Award winner's Drash at Temple Beth Israel

On Saturday 23 March 2013 - Shabbat HaGadol,  in Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne, Australia, former President and long-time volunteer, Phyllis Dorey was presented with the UPJ's prestigious Vatik Award.  In response to the presentation made by UPJ President, Stephen Freeman, Phyllis gave some insights into the weekly Parasha.



Traditionally on Shabbat HaGadol ("Great Shabbat"), the Shabbat immediately before Passover, as well as the special Haftarah reading, taken from the end of Malachi, a lengthy and expansive sermon is given!


But first, I’d like to thank a few people: Penny Jakobovits, who instituted the Vatik Award when she was president of the Union for Progressive Judaism, and talked me into getting involved in the regional body; the leadership of TBI for considering me worthy of this great honour and for nominating me in the first place; Stephen Freeman for being here today to present me with this award; my brother Ron, sister-in-law Andrea, and all my friends here to share this occasion with me, without whose love, support, mentoring and friendship I would not be standing here today.


Many of you know my Jewish journey – Holocaust survivor parents who came here with nothing, no family, and a fear of aligning themselves with a seemingly assimilated community that was embarrassed by the new European refugees, how they dressed and how they spoke! Eventually, my parents were persuaded by friends to attend a High Holyday service led by Rabbi Sanger and realised that they had found a new home, a place where they finally felt welcome, where they could proudly and openly live their Judaism, and where their life could find meaning again. Fast forward a few years, when they were more established and had some spare time to ‘give back’ to that community through their involvement in a range of welfare and philanthropic organisations. They were great role models and so taught us the importance of, and the fulfilment gained from, being active members of a vibrant community.  It’s what I was taught – involuntarily, by osmosis and voluntarily - and I hope I am able to model that too!


At the recent UIA dinner at which Senator Joe Lieberman spoke, he noted that “each of us has the capacity to be a leader – it’s just as easy as being a follower!”  


This week’s Parashat repeats and elaborates on the descriptions of the sacrifices already discussed in Parashat Vayikra. God told Moses to command Aaron and the priests about the rituals of the sacrifices and we are given graphic details about how the ancient offerings were performed.  We are also given a description of the ordination of Aaron and his sons as the first Kohanim/priests in the Mishkan (sanctuary) and of the dedication of the first sanctuary, and I’d like to talk a bit about leadership and this community within that context.


God instructed Moses to assemble the whole community at the entrance of the tent of meeting for the ordination of the priests. Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward, washed them and dressed Aaron in his vestments; he anointed and consecrated the Mishkan and all that was in it and then anointed and consecrated Aaron and his sons. Thereafter follows another elaborate explanation of the various offerings and procedures carried out as part of the ordination.


 At this point the Torah describes a complex ritual, during which Moses placed some of the sacrificial blood "upon the tip of their right ear, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot" Next, Moses took the anointing oil and offering blood "and sprinkled it upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons" He then instructed them to remain in the Tent of Meeting for seven days and not to leave. All five senses - sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell- were involved in this rich ritual of ordination.


Today, we ordain our rabbis, cantors and educators after up to five years of intensive training, and we ask them to be our spiritual leaders, guides, mind-readers, teachers, pastoral and social workers, community builders, psychologists, advocates, healers, accountants, lawyers, singers and friends. AND we ask them to deliver a meaningful sermon every week! They are expected to use all their five senses as well as their intellect and their hearts every day of the year in this role that they have chosen for themselves. They are truly called to this role by God.


But how do we choose, prepare and support our lay leaders? Who are their key influencers, what are the prompts, the turning points, the relationships or significant experiences that encourage our members to take on these leadership roles? We all start from some point, we reflect on what matters and why; and we each have the ability to have a voice in what we want to achieve. For many it is tied up with our perceived place in our community, our relationship to the individuals and the collective, how welcome we are made to feel and how we feel we can make a difference.


