Thursday, August 14, 2008

My First Sermon

This was the sermon I gave at Temple Israel on August 8, 2008. On Shabbatot throughout July and August, T.I. offered a series of sermonettes on the Jewish journeys of young people from the congregation. I volunteered to speak/sermonize, for the first time ever, and this is the final product:

“Hineni.” This phrase, found a few times throughout the Book of Genesis is mostly associated with Abraham. Literally, it comes from the root “Hinei”, meaning “behold” or “here.” In Torah, the use of the word usually tells us that something big is going to happen, or as my friend and classmate Marc puts it, we’re about to get to a “whoa!” moment. For example, we first hear this word at the beginning of the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac. God calls out to Abraham, who answers “Hineni-Here I am.” Now, this is NOT the first conversation God has had with Abraham—in fact, it is one of many. So why the special reply? Abraham must have known something important was about to happen, that he was at the beginning of a special moment in his life, a moment worthy of a “whoa!” In modern Hebrew, the word is rarely used, if ever at all. Yet, this past year has been full of “Hineni” moments for me, abounding with those wonderful “whoa!” moments that told me time and time again that something special was happening.

Exactly one year ago tonight, I was towards the beginning of one of the most incredible journeys of my life. I arrived in Jerusalem in late June 2007, one of 53 fresh-faced first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and Jewish education students invading the classrooms and courtyards of Hebrew Union College. The first few weeks were a blur of orienting ourselves through the streets of Jerusalem, brushing up our unremarkable Hebrew skills, and using those skills to argue with our Israeli landlords and utility companies when something inevitably broke or didn’t quite meet our American standards. It was a struggle unlike anything I could have prepared for; the simplest tasks of life, such as drying our laundry, suddenly became so much tougher than I knew they could be.

And yet, even on the mornings when I’d wake up to find my underwear and socks strangely hanging from the tree outside my apartment building instead of on the rack where I’d put them to dry, there were moments so incredible, so special that they indeed reminded me of “Hineni—Here I am.” The first of these moments came as I stepped off the airplane into Ben Gurion International Airport. Without problems, I picked up my luggage and made my way to the money changers, where I used my choppy Hebrew to ask the man at the counter to change my dollars into shekels: “Ani tzricha l’kabeil shekelim, b’vakasha—I need to get shekels, please.” I was so proud of myself for using my Hebrew to communicate to a real Israeli in ISRAEL that I hardly cared that I couldn’t understand a word he said to me as he responded to my request. It was a “Hineni” moment, where I knew for the first time that HERE I AM—in Israel, living my dream of going to cantorial school to become a cantor. It was really happening—whoa!

These moments popped up all over the place for all 53 of us, individually and collectively. Singing the Shecheyanu together as a group at our first morning t’fillah, harmonizing beautifully and singing with full kavana, full intention—was a powerful “hinenU—Here WE are. We all began to realize that these moments would soon fill our lives on a daily basis as we traveled around Jerusalem, schlepping up hills and schvitizing in the intense Israeli summer heat.

My year was full of first experiences, each one proving to be more challenging than the next. I will never forget the fear and anxiety I felt as I stood next to Cantor and Professor Extraordinaire Eliyahu Schleifer, co-leading my first Saturday morning service, and how the second I opened my mouth my fears were calmed and my voice was strong. I will never forget how my arms ached and my heart pounded as I practiced lifting the Torah as Hagbah, surrounded by friends and our summer interns who were all praying along with me that I wouldn’t drop it. And believe it or not, I lifted the Torah high and managed to get it back onto the lectern without disaster. I will never forget the proud moment I reached the top of the rock structure at Timna National Park after overcoming my fears of heights and small spaces as I climbed my way up. After huffing and puffing to my friends and colleagues that “I would never do this again!” I made it, smiling and exhilarated. In all of these moments, God was calling to me, and in the end I responded in the same way as Abraham—“Hineni--Here I am.” With every “Hineni,” I began to accept challenges greater than any that had come before them, and I continued to respond as Abraham did, growing, learning, changing through every experience.

