by Rabbi Andy Shugerman
October 16, 2021
Shabbat Shalom, and good morning. It is a wonderful privilege to be speaking again from the Bimah here at Beth Shalom. It’s hard for me to process entirely that six months ago tomorrow I left Brooklyn after eight years as a New Yorker and arrived here in Squirrel Hill to become our new Development Director. This is actually my third time speaking to Beth Shalom during our Shabbat morning services. I introduced myself over Zoom during the first Shabbat in April, before we had begun any reopening here, and then I spoke last month on Shabbat Shuvah regarding how Tzedakah (righteous giving) relates to the other two introspective aspects of the High Holidays – Tefillah (prayer) and Teshuvah (inward-turning repentance).
In Israel, when someone does something positive for the third time, they have a saying: Pa’am Shlishit Glidah! That means, “[for the] third time, ice cream [on me!]” So, if any of you have yet to speak with me about your background with Beth Shalom or a vision for our future here, please consider this your open invitation to meet me for ice cream, for coffee, or to chat by phone or over Zoom if that’s best.
This morning I want to tell you a different story about how I got “here” – how I’ve come to embrace my role as a rabbi serving as your inaugural Development Director at Beth Shalom. This story is actually about two different experiences in my life connected by one powerful scent.
Before I share anything about these experiences, I’d ask that you each close your eyes and call to mind a scent that reminds you something significant in your life. [Pause] If nothing comes to mind, perhaps you might connect with the scents that come from the Havdalah set on the other side of the bimah: the spice box with cinnamon and cloves, or the sulfuric smell of a lit match, or the smoke as we extinguish the candle after the final blessing. Pay attention to the emotions that arise with whatever scent comes to your mind; however this memory makes you feel, please hold that emotion in mind with whatever else your mind’s eye sees as you think of this scent. Let’s take a brief moment to sit with this memory.
The first of the two experiences I will share comes from Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles in 2004. I was interning there as a chaplain that summer, mostly in the Hematology-Oncology and Rehabilitation wards and in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. One day I was walking to get lunch from cafeteria, until I smelled a scent that stopped me in my tracks. I recall my body reacting before my mind could place that it was the same chemical scent that I’d encountered occasionally and powerfully since early 1981. Yes, that’s right not only was I alive in 1981, folks, but I have some of my earliest memories from those weeks before my third birthday. Childhood trauma will do that to you.
The next scene is at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, during January and February 1981. I spent about a month in the burn unit there undergoing treatment for 3rd degree burns over much of my chest and my right arm down to my elbow. The treatment was scary – I recall being taken regularly to a sauna-like room where all the doctors and nurses were wearing gowns and masks amidst the steam. I’m told that I would scream my head off each time they took me away from my parents. But I must tell you that most of my memories of that month-long hospital stay are positive. Likewise, I feel warmly about all of my memories of the regular subsequent return visits for checkup appointments with my doctors.
I still don’t know exactly what that chemical scent in the two hospitals comes from. What I do know is that each place, each experience, holds both powerful and emotional associations for me that I can recall by remembering that smell. Both hospital memories represent the dichotomy of those facilities. Their “both / and” qualities include both safety, beauty, wonder as well as danger, terror, and fear.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel identified these emotional responses to our experiences of the world as the essence of life’s ultimate questions. At the root of our queries about who we are, why we’re here, and what it means to live a good life are the data of these emotions and what stimulates them.
Heschel actually locates the dichotomy of our wonder and our terror about the world in a midrash that emerges from this week’s Torah portion and its silence about Abraham’s origins. Our ancient sages pose many questions regarding how very little the Torah tells us about where Abraham comes from, who he is, and why he embarks upon a journey toward the end of his life. According to Heschel, one Sage, Rabbi Isaac from third century Galilee, imagines our ancestor Avraham encountering the duality of wonder and terror about the world through a parable called the Birah Doleket. Rabbi Heschel tells that one story in two different ways with two very different translations for Birah Doleket, and that contrast is crucial to our understanding how Heschel sees them as two sides of the same coin.
I will read to you both passages from Heschel’s God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism from 1955. And if you don’t have a copy, I encourage all of you to follow Rabbi Adelson’s encouragement from his Rosh Hashanah sermon about “building a personal Jewish bookshelf” and to get this book!
Here’s the first passage:
Religion is the result of what humanity does with its ultimate wonder, with the moments of awe, with the sense of mystery. How did Abraham arrive at his certainty that there is a God who is concerned with the world? According to the Rabbis, Abraham may be “compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace full of light. ‘Is it possible that there is no one who cares for the palace?’ he wondered. Until the own of the palace looked at him and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ Similarly, Abraham our father wondered, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ The Holy Blessed One looked out and said, ‘I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the world.’” It was in wonder that Abraham’s quest for God began. Thus it is not a feeling for the mystery of living, or a sense of awe, wonder, or fear, which is the root of religion; but rather the question of what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, or fear. (111-112)
Before I read the next passage, it’s important to note that Heschel composed each section in his book with the other in mind and published these words just ten years after the Holocaust.
