Rabbi Josh Brown, Temple Israel
Eight years ago, Carrie and I moved to North Carolina. We were not even engaged. Carrie had no idea that she was about to be thrown into the very busy life of the synagogue, and I barely knew what it meant to be a rabbi. We talk about that time in our lives as the “Genesis” — the first book of our life. It was our Garden of Eden — the place where we were married, where we had our first home, our first kid and our first congregation.
Like the stories of Eden and Noah’s Ark of Genesis, it is easy to love your first place. It sets the standard. But also like the Garden of Eden and Noah, I believe we are never meant to stay in the places that birth us in such a way. We are meant to be people who make progress and who change. We are meant to leave Eden, and we are all destined for some sort of wilderness.
So here we came — to Omaha and to Temple Israel. Since we had experienced Genesis in North Carolina, I naturally wondered if this would be our Exodus — our Egypt. This would be the place where we faced plagues.
And in some ways that was true. We were plagued early on by immense heat, extreme winters and of course all the creepy crawly things that were in the nooks and crannies of the Cass Street building.
But of course, we did not face any real plagues. What we did find was the wilderness — and that is what I want to reflect on tonight. The importance of the wilderness — and the importance of this place/congregation in our family’s journey.
The Jewish understanding of the wilderness is not some desert where you are lost. True, in the Jewish wilderness you do not know where you are, – a response we have all received when we tell people we are from Omaha. “You are from where?” The Jewish wilderness is a place filled with question marks. We all face these times throughout life – think about puberty and adolescence – that is Jewish wilderness. Think about times when you are changing careers or when your family is not what you thought it would be. This is the difficult side of the Jewish wilderness. It comes with uncertainty and often confusion.
We certainly faced those moments here. We learned how to parent one little girl and then became uncertain about two new boys. We found our family changing — we found out how to care for each other when those who raised us were too far away to step in. In that sense Omaha had the fear of the wilderness.
But it is also in the wilderness that you find out who you are. And to do that, you need a Moses. You find that person who will lead you passionately through the unknown and never let you look back. You find your Aryeh.
I am relatively certain that if Moses were around today, that Moses would hand the staff over to Aryeh and say – show me how to do this. I came to Omaha for two reasons. To check out this Tri-Faith thing that you’ve heard about, and to work alongside a fearless rabbi who pursues his mission with every breath he takes.
To be in the shadow of Rabbi Azriel day in and day out is like sitting alongside a race car driver who is on his 500th lap about to win the race. He knows what’s coming down the road before anyone else – and he knows about every bump that people have faced along the way. And perhaps the most amazing aspect of working with Aryeh is that in those moments when he doesn’t know the answer, he doesn’t slow down one bit — because he has the deepest faith that it will all work out.
So with my Moses, I learned not to be afraid. I learned that we do not bury people with dirt, we cover them in a blanket of Godly earth. I learned not to use the word “problems” 99% of the time I want to, because most things we call problems are really just challenges to be overcome. And I learned that no matter how many mistakes we make or risks we take, no one will ever fault you for caring too much or being too honest. That is what if feels like to be in the wilderness with Aryeh. It is inspiring and exhausting, it is filled with other people’s pain, and it is void of fear even when you’ve seen more death than anyone should. It is wild — and it is holy. And it is where I was lucky enough to shape who I am as a rabbi. Moses himself would be envious.
In the wilderness, the Israelites complained about so much and yet in Deuteronomy, Moses explains that during the entire time in the wilderness, the Israelites lacked absolutely nothing. So too, I’ve realized that in our wilderness we can find it easy to complain, but the truth is we lack nothing.
Synagogues and churches alike notoriously complain about the cheap food they are served. But not here. Thanks to Dennis, we have the best restaurant in Omaha. But what you may not know is that Dennis is not only the manager of the restaurant, he is its chief mensch. When someone can’t get to services, Dennis will often go pick them up. He doesn’t get up on the bima often – as he prefers to point to his watch from the back of the sanctuary when we talk too much, but don’t be confused, he is as kind a soul as God makes – and he would do anything and often does for this congregation.
And then there is Cantor. Our rough and gruff Cantor who puts on her thick outer shell only to cover up what is a deeply sympathetic heart. I recommend that you all spend the next few years getting her drunk – so you can see the real Wendy behind her Cantorial skin.
And I hope no one ever underestimates the power of Misty. If you want a real tough one – if you want to find the only person who can put Aryeh in his place with ease – then Misty is your gal. Thank you, Misty, for bossing Aryeh around before he could boss us around. He may be our rabbi, but you are our Pope!
I won’t go through every staff member, but I do want to say that this is an amazing place to spend our days, and that too often the amount of time this incredible group of people put in to make our congregation function is underestimated. People are here all the time – working well longer than their paycheck requires. We thank them, but not enough.
So the wilderness is not the Garden of Eden. It is a place filled with hard work and sacrifice, but it is in Eden, where we never have to move anywhere, where we are actually lost and in the wilderness where we find out who we are.
And this is what I want to say most personally. I’ve become quite sentimental about this place ever since we decided that there would be an end to our time here. It’s funny what hits you. I was brought to tears a number of times on Wednesday nights because our teens are amazing. I found myself reading our prayers with increased fervor — listening to Cantor’s voice with more intent than I had before. And I found that what I loved most about being here was when people called me Josh. It was such a gift that was given whole heartedly. It was the best gift of my time in the wilderness with you. Because there is nothing more powerful than when people see you for who you are. My childhood rabbi once shared with me that the rabbinate can be a lonely place. Clearly, it is not lonely for lack of people — we are surrounded by people all the time. But one can be lonely if they are on a packed subway car filled with people who don’t see who they really are. Many congregations are packed subway cars filled with strangers who do not care about or for their clergy. Not here. Here, we are not only treated well, but we are called by our name.
The comfort all of you have given me these last few months when you have so simply, but sincerely, called me by my name has reminded me that my role as a rabbi will come and go – but friendships do not have term limits. So I chose not to wear a kippah or tallis tonight – not because I do not value them – but because what is most precious about the wilderness is finding out who we are and knowing that we are loved for precisely that. You have brought that feeling to me, just as you have brought it to Carrie, Hannah, Noah and Ezra. The gift of the wilderness is not only that we figure out who we are — it is that we realize how much people can love us for who we are. And that, I believe, is the Promised Land. Without a doubt – you brought us there.