Congregation Beth Israel
Shabbat Nitzavim-Vayeilech | September 15, 2017
To my community – thank you for entrusting me with this sacred responsibility. As I stand before you accepting my new role and position, I cannot help but think of one of my favorite biblical texts. Over the coming years, you may hear me say that multiple times – one of my favorite texts – what can I say? There’s a lot of them! That’s why I’m a rabbi. This one is from Sefer Yehoshua, that tells of Joshua, who led the people into the Land of Israel for the first time. Taking over for Moses, Joshua had a tough act to follow, but with the help of God and his community, he was able to lead the Israelites for many successful years.
There is obviously tremendous symbolism to this moment of transitioning leadership, one that we embody here tonight. Without elevating ourselves to the level of our Biblical Prophets, I can imagine what Joshua must have felt following in the footsteps of Moses as I began to follow Rabbi Nudell, who has been with this community for so much of its history, building it into what we know today. While I do not hope to replace him, an impossible task, I do hope to follow in his footsteps, continuing the legacy he created. Joshua too did not replace Moses, instead, he led the Israelites to the next step of their journey.
It’s fitting that this week we read from Parashat Vayeilech, the chapter of Deuteronomy that outlines much of the Israelite succession plan. Tomorrow morning we’ll read:
וַיִּקְרָ֨א מֹשֶׁ֜ה לִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֗עַ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֵלָ֜יו לְעֵינֵ֣י כָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒ כִּ֣י אַתָּ֗ה תָּבוֹא֙ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע ה׳ לַאֲבֹתָ֖ם לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֑ם וְאַתָּ֖ה תַּנְחִילֶ֥נָּה אוֹתָֽם׃
Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and resolute, חזק ואמץ – for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give to them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them. And the Lord himself will go before you. He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8)
This phrase – חזק ואמץ – has been one that has always called out to me. Be strong and resolute. It’s repeated again and in many ways becomes a theme throughout the entire book of Joshua.
רַק֩ חֲזַ֨ק וֶֽאֱמַ֜ץ מְאֹ֗ד לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ כְּכָל־הַתּוֹרָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוְּךָ֙ מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַבְדִּ֔י אַל־תָּס֥וּר מִמֶּ֖נּוּ יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַ֣עַן תַּשְׂכִּ֔יל בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃
“You must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moses enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful. I charge you: be strong and resolute – חזק ואמץ– do not be terrified or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7-9)
Sound familiar? It certainly calls back to the passage from Vayeilech, and it’s also the same text I recited a moment ago as part of our ceremony. It’s a text that I have tried to keep close to my heart and embody in all that I do. To be strong and brave in living a life, and particularly so in teaching Torah.
As we stand here tonight, in some ways only barely knowing each other, but at the same time making a commitment together for the future, this is my pledge – חזק ואמץ. I will be strong and resolute. I will be strong in standing for Torah as a guide for our lives and our community. The collected wisdom of our 3,000-year-old tradition still has much to teach us and I am resolute, determined, to show how it continues to impact us today in all areas of our life. Providing morality, guidance, support, and hope.
Likewise, this phrase can guide us as a congregation. חזקו ואמצו – together, we can be strong and resolute. Uniting to form a קהילה קדושה, a holy community, that celebrates with each other in times of joy, and supports each other in challenging times. A community that wholly embraces the teachings of Torah, and also modernity, incorporating both ancient and modern wisdom. A community that is proud of where we stand in the Jewish world as a Conservative congregation looking back from where we have come while looking forward to where we are going. A community that takes its values, its guiding principles from our sacred texts, and is not shy about putting them into action. A community that stands for Torah as a force for good in the world, inspiring us to proudly live what we teach.
Together, with your support, I hope we can embody these words, חזק ואמץ, be strong and resolute in all that we do. I pray that we are able to continue this sacred work together in the years ahead, bringing our community’s journey into its next stages.
My personal journey too begins its next stages and so I want to take a moment to reflect on that journey.
Another text that has called out to me multiple times in my life is taken from Tehilim – the book of Psalms. It’s a fun story how I learned it the first time, it involves the band U2 and the 2001 NBA Finals – I’ll share the full story another time. The text is found as part of Hallel, the additional service of verses and Pslams of praise we include on Holidays and special occasions.
מָֽה־אָשִׁ֥יב לַה׳ כָּֽל־תַּגְמוּל֥וֹהִי עָלָֽי׃ כּוֹס־יְשׁוּע֥וֹת אֶשָּׂ֑א וּבְשֵׁ֖ם ה׳ אֶקְרָֽא׃
“How can I repay the Lord for all his bounties to Me? I raise a cup of deliverance and invoke the name of God.” (Psalm 116:12-13)
In the years since first really encountering this text, I’ve reflected back on these words many times. At that moment, 16 years ago, I’m quite sure I could not have predicted the path my life would take, but I’m also quite sure that those words from Psalms have rung true multiple times. How can I possibly repay God, for the many blessings He has given to me?
The blessings of opportunity – having the opportunity to serve in this special community is one I am immensely grateful for. Thank you to the leadership of CBI, the members of the search committee, and everyone who participated in the process of bringing us here. Likewise, a special thank you to everyone who has already helped with our transition, making Naomi, Micah, and me, feel right at home.
The blessings of education – learning is something that never stops, but it does have to start. I have been blessed to learn from incredible teachers over the years whether at Solomon Schechter, Akiba Hebrew Academy, Northwestern University, or the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and carry all their teachings with me every day. Likewise, many of those teachers whether in formal or informal settings, have now become mentors and friends, and I value their wisdom and guidance in so many areas of my rabbinic and personal life.
The blessings of colleagues – I have been fortunate to work with so many talented people in a variety of settings. At Camp Ramah in the Poconos, at Sporting News Radio, synagogues across Los Angeles, and most recently at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. Those colleagues have taught me a great deal about Jewish education, synagogue life, as well as life in general. It is incredibly exciting to have a new set of talented colleagues to work with here at CBI and I cannot wait to make amazing things happen together.
The blessings of roots – I certainly would not be where I am today without the beginnings I had growing up in a loving family, committed to each other and committed to Jewish life and learning. My parents made all of this possible and guided me into becoming the person I am today. All of the Tilman siblings have followed a different, but uniquely Jewish path, so clearly our parents must have done something right. I am also fortunate to have married into a family that shares those same values and am grateful to have spent so much time with the Karp family over the past three years.
And finally, the blessings of my own newly growing family. Naomi, as I told you when we left Jacksonville, I could not have done any of this without you. Thank you for your patience, your support and your understanding. Being married to a rabbi isn’t easy, with nighttime meetings, last minute schedule changes, holiday and weekend obligations, but you manage to handle it all with a smile. You’re there to give me support when I need it, feedback when I need that, and really everything else along the way. Paraphrasing our favorite musical, I don’t pretend to know the challenges we’re facing in the years ahead, but I’m not afraid, I know who I married. Just let me stand here by your side, and that would be enough.
Micah – in these seven weeks you have already been our greatest blessing. Seeing your smiles, and your wide eyes each day has filled me with a new sense of appreciation for how special our world is, and I am so happy you are a part of it. Micah, your mom knew what she was getting into marrying a rabbi, but you didn’t have that option of choosing a rabbinic family. You’re stuck with us. I know it won’t always be easy, but just as I promised everyone here this evening I make the same pledge to you – חזק ואמץ – I will be strong and brave for you, finding ways to always be with you, and always working to make the world a better place for you to grow into.
Thank you again to everyone for being here this evening, making this special moment that much more so.
I invite everyone to please rise as we open the ark so that I may close with a prayer.