As I mentioned at the beginning of the service, sadly, three of our members died during the past week: Cyril Davidson and shul President, Ivor Miskin, and L’Chayyim volunteer, Pam Magrill, finally let go, yesterday in the late afternoon – zichronam livrachah, may their memory be for blessing.
Each one of these unique and precious individuals leaves a huge void in the lives of their loved ones and friends, and their funerals, which have not yet taken place, will provide the opportunity to reflect on their lives and special gifts.
For now, as we face the challenge of coming to terms with the loss of the person, who has been the most senior lay leader of our congregation for many years, I would like us to take a moment to think about leadership. Because, occupying a leadership position is one thing – being a leader, is quite another; and Ivor was a leader. What does it mean to say that Ivor was a leader? Of course, as chairman, and later as president, he took very seriously the role of the Council as the governing body of the synagogue. But he also did something else – and this was particularly evident, when he became president. Behind the scenes, he facilitated and supported his fellow lay leaders; he gave advice and wise counsel, he helped sort out difficulties. And in public, he addressed the congregation at significant moments – not least, when he gave the annual Kol Nidrey Appeal – and represented the congregation in the wider community, and was a wonderful ambassador for us. And so, it’s not surprising, that the loss of Ivor is felt not only here, but in the Jewish community of Sussex as a whole. As a co-chair of the Sussex Jewish Representative Council, and a member of the Sussex Jewish News editorial team, Ivor didn’t simply contribute to the effectiveness of both these concerns, his interpersonal skills, and leadership ability, enabled everyone involved in these important arenas of Jewish communal activity to contribute to the best of their ability.
Rabbis always have a way, as any regular shul-goer will know, of making connections between what we’re experiencing in our lives, and the weekly Torah portion. Well this week is no exception. The parashah, Sh’mini, begins at Leviticus chapter 9, with an account of the ritual on the eighth, and concluding, day – sh’mini means ‘eighth’ – of the rite of ordination for Aaron, the High priest and his sons. It is very hard, as modern people to connect with and really make sense of the priesthood, which played such an integral role in the life of our people in Temple times. The priests officiated over the Avodah – the Divine Service of the sanctuary; by presenting all the sacred offerings, and bringing them before God, they maintained the relationship between the people and the Eternal, the mysterious One, whom they could not know directly, but were bound to serve.
And yet, despite the special, unique place they occupied, the priests were not really leaders. They inhabited their special roles, not because they had particular qualities, but, rather, simply because of their lineage. Although they conducted powerful sacred rites, apart from being, the son of a priest, the principal qualification required for a priest, involved being physically perfect – without blemish, just like the offerings. And although their priestly role gave them power in the community, not having any tribal lands of their own, they were completely dependent on the offerings brought by the people for physical sustenance. And they also paid a very high price for their priestly power. As the ritual for the eighth day of the ordination rite unfolds in parashat Sh’mini, we learn at the beginning of Leviticus chapter 10, that when Aaron’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, in their zeal and enthusiasm, did not do exactly what God had commanded them, but rather offered ‘strange fire’ – eish zarah – they were instantly executed by God (:1-2). With their bodies just as instantly removed, and mourning rites forbidden, Aaron’s younger sons, Elazar and Ithamar, were summoned to take the place of their dead brothers. I imagine they felt absolutely thrilled to be elevated to their new role. All that the Torah tells us about the impact of these terrible events on the family is that Aaron was, quite literally, s’truck dumb’: We read at end of verse 3: Va-yiddom Aharon (Lev. 10:3).
No, the priests weren’t leaders in any usual meaning of the word ‘leader’. They were functionaries, responsible for carrying out their duties to the letter – or rather to the lamb and the bullock – and it was very hard work. Just imagine what it must have been like hauling those great carcasses around; and all that blood splattering their beautiful, woven garments. They were sacred butchers. It is interesting, and significant to note in this regard, that the first paragraph of Pirkey Avot, the Chapters of the Sages, which is appended to the Mishnah, and sets out the line of transmission of the Torah from Moses to the rabbis, omits the priests altogether. We read (1:1):
Moses received Torah from Sinai and handed on to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets. And the prophets handed it on to the members of the Great Assembly. The latter said three things: be deliberate in judgement; raise up many disciples; and make a fence around the Torah.