The second passage comes from the chapter entitled “The Problem of Evil” towards the end of the book:
There are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of wonder, in moments of joy; and there are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of horror, in moments of despair. It is both the grandeur and the misery of living that makes humanity sensitive to the ultimate question. Indeed, our misery is as great as our grandeur. How did Abraham arrive at his certainty that there is a God concerned with the world? Said Rabbi Isaac: Abraham may be “compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. ‘Is it possible that there is no one who cares for the palace?’ he wondered. Until the owner of the palace looked at him and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ Similarly, Abraham our father wondered, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ The Holy Blessed One looked out and said, ‘I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the world.’” The world is in flames, consumed by evil and suffering. Is it possible that there is no one who cares? (367-369)
So, is the world a palace full of light OR a palace in flames? The answer is YES.
As I noted before reading to you these two passages from God in Search of Man, Heschel intentionally tells this one midrash in two diametrically opposite ways because the term Birah Doleket can be read in either way. And those readings reflect his own sense of the dual nature of the world. On the one hand, Heschel sought to convey in his prolific writings and speeches the awe and beauty of his Hasidic upbringing and the mysticism of his early adulthood. On the other hand, he also grappled with the horrors of the Shoah, during which his mother, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces were all murdered.
For Heschel, and for many of us, this is one of life’s great challenges – how to make meaning out of the paradoxical dichotomy of the world as an environment that inspires both wonder and horror, joy and despair.
I think of this dichotomy as I reflect on all that I have learned and will continue to learn about the fire that destroyed much of Beth Shalom twenty-five years ago this month. As many of you know, 5782 marks the 25th anniversary not just of a major fire at Beth Shalom, but also the tremendous recovery and rebuilding efforts that transformed the property into one that now houses multiple entities all on one campus. I can hardly imagine how scary it must have been to see the smoke and flames rising from our building. I can barely fathom the courage required of those (including some in this very room!) who ran into our sanctuary to rescue our sacred Torah scrolls. I can, however, appreciate just how much work it took to inspire and organize hundreds of families to pledge more than $2 million to rebuild Beth Shalom.
Fear. Courage. Wonder. Commitment. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel identified these emotional responses to our experiences of the world as the essence of life’s ultimate questions. At the root of our queries about who we are, why we’re here, and what it means to live a good life are the data of these emotions and what stimulates them.
I can only imagine what folks were thinking and feeling as they saw their “palace full of light” become a “palace in flames.” So too, I can only imagine the deep sense of hope, gratitude and commitment that it must have taken for all of those who helped to rebuild the synagogue in the aftermath of that fire.
Perhaps most striking to me are two simple facts about how the Squirrel Hill community, and not just Beth Shalom, has responded to horrible events here in our neighborhood. I have learned how a number of Beth Shalom’s b’nai mitzvah celebrations in the months after the fire were held not here but over at Tree of Life instead. I look forward to hearing more of the stories about that Chesed, about the loving-kindness that the folks at Tree of Life showed to Beth Shalom families to make those celebrations still happen here in Squirrel Hill. Likewise, I am still learning about how Beth Shalom leaders have worked to make space available to our friends in New Light Congregation following the events of 10/27/2018.
I’m not suggesting and would never suggest that the lovingkindness and resilience we muster in the face of terrible events could ever justify or make meaningful the losses from the fire here or the shooting there.
If we are to understand, however, the world as a whole - and not just this community - as a Birah Doleket, then we must aspire to turn the flames from a destructive force into uplifting light.
To do so will require us to keep building and rebuilding here, and that is why I am so passionate about my Development Director role here. In the last two weeks alone, I have worked with Beth Shalom staff to begin implementing nearly a half million dollars in new grant funding for security upgrades, support of our Early Learning Center where my son Lev is enrolled, and for repairs on our sanctuary façade.
Those who rebuilt Beth Shalom after the October 1996 fire put structures in place that now house not only our synagogue, but another, New Light Congregation; not only our Early Learning Center, but our tenant day care, La Escuelita Arcoiris, on the floor above the ELC; not only our offices, but those of our community newspaper, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle; and our in-house caterer Elegant Edge, which provides not only food for our weekly Kiddush after Shabbat services, but meals also for many in our community.
Sharing our space with these wonderful partners is just one way that we continue to transform what was a “palace in flames” into a “palace full of light.” How else will we build upon that legacy?
I have been here in Pittsburgh long enough now to know that is just one question of many that must animate our work to envision and work towards the future of Beth Shalom for the next twenty-five years. But I definitely have not been here long enough to think that I have any of the answers yet!
So I will invite all of you again to meet with me, to engage me in conversation, so I can learn from your experiences here and to hear your ideas and questions about our future. Together we can begin to articulate more fully how to help Beth Shalom be a “palace full of light” for our community in Squirrel Hill and in greater Pittsburgh.