In Parashat Tetzave, the High Priest wears a “ketonet tashbetz.” Ketonet means tunic; translating tashbetz is challenging because this is the one time in the Bible that the term appears (scholars call such a phenomenon a hapax legomenon). So what does it mean? It’s generally understood as checkered. So, thousands of years later when the modern Hebrew language was born, “tashbetz” was chosen as the new Hebrew word for crossword puzzle. Therefore, my tie is in honor of the ketonet tashbetz.
Parashat Terumah contains initial instructions for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness that was to be God’s dwelling place. In addition to the outer structure, we read about items from the interior, including the Menorah, the seven-pronged candelabrum.
It is with broken hearts that members of Temple Torat Emet mourn the loss of Yoel Yehuda ben Zalman v’ Bracha Rivka Leah, Elliott Fagin, of blessed memory. Our entire community is saddened by this loss to our congregation and to the Jewish people. We grieve together with his beloved wife Reva, and his children Leslie and Joel and their families.
Elliott’s identity was closely intertwined with synagogue and Jewish life. Certainly if he were performing his familiar role of Ritual Director this past Shabbat he would have prepared the second Torah scroll for Shabbat Shekalim several days in advance. On multiple levels, it is fitting that Elliott’s final days corresponded with Shabbat Shekalim. A shekel is the basic unit of currency both in the Torah and in the modern state of Israel. The Torah in Exodus 30: 11-16 describes the taking of a census of the people in which the people, or at least the adult males, give one half shekel. Rich and poor give the same amount and are thus counted equally. The funds are used for the upkeep of the sanctuary. Parashat Shekalim is read as we prepare to begin the month of Adar, the last month of the year on the Biblical calendar. The following month, Nisan, is the month of spring, the month of Passover, the month of renewal. In ancient israel, the half-shekel tax was a sign to the people that as Passover approached, the community had to maintain communal institutions, starting with the Sanctuary.
Elliott, spent the bulk of his professional career, or perhaps his first professional career, as a high school math teacher. Parashat Shekalim is certainly among the more math-focused Torah portions. Elliott’s second career as the much beloved Ritual Director of Temple Torah, now Temple Torat Emet, was focused on keeping religious life running like a well-oiled machine. It’s too easy to take this sacred work for granted. Elliott worked constantly and quietly behind the scenes to make sure that ritual life in the synagogue ran smoothly. Just as the priests of the ancient Temple applied the half-shekel proceeds to maintain the Temple, Elliott did the same as ritual director. He rolled the Torah scrolls; he invited members to lead services; he read Torah; he closely monitored the Jewish calendar for special additions or omissions in the service. These are technical areas of the Ritual Director’s role that were part of Elliott’s official duties, and he performed them well. Furthermore, he did everything with a special sense of love and caring. He always went well beyond the call of duty of any formal job description. He welcomed newcomers and helped them follow services. He taught classes on the synagogue liturgy. He tutored individuals, youth and adults alike, in Torah readings. With Purim just around the corner, this is the first year in which we won’t have Elliott as the reliable “clean up hitter” who picked up whatever portions of Megillat Esther that were not assigned to others or whose assigned chanters could not attend services at the last minute. Elliott could always step in on a moment’s notice.
As Rabbi, I relied on Elliott a great deal to orient me to the congregation when I was new. He knew everyone’s name, even if they only came a few times a year. Indeed, he assigned High Holiday seats and knew not only names but where everyone sat. When I came to the congregation in 2011 from a much smaller congregation where the rabbi had to focus a lot more on the logistics of the services, I thought that the concept of a Ritual Director was the greatest invention ever. With Elliott in the role, he set the highest of standards, and I learned so much from him. With the lesson of the half-shekel fresh on our minds, I think the greatest lesson I learned from Elliott is to treat all people, rich and poor alike, with the same love and respect.
As Elliott is laid to rest in New York, our community in Boynton Beach, Florida feels his loss in a profound way. On behalf of Temple Torat Emet, I extend heartfelt condolences to Reva and the entire Fagin family.
Yehi Zikhro Varukh, May his memory be for a blessing.
