On the Bima: Sermons, Divrei Torah, and Liturgical Composition

Installation Address – Temple Isaiah Stony Brook

זֶה־הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה יְהוָה נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ׃
Zeh ha-yom asah Adonai, na-gilah v’nism’cha vo!
This is the day the Eternal has made,
let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Psalms 118:24

My heart is overflowing with gratitude as I look around the room, seeing so many of you from all parts of my life sitting in these seats, these chairs. These seats that you are sitting in tonight are special, because they are pews. They might not be soft and cushy, because they are modest and rigid in design, intended for focus on prayer. But they allow us to sit close to each other so we are each physically connected one to the other. For those of us who are sitting close to each other, it’s nice to be able to sit at a service and wrap my arms around my niece and nephew, or have your children draped over you, like the Rosenzweig’s are draped over Sue, right now; to feel the warmth of a loved one or friend sitting right next you.

I want to spend a few moments speaking about chairs. I know some of you are probably thinking, “She’s off her rocker!” (Oy – such a bad pun.) “This is her installation and she wants to speak about chairs?!” Indulge me for a few moments.

When my grandmother died, she bequeathed to my mother an antique monk’s chair. This chair was a beautifully hand-carved wooden chair, with a special velvet cushion. What was most unique about it, however, was that around each arm, were carved two wooden rings — almost like bracelets — that were inextricably connected to the chair. The rings could not be removed. It was thought that the monk would sit in the chair, close his eyes, turn or twirl the rings and be able to connect with God and find inner peace and spiritual harmony through meditation and prayer.

Growing up, I was always fascinated by the way that those wooden rings were connected to the arms of the chair. I wanted to understand how sitting on a chair, twirling rings around could help someone achieve a sense of connectedness with God and themselves?

This chair was not comfortable, but it was beautiful. It was not meant to create a sense of community. It was meant to be used in solitude – to help a person find connection from within. It was also temporary and collapsible, so it could be easily transported from place to place. It represented spiritual modesty in its ornate – yet austere – simplicity.

It was a curious artifact for my family to have in our house, especially since our house was so “Jewish”. Most of the artwork that covered the walls was Jewish in theme, our bookshelves were lined with Jewish books, we spent every Shabbat at the Temple, our kitchen was kosher and the synagogue was our second home.

And then I learned of the following true story, which gave new meaning and symbolism to my mother’s antique chair:

In the early 1800s, a butcher who lived in the town of Teplyk presented a gift to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in the Ukraine. The gift was a most exquisite and beautiful chair. Everyone who saw it immediately knew that the chair was something special.

Rabbi Nachman loved his gift. He sat in this chair every day for the rest of his life. One night, he dreamed that he was sitting in his chair as it flew through the clouds and it carried him up to the heavens. In his dream, Rabbi Nachman saw himself approaching Jerusalem, but as he drew closer to the city, he woke up.

After Rabbi Nachman died, he disciples kept the chair in Rabbi Nachman’s memory. The chair was given a place of honor near the ark in the synagogue where it remained for decades… until World War II.

When the Nazis invaded, the descendants of Rabbi Nachman’s disciples realized that in order to find a way to escape the Holocaust, they would have to scatter. But what should they do about the special chair? They did not want to leave it behind, and it was too big for any one of them to carry. They cut the chair into pieces. Each descendant of the disciples took one piece of the chair and before fleeing, each made a promise to one another: at the end of the terrible war, they would meet in Jerusalem, and there they would reassemble the chair.

Miraculously, every single person who carried a piece of that chair survived and arrived safely in the city of Jerusalem. Once there, they reassembled the chair so it looked exactly as it did in the time of Rabbi Nachman himself. To this day, it sits in the Bratslav synagogue next to the ark in Jerusalem.[1]

A chair can simply be something functional — a place to rest. Or, it can represent something of much greater significance. Why am I sharing this story with you tonight of all nights? Because this story is not just a true story — it’s a “truth story”.

Like the descendants of Rabbi Nachman’s disciples, each one of us carries a piece of the puzzle of life’s meaning. We have to hold on to that piece of the puzzle with all our soul, as if our life depended on it — because it does. Some people carry more pieces of the puzzle than others. But no one carries them all — there’s at least one missing piece. Only when you remember that you’re looking for that missing piece, the piece that someone else is carrying, and that they may looking for the piece that you are carrying, will we arrive safely at our place of promise.”[2]

We come together tonight not just to celebrate, but for a deeper purpose. We are gathered together to make a sacred covenant as new rabbi and k’hilah k’dosha, holy community — embarking on a sacred journey together.

What can the symbolism of Rabbi Nachman’s chair teach us about the sacred community that you and I are creating, as we begin our new journey together?

The story of his chair is not just a story about survival in the face of adversity. It’s about the power that comes from each of us taking our own individual gifts and joining them with those of others to create something that is sacred, beautiful and unique. All of us together must decide what we will create communally with our combined gifts. This will not be an easy task, as each of us tonight comes here with our own hopes, our own dreams, our own frailties and our own fears. What we do together as a k’hillah k’dosha is meant to shape a world of holiness, dignity and equality for God’s children everywhere.

