Sign In Forgot Password
. Click here to watch any of our services and programs that are streaming online

Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah Eve - 2009/5770

Building Blocks
Shabbat shalom-shana tova–Baruchim Ha-Ba’im-Welcome-Welcome home!

So a story.  This past winter, a number of us gathered at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, at OSRUI, our camp on the shores of Lac LaBelle, for our annual Congregational Family Retreat.  We had come together over a Shabbat, over a weekend, congregants of all ages, to learn and discuss what our Director of Life Long Learning, Amy Kazilsky, and I called “Adam, Adamah, and Adonai:  The Relationship Between Humans, Nature, and God.”  Yes, we liked the alliteration the Hebrew provided-taken from a title of a book written by Rabbi Jeff Sultar.  More important, however, was the fact that we were blessed with the presence of Phillip Katz, the designer of this beautiful home, and we wanted to study what Judaism teaches about our responsibilities to God’s world and how we were incorporating them into our new home in its architecture and then how we could continue to do so in its use.  And Phillip was a wonderful teacher; he taught but he also challenged.  “What words,” he asked, “would you like above the aron ha-kodesh, above the ark?”

Phillip, as you know, I was not thrilled by the question then.  I had wanted that question posed some six years ago, as we began the process of planning this building.  For just as God creates with words-“and God said, ‘Let there be light'”…and there was-so do we. Even the Hebrew word for word reflects creation.  For word in Hebrew is devar-and devar also has the meaning of thing.  Thus devar, word, is a concrete entity, a tangible reality, a building block.  The social construction of reality.  And, for us, hearing is believing.

Still, we who were there at OSRUI, the forty or so of us, talked about an inscription.  One clear possibility was a verse from the 25th chapter of Leviticus-“v-asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham-and let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  Someone noted that a most traditional inscription above the ark is “Da lifnei mi atah omed-know before Whom you stand.”  Clearly something very important to remember each and every time we enter here to pray.  Someone else suggested the Shema, our proclamation and our mantra, if you will.  Yet another suggested the Priestly Benediction, those words bestowed by Moses and Aaron upon our ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai asking God to bless us and to keep us.  We even worked that weekend at camp on pieces of wood left over from these beams above us placing upon them verses from Torah and from other Jewish sources with artistic reflections which we then brought back here to form an exhibit in our front entryway until it was closed by construction.  Many of you may have seen it.  And it was in those pieces of wood that we found our words, our verse, our inscription.  At first, I thought it was the building creating those words.  But then I remembered Phillip’s early discussions with us, with people talking about warmth and intimacy and light, with the clearly expressed desire to take advantage of this beautiful pastoral setting; with the loudly expressed concern never to close ourselves off from God’s greater world.  I knew then the verse, I knew then the words, and I knew then that those words were in the building blocks of this sacred space.


Take a look, above the ark, there, the first three words of the 24th Psalm-“L’Adonai ha-aretz u’melo’ah-The earth is the Eternal’s and all its fullness thereof.”  And the verse continues-“tevel v’yoshvei vah-the world and all who dwell in it.”  We are tenants in God’s garden and our task is to till and to tend, to serve and to guard the bounteous gift of this world.  Our relationship with God is dependent upon our relationship with the world God has lent to us for safekeeping.  And this building is open on all sides to God’s world, its design so conscious of that relationship.  The windows-so many which literally open-east and west, north and south.  The wood.  The stone.

Yet the words of one verse are always intimately connected to those of the next.  So the 24th Psalm continues, “Ki Hu al yamim y’sada v’al n’harot y’chon’nenah-for God has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.”  Those words were creating within our artist, within Tobi Kahn.  Simply look around the sanctuary, at the necklace of silver and gold which encompasses and embraces us.  (Those of you further back, in our expansion space and in Surlow Hall, can come see this necklace later.)  Tobi’s work takes us to God’s creation of this world, perhaps to those seas and river with God’s word transforming chaos into order, into that creation for which we must care today.  On each panel, God speaks to us, as Tobi’s work is open to us as on parchment and the latticework of Phillip’s panels as lines of God’s words in a sefer Torah.

The words of the 24th Psalm helped to build this building.  Our tradition ascribes its composition to King David who wrote its words when he acquired the land on which to build the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, to have its words read when the Temple was dedicated by his son, by Solomon.  Even today it is part of our liturgy as we recite its words every Monday and Thursday when we return the Torah scroll to the ark and read it as the psalm every Sunday.  Through our choir, we will sing its closing verses at Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur.  In a sense, Phillip and Tobi were our David and Solomon, or, even better, our Bezalel and Oholiav–God’s artists who designed the mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness– letting these words sing and create and build through them.

