What Do You Do at the Crossroads

It’s nice to be here for such a lovely Shabbat of celebration and joy, especially after being away this week at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention.  This year, we gathered in Dallas, TX – the hometown of Bill Gershon, the newly installed president of the Rabbinical Assembly (the organization of 1700 Conservative rabbis worldwide).

As a first-timer in Dallas with little time to explore before the Convention started, I had to figure out what to do.

How many of you have been to Dallas?

I’ve never been so, I googled “things to do in Dallas.”  Some excerpts from the list:

  • The Pioneer Plaza Cattle Drive – not sure if that’s for me.
  • Southern Methodist University – not really my cup of tea.
  • Mary Kay Cosmetics – again, not really….
  • The Perot Museum of Nature and Science – ???

But there is the John F. Kennedy Memorial and Dealey Plaza with its renowned 6th Floor Museum.  So, together with an old friend and colleague, I headed over there to spend a couple of hours touring the museum that delves deeply into that tragedy.

Who here remembers where they were on Friday, November 22, 1963?

John F. Kennedy Memorial and Dealey Plaza 6th Floor Museum
After going through the museum, seeing the window through which Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president (it all seemed almost too easy), and standing next to the spot on the road where the fatal bullet hit, I was overcome by sadness.

Rabbi David Lerner at J.F.K. assassination site
Rabbi David Lerner at J.F.K. assassination site in Dallas, TX

One 1963 television commentator summed it up well: “For $9.78, Lee Harvey Oswald bought the life of the president.”  That was the cost of the mail order gun that Oswald used.

The picture of LBJ being sworn in as President on Air Force One with Jackie Kennedy, freshly bereaved, in a state of shock, is telling and poignant.

LBJ Swearing In

The museum filled in many details I did not know.  For example, the assassination was not considered a federal crime (perhaps assassinations of presidents would be today…) and because of that, local authorities were in charge of the investigation.  They wanted to conduct an autopsy in Texas but Jackie would not leave Texas without her husband’s body and LBJ wanted Jackie to return with him.  So, against the will of local police, the Secret Service simply went in and took the president’s body!

Through the powerful exhibits, one could sense the melancholy that pervaded the country, in fact, much of the world in the wake of the assassination.  The country was experiencing a time of turmoil – it was the start of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam and just after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As the news of the death of its young, charismatic president sank in, the country felt like it was at a crossroads.

How would the country move forward?

Walking out of the museum, I was struck by the suddenness of the loss – the challenge to the country as a whole, and LBJ personally, faced.  Would they be able to overcome this loss?

*           *           *

As the convention began, I retained the mood of sadness.  I shared the pain of a friend who lost her father, also a rabbi, who came to the convention to remember him.

I listened to friends who have experienced many trials and tribulations in the congregational rabbinate.  Colleagues discussed the toll this profession was taking on them and their families, even as we reflected on the poor choices that a local colleague made that have recently come to light.

And I mourned a 50 year old congregational rabbi who took his own life just a couple of weeks ago; he had been my wife’s teacher and mine.  He had been a caring leader who inspired me as head of my USY on Wheels bus in 1987 and now, he had succumbed to the illnesses of depression and alcoholism.

*           *           *

And, as if all of that were not enough, our convention took place in the shadow of the Pew Survey of American Jews that came out last fall.  Every one of the hundreds of Conservative rabbis knows of the challenges that American Jews face in stemming the tide of assimilation and disaffiliation.  This is most acute in the Conservative Movement, which only a few decades ago claimed the most adherents among American Jews and today stands at 18%, trending downward.

Colleagues around the halls of the convention were out of work – their synagogues had closed or merged.  There was a real sense of:  would we even be relevant in the future?  Was all our work for naught?

We stand at a crossroads. How can we as American Jews move forward?


Woody Allen has a small essay about crossroads where he says, “You know humanity is at the crossroads. One road leads to ruin and destruction and the other leads to anguish and pain.”  He concludes, “Let us hope to have the wisdom to choose wisely.”

*           *           *

But actually, we do have good choices.  As Shira explained in her d’var Torah, Parashat Behukkotai contains the theme of blessings and curses.  God says, “If you listen to Me, you will receive many blessings; if not, well…not good.”

The parashah opens with God’s delineating a choice – Im b’hukkotai teliekhu – if you go/walk in my ways, in my laws, then it will rain in the proper season (and not too much or too little!), you will have enough to eat and there will be peace.

Our commentators point out a number of ideas based on these verses.

First, the word teleikhu – while later on the Torah states tish’m’ru – if you keep/guard/observe my commandments, which is what we would expect, here, the parashah opens with walking in God’s hukim – God’s laws.