When I was a young boy and a teenager, before I discovered my career path would be the rabbinate, I had other aspirations. I wasn’t interested in becoming an astronaut, nor a doctor or a scientist. In my wildest dreams, maybe a baseball player, but I knew I had no chance. So, I aspired to be a journalist. I was fascinated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Watergate and how through their use of a vibrant free press they spoke truth to power. While most of my friends TV consumption revolved around cartoons and reruns, I enjoyed the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. Journalists, I realized early on, had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth. Journalists are not supposed to be in the news themselves, and their reputations depend on the trust that the public invests in them to tell the truth.
This week, journalists have been in the news. I am saddened by the tragic and senseless death of CBS correspondent Bob Simon in an auto collision in New York. For five decades, he established a reputation as the best of the best. The memorial tributes to Bob Simon stand in stark contrast to NBC’s Brian Williams and the revelation that he fabricated a story in 2003 that he was shot down in a helicopter while reporting in Iraq. His public apology and six-month suspension are appropriate, but the incident casts a pall not only over his career but over journalism in general.
This week, as we mark Shabbat Shekalim, we are reminded of integrity as a core value of our tradition. In the passage that instructs te Israelites about the levy of the half-Shekel the Torah says (Exodus 30:13):
זֶה ׀ יִתְּנוּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר עַל־הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לה׳
This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary; a shekel is twenty gerahs; a half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord.
This is what everyone shall pay: Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a helf-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk)
In our world, we consume news as much for entertainment as to know what’s going on. In response, the news media must focus on the entertainment value of their stories. High entertainment value yields higher advertising revenue. That yields higher ratings and salaries for TV reporters. While Brian Williams is responsible for his own misdeeds, we as consumers of news are complicit in demanding high entertainment value from the news in addition to truth. Money is like fire. When we’re careful, it can keep us warm and comfort us. However, it can also burn when it dominates our focus. Bob Simon, of blessed memory, will be remembered for striking the delicate balance in reporting news both for entertainment value and truth. Brian Williams crossed a line and sacrificed truth on the altar of entertainment and money. Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists so that our vibrant free press will continue to serve as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth.
I’m getting good use out of my justice ties this week (I actually have three) as we read Parashat Mishpatim. This section is known as the Covenant Code. While the Ten Commandments read in the previous week’s portion lay out general principles for society, this portion provides a foundation of civil law for society.
The following is adapted from remarks I delivered February 2, 2015, during a JTS panel discussion on the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher. A podcast of panel discussion is available here.
This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, ties in well with what I attempt to accomplish in my essay, “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate” in the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis. Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, finds Moses overwhelmed in his job. He is mired in the minutiae of day-to-day problems, he’s at risk of burn-out and he’s neglecting his own family. We already know that Moses has worked hard to overcome his own poor self-assessment of himself in taking on the mantle of leadership. God let Aaron serve as Moses’s spokesman, but eventually Moses gains confidence and asserts himself and speaks in his own right. Yitro knows Moses. He knows that he’s trying to do the right thing. He may also know that Moses’s harshest critic is himself, a common trait among introverts. From afar, Yitro can see the bigger picture and steps in to offer Moses some guidance to streamline his work load with the help of others. Moses is able to use the tools offered by Yitro so that he is able to grow as a leader.
Self-Awareness and personal growth are at the heart of my essay: “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate.” You may be interested to know that not everyone at Temple Torat Emet agrees with that assertion. (How could we be Jewish if that weren’t the case?) In fact, a few weeks ago, a lady who regularly comes to my Talmud class and was among the first to buy the book came up to me after services a few days later and said, “Rabbi, I disagree with you,” she said. I was bracing myself for the critique. She said: “You are NOT an introvert! I see you mingling with people in synagogue all the time.”
I was tempted to regurgitate the main points of my essay; then I caught myself and thought why throw a wet blanket on a well-intentioned compliment. I just said thank you. Let me take this opportunity to share why I wrote this essay and what I hope is the biggest take aways for our community. In short, here are the basics: 1) I am an introvert 2) I accept that 3) There are no “cookie cutter rabbis”–every rabbi brings different strengths to the table, and in our era we need all hands on deck and 4) Whatever our personality traits, each one of us is best served when we seize opportunities to grow.