So much more of this building, of this sacred space, reflects God’s handiwork through Phillip and Tobi.  Jewish numbers are everywhere.  Ten-in the beams and columns and in the piers around the sanctuary.  Seven–through the menorot behind me.  Two–again in the menorot and in the doors of the ark, and, of course, one.  Similarly, the numbers in the dimensions of this sacred space reflect that handiwork as does the orientation of the entire building.  We enter from the west and move in a processional from the most secular to the most sacred, ultimately facing that place where Solomon built the ancient Temple.  That same orientation will also be reflected in the beautiful parohet, the work of another artist’s hands, those of Nina Edelman, which we will all see tomorrow when we open the ark to read God’s words.  In her striking colors, we all will see the seven choice fruits and grains native to the land of Israel.  Finally, above me, one of those fruits as our ner tamid, the rimmon, or pomegranate, placed right in the middle of the oculus.  Yes, it is the first fruit of the season ever reflective of knowledge and fertility and  abundance and shalom, and, of course, today, of health.  Yet open the pomegranate up and you will find 613 seeds.  Those 613 mitzvot in Torah reflect the same.  Open it up and….  Surely, God is in this place.


Thus, in the midst of all of this beauty, I have been pondering a wonderful quote I saw in an article in Sh’ma Magazine by Edgar Bronfman and Beth Zasloff.  The article contained a discussion about Abraham and Sarah who were renowned for their hospitality.  Abraham was the Conrad Hilton or Howard Johnson of the wilderness, if you will, pitching his tent wherever wayfarers would be passing by, making sure that the flaps of that tent would be open on all sides.  He would even seek out travelers, bringing them into his tent and washing their feet, providing them food, giving them drink, tending to their animals.  Most dramatically, as he sat at the entrance to his tent recovering from his own brit milah, he saw some wayfarers off in the distance and, in spite of his own pain, got up and brought them in unto him.

And now that quote – for Abraham teaches us that it is not enough to say to someone “Come in and sit;” rather, we must say “come in and sit with me!”  Only then can we begin to learn and grow together.  Of this building, we can surely and proudly say, “Come in and sit.”  Like Abraham’s tent, it is open on all sides, as I have already noted, allowing God’s larger world to flow into our worship space while, at the same time, never allowing us to close ourselves off from that larger world.

Thus, we can now say to others around us, “Come and sit.”  And they may well enjoy the view – in this magnificent sanctuary, in Surlow Hall, in the cardo, throughout the grounds surrounding the building, and then in the warmth of the daily heart of our new building, our lounge which really is our living room.  We can say “come in and sit” all we want and people will do so.  In fact, I would not be surprised if our new sanctuary becomes a place to which people from all across the country want to come and visit.  The work which Tobi did leading to these magnificent pieces here will shortly be in a show at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York and, Phillip, this space is transcendent.  But we have all learned by now that the misquoted line from the movie Field of Dreams is simply not true; while “if you build it, they will come” has a nice ring to it (even if the quote from the Shoeless Joe Jackson character in the movie was “if you build it, he will come”), it just ain’t so – to use another famous line.

You see, people do not join a congregation only for a building.  Yes, we knew that if we did not build it, people would not come.  In the end, people join a congregation to be in the presence of God, to be part of a sacred community.  With this transcendent space, we have definitely made it easier to be in the presence of God.  But our task now is to be like Abraham and Sarah, to go out to others and to say, “Come in and sit with me.”  Those two words, “with me,” will make all the difference in the world.

Our doors are open and through these doors one may find some of the best programs around.  We have a superb religious school from K-4 through Kabbalat Torah along with a variety of Life Long Learning activities from those retreats at Olin-Sang-Ruby (including a new one this year for our families with very young children) to Anshe Mitzvah whose current class of adults will celebrate in the spring.  We are blessed with music all around us here thanks to our Cantor with a choir which carries our prayers heavenward on wings of song to B’nai Mitzvah kids who truly leighn and chant.  We gather weekly for torah l’shema, for study simply for the sake of study, in our Shabbat Morning Study Minyan working our way over the last nine years from the beginning of Genesis now nearing the end of Numbers.  Our Social Action programs-from our Mitzvah Day to Tikkun Ha-Ir to the Glean Machine to our Blood Drives-keep us involved in God’s larger world.  And our auxiliaries’ programs take my breath away as I try to get to so many of them; simply look in the service booklet to see what Brotherhood and Women of Emanu-El and YOFEE have coming up in the next few weeks from our Sukkahmobile to the Deli Dinner to Mah Johng and Munchies to the Kitchen Shower to the upcoming taste of Olin-Sang-Ruby.  We even fielded a softball team this summer just as we worked a concession stand at Miller Park.  The list could go on.  And yet…and yet…all those programs, no matter how great, do not get people to truly come in and sit, and be, with us.

