Image: Bimah of Temple Ner Tamid, Bloomfield, NJ. (Photo: http://www.nertamid.org)
This is a sermon by Rabbi Marc Katz, given on Rosh HaShanah 5779 at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He posted it on his Facebook page, and I asked for his permission to repost it here. – Rabbi Ruth Adar
In 1937, Walter Heilbronner climbed the steps of the bima at the Memmingen Synagogue as he prepared to become Bar Mitzvah. Looking out at the congregation, numbering around 150 members, Walter saw assembled a throng of textile manufactures and livestock merchants who for that day could forget about the hardships of Nazi boycotts and celebrate a new milestone in their community’s history. Walter’s father, the then president of the synagogue beamed with pride as he wore his signature top hat. Lit by a beautiful eight-pronged candelabra nearby, Walter began to read Torah.
Little did he know that in one year, his community would be destroyed. Kristallnacht would come, his beloved Temple would be raised, his Bar Mitzvah tutor, Emil Liffgens would be deported to Auchwitz, his uncle, Irwin and his father, Alfred to Dachau. And that lamp that lit up his day…it would wander beside him across time and country and eventually find its way to become our TNT chapel’s Ner Tamid, our eternal light.
In a way, there is no reminder of the Jewish people’s story more fitting than that lamp that shines down the hall. Its story is our story and this morning, I want to reflect a bit about what it symbolizes for each of us here.
It’s no accident that our congregation takes its name from the Ner Tamid, the eternal light that shines in every synagogue. I remember being a child and staring with wonder at mine. It was a lightbulb obscured by a plastic covering in the shape of a shell. Casting a crooked light on the wall above the ark, it swayed in my drafty congregation, housed in a converted schoolhouse. I remember being a young kid, a future Rabbi fascinated by all things Jewish and wondering how this light would stay on through power-outages. In fact, I distinctly recall asking my parents during Hurricane Bob in 1991 whether they thought the lamp was still shining.
In a world where most of the Bible speaks about long forgotten rituals of sacrifice, there are few ritual items as old as the Ner Tamid. Three thousand years ago, the Jewish people were commanded to keep a flame forever burning on the ancient Menorah or lamp. We don’t know why this command is given. I learned that the light remains lit to symbolize the fact that God is always around us. But we can just as easily say the Ner Tamid symbolizes the undying spirit of the Jewish people. Or perhaps the fact that when we do good in the world, a piece of our kindness manifests forever. (Shemot Rabbah 36:3)
What we do know, thanks to a close reading by the medieval commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel (Abarbanel on Exodus 27:20) is that God gave the commandment for the Ner Tamid before the Jewish people had finalized the design for the building it would go in, the Mishkan or Tabernacle, almost like picking a rug and then designing the room around it. (I’ve recently learned a lot about decorating a house…)
So when our forebearers, some of whom are sitting here, chose Ner Tamid as our name, we set for ourselves a goal: We would be a community where our lights always shine. Where the presence of the Divine would pervade all we did, where the Jewish spirit would forever burn, where our deeds would echo out of these wall and color the world for the better.
All we needed was a Ner Tamid to match our aspirations.
Memmingen, in Bavaria, Germany, has an interesting history. Though we have records of Jews there since the 13th century, for generations Jews were not welcome there, though many merchants passed through and engaged in business. Eventually some stayed and in 1862 the first Jew received citizenship in Memmingen. Then in 1909 the community finally got their synagogue hitting its peak in 1931 with 165 families.
No one knows exactly what purpose our lamp served. Perhaps it was simply for light or maybe it was the community’s Ner Tamid, but whatever the reason, at the very time that Alfred Heilbronner was being arrested and deported to Dachau and the synagogue was burning during Kristalnacht someone ran in and saved it. And when Alfred, a WW1 War hero used his standing to gain his freedom from the concentration camp, the lamp found its way into his possession and began to wander beside him.
He brought it with him out of Germany to Switzerland, barely before Germany sealed their borders, and then to England where it was in his possession where he picked up his son Walter from the orphanage that had saved his life. Eventually they found their way to Detroit, where Walter got possession of it and held it until after his father’s death.
In those years of wandering, the lamp became a symbol for them of their very faith. Homeless and even hopeless at times, it became a grounding force. It was for them the essence of what living a Jewish life means.
I’ve always found the parable contained in Steve Stern’s magnificent book, the Frozen Rabbi to be troubling. In it a nineteenth-century rabbi from a small Polish town one day freezes in a block of ice. He gets dragged, begrudgingly from city to city until he ends up stored in a freezer in suburban Memphis.
But that’s not the case with our lamp. Where the Frozen Rabbi sees Judaism as a burden, lugged around because we are unable to part with it, I can’t imagine that was how Alfred Heilbronner felt. This lamp was his Jewish past, waiting for the right place to be mounted and to shine forth. It was a symbol of hope. His home was destroyed but in this lamp was the seeds of his future. Like it was for our Biblical ancestors his Judaism would be rebuilt around this lamp. When he found a home, he was ready to let it shine.
But when Heilbronner got to America no one wanted his lamp. He tried to donate it to his synagogue in Detroit and they turned him down. He attempted to give it the Jewish Museum in New York but they already had one like it. So, it ended up in a box, in his basement in Detroit, collecting dust.
And this is the true tragedy of Jewish living in the modern world. Our ancestors carried though history this rich and wonderful tradition. They passed it lovingly on through time and place in the hope that it would be alive and shine forth one day. But too often it feels that there is no place in our lives for it. So we put it away. We too box it up, until we can figure out where it goes.