Now for some backstory:
Exactly 20 years ago, an article appeared in the CCAR Journal titled “Dog Rabbis and Cat Rabbis.” The author, Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbock, asserted that dog rabbis–or extroverts–are better suited for the pulpit rabbinate than introverts (“cat rabbis”). Cohn-Sherbock described himself as a “cat rabbi” who struggled in several pulpit positions early in his career then shifted to academia where he has flourished for several decades. In assessing his pulpit woes, he writes: “I tried and tried and tried–yet over and over again I failed to satisfy the demands of my congregation. I fell into every trap. I just couldn’t be the friendly, enthusiastic, sympathetic, and attentive pastor that my congregation wanted.”
He describes his journey to congregations on multiple continents. “I shriveled up inside when I had to act as master of ceremonies. I dreaded bar mitzvahs. I loathed weddings. I detested kissing each lady ‘good Shabbos.'”
Now, I empathize with Cohn-Sherbok’s agony in the pulpit, yet he makes assumptions and generalizations that are neither realistic nor helpful in providing guidance to current and aspiring rabbis in the 21st Century.
In the two decades since Cohn-Sherbok’s article appeared, psychological and social science literature has exploded with groundbreaking research on personality traits. Susan Cain’s best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking synthesizes the scientific literature and argues for a fresh look at the significant role that introverts played in history and can continue to play with greater awareness and sensitivity throughout society. I argue that the Jewish community will benefit from looking anew at the strengths of introverted rabbis.
I learned from Cain’s work that the basic difference between introverts and extroverts is how each processes and reacts to stimuli. Introverts are wired to reflect and inspect, extroverts are wired to react and respond. These traits are hard-wired from birth. Our American society has evolved towards favoring high octane, high volume, highly stimulating people and environments. Just think of the pyrotechnics of last night’s Superbowl Halftime Show. Yet, many people, perhaps as many as half of us, get exhausted when we’re exposed to high levels of stimuli over a period of time. It’s not good or bad, it’s just that evolution has endowed us with different mechanisms for survival in our world.
Anyone who enters the rabbinate does so, I assume, because of a deep sense of personal mission towards serving God and the Jewish people. Certainly, I did. Extroverts and Introverts alike both bring natural gifts to bear in their rabbinates. As an introverted rabbi, I used to envy extroverts for their natural ability to schmooze and light up a room. I was misguided by the dog rabbi-cat rabbi dichotomy, and I was frustrated with myself. I got stuck in a position of envy of something that I was not. Over time, I came to a position of acceptance of who I am and the essential gifts I bring to the table that I believe serve me well in the rabbinate. Once I got unstuck from the mindset of “Woe unto me that I’m not x,” I embraced a mindset of growth (The term “mindset” I derive from Susan Dweck’s masterful work by that name). With that mindset, I am more open to Susan Cain’s metaphor of a rubber band, whereby I can stretch myself beyond my comfort zone in order to fulfill my mission. Some rabbis are personally nourished by exposure to large amounts of people in a social setting. For me, when I schmooze with people at Kiddush, as was noticed by my Talmud student, I do so with the mindset that forging relationships with my congregants is part of my mission of serving as a rabbi. Therefore, I make sure I have the right tools in my toolkit to fulfill my mission.
To come back to Parashat Yitro, when Moses felt stuck, he reframed and retooled. Moses teaches us that self-reflection and growth are essential qualities for leadership, and they are great tools for life in general. Every rabbi, Seminary and synagogue should embrace the growth mindset for the sake of serving God and the Jewish people. When we accomplish this, we have lots of reason to keep faith in rabbis.
Parashat Yitro tells of the Israelites’ encounter with God at Mt. Sinai. It is not enough for the people to have obtained physical freedom from slavery. They need spiritual freedom that is framed by a system of law. The Ten Commandments provide this basic framework that is essential for a society rooted in law.