Monday, January 12, 2009
Rabbi Alan Lew - Baruch Dayan HaEmet
Rabbi Alan Lew, zichrono le'vracha, died today. It's hard to grasp that reality.
In his memory, I share these words I spoke on the occasion of his retirement from Beth Sholom in June, 2005.
Ernie Newbrun has spoken to you this evening of the depth of Rabbi Lew's teaching, and the effect it has had on all of us who who are his students. One of my favorite teachings of his, one that comes up for me again and again, is his teaching from the 15th century commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, in his description of the chumash, the 5 books of Moshe, as a blueprint for a spiritual life. As I was thinking what I was going to say this evening, I realized this teaching also serves as an example of our community, and the gifts that Rabbi Lew has brought us.
Bereshit, Genesis, represents the personal spiritual seeking, ending in a leave-taking. For many of us here, that spiritally seeking leave-taking brought us to Beth Sholom. At Beth Sholom we found not only ritually rich Judaism, but a Rabbi who could speak to that seeking spirit within us.
Shemot, Exodus, represents Revelation, and the beginning of community. With the founding of Makor Or, Rabbi Lew recognized the need for a community where meditation and Jewish spiritual activity are done in combination. For experienced meditators who happen to be Jewish, the meditation practice at Makor Or brings refreshed connections to a religion they had basically left behind. For those like me, familiar and comfortable with Jewish practice but looking for a deeper connection, Makor Or brings a place to experience meditation in a environment with no foreign icons to block out. Rabbi Lew has made all of that possible. For those of us who have participated in Makor Or, Rabbi Lew has been there to guide us when meditation brings to fore our inner angst. And connecting sitting meditation to prayer has brought a deeper appreciation for both activities.
Which brings me to Vayikra, Leviticus, representing the actual practice. The practice of Judaism is not easy in this world, and especially in this town. We eat differently, our holidays are always at times that conflict with the outside world, we have to learn a whole different language to participate in prayer. Yet here at Beth Sholom, we embrace the traditions, even to the extent of reading the entire Torah parsha each week, something becoming increasingly unique in the Conservative Jewish world. But rather than water down the rituals, Rabbi Lew inspires us to look to the deeper meanings of the practice, helps us see why they are there and what they can bring to us.
And that's how Abravanel catagorizes Bamidbar, Numbers, the book we very fittingly start this Shabbat. Bamidbar is about bringing the practice into our lives. And that is where, I think, we owe a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Lew. For he has made it his mission to share with all of us his love of Judaism and the deep spiritual sense it has brought to his life. That's what makes his sermons so special—he doesn't just talk it, he walks it. He doesn't just teach about the benefits of meditating, he's there at 6 a.m. He doesn't just preach the importance of keeping our minyan vibrant, he participates fully. He finds ways to reach us all.
As a case in point, I looked to one of my favorite sermons of his, one given Rosh Hashanah 5760, in 1999, just before I became a member. It's a sermon that demonstrates why we're here, filled with respect and love and honor for Rabbi Lew.
He first sets a scene of a news crew filming meditation—"Apparently, this is a thing of great amazement – a bunch of Jews sitting in the room without talking; quick, get the cameras! Let's run this on the 6 o'clock news." They also film minyan. His description of minyan focuses on the time-honored Beth Sholom tradition of saying "Yasher Koach" – loosely translated, may the force be with you -- to everyone who participates in the slightest manner. Why do we do this? "We are congratulating you because of all the places you could have put your energy in this world, of all the forces you could have aligned your force with, you freely chose to be here, to put your energy here, to align yourself with the three thousand year old stream of spiritual energy we call Judaism"
Later in the sermon, Rabbi Lew goes on to relate that "Yasher Koach" moment to a moment in this country that demonstrated that same spiritual achievement — that moment in 1995 when Cal Ripken, shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles, played in 2,131 straight games, breaking Lou Gherig's record. Besides fullfilling the insight of his teacher Louis Finkelstein who said (according to Rabbi Lew) "you can't be an American Rabbi unless you know baseball" Rabbi Lew understood that this acheivement of being present and showing up each day made the difference in a world that doesn't always show up as we would wish. Rabbi Lew said "simple human presence – simply being present, simply persisting in being here – has tremendous spiritual power, It has the power to heal. It has the power to nurture."
Rabbi Lew has been here for us, nurturing us, being present for us, for 14 years. From all of us I say thank you, and "Yasher Koach."