This is the d’var Torah I was asked to deliver on the occasion of my mom’s retirement. There is a surprise involved and I’ll fill you all in on those details in another post. Meanwhile, Shabbat Shalom.
Surprise! It is an honor to be here tonight with Jessica in order to help this congregation honor you and your years of service as the Executive Director. Even more than that though, it is an honor to have you as a mother; a woman who embodies the Jewish values she holds most dear.
Selfishly I have to say I’m pretty happy you’re retiring. It’s about time you came to high holiday services when I lead them! I have been generous sharing you and Dad with the congregation during those sacred days for seven years and I’m done with that. No more reading my sermons, time to hear them live and in person. Oh and if you wanted to cook a brisket or something for when we get home from services I would be okay with that, too. I’m just saying.
Mom, it is said of Rab Yosef, that when he would hear the approaching step of his mother, he would say, “I must stand up, for the Shekhinah enters.” Mom, as the Executive Director of this congregation, you too bring a kindness, a comforting presence, perhaps just like those attributes we attribute to God when we use the name Shekhinah.
You always inspired Jessica and I to be leaders and to use our own gifts to strengthen our communities. I used to tease you that you were the last of the four of us to serve on Mount Zion’s Board of Trustees because dad as a member, and both Jessica and I were SPORTY president before heading off to college. I once thought that I would be the first and only Jewish professional in our family and you proved me wrong when you took the position of Administrator here at temple when Jessica and I left home for university.
As I stand on this bima again, it seems kismet is at work. This Shabbat, 18 years ago we rushed to be in this very place for the Friday night service prior to celebrating my Bat Mitzvah. That means that it is 18 years ago this congregation introduced the gender sensitive Gates of Prayer and the imahot into the Amidah. Mom. I get to stand here just like I did 18 years ago this very and teach something about Parshat Beha’alotecha which I read on my bat Mitzvah. I know we like to tell the story of my speech preparation that we learned “could be better.” The section that I read was only about the Israelites complaining and wanting to return to Egypt where food choices varied. I remember that I said the “manna was bitter, like coriander seed.” And in all honestly, that is about all I remember.
Being a little older and wiser now, I couldn’t think of a better Torah portion to honor you and your role as Executive Director of this congregation. Beha’alotecha reads like a job description, Mom! If only we knew then what we know now. Within this portion we read about specific details of the Sanctuary including how to light the lamps, leadership development and succession, the first temple picnics in the form of sacrifices, calendar planning, volunteer management, insurance, and complaining.
I know that members of Mount Zion hardly ever complain. The sanctuary is always the right temperature, ample parking is available, the menu is to everyone’s liking, and everyone is always happy with printed materials they receive and the temperature of the coffee. Similarly the Israelites miss the food in Egypt. Varied produce, meat of all types is their cravings. When Moses reaches his breaking point and can take no more complaining, he turns to God and says, “For-what have you dealt-ill with your servant, for-what-reason have I not found favor in your eyes, (that you) have placed the burden of this entire people on me? Did I myself conceive this entire people, or did I myself give-birth to it, that you should say to me, ‘Carry it in your bosom like a nursing-father carries a suckling-child, to the soil about which you swore to their fathers?’ Where should I (get) meat to give to this entire people, when they weep on me, saying: ‘Give us meat so that we may eat!’ I am not able, myself alone, to carry this entire people, for it is too heavy for me! If thus you deal with me, pray kill me, yes, kill me, if I have found favor in your eyes, so that I do not have to see my ill-fortune!”
Though it isn’t entirely obvious in the English, Moses does something fascinating here. He refers to God in the feminine, not once, but twice. Additionally he uses maternal language to describe the burden of caring for the people referring to himself as a nursing father. Rashi sees this as Moses being worn down, lacking the ferocity of the leader we previously encounter.
I completely disagree. Rather, I think Moses is displaying for us and for the people of Israel that there is a particular responsibility that falls upon women even in Israelite society. Calling upon God in the feminine also reminds us of the compassionate, mothering presence between Moses and God and thereby the people and God, just like when we use the word Shechinah, to describe God.
Mom, Moses is God’s executive director. God has the vision and Moses knows how to make things happen. Without Moses, programs would fail, the building would fall apart, people might not make their membership contribution, and the leadership would wary and turn away from their tasks whether assigned of voluntary. Moses communicates with the people on behalf of the Divine in language they can understand, language we can understand.
Most importantly, Moses never forgets that in the end, he is one of them, one of the Israelites. Moses reminds of this when he says, “anochi b’kirbam,” “I am among them.” Mommy, you always say that working for this congregation, working with this congregation is a labor of love. For ten years you brought the ferocity of a mother feeding her child, tending to every need with diligence, dignity, and kindness. You remembered to laugh and to have fun and to not take yourself too seriously. You walk families through celebratory lifecycle events so that they are not throwing a party at temple, they’re celebrating Jewish milestones. You sit with mourners in their darkest hour and ensure that they fully supported by every member of the Mount Zion community.
And when it came time for the community to support you in your hour of need, not only as an employee but as a congregant, you learned the true impact of this place and the potential for holiness around every corner. Coming into the office wasn’t just going to work and never has been, it is always coming home. Entering into the place where community transforms into sacred community. A community who supports one another and lives Jewish values in a meaningful and compelling way for the 21st century.
There is this great program that I used to do at camp, or that I still do at camp because I really like it. It is called “who in the room.” What happens is, the leader makes statements, and if the statement is something that is true for you, you stand up. Let’s try it. So when I make a statement that is true for you, stand up and remain standing.
-Jane is my mother.
Ok, good, that was a test. Jessica passed.
-Jane is my colleague.
-Jane is my friend.
-Jane is one of the many people responsible for making Mount Zion a second home for my family and I.
-Jane Steinman’s smile brightened my day.
Please be seated.
Mommy, as you move into the next phase of your life may you know that you will hold your place “b’kirbam,” “among them,” and take your place among the people. May you know good health, joy, happiness, spools of brilliant yarn, time with family and friends, and wholeness. May the Shechinah shine upon you and accompany you on wherever the journey may lead. Ken y’hi ratzon.
 Kiddushin 31b
 Num. 11:11-15.
 Num. 11:12 and 15.