Rabbi Nachman was the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov and was one of the most creative, influential and profound of the Chasidic masters. He founded the Bratslav sect of Chasidism and emphasized living life with joy and happiness. One of his greatest saying was “It is a great mitzvah to be happy.” He used his chair to create a holy community — it was used in the public realm. From his chair, he guided and taught Torah, gave counsel and sage advice. He sang and prayed. But he was never alone. He was always surrounded by his community, by his students and his disciples and by those with whom he shared his love and passion for Judaism.

Rabbi Nachman’s chair reminds us that you and I can work best together and learn about each other’s unique gifts by listening to the voices of others as they share their innermost thoughts, feelings and ideas. When we sit and look at each other face to face, gaze at each other in the eye and try to listen carefully to the words both spoken and unsaid, and are thoughtful and reflective — we will uncover the gifts of the other. When I am truly present for you, I look at you and can see the face of God reflected in your face. One of the great challenges of our modern society is the fast-natured pace at which we all function. We rush from place to place, appointment to meeting, meeting to the gym. Gym back to work. We text “I love you” to our children or partner and fail to make those authentic connections. Often, our primary relationships are with our cell phones (I am as guilty of that as anyone). As modern Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said: “when we engage in meaningful relationships with others, we gaze deeply into their eyes. That mere gaze demands a response from us.” If we are standing, or are on the run, we cannot develop those deep and meaningful relationships that are so necessary and vital to creating sacred community. When we each bring our own gifts to our community and offer them with love and gratitude, it is the reflection of God in our hearts. How can we, as a congregational community enhance these connections? There can be nothing more beautiful, more sacred than that.

And God is not found only by gazing in the faces of those around us. Rabbi Nachman is famous for saying: Prayer is reaching in three directions, up to God, out to others and in to your innermost self. Each of us connects with the Divine in different ways. We need to slow down for the brief moments we have together so we can hear God’s voice speaking. I firmly believe that God speaks all the time, we just need to open ourselves up to hearing that voice. But as a synagogue community, it is up to us to create a communal worship experience where each of us can feel the spark of the Divine at some moment during our shared rituals. Not every moment will speak to every one all the time. But if you can feel the touch of God’s presence in prayer, and can see God’s face reflected in the faces of those around you, we have been successful in helping those in our midst to hear God speak in the midst of our communal endeavors.

Rabbi Nachman’s chair was a chair of teaching and learning. Although he died from illness at the young age of 38, he taught so many disciples and students with loving care, that his legacy continues today. How do we engage others in the timeless truths and texts of our tradition? How do create meaningful dialogue about important issues with each other and with God? What type of learning will encourage and motivate others to become part of our wonderful community? Temple Isaiah has an exemplary record with our youth, camp and adult education programs. How can we expand on this so that we can encourage those who are disconnected from within our own community to find their place here? How can we engage those from outside our own community who have a tenuous connection to Jewish life to become more involved? We have just been offered the wonderful opportunity to partner with UJA Federation of Greater NY and the Jewish Outreach Institute on some initiatives looking to help us in these efforts. In the Torah portion from this past Shabbat, Abraham’s tent was open on all sides, so that all who came his way would be welcome to enter. But Abraham didn’t just simply sit and wait for people to come his way. He rushed out to greet them, to find those who had not yet come close to draw them in. If we are to combine Rabbi Nachman’s maxim of “it’s a mitzvah to be happy” with Abraham’s approach to rushing outside of our doors to meeting people where they are, we will be successful in creating a community of meaning and substance for all.

Rabbi Nachman was not like a king on a throne, who sat on his chair all day long and ruled others. His chair was often vacant. Why? Because his chair was not only a chair of teaching, prayer, advice and learning – it was a chair of inspiration: a chair that symbolized the doing of mitzvot. He learned from his great grand-father, the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chasidic movement) who said: Every one should know that since creation each human being has been unique. We all are called on to perfect our unique qualities. What does this mean? That part of perfecting our unique qualities is to find our own ways to live out the prophetic call, to live up to our namesake, the prophet Isaiah, who railed against injustice, poverty and hunger, who cajoled us to fight to end oppression and bloodshed and war. As I said last night, Temple Isaiah’s early history was based on that prophetic call, where social justice is an integral part of our r’aison d’etre. And it must continue to be on the forefront of our agenda. Our Mitzvah Day will be taking place in April — this will not just be for the Religious School, but a day where we aim to engage the entire congregation. And, as you heard me discuss on Yom Kippur, Israel needs our support now, more than ever. One way to do that is to vote for ARZA — the American Reform Zionist Organization in the upcoming world Zionist Congress elections beginning in January. There are so many ways that we can reach out to others, and you will be hearing about them over the days and months to come.

These are exciting times to begin our new journey together!

My own family’s journey involved discovering what the symbolic meaning of that antique monk’s chair meant for us, discovering how to build and strengthen our bonds so that no matter where we are, we have built our relationships so that they are deep rooted, strong and the most important relationships in our lives.