I was blessed to be in this program with several other people who found the “Hineni” moments in their own lives as often as I did. Perhaps the most shining example is my friend and rabbinical student colleague, Dave. After 10 years as a personal trainer, Dave finally realized his dream of becoming a rabbi. He brought his wife, Gal, and daughter, Dahlia to Jerusalem and worked hard to set up not only a life for himself as a rabbinical student, but a life for his family. Dave knew, perhaps more than any of us, what it meant to live his life full of “Hineni!” moments. As I watched him proudly lead services and deliver an unforgettable d’var torah, I knew that he was saying his own “Hineni” to himself, realizing how lucky he was to be a student at HUC, studying what he loved with his family by his side.

In early February, the week we resumed classes after our winter vacation, Dave and Gal stood before us with tears in their eyes. Dave told us the news about the baby Gal was pregnant with; she had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a severe, life-threatening condition. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he announced that he and his beautiful family would be leaving us to return to their home in San Francisco to seek help for their unborn daughter. He told us he was going home to try to save a life, and that we could help his family the most by thinking positively, sending warm, healing energy and prayers their way, and thanking God every day for the opportunity to live out our dreams.

When I learned about Dave and Gal’s devastating news, I experienced an all-too-familiar feeling of being angry with God. How could God do this to my friends and to their baby girl? How could God possibly give David a chance to live his dreams, and then so suddenly rip it away? I thought back to my times in high school, some of the toughest personal moments of my life, when I was angry with God and the world for the constant struggles I was dealing with. Ironically, through my anger I turned to God and to prayer and to music here at Temple Israel. This led me to build an incredibly special relationship with Cantor Blumenthal, who helped me to discover and realize my passion for singing Jewish music. Because of this blessing, “Hineni—Here I am,” studying to be a cantor at HUC. Finally, I realized: God had sent this baby into all of our lives for a reason—a reason unknown to any of us at the time, but one we would soon to come discover. Slowly, my anger with God morphed into a profound sense of positivity and good energy for my friends and their baby girl. I learned that holding on to Hope and Love, doing exactly what Dave and Gal asked us to do for their baby, would help everyone, including myself.

Their baby girl, Tikva Ahava Spinrad—HOPE LOVE Spinrad, was born on June 10. Though she had some ups and downs, she continually surprised and impressed her doctors, showing to them and to the world what the powers of prayer and positivity can do. She proved wholeheartedly that she held the same “Hineni” philosophy as her dad, living her life full of might and spirit. She and her entire family became an inspiration to me, showing me that the littlest beings can call out the most resounding “Hineni!” Unfortunetely, her health took a turn for the worse in recent weeks, and it pains me to tell you Tikva Ahava passed away yesterday, August 7, three days shy of her 2-month birthday. While I am still grappling with the reasons why, and what I can best do to comfort her family right now, I know one thing for certain; “Hinenah—Here SHE is”, with me and all of us who love her, continuing to fill our lives with Hope and Love. Please keep my friends Dave, Gal, Dahlia, and Tikva in your hearts and prayers during this difficult time.

As Dave and Gal stood before us that cold February morning, they reminded us to take full advantage of the opportunities awaiting us at HUC. Inspired by their request to spread Hope and Love throughout the world, I became interested in a program called the FSU Pesach Project, initiated by HUC and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. This program sends young Jewish leaders to the Former Soviet Union to lead Passover seders for the small liberal Jewish communities throughout Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. I knew this program was a once in a lifetime opportunity to help a Jewish community unlike one I’d ever known, one that would give me lasting memories and an unforgettable learning experience. I signed up for the program, participated in the fundraising efforts, and helped to put together a handbook full of songs and activities to help everyone leading the seders. Finally, on April 17 I boarded a plane to Belarus with my friends Brad and Ariel, and we were on our way to meet the Jewish communities of Brest, Baranovichi, and Minsk.