Our doors are open and we know we have to find the money to keep those doors open.  Yet all of us, down deep, are uncomfortable with the consumer model with which we have struggled for years.  Tickets for these, our High Holy Day services; for that matter, services rendered for fees paid.  And, of course, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  Join the congregation to celebrate that ceremony for your kids and then, when one no longer has need for those services, simply leave the congregation.  The less that is demanded, the less that will be invested.  People may come in and sit–for a while; but so many do not come in and sit with us.  To paraphrase our teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College in New York and co-founder of Synagogue 3000, people may show up briefly for what the synagogue does but they really wish to throw in their lot with what the synagogue is.

I know, I know.  For many of us, we belong to Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun for what it is-for the generations of our families who have passed through this, the first Jewish congregation in Wisconsin.  We belong to Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun for its long commitment to the entire Milwaukee community.  We belong to Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun for its serious Jewish study.  We belong to Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun for its joyous and joyful worship.  But a building does not a congregation make.  Not even a series of programs, no matter how serious, can create a community of relationships.  So, yes, like Abraham and Sarah, we need to go out and ask people to “come in and sit, to come in and sit with me, with us.”  For everything is in relationship and what else is a relationship but a brit, a covenant, between two people?  And how do we begin?  In the same way that God began that relationship, that brit, with us.  We begin with words, we begin with stories.  There is our story-“My father was a wandering Aramaen and he set out for a land promised unto him….  We became slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt and God freed us from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm….Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”  And then there are our stories-stories of joy and sorrow, stories of loneliness and love, stories of sickness and recovery, stories of sin and of forgiveness, stories of birth and of death.  Wrote Rabbi Zoe Klein, “the strength of a community/Lies not in us, your rabbis or cantors,/ [or] in your relationships with us/But rather in your relationships with each other/The bonds you form all around…”

Think of the power of a story.  I can mention 6,000,000-or Jack Dygola can tell you his story or Nate Taffel, his, or Phil Freund, his.   I can talk about saying kaddish-or, as I did several years ago on Kol Nidre, tell you the story of how I struggled to say kaddish for my mother for a year, in the process binding myself to so many others.  I can preach over and over the importance of organ donation in Jewish tradition, but Charlie Smith, alav ha-shalom, told his own story and moved so many of us to become organ donors.

It is taught that when a person plasters his or her entire house, a piece should be left undone in remembrance of Jerusalem.  When a person prepares a feast, one small element should be omitted in remembrance of Jerusalem.  When one dresses in finery, one small piece should be omitted, in remembrance of Jerusalem.  In building this sanctuary and Surlow Hall, Phillip Katz left one piece undone, in remembrance of Jerusalem.  Yes, I know where it is and you can try to find it; you can even ask Phillip.  But another story of another new synagogue in a small village far away and long ago.  When the people came for the first time they marveled at its beauty and its completeness.  Then someone asked, “Where are the lamps?  How will it be lighted?”  The nobleman who built the synagogue pointed to brackets, which were all through the synagogue on the walls.  Then he gave each family a lamp, which they were to bring with them each time they came to the synagogue.  “Each time you are not here,” he said, “that part of the synagogue will be unlit.  This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come here, especially when the community needs you, some part of God’s house will be dark.”

Our lights are on-and they will always be on.  But to truly light up this congregation, we need your stories.  Tell me a story.  Tell me your story.  Tell that story to someone else.  In a more organized fashion over the course of this year, we will begin to share these stories.  I promise to discuss this in a far more specific and organized fashion on Yom Kippur.  But know that, even before he heard my words this Rosh Hashanah, our new president wanted to find a way to let our stories be told.  For Robert Friebert set out to encounter each and every outgoing and incoming board member and each committee chair.  He may call these meetings one-on-ones; I prefer to call them panim-el-panim, face to face, just as Moses encountered God.  He then wants our officers and board members to go out and encounter others, to listen to their stories.  Those meetings could become, in Martin Buber’s words, I-Thou encounters.

Thus, my request of you.  This Rosh Hashanah, here in our new building, make a new relationship.  Find someone you do not know well and tell a story, tell your story.  Do it tonight or tomorrow or Sunday.  What brings you here?  What speaks to you?  What concerns you?  How will this new year be different from the year now ended?  And what stories do you wish to write as you begin anew this year?  Our words, our stories, become the building blocks of relationships and of a kehillah kedosha, a holy congregation.  And from those stories we can be like Abraham and Sarah reaching out to others and exclaiming, Come in and sit with me; come in and sit with us; here you will find Emanu-el; here you will find that God is with us.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.  May it be so.

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784