This new journey for us as a k’hillah k’osha — a sacred community — will be a journey of discovery and meaning. I am so excited and thrilled to part of the traditions that have made Temple Isaiah so vibrant and strong over this past half decade. I eagerly look forward to the truths we’ll uncover together and the beauty we’ll create as we embark on the next half-decade here in Suffolk County. This is a time of great potential, a moment of transcendence, a day of endless possibilities.

We go on this journey together, all of you who are here tonight and those who are not able to be here tonight. You are my partners on this sacred endeavor. You are my great gifts and my blessing.

And I bring others with me as well, those who have helped shape me into the rabbi and person I am today, those who I will rely on for advice and counsel, and those with whom I will partner going forward. So a few moments of thanks:

Just as Rabbi Nachman had his students, I, too, have learned — and continue to learn, from those who have been my rav and chaver. I have been blessed to have the guidance and friendship of Rabbi Dow Marmur for over 25 years, first as my senior rabbi when I served under him at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Since that time, he has been my trusted advisor and friend. We are taught in Pirke Avot “Aseh l’cha rav, u’kneh l’cha chaver. Make for yourself a teacher, and you will find for yourself a friend.” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6) Dow, your friendship, sage wisdom and counsel always inspires me, guides me and encourages me. Thank you for your presence here this weekend — it means so much to me. One of my other dear colleagues, friends and mentors who is here from Toronto is Rabbi Larry Englander, and his wife Cheryl, my beloved friend. I am blessed to have all of you in my life.

I stand on the shoulders of those who have been part of my journey from the very beginning: my dear friends, famed Canadian music duo Judy and David Gershon — who were part of my early days at Holy Blossom Temple, bringing spirituality and joy to our worship experience, engaging so many in Jewish life with their vibrant approach to music and their joi de vivre. They help us fulfill Rabbi Nachman’s maxim “It is a mitzvah to be happy!” We have celebrated simchas together, mourned together and been there for each other through all of life’s ups-and-downs.

As a community, we are blessed — and continue to be blessed — by the wonderful presence of two learned rabbis emeritus: Rabbi Adam Fisher and Rabbi Stephen Karol. I look forward to partnering with you both, learning from you and sharing your wisdom and knowledge.

Our educators past and present, Rabbi Harvey Witman and Steve Weitzman, along with all of the teachers in the religious school and our youth group advisors, have opened up the eyes of our young people to the world of Jewish knowledge. You, too, sit on the special symbolic chair of learning and teaching — Talmud Torah.

The community this evening is a broad and far-reaching community. In the congregation this evening – linking past to present to future, are friends and family from every part of my life: my dear sister and brother-in-law, niece and nephew, Naomi and Jonathan, Sydney and Xavi, my cousin, Marilyn, and members of almost every congregation I have ever served going all the way back to my student rabbi days. Each and every one of you has helped me to become the rabbi I am today. Each one of you has given me something special and unique that I now bring to my new congregational home. Todah rabbah — thank you so much — from the bottom of my heart.

Our wonderful Cantor – Michael Trachtenberg, who so graciously came out of retirement to fill in for the year as we search for a permanent cantor, has been integral to our journey this year, as is the work of Stephen Goldstein our terrific accompanist. Music is key to our worship and celebrations and we are so grateful for all that you do to enhance our experiences. Our new volunteer-led intergenerational Klezmer band, the Chai Notes, directed by the Cantor and by Andrea Barbakoff, is fulfilling that Bratzlaver mitzvah of “Joy” and “Celebration” with zeal. You make our hearts sing, our feet tap and our faces light up every time we listen to your beautiful music!

Rabbi Nachman’s chair never would have made it out of Teplyk to Jerusalem had it not been for some great team work to organize, manage and oversee the effort. Where would we be today without the tireless hard work and efforts of our President, Dean Rosenzweig, his team of Vice Presidents, the committee chairs and the entire Board? I am so grateful to all of you, and to the Search Committee and Transition and Installation Committee, led so capably by Gloria Snyder and Diane Weitzman.

And to assemble Rabbi Nachman’s chair in Jerusalem was the reconstruction crew, also known here in Stony Brook as our support staff: for we would be nothing without their endeavors which keep Temple Isaiah functioning day to day: Penny Gentile, Beth Healy, Irva Steinweis, Moises Lopez and Pam Shulder.

Thank you all for inviting me into this special and beautiful community. As we embark on our holy work together, I think I now finally understand the meaning of the circles on my mother’s antique monk’s chair. The circle is a symbol of wholeness and completion. Today, I have become part of your circle, the Temple Isaiah circle — and I am so greatly honored to be here. May we continue to bring to each other a sense of connection and wholeness, a sense of k’dushah, of holiness and meaning, with God’s presence by our sides, guiding us and sustaining us, as we go from strength to strength together.


[1] Story paraphrased from Three Times Chai: 54 Rabbis Tell Their Favorite Stories, “Reb Nachman’s Chair,” as told by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, pp. 24-25. Behrman House, 2007.

[2] Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, pg. 25.