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Korah 5783 - Physical Reminders in the Torah and at Agudath Achim

A framed quote from Proverbs hangs on my wall, a gift from someone who drifted in and out of this community during my time here:

פיה פתחה בחכמה ותורת חסד על לשונה

She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue (Proverbs 31:26).

That picture stands as an intention for me to pause before I speak or write and to ask myself whether my words are wise and kind. Beyond the intention, that gift stands as a reminder that I have been (or at least have seemed) kind and wise to someone before; it is encouragement that I can be kind and wise again. 

Throughout their time in the desert, the people Israel preserve several objects as everlasting reminders of their past. The ark of the Covenant carries the tablets of the Ten Commandments and sits at the very center of the mishkan (the Tabernacle), and later, the mikdash (the Holy Temple), reminding the people Israel of the set of commandments to which they insisted, “We will do, and we will listen!” When the people Israel are given manna to eat, Aharon saves a jar (Ex. 16:33) to remind the people of the sustenance God has provided and will continue to provide them. In Parshat Korah, after the rebellious Korah’s 250 followers die by the fire that emits from their firepans, God commands Aaron’s son to gather the fire pans and make them into plating for the altar (Numbers 17:3). And finally, later in the parshah, when Aaron’s staff sprouts into blossoms and almonds to represent his unique place among all of the tribal leaders, God commands Moshe to display that staff in front of the ark. Thus, the people Israel will remember the consequences of their rebellion (Numbers 17:25). Through their visual history, the Biblical people Israel preserve the lessons they learn so that their thousands of years of descendants can preserve their peoplehood with wisdom.

As a congregation, we already use objects to remind us of how and why to move forward. Our yahrzeit lights remind us of the values held by all those who we remember, the kippot in our kippah bin remind us of the great simhas we hope to continue holding in this congregation, and the confirmation photos in the back remind us of the memories that many of the people right here in this sanctuary have experienced here. Throughout the one hundred twenty years of spiritual leaders this congregation has experienced, we have learned countless lessons from what was done right, what was done wrong, and what was experienced by the people present. 

In the past four years, we have generated four more years of stuff to inform our future. Somewhere in the depths of the office cabinets lie pamphlets from four bnei mitzvah - Ivy, Cadence, Lex, and Sophia. A notebook lies in wait for the next shmirah, in which congregants will write their reflections on the experience of sitting with the deceased, a practice brought back to this congregation just a couple years ago. Our pergola holds the memories of holiday lunches with dogs running throughout the garden, as well as the memory of the first real fresh air this congregation had experienced in a sukkah for decades. Our bookshelf with its copies of Mahzor Lev Shalem reflects the serious, engaging discussion we can have about our priorities in prayer. If we can include things posted online as “stuff,” our Youtube channel shows our perseverance through COVID-19, with a laughter-filled online Passover seder, encouragement of one another when considering vaccination, and an impressive showing at every opportunity for learning and prayer. And that unfinished mosaic in the back of the sanctuary shows our ability to get truly creative in our Judaism. Although some long-time members have moved away, and although the past four years have not been entirely easy for this congregation, the stuff left behind from those years can reassure us of our compassion for one another, our strength in community, and our thirst for Jewish learning and prayer.

As I sort through the items and documents I have accumulated during my time here, I am reliving what we have accomplished together. With every box I fill and computer folder I label, I am reminded of everything I have learned here, and I am determined to carry those lessons forward. As I enter a new congregation, I am reminded of a lesson I learned early on - the importance in that very first year in a community of building on strengths first and only making changes where necessary. With two years of bullet journals, I am reminded of the strides I can personally make in timing and organization - sure, I know I have a long way to go, but the responsibilities required by this role have pushed me towards some semblance of on top of things. Before Agudath Achim, I did not realize how much I enjoy learning about people’s life stories. At the same time, at Agudath Achim, my time as a pastoral counselor has taught me that I cannot understand everyone’s perspective. Still, I can be respectful of and compassionate to those in whose shoes I can never begin to walk. Through learning the Mahloket Matters curriculum with you and attending some very long board meetings, I have begun to enter conversations knowing both that I might not be right and that I have valuable input to contribute. Above all, I have witnessed a care for one another that I can only hope to emulate. Through the exchange of little gifts, phone calls, and presence at each other’s times of need - not to mention, my personal times of need - you have demonstrated to me the great power of Jewish community both inside and outside of the synagogue space. And of course, through all of our learning together, I have learned more Torah than I could have possibly imagined.

When Rashi comments on the firepans that are converted into altar plating, he expands upon the statement “and they shall be for a sign -לאות” - “The word לאות is the same as לזכרון, something to be mentioned - that people will always say: These plates were from those who raised dissension about the priesthood and were burnt.” It is almost as if Rashi is referring to the pictures we sometimes unearth in this building, the pictures that make us say - “hmm, remember when we used to have that annual softball game?”

As Congregation Agudath Achim moves forward into its next stage, I ask that when you notice the source sheets I seem to have left behind in every room, to the gigantic whale constructed during last year’s Camp Shalom, and to the stray objects I know I will forget to take from this building and to ask, “What did I learned as an individual during Rabbi Sydni’s time at Agudath Achim? What did we, as a congregation, learn from those four years?” I am curious to know what you will bring forward from my time in this building, whether immediately or in years to come, and what you will choose to leave behind. 

It has been a privilege to benefit from your presence, both personally and professionally, over the last four years. I could not have possibly asked for a better place to begin my rabbinate and start a family, and I will truly miss the passionate, committed individuals present in this space. Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784