What does ‘making a difference’ actually mean? It is certainly more than sitting on a committee or a board of governance or management.  Is that what community leadership is really about anyway? Certainly not for everyone! What do we get out of being leaders and what can we contribute? How do the ancient sacrifices/rituals relate to us today?  What, if any meaning or relevance, can we still find in the details of the various offerings, these obsolete practices – whether it be a lesson we can learn from the rituals themselves or whether we can find meanings that provide us with a moral truth about our lives?  Do we seek the outer vestments of leadership – kavod/recognition, titles? Yes of course that’s part of it for some! But we also make sacrifices: of our spare time, financial resources, hours away from family, and so on. And it changes who we are: from an outsider to an insider, from someone who constantly thinks “I ought to do this” to someone who does, and from a life that is static to one that is dynamic.


There are excellent programs on offer which can help encourage, motivate and prepare us for leadership positions: whether through our synagogue, which has just run a very successful one; or through the Union for Progressive Judaism (UPJ) or the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). Rabbi Steve Burnstein who was here last week talked about the Beutel seminar, named after Nani and Austin Beutel from Canada who are wonderfully generous leaders in the World Union, and it is a program open to all which I commend to you.


We certainly acknowledge that significant ethical messages are passed on from generation to generation, from leaders to leaders; and that no part of the Torah is ever considered obsolete. Parashat Tzav reminds us that our mundane, daily activities can play a role in shaping our selves, both our public presentation of self - our outer vestments - and our private understanding of self – what we can contribute and what we can learn about ourselves and others. This too is leadership! It reminds us that what is appropriate in one circumstance is not appropriate in another, that context matters and visual symbols and rituals create real meaning, and that ritual without commitment is form without content.


We are taught that “Words of Torah should be spoken with fire...they should penetrate every facet of a person’s being”.  Learning should not be a dull exercise, but a way of filling each person with a desire to practice the wisdom, ethics and traditions of Torah. Prayer should not be routine, rather an expression of love for God and an appreciation of the world created by God. In practicing the mitzvah of tzadakah – charity – it is not enough to provide money and services for the needy, although we need to do that too; rather one must do it with true conviction, an “inner warmth that manifests itself outwardly” providing an example to others, in other words, leadership! In the words of Jeremiah: “Do my bidding... that I may be your God and you may be my people; walk only in the way I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you!”


“Each of us has the capacity to be a leader – it’s just as easy as being a follower”.


And our Mishkan/sanctuary – the physical but also the metaphysical, sociological, psychological and spiritual place to which we come regularly, or not so regularly - this community, our home, our soul. Was the sanctuary built by the Jewish people in the desert meant to symbolise the sanctuary we build inside every Jew? Just as the sanctuary has an inner and outer altar, so each Jew possesses a surface personality and an essential core.  


When the Torah says that it is the priests’ duty to keep the altar of the sanctuary burning, it is also the way in which we practice our Jewish tradition – not as a private possession to be cherished subconsciously, but to be shown in the face a person sets towards the world! Using the symbol of the continually burning fire on the altar, or today, the Ner Tamid above our Mishkan, as Jews, it is the obligation of the Kohanim of the Exodus, our present day rabbis, us and the generations to come that we must be involved and show leadership in bringing life and fire to the three aspects of Jewish existence: to the learning of Torah, to prayer, and to the practice of charity. 


It is what Rabbi Morgan refers to (on this week’s Kol Yisrael sheet you received when you came in) as ‘the service of the heart’. He writes: “We all need to be inspired to complete what we set out to do, and religious rituals that connect us to our community and touch our souls do just that. Do we enslave others to our own self-interest, or do we make the well-being of others our goal?  How we treat the stranger, the alien, the asylum-seeker, the adherent of another faith, is a measure of our godliness.”


Since each family, not only those of the priestly caste, made and continue to make its own Passover offering, it is clear that each was and is directly connected to the hope and aspirations of Shabbat HaGadol. Therefore each of us in all generations received the blessing of the Exodus - the beginning of the path to an ultimate Redemption – and each is responsible to keep the fire and hope alive by working toward the Great Sabbath that will come when Elijah finally sits with us at the Seder table. As the Torah says: “Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the great and awesome day of the Eternal when the heart of the parents will be turned to the children and the children’s heart to the parents, lest the land be stricken...”

What makes this Shabbat Great is neither that which happened in the past nor its observance in the present. It is Great because it reminds us of the great potential for good that lies within us when we recommit to bringing justice to all who are enslaved through the power that we have to align with God in the work of perfecting our world.


“Each of us has the capacity to be a leader – it’s just as easy as being a follower”.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Kasher v’Sameach!



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