The reason we can’t figure out what to do with our tradition is because we look at it and realize that as it stands it does not fit our needs. The problem with the lamp was that it was lit with oil, and honestly, who needs an oil lamp today? It’s cumbersome to refill it. It’s messy. It’s a fire hazard.
And likewise, Judaism is filled with many old rituals that too feel out of place in our modern world. Most of us pray in a language we don’t understand. We sing melodies that sound different than anything we would hear on the radio. Judaism can be mysterious and beautiful, or it can be out of touch and alienating. I remember talking to a conversion student who went to a Tisha B’av service a few summers ago, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. She told me that attending it felt like walking into a foreign country and being forced to sit through a funeral for someone she’d never met.
But that doesn’t mean that with a little work we can’t modify it and make it work for us. No one wanted Heilbronner’s lamp, until someone had the insight to update it for the 21st century. Alfred had passed away and bequeathed it to his son Walter. Like it did before, the lamp made a cross country trip to his home in Upper Montclair and after his death, his wife Florence offered it to Temple Ner Tamid in 2004.
For a minute it looked like it too might languish again in a basement box. Our past president Harvey Morginstin first took it to a lamp repair shop to refused to touch it. It was too old, and they didn’t feel that they had the expertise to make modifications. But Harvey persevered. Eventually, Harvey had the idea to the modify the lamp. He carefully snaked a thin wire down the chain so it would remain hidden and he replaced the oil with LED lights. Now the lamp could work with our existing circuitry and perhaps more importantly, the lamp would last. Since LED lights burn for about 100,000 hours before they need to be replaced he could be confident that the lamp would remain shining for at least the next thirty years. He polished the lamp, famously quipping that he was disappointed that no genie appeared, and it was dedicated on March 19, 2004.
When I was first hired, Harvey took me aside and told me the history of the lamp and since then I’ve been wondering how we might take this religion, shepherded so carefully by so many of our ancestors and make it vibrant and shining in our day as well. For too many of us, we remain Jewish simply because it has been handed down to us. We keep it because we should. I often ask couples that I’m about to marry why it is important to them that they their children are Jewish. More often than not, they answer some derivative of “Because I don’t want to be the generation that kills it…”
If that’s the case, we should throw it out. It’s taking up too much space in the basement. Just because it has been passed down to us, does not make it of value.
Our goal, to use the words of the first chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Avraham Isaac haKohen Cook, should be to make the “old, new…and the new, holy.”
Harvey made the old new when he turned the oil lamp into a modern electrical one. Did we lose something in the process? Of course! Change always necessitates a loss. The lamp was now usable but not as exotic and foreign as it once was.
Yet, what we got was better. Once we can mourn what was, we can open our eyes to the possibilities of the future.
I’m sure everyone here is thinking about change. How can you not with a new Rabbi. But this community is extraordinary at change and will continue to be in the future. We let go of the traditional reading of the Megilah and created our own tradition – the most produced, professional, and rehersed Purim Sheipell in the histroy of the Reform Movement. We let go of many of our treasured melodies and embraced the spiritual, learning to chant and to let the drum guide our heartbeats. This past summer, we took our pre-High Holy Day reflections out of the walls of TNT and came together on Facebook to discussion our hopes, regrets, brokenness, and aspirations.
We are experts and making the “old, new…and the new, holy” and I hope to only continue the process.
There is an old joke about the sacred cows of Jewish life, those things passed down through the ages that seem untouchable:
A new rabbi comes to town and notices that every time someone walked up to the Bima, they ducked low, shuffling a few steps until they got to the ark. When he inquired why they did that, no one could answer him. So he went to the Rabbi Emeratus and asked but he had an answer. The older rabbi had heard that once upon a time, there were a number of Jews from Persia who joined the community enmass, so maybe it was one of those rituals? Unable to confidently answer him, he directed him to the founding Rabbi who was in a nursing home about an hour away. The young Rabbi show up expectantly and asked, “so why do people shuffle low coming up to the ark? What’s the reasoning?”
The old Rabbi smiled and exclaimed, “They finally moved the chandelier!”
Our chapel is better because we moved our chandelier and now our lamp, our eternal light, our Ner Tamid shines forth. If something doesn’t work, I promise you, we will change it. Often, like the lamp in the joke, the reason it’s there is not what it we think.
And the same, I hope, will be true of your own Jewish practice. Take any Jewish ritual. Shabbat, for example, may not work for your family. You might be too busy, or it might not seem meaningful. But does that mean the candlestick should stay in the cabinet? Allow yourself to change your practice and make it work for you. If you can’t seem to find the time to buy a Challah for Friday, order in Pizza and bless that bread. Go out to dinner and order wine. Plenty of people toast at their table. Make Kiddush into that moment. If saying the Hebrew is hard, play the prayer from YouTube and try to sing along…you’ll learn it before you know it.
It’s 1937 again and Walter Heilbronner is walking up to the Torah. Little does he know that in his lifetime he will see the decimation of European Jewry, the birth of the State of Israel, the rise of the iron curtain and the campaign for Russian Jewry. He would never imagine that Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem that he now faces will have a twenty-four-hour camera broadcasting it and a website to which that we can email our prayers. He would be shocked to learn that on September 5, 1977 a spacecraft named voyager would be launched that would leave our solar system with a golden record containing among another things a sample of Hebrew in case it were to encounter intelligent life.
But I think he would be proud of what has become of his synagogue’s lamp.
None of us knows what the future will hold for our people, our community, or our family. But what I do know is that when we build our future atop our past, our future shines much brighter. Open your hearts and let change in. Add your own adornments, your own trimmings to the holy legacy that your ancestors have given you. There is little that cannot work in our world, if we only allow ourselves to wonder “What old can be made new? And how can I make what is new, holy?”
More of Rabbi Katz’ writing may be found here.