulletins from my first year at Temple Beth El. I have enjoyed reliving the experience of seeing how an idea that germinated in my mind or in yours blossomed into a program, adult education opportunity, or a new worship service. It never happened on its own; each new initiative required the efforts of many individuals and groups of people-professionals, support staff, lay leaders and volunteers.
As you know as well, the life span of a synagogue program or initiative varies. Some endure for a long time, some run their natural course. Some need periodic reinvention. Luckily, many new ideas emerge each year.
Thirteen years ago I shared these words with you: “Leading, administering, and running Temple Beth El is truly a team effort, and for many of us a labor of love. In many ways it is like being part of a large family. We may have our differences of opinion and the occasional argument, but our work is grounded in our profound love and respect for one another and for this institution we cherish so much.”
I’ve been reflecting on this last sentiment in recent weeks and this is where this week’s Torah portion can teach us something.
Parashat Beha’alotecha, from the Book of Numbers, recounts the episode where Moses’ sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron, speak negatively about Moses, specifically maligning his wife. God afflicts Miriam with tza’ra’at, an unsightly and irritating skin disease. The Book of Leviticus describes the protocol for a person afflicted; he or she is to be removed and set apart from the community for a period of time until the Priest deems them to be healed, and welcomed back into the community. This is what happens to Miriam. That only Miriam is punished and not Aaron is terribly problematic. However, that did not stop our rabbinic sages for commenting on this challenging episode.
The rabbis connect the skin disease of Tza’ra’at and what we call the person who contracts it-a M’tzora-with one who spreads gossip, or in Hebrew lashon ha’rah the evil tongue. Because they “motzi shem rah” (which sounds like m’tzora) “send forth a bad name” of the person whom they target the rabbis deduced that a person who contracts tza’ra’at does so because he or she spread lashon ha’rah-gossip of any kind about another person. In ancient times that person was excluded from the community until the tza’ra’at disappeared and the priest deemed him or her ready to return. This is what happens to Miriam in this portion.
I’ve often joked with my students when studying this and other similar portions that if every person who gossiped about another person was afflicted with tza’ra’at, we’d face a worldwide epidemic of eczema and psoriasis.
We human beings have the unique capability to communicate with words; and as we know, words can build a person up or take them down. And too often we are careless with our words. We speak ill about another; we pass along second and third hand accounts without knowing the full story, or even thinking to investigate further. We fail to hold confidential information in confidence. I bring up this point because the words you choose and the words you share (or keep to yourself) will determine what TBE looks like in the years ahead.
I have led, loved, and nurtured this congregation for the past thirteen years. I am very confident that the current turbulence that TBE is facing right now will smooth out soon. For those who have expressed their concern to me about the future of Temple Beth El, remember what I have told you since day one; no single individual is greater than the institution he or she serves. We all leave our mark and our memories. And a new leader begins to make their own as well. All the while, the institution stands firm and stable.
I believe that Temple Beth El will continue to be one of the best and most stable congregations in the greater Los Angeles area. It may be hard to recognize this now, however my and Debi’s departures are providing an opportunity for different skilled professionals with new ideas, new energy, and new approaches to come in and lead TBE for the next generation, just as I have led for this current generation. Yes, saying goodbye to familiar people is difficult; however, saying hello to new faces provides another opportunity to be inspired by new talented individuals who will leave their mark on TBE.
I hope that a year or two from now the core values that are written on our mission statement remain in place while new programs, new protocols and new patterns of synagogue engagement and empowerment begin to take root.
I have a few simple wishes for you in the months and years ahead; follow our values; make good decisions; be kind to one another; support one another; praise one another; critique gently and directly; and above all, do what is best for Temple Beth El.