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In Praise of Leira

04/02/2012 11:35:53 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

In Praise of Leira

Leira, we have lived a lot of life together, almost all of it in this community. I believe Dianne found you at Simcha Sunday, a few months before I arrived. You were the new Choir Director. And, it was Dianne who also suggested that we might try leading services together.

This may sound natural to those of you who have prayed with Leira these last 16 years, but in fact at first, Leira was quite frightened of the idea; music she knew, but Judaism was rather new, especially the kind of knowing that would enable one to feel comfortable leading, and so it was with fear and trepidation that Leira stepped onto the bima to sing and to pray. Yet, it worked from the very beginning, so much so, that soon after we started to lead Services together, we were planning the music for the Holy Days. I will never forget working over that piano at Christ Church; it took us hours to get through the Services… It was mostly new to you and as the new rabbi of the congregation, I too was struggling to get a handle on things. We both were a little shaky, but together we were strong enough to make it happen, and we did.

A lot has changed; we’ve prayed through 15 additional Holy Days together. Only you and I and others who have journeyed together in similar situations can know what that means. One thing that is evident to everyone however, is your humility.

You know the joke about the cantor, rabbi and the shamas of the Congregation?

It’s erev Yom Kippur. In a moment, the cantor will begin to chant Kol Nidre. Suddenly, he is overcome with fear and trepidation…runs over to the Aron Hakodesh and says in a loud voice, “Adonai, I am not worthy to lead this holy congregation. What am I in your sight but dust and ashes?” The rabbi, not to be outdone by the cantor, bumps the cantor aside and says, “I am nothing in your eyes. What have I ever done that is worthy?” Now the shamas is watching all this and is very moved, so he runs over to the ark and says, “God, I am a man of no value, a miserable sinner, a nothing…”

The rabbi taps the cantor on the shoulder and says, “Now look who’s calling himself a nothing.”

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism once taught, “the test of true service to God is that it leaves behind the feeling of humility.”(Studies in Judaism, vol.3, pg. 30) Your service to Shomrei Torah, especially on the bima from the start up until today, has passed the Besht’s test. You have brought us to some amazing heights – we have soared with you – from a place of humility.

In Hassidic thought, there is a concept called Beitul yesh – the nullification of the self. The idea behind this spiritual practice is that we must evict the ego from our hearts in order to let God in. This has been one of your enduring accomplishments – to lead, to be so big and so strong, and yet to leave so much space for all of us. In this way you are and have always been a true servant of the congregation and a personal inspiration.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the degree to which your family has been involved. Your kids, Lynden, Mathew and Olivia, have all spent a lot of time helping out around here, and then there is Carl, who has been such a gift to the congregation in so many ways. As Ruth already mentioned, Kol Nidre will never sound the same without you Carl. And, more than a few people have wondered out loud how we will keep the building in such good shape without you around. Luckily, we still have your cell phone…You are forbidden from changing it when you move up north!

A story: A student, in the old country was troubled, really troubled for he could not pray. He could say the words, he knew how to daven, but he felt nothing. So, he went to his rebbe for advice…. This was the rebbe’s answer: “See that rock over there…? Take it up to the clock tower in the town square…” “But…it’s too big and heavy…it won’t fit!” The rebbe responded: “Get a hammer and break it up into little pieces and carry them up to the top of the tower, one broken piece at a time.”

Broken, broken open. Thus, our tradition teaches that the only prerequisite for prayer is a broken heart.

Prayer is about vulnerability; not just prayer but life! To live is to feel, and to feel is to be vulnerable.

Leira, your vulnerability, as hard as it can be on you, has been an enormous gift to our community. Emotion, feeling, kavanah, transcends the words, and binds us to each other in a profound way. You gave us permission to feel. You showed us a way to a deeper connection to our faith and our worship; nothing opens the gates of heaven like tears.

There is a Hassidic story I love about a rebbe, his name I don’t remember, but he is a friend of the Kotsker Rebbe and he dies and goes to the Olam Habah. The Kotsker gets worried because he expects to hear from him in a dream; for this rebbe there was not as much distance between worlds. A month goes by and he decides to ascend to heaven himself to see what has become of his friend. So he makes the ascent, and checks all the palaces for his friend… Finally he goes to the Angel Gabriel who tells him how to find his friend: “You must pass through a very dark forest…” So he goes and sees his friend, leaning on a cane, weeping by a vast, dark lake. The Kotsker’s friend recognizes him and says, “Do you know what this lake is? It is the Sea of Israel’s tears. I am not leaving here until God dries up these tears and the lake is no more.”

I know of this lake, this sea of our sorrow. Many of us here do. But some, because of who they are and what they do are more profoundly touched, more deeply moved by these waters of life and death. Leira, you are one of those people.

I remember looking over at you, I think it was Yom HaShoah, but it could have been yiskor, and you had just finished singing El Maleh Rachamim. You were so pale I thought you might fall down. It was then that I realized the price you paid to be present, real, vulnerable, to feel the pain of the Jewish people, to enter into that sea of sorrow, to feel our pain, with us and for us through your voice. It’s no small thing.

Nor is it a small thing to stand with your rabbi over and over again to bury our friends, family, fellow travelers along the way.

“Kol Ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar meod, v’hayfakhed clal. The whole world is a narrow bridge but the essence is not to be afraid.”

You have been a fearless companion as we have walked across that narrow bridge, through the valley of the shadow many times and come out the other side.

And, how could I not mention the 300+ B’nei Mitzvah you have helped shepherd through that perilous rite of passage? (Parents & students rise)

One last story, yet another Hassidic tale, one I have told many times. It is about the Baal Shem Tov and his prayer practice. You remember the story. He prays for hours and his disciples get tired of waiting for him to finish so one day they decide it wouldn’t hurt to slip out and go next door to eat a little herring and drink a little schnapps and then come back. After all, it smells so good, and he won’t even notice… They get up to leave and they hear a horrible scream! It is the Besht. “Rebbe, Rebbe are you alright? What happened?” “When I pray I ascend a ladder into the heavens. Rung, by rung, I work my way up. You, my disciples, are the holders of the ladder. When you left to eat and drink, I fell off the ladder.”

Leira, you have held the ladder in so many ways for so many people over these past 16 years. The hole you leave is enormous; no one person can fill it! There was no task too small and few too large for you to lend a hand. This room is full of people who have benefitted from your support in one form or another over the years.

Anyone who has worked with Leira on an Shomrei Torah project, please rise.

As for me, you held the ladder, sometimes were the ladder. “Leira, I want a band.” “No problem.” “Leira, how about the Sh’ma to Bob Marley’s, “One Love, One Heart?” “No problem.” My wish was your command. Unless you thought I was wrong, or misguided. And there were a number of times over the years when you saved me from myself by suggesting there might be a better way… There were also critical times when I simply don’t think I would have made it without you. Like when I first was diagnosed with a trigeminal neuralgia, was in a lot of pain, and stoned from the medication I was taking. I would lose my place, or forget what I was saying. It was one of the most frightening times of my life and you were there, right by my side to see me through.

In truth, you spoiled me. Our future cantor may curse you, but I will always sing your praise! More than that, I will know what a true, loyal, loving, hard-working, giving colleague and friend you have been to me. I would not be the rabbi I am today if it were not for you…

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