What does it mean to walk in laws?  How can we walk in a tradition?

This nuanced difference is critical.  To walk in a tradition, is to inhabit it and become a part of it.  It is not merely to follow it perfectly, but to get our shoes dirty – to evolve with it.  That is so vital to our approach as centrist Jews.  We are following the Torah, walking in it, but also growing with it.  We and Torah are walking and evolving together.

We as Jews, as a community, are on a journey together – we need to support each other, connect with each other and hear each other’s stories so we can build the vibrant Jewish community of tomorrow.  We may face challenges, but they can be met when we walk together.

While many shuls are experiencing difficulties, we are most blessed to have a strong community and there are many more in the Boston area.  We are also blessed with a wide range of opportunities for formal and informal Jewish learning.  We have centers of adult Jewish learning like Hebrew College, dynamic day schools like JCDS, Gann and Schechter – it’s nice to have so many JCDS students here this Shabbat!  And we have many, many Jewish camps!

These institutions help all of us develop the strengths we need to walk in God’s ways.

This way_that way

*          *          *

Let me share one more aspect of the opening of the parashah.

The Torah states that if we follow in God’s ways, we will be given peace – v’natati shalom ba’aretz.  But, right before that, the Torah stated that we will live in security – doesn’t that mean we will live in peace as well?

Why the redundancy?

The Gur Aryeh, a super-commentator on Rashi (You’ve got to love the title “super-commentator”!  It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s super-commentator!) who was also known as the Maharal of Prague – the creator of the Golem, asks: “why is this phrase – ‘v’natati shalom – I will give peace’ placed here, interrupting [this long list] of blessings of plenty?  It should have been placed at the end [of this long list]!

Maharal of Prague and his Golem

Answering his own question he states: “Because peace is also [considered] a blessing of plenty – for if there is plenty but one cannot eat with peace of mind, then the plenty is not worth anything.”

The Gur Aryeh is really onto something here – shalom is critical, if we don’t have it, even if we are rich, we have nothing. Shalom is a state of mind, oneo which we aspire, even when we don’t actually have peace.
Perhaps, it is precisely when we are challenged, that we need shalom and its positive energy the most.

*          *          *

At the convention, I was inspired by what my colleagues are doing – they are creating vibrant communities, they are innovating and, even when things are not perfect, they are filled with positive, enthusiastic energy.

What I found most inspiring was Rabbi Bill Gershon himself, the new RA President, who despite the recent kidney transplant that saved his life just a couple of weeks ago, spoke passionately and strongly.  He spoke about optimism.

He said: “We may be at a crossroads, but I refuse to be a pessimist.

He reminded us of the story of twin brothers whose birthday is fast approaching.  One brother is a pessimist, the other an optimist.  Their father is torn as to what birthday gifts to get them.  So he seeks the advice of a psychologist, who advises: for the pessimist, get a diamond studded gold watch and for the optimist get a box of manure.  So the father does as the psychologist suggests.

diamond studded gold watch

And on the morning of their birthday, the brothers wake up to find their presents.  The pessimist says to his brother, “I got a fake gold watch, with rhinestones. It probably doesn’t even tell time.  What did you get?

To which the optimist responds, “Oh, I got a pony! I just don’t know where they put it.”


*           *           *

In the middle of the 20th century, demographers claimed that American Reform and Orthodox Judaism were experiencing such a decline that they would not survive.  Fifty years later, Reform is undergoing ascendancy.

But I am a Conservative Jew and rabbi not because of demographics and sociology.  I am a centrist Jew, a passionate halakhic egalitarian Jew because I believe in it – not because some focus group tells me it’s a popular idea.

My week was filled with incredible sessions that demonstrated the depth of the work taking place in our movement.  It was filled with insightful learning that I look forward to sharing with you over the coming months, most especially on Shavuot.

But I have to say that Rabbi Gershon inspired me.  He took the bull by the horns (it was Texas after all!) and gave us all our marching orders, listing the ways in which he hoped his presidency would help rebuild and reinvigorate the vital center of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.

We are at a crossroads, but we must make our choice to walk in God’s ways, infused with our understanding of what God wants of us.

*           *           *

Just before I left Dealey Plaza, I saw a large plaque in the ground, inscribed with a quote from the speech JFK was on his way to deliver at the Dallas Mart when he was murdered.

 “We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.”

George Perrault at J.F.K. Memorial in Dallas, TX

As Jews and as Americans, as people, let us move forward and walk from this crossroads toward a more peaceful, more complete, and more vibrant Jewish tomorrow.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.