Rabbi Leder's Shabbat Message - November 12, 2021

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A friend recently texted me a picture of myself from when we were in rabbinical school together. He found it cleaning out his house before selling that now empty nest and downsizing to a retirement condo. I remember the very moment that picture was taken. Seeing it reminded me of all the raw, unrefined, passionate naiveté that defined my youth.  

I felt the same way when re-reading my very first book last week. The publisher is reissuing The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, originally published in the last century. Being asked to write the Afterword for the new edition caused me to revisit those essays written long ago. The world has changed a lot since then. Zoom meetings, dinner and packages delivered daily to our doorstep, GPS, civilian space travel, and pictures from Mars. Yet, as I read each chapter I realized the human condition had not changed much, if at all, over the many years that have passed in my rabbinate. Each year when we re-read the foundational stories of the Torah it’s pretty clear that people haven’t changed much in 3,000 years either.

I was a very young rabbi when I wrote that book, seeing for the first time, aspects of the world and people’s lives that only someone with a front-row seat to life could. I sensed early on from that new perspective that there is no such thing as a small blessing or miracle. All life, even its darkest moments, reveals the sacred. This book was my first attempt to help others see and feel what I saw and felt with my new rabbi eyes; the extraordinary nature of ordinary things.  

Back then, I was a very young man, husband, father, writer, and rabbi. My children have since grown into adulthood with their own relationships, passions, and worries. My father is dead. My mother is losing her memory. I have faced the surgeon’s scalpel, and Betsy has too. We are living through a pandemic that pierced our sense of invulnerability, making us long for and appreciate human touch and freedom like never before. Much like that old photo and the world, things have changed a great deal over time. And much like the human condition, they have changed very little. But, as many of you know, my father often said, “A bissle iz a plotz—a little, is a lot.” I feel that truth even more so as I grow older and time feels more finite than it did for the young man in that picture taken forty years ago.

All these years later I am still a witness to laughter, the glory of nature, steady love, crushing disappointment and pain, loss and wonderment, all of which I tried to capture in that first book and am still trying to capture with every new book and sermon I write… but with a more seasoned and layered understanding of the view from that front row seat I still occupy every day. I am not a different person now. I am made of the same material. But that material is weathered and mellowed in hue. It has, I have, a patina that only time and experience can bestow. Revisiting those essays was a lot like seeing that photograph. A reminder of who I was, who I still am and always will be, and also how I have grown.  

For as long as I remember I have been interested in the ways the most particular and smallest of experiences reveal the most universal truths. Much like how identifying the tiniest of particles that make up all of matter can paradoxically allow us to see what is most common to all that exists. I think about Jacob in this week’s Torah portion. He is guilt-ridden and on the run after deceiving his brother and his father. Exhausted, he collapses on the desert floor, lays his head on a nearby stone, and sinks into a dream of angels flitting up and down a ladder in his mind’s eye. The Torah doesn’t tell us exactly where this happened or what, if anything, was special about that rock. What it does tell us is that Jacob awoke and said, “God is in this place and I did not know it.”  

After all these years since that book, Betsy and I still hold hands under the covers each night. I still say, “I love you, Betsy.” “I love you, too,” she still whispers back. Then we drift off to sleep with our two snoring dogs between us. We are old and married, with hopefully much more joy, loss, life, laughter, and love ahead. We have been through so much together. We have learned so much together. So much will change. So little will change. Such is the world; every patch of sand and stone. Such is life. And it is all extraordinary… 

 

Love and Shabbat shalom,

Steve