From Remembrance to Building – Vayyeshev 5779

Some of you were with me last Monday evening at the Federation’s communal ceremony marking the end of sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period. It was an appropriate conclusion to the most emotional month of my life. A remarkable moment was a video address from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth of Nations (i.e. the former British Empire). He pointed out that sheloshim marks the end of the most intense grieving, the period of looking back at the lives of those lost, and a transition to looking forward, to the future. He gave as an example the three incidences in the book of Bereshit / Genesis where the word, “Vayizkor,” he remembered, appears. They are as follows:

Vayizkor Elohim et Noah (Bereshit / Genesis 8:1)

God remembered Noah and brought him out of the ark onto dry land to begin again.

Vayizkor Elohim et Avraham (Bereshit / Genesis 19:29)

God remembered Avraham and rescued his nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom

Vayizkor Elohim et Rahel (Bereshit / Genesis 30:22)

God remembered Rahel and gave her a child.

In each case, Rabbi Sacks observed, the remembrance is about looking toward the future. God remembered each of those characters, and the remembering leads to forward movement, to building. “In Judaism,” he said, “all remembering is about the future, and about life. We cannot change the past, but by remembering it, we can change the future.”

It’s worth noting that, with respect to Jewish tradition, the ceremony on Monday evening was too early. Sheloshim is actually measured not from the date of death, but, as with shiv’ah, from the date of burial. And so, for the families of the 11 souls taken by a Jew-hater with an assault rifle, sheloshim following the final burial actually ends tomorrow.

As some of you may know, we have been reading the names of the 11 murder victims at every service, morning and evening, and reciting kaddish together. And I think it is fitting that we continue to recite those names until the full twelve months of mourning is complete.

But now that sheloshim is ending, it is time for us to also look forward, to the future, as Rabbi Sacks suggests. This is going to be a year of rebuilding: rebuilding ourselves and our community.

And in particular, this is also a year of rebuilding Beth Shalom. This is a dream that we have been pursuing in the three and a half years that I have been here, and perhaps it is time to look forward with even more intensity.

Speaking of dreams, you may recall that the master of dreams in the Torah is none other than our hero Yosef, whose dreams are featured heavily in Parashat Vayyeshev, which we read today. Yosef has dreams that come true, or explains dreams for others, which also come true.

Part of the Sulam for Strategic Planners process, in which we are engaged right now, is setting before ourselves a dream, a vision for the future which we will make come true. At a visioning session with the Board of Trustees three weeks ago, we spent time notating and discussing our dreams for this community. Dreams of this sort do not simply happen; they need to be planned, discussed, and acted upon.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Two weeks ago, after Shabbat, nes gadol hayah poh – a great miracle happened here. We had two events in this building: a concert featuring the a capella singing group Pizmon, attended by somewhere near 500 people, and a silent auction fundraiser attended by more than 250 people. Held back-to-back, these events took a huge amount of effort to pull off. While a few of the organizers were paid staff members of Beth Shalom, the vast majority of the hours spent putting these things together were volunteer time – members of the congregation who sacrificed from their busy days and evenings to help build something wonderful. (I cannot name them all, for fear that I might miss somebody, but thank-yous are posted in the building today.) And we are grateful.

The good news is that we raised a small amount of money, in the vicinity of $24,000, including sponsorships. That’s wonderful. But even more valuable than the funds raised is the sense of community created by volunteers working together to build something. Nearly 70 people, young and not-so, members and non-members, long-time Pittsburghers and recent transplants gave their time to make it happen. And coordinating all those people for that one evening was no small feat. But at the end of the evening, they all went home with a sense of satisfaction, feeling as though they had accomplished something special. Because they did.

And what comes from this is a sense of community, of togetherness, a feeling that we all really needed two weeks ago, and we still need right now.

And that is truly what a synagogue is for. Yes, the services; yes, the learning; yes, the occasional bar mitzvah. But what makes this place a qehillah qedoshah, a community forged in holiness, is the willingness that we all have to show up and make it holy with our presence, our time, our good spirits, and our desire to build.

Vayizkor Elohim et Noah, et Avraham, et Rahel. God remembers us, and we build the future. As we turn now to the dream of rebuilding, we need you. We need to engage more of you to make that future even more luminous.

Here is what we need:

  • We need you to come to a couple of community conversations that are coming up: First, on Dec. 20th with the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, to discuss how our relationship with other faith communities can be heightened through social action
  • Another community conversation in the winter, as part of building a new vision for the strategic plan process
  • We need you to help us plan and carry out our Purim festivities
  • We need you to help us welcome new members at the New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony in January
  • We need you to help us build a greeting team, so that everybody is properly acknowledged as they enter our building
  • We need you to help us build a social action team, as a part of Derekh, to help repair this world and build bridges with our non-Jewish neighbors
  • We need you to help us re-invigorate the Membership Committee. This is an essential committee that connects us all to each other, and right now is in need of new leadership and new ideas. And right now, when we are all looking for community, this body’s role is crucial to building a thriving congregation: connecting members to Shabbat meals, creating affinity groups for various activities, planning a Sunday morning “walking minyan” in the park or a coffee klatch or a spring picnic or a potluck Friday night dinner.

As a part of the Sulam for Strategic Planners process, one of the task forces that will be launched at the end of January will produce a report with recommendations on how to engage more members; another task force will be focused on developing leadership in our community. Right now, there is a lot of inertia in what we do – we are only doing it because that’s the way we’ve always done it. (And I think you know how I feel about that.) We need you to help us find new ways to involve more people in our dreams and our reality.

We have to up our game.

There are two levels of engaged members: those who come to events and programs and services, and those who step forward to make those things happen. What makes us function as a synagogue, ladies and gentlemen, is not that the staff is sitting in the office cooking up plans and going over detailed lists of logistical concerns. Rather, it is your willingness to volunteer for Congregation Beth Shalom to help create magic, like what we saw two weeks ago.

That is my dream: not the one in which the rabbi runs everything. My dream is that we function as a group of people who want so badly to learn about our tradition and practice it and give it to our children that we will gladly give of our precious time to Beth Shalom to make this the most wonderful, supportive, intellectually-rigorous and yet accessible, loving institution it can be.

We need you to build that future, even as we remember the past.

Rabbi Sacks, who gave such an inspiring message for the end of sheloshim, made a subtle editorial choice. There are actually four occurrences of the word “vayizkor,” he remembered, in Bereshit / Genesis. The fourth is (Bereshit 42:9)  “Vayizkor Yosef et hahalomot asher halam lahem.” Yosef remembered the dreams he had about his brothers, dreams which occurred in Parashat Vayyeshev, and they were fulfilled. So too will our dreams be fulfilled, but, as with Yosef, it will take time and plot-twists and some hard work. But we will build the Beth Shalom of our dreams.

As we mark the end of sheloshim, as we connect remembering to building, and as we kindle lights in the coming week to remind ourselves of the need to spread more light in this world, let us turn our energies back into our community. Every hour that you put into making Beth Shalom happen will be repaid to you in triple, in satisfaction and joy and love.


Shabbat shalom, and hag urim sameah, a happy Festival of Lights to you.


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