Note: the key role played by the prophets here. Yes, the prophets were leaders – and of course, Aaron’s siblings, Miriam and Moses were the first prophets recorded in the Torah (Exodus 15:20 – Miriam; Deuteronomy 34:10 – Moses). And yet, the prophets didn’t occupy official leadership positions. On the contrary, the prophets were the hecklers, the sacred wordsmiths who barraged the official leaders, the Kings and the priests, with criticism, tormenting them with threats of punishment for their sins and misdeeds. Their only responsibility was to speak out. During the past month, I’ve been on writing leave, and I’m pleased to report that I have completed my book. As you will find when you read it – I hope you do, it should be published in time for Chanukkah – the prophets provide some important inspiration for my take on ‘Trouble-Making Judaism’, which is the title of the book. But not just the prophets: as the first paragraph of Pirkey Avot demonstrates, the first rabbis regarded themselves as the heirs of the prophets, receiving the Torah directly from them.
So, what kind of leaders are rabbis? Well, we are teachers by definition. Rabbi means, ‘my teacher’; and the first rabbis were the descendants of the sof’rim, the scribes, who alone among the community had the knowledge of the sacred text of Torah. The so’frim, Ezra being the most significant, played a crucial role in transmitting the Torah to the people, after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. And then, the first rabbis ensured the continuity of Jewish life by codifying the law, which was then edited into the form of the Mishnah around 200 CE. But they were not simply engaged with formulating the law, the halachah, through their imaginative commentaries on the Torah, the rabbis also created a wonderful tradition of aggadah, ‘tales’. And through, both, their halachic and aggadic interpretations of the Torah, in many places, a prophetic voice shines through – for example, as in the famous comment by Rabbi Akiva, the third century sage, who said that ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – in Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18 – is the ‘greatest principle’ of the Torah.
And yet, for centuries, while most of our people lived in ghettos, segregated from the host society, the rabbis were, principally, dayanim, judges, focusing on the important task of guiding their communities, and providing continuity and stability. It was only with the advent of modernity, and the birth of Progressive Judaism 200 years ago, that rabbis rediscovered their prophetic voice. And as we began to live alongside our, mostly, Christian neighbours, progressive rabbis – as well as modern Orthodox rabbis – also took on some of the roles associated with the Christian clergy. This has meant that, apart from within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, rabbis today are teachers and prophets and ministers and pastors and counsellors – and even priests. The Temple may be gone, and the Temple altar may have been replaced by the dining-table of the Jewish home, but when rabbis preside over the life cycle moments, in particular, the role we play is very akin to the role of a priest.
But, of course, while rabbis may have become multi-taskers, we don’t work on our own. Let us not forget that the Torah tells us that before the moment of Revelation at Mount Sinai, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, came to see him, and the priest of Midian, gave Moses some sound organisational advice. You could call him, the first managerial consultant – although I don’t think he collected a fee! (Exodus 18). Jethro told Moses that he could not bear the burden of leading the people all by himself – and that he needed to organise the elders among the people to deal with the less weighty matters. There is a sense in which, Jethro’s advice to Moses provides the first paradigm for lay leadership within the Jewish community. Certainly, the Torah suggests, that since the time of Moses, leadership is a shared responsibility.
So, lay-leaders have also made an important contribution to Jewish life. While the rabbis created the institution, we call the synagogue, nowadays, the governance of synagogues is largely a lay leadership affair, with rabbis walking a difficult tightrope between being the religious leader of the congregation and an employee! Nevertheless, the harnessing of the energies of, both, rabbi and lay leadership for the benefit of the congregation, can often be very fruitful – and certainly has been during most of the time that I have been rabbi of BHPS – which brings me back to Ivor. This weekend, as we welcome the Board of Deputies to Brighton, we are reminded of the important role played by this unique institution of British Jewry: the community’s only democratically elected cross-communal organisation, which, as the BOD web-site puts it: ‘engages with Government, media and wider society, providing a unique means through which all British Jews can be heard and represented’ (see http://www.bod.org.uk/). Ivor, perhaps more than any lay leader I have worked with during the 22 years since I received s’michah, really understood the responsibilities of lay leadership, and also the importance of lay leaders and rabbis working together to represent the community – both in the context of the synagogue, and in the context of the wider Jewish community of Sussex. As we look to the future, let us resolve to pay tribute to his memory by continuing the vital work of sustaining and developing Jewish life. Zichrono livrachah – May Ivor’s memory be a source of blessing for all our endeavours. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
26th March 2011 – 20th Adar II 5771
 Sadly, a fourth member, Elizabeth Curtis, who had also begun her final journey earlier in the week died at 6.30pm on Motza’ey Shabbat – Saturday evening