None of us had any idea what to expect once we got off our plane in Belarus. We knew we’d be leading Passover seders and working with the young people from our communities, but we had no clue what was really awaiting us. In every community, the people reached out to us with warm hugs and kind words, translated by our interpreter Ana. While the people didn’t have much, they gave as though they had all the riches in the world. Coming from Israel, we were unprepared for the cold Belarusian springtime. In every community, people gave us clothes and coats off their own backs and out of their own closets. They refused to take them back, telling us to hold onto them as we made our way through their country. I still have the pink sweater and black woolen poncho that kept me so warm while I was there, and they will forever serve as reminders of the incredible warmth and kindness we found in Belarus.

These people continued to impress us with their warmth, proving that spirituality and Judaism could inhabit any space. Their synagogues, hidden in run down office buildings, opened with light and warmth as soon as their congregants began singing and praying. Sadly, anti-Semitism and Jewish hatred still fill the streets of Belarus. As I sat with these lovely communities, teaching the Passover story of Jewish liberation to these people who were afraid to even admit their Jewish heritage, I realized what freedom is all about. From that week forward, I began thanking God for my freedoms with an entirely new appreciation for the life I am able to lead. My “Hineni” moments were now felt with such appreciation and gratitude as I thought of my new friends and favorite Belorussian communities.

Upon returning home from Belarus, I was able to experience a plethora of Jewish and Israeli holidays, including Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut. As my mourning for those who gave their lives for the State of Israel turned to celebration for Israel’s Sixtieth birthday, I began to realize that my time in Israel was quickly coming to an end. Suddenly, memories of all I’d done began to flow through my head as I simultaneously remembered all the things I hadn’t yet done. It was a shocking realization that my year of a lifetime, a year of such growth and spirituality, learning and love, was practically over. I packed up my apartment as I studied feverishly for finals, said goodbyes to all of my classmates and teachers and the streets I’d come to love, and boarded a plane back to the United States. When I stepped onto the gate at Lambert Airport in St Louis, before I greeted my family who was excitedly waiting for me, I said “Hineni!” out loud, to myself and anyone else who’d wanted to hear it. Here I am, one year of Cantorial School under my belt, my year in Israel officially behind me. It was as joyous as it was sad, knowing that I had already accomplished and grown so very much, though a wonderful year had officially ended. “Hineni” I said to myself, as I walked towards the baggage claim to reunite with my family. Here I am, back in St Louis, preparing for the bright lights of New York City and the 4 years of school that await me.

And tonight, I stand before you, saying “Hineni” for the last time in this speech. Here I am, in the place that has always opened its arms to me. Here I am, in the synagogue that will always be my home and my favorite place in the world. Here I am, hoping that you know that Temple Israel has been along with me, in my head and in my heart, throughout my entire year in Israel. In my head and in my heart you will stay, in New York City and wherever my path to the cantorate may lead me. “Hinenechem—here YOU are,” wherever I may go and whatever I may do.

I would like to end with a prayer: God, may we all have the ability find whatever brings us to the point of “Hineni!” May we all live lives full of experiences that change us, force us to grow, remind us to Hope and Love, and trust in You for whatever we may need.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon—may this be God’s will. Shabbat Shalom.


Rachel said...

From a proud member of the audience that night: she got a round of applause for this sermon. And made nearly everyone cry.

carol niren said...

I read your sermon twice, both times with tears streaming down my face. You have touched my life in a "whoa" and BIG way, and I am in awe of your writing, and look forward to hearing your beautiful voice one day! I am Leslie's mom and she forwarded me your sermon. We spent a good bit of time as a family traveling through Israel, before Leslie began the program. I can certainly visualize much of your descriptive prose. I am so terribly sorry to hear about David & Gal's baby, they are in my prayers and thoughts throughout this Shabbat. I wish you the best in NY, just got back from a week with Leslie's sister, Lisa. She lives on Third Ave. at 14th & 15th . practically next to HUC. I would love to meet you next time I am in the city. Good luck, Tracy...thank you for your beautiful sermon, I will not forget it. Shabbat Shalom, Carol Niren