The End of an Era

Sermon by Cantor Eyal Bitton
June 27, 2015 at Beth Jacob Synagogue
PARASHAT HUKKAT


Aaron’s Leadership

This week’s parasha talks about the end of an era. The people of Israel have been led through so many pivotal moments – some difficult, some triumphant – by Moses and his brother Aaron. They stood together against the great oppressor, Pharaoh. They stood together as they led our forebears out of slavery. They stood together on a perilous journey through hard terrain and enemy territory to the edge of the Promised Land. They stood as political and spiritual leaders before the eyes of their congregation, the children of Israel.

After being instructed to speak to the rock to yield water, Moses and Aaron gather the people, then Moses berates them and, perhaps with frustration, strikes the rock twice. God then tells Moses and Aaron:

Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.

(Numbers 20:12)

These great leaders are human. They make mistakes. They are imperfect. Nevertheless, that imperfection does not negate their greatness. Their accomplishments are not forgotten. More importantly, their ability to show great leadership continues undiminished. In fact, God still trusts them to lead. And it is a testament of their dedication to their people and their commitment to their mission that both Moses and Aaron continue their work tirelessly.

They have both been told that they will be punished for their action and this punishment will mark the end of their leadership. This is a terrible rejection and must have been devastating to both Moses and Aaron. But instead of abandoning their responsibilities and leaving in a huff, they carry on.

Moses tries to negotiate with the king of Edom for safe passage through his territory. When diplomacy fails, Moses and Aaron wisely decide to circumvent the Edomites. It is wisdom to know when to engage in conflict and when to avoid it.

They both continue to fulfill their roles as leaders until their last breath. In our parasha, Aaron is accompanied to the top of Mount Hor by his brother Moses and his son Eleazar.

Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain.

(Numbers 20:28)

End of an Era at Beth Jacob

Like the people of Israel in this week’s parasha, we, at Beth Jacob Synagogue, are also at the end of an era. Next Shabbat, on July 4, Rabbi Dan Selsberg will end his service to our community. Next Shabbat, Rabbi Dan will grace us with his last D’var Torah here at Beth Jacob. It will mark the end of an important and successful era.

Perhaps it was providence that nine years ago, our synagogue happened upon the right spiritual leader to rescue us from dire straits. Under Rabbi Dan’s leadership, the synagogue membership grew. Under his leadership, the atmosphere changed. The shul became a happier place to be. The mood changed. Being social and kibbitzing at kiddush became more and more natural. Rabbi Dan’s sharp wit, sense of humour, and passion for Judaism permeated through the entire congregation. Beth Jacob Synagogue experienced a revitalization.

Two Sundays ago, on June 14, we held a Farewell Gala to the Rabbi and his family. We heard what people said about Rabbi Dan Selsberg’s contributions to the betterment of Beth Jacob. I won’t repeat everything they said. You were there. You heard it. And if you weren’t there, you know what there was to be said. in Rabbi Dan Selsberg, we had a great teacher, a great spiritual leader, and fundamentally, we had a very good guy.

One of the key points that Rabbi Dan made in his exquisite goodbye speech was about the legacy he leaves behind. He made it clear that the accolades he has received don’t mean as much as knowing that he is leaving behind a successful,  thriving, and healthy congregation. The best gift we can give him, to paraphrase his message, is to embrace the next rabbi, Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Israeli, and move forward.

“Without Me”

I want to share with you two quick quotes.

In 2013, star soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic was playing on the Swedish national team trying to qualify for World Cup 2014. The deciding moment came when they had to beat Portugal in order to get into the World Cup. Unfortunately for them, Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, proved the better team. In a subsequent interview, Ibrahimovic, spoke about how he felt about failing to make it to World Cup 2014:

Another time, sports agent Drew Rosenhaus was being interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes. He spoke about how he negotiates deals for players and how he often has to play peace-keeper between his clients and the teams they play for. At one point in the interview, he said:

Now back to our parasha. When Aaron passes away, the mantle of his leadership is passed on immediately to another. Moses walks up the mountain with one Kohen Gadol, one High Priest, and returns with another. The message is not, “They’d be nothing without me.” Aaron understands that his time is over and he works with the people around him to ensure that his role is filled as soon as it is vacated.

This is Rabbi Dan.

While Aaron groomed his son, Eleazar, to follow in his footsteps, Rabbi Dan did not hand-pick his successor. A capable committee worked carefully and diligently to choose our next rabbi. But Rabbi Dan has done everything possible to ensure that the transition is a smooth and successful one. He cares about this synagogue. He cares about the building. He cares about the staff. He cares about his colleagues. He cares about his congregants. This is why he asked us, all of us, to embrace the change, to embrace the future, and make it a success.

Continuity

Soon after I started working here at Beth Jacob, I got to know Rabbi Dan and the fundamental truth that I discovered about him was that he was fundamentally a good guy. It’s as simple as that. He’s a good guy. There’s a Yiddish word for that: mensch.

In my experience here these last six years, I found in Rabbi Dan a teacher, a spiritual leader, and a friend. And while this is my personal experience, I don’t think I am alone in that. I think most of you can relate. As a congregation, we have been blessed to have learned from him, to have worked with him, and to have befriended him.

Rabbi Dan’s spiritual message has always been about making the world holy through our actions. We will honour his legacy here at Beth Jacob by continuing to build a holy community, a kahal kadosh, that is firmly rooted in our religious tradition. May we  learn from our tradition that, while great leaders have left their mark, their greatest legacy was not their own lives and their years at the helm, but continuity.

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Shabbat shalom.