Installation Sermon: Har Sinai Congregation

Har Sinai Congregation

Our Shabbat bridges a borderline between Torah tales.

Morning will speak the story of Jacob.

Last week, Jacob sights angels ascending and descending a ladder at a place he names Beth-El.  This week, at the transit-point of Jabbok, he struggles with a “being”, and transitions in name from Jacob, “the heel” – to Israel, “one who struggles with the Divine”.

Did he dream it or did it actually happen? With Jacob, even his dreams are liminal. It is never clear if his visions are those of full-rem sleep, or half-waked moments.

If Jacob dreamt in semi-realized black-and-white, Joseph, his son, who debuts on Shabbat afternoon, at the transitional moment between Torah portions, dreams in full-multi-color. Prophetic thoughts.

Joseph’s own boastful visions – the dream of sheaves of harvested grain and the dream of the celestial firmament, forecast his rise to greatness. And in coming weeks, we will learn he possesses the God-given ability to interpret the dreams of others. Beginning with the dreams of those incarcerated with him in jail, and culminating with the prediction of future-plenty, and famine, in Pharaoh’s kingdom.

Our congregation, this Shabbat, bridges a boundary moment in its history. Rabbi Freelander, I am so moved and touched by your words of address at my installation as Har Sinai Congregation’s rabbi. You eloquently mark this moment of shift and change, as I officially, and joyfully, transform as the rabbi in this very pulpit.

Thank you.

In the black-and-white words, on the pages written by Rabbi Abraham Schusterman, in “The Legacy of a Liberal”, which tells of “The miracle of Har Sinai Congregation as it is recounted on the One Hundred and Twenty Fifth Anniversary” and in words of the brief history of the last fifty-years, found in Har Sinai’s employee manual; in the beautiful reminisces, shared by our multi-generational Har Sinai members; to the recollections of those who joined more recently;  the visions and values, of the last one-hundred-and-seventy-five years, reverberate from the past, through these walls of Har Sinai Congregation’s fourth home.

Predictive dreams, that began with our first rabbi, David Einhorn.

Dreams of mutual respect, and strong partnership, between rabbi and lay leadership. Dreams of moral conscience and social action. Dreams of intellectual curiosity and search for spiritual meaning. This has been the heart of Har Sinai Congregation from its beginning.

These are the values, which have sustained us throughout our proud history, furthered by great rabbis such as Samuel Sale and Charles Rubenstein, Edward Israel, Abraham Schusterman and our beloved emeritus, Floyd Herman, and so many others. I am beyond humbled to be chosen as the eighteenth Senior Rabbi of this community, building on the beautiful vision of so many “greats” of Reform Judaism who have come before me.

Our father Jacob dreamt at transitional moments – at his escape from his parent’s home, and as he returned to his parent’s home a changed man. Joseph, my sur-name-sake, dreamt predicate to the border moment of his outcast into Egyptian slavery.

Like Jacob and Joseph, I too have lived transition and dreams, been changed by them, outcast by them, and elevated by them. Each stage has been at the time, or in hind-sight, a blessing.

Wonderful memories from my growing up in Australia in a committed Progressive Jewish household; my studies as a World Union for Progressive Judaism student at Hebrew Union College; serving in my home-city of Melbourne as a rabbi; alongside my varied experiences in four congregations here in the United States; and the chance to serve our American Reform Jewish community through the Union for Reform Judaism.

My lived dreams, have bestowed upon me the privilege of being teacher, and student, of Jewish life and text. Each period in this series-of-dreams, enhanced with experimentation, learning, growth. Each phase in this series-of-dreams, improved deeply by partnership. Each moment in this series-of-dreams, forming and igniting new passions in me, that I bring to this new era at Har Sinai Congregation.

As Joseph’s Torah narrative continues in coming weeks, he moves beyond his dreams of self. He brings his expertise as dreamer, and becomes the interpreter of other’s dreams, at threshold moments in their lives.

He becomes known in jail for his predictive abilities, that he shares with inmates and jailers, with butler and baker, and ultimately, upon commendation, with the Pharaoh. By partnering in the decipher of dreams, Joseph fulfils the initial dreams of his own elevated destiny.

Like Joseph, I began with my visions. I interviewed with our thoughtful Rabbinic Search Committee at Har Sinai Congregation, articulating my desire for a partnership that takes seriously Jewish text, Jewish prayer, and Jewish community.

Like Joseph, in your midst I now move beyond visions of my own to become the interpreter of a merged vision which has begun to coalesce over the last five months.

Our time together must honor Har Sinai’s historic values of moral conscience and social action, intellectual curiosity and spiritual meaning. Our time together will speak of my expressed passion for text, prayer and community.

Our coming together creates a determinant moment to launch a future to dream a dream in vivid color that we will co-own together. We will vision, we will play, we will experiment: what makes Har Sinai congregation unique in Baltimore and in Reform Judaism?

We will dream into being, a distinctive voice, a creative soul, a Jewish neshama, for ourselves, and this generation, and the next. Not the stuff of full rem sleep or half-waked moments, a murky vision of our subconscious, to remain in sublimation. But a clear dream that will take root in reality.

Our congregation, this Shabbat, bridges a threshold moment in its illustrious history. An exciting moment. Oh, to dream!

Our task: to bring the Torah of Har Sinai down the mountain, (or in the case of the physicality of our building – out of the valley!), to the Jews of Owings Mills, Baltimore, it’s surrounds, and the Reform Jewish world, in a way that creates and compels excitement and meaning.

Such dreaming is the continuous ever-changing vision of Sinai, a purpose that has always been ours from the time of our founders, until today. Together, we will dream the black and white words I utter from this page, into a vivid, full-multi-colored actuality. Oh, to dream! Jewish meaning for the generations… together.


“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud[i].

We Jews have long been dream interpreters. From my famous namesake Joseph who dreamed of his rise from the depths of a pit to a high command in Egypt, and who was able to interpret the dreams of his guards and baker and butler inmates, as well as the dreams of the Pharoah of Egypt – to the prophets whose sleeping and waking dreams spoke the words of God – to the rabbis of the Talmud, like Ben Hedya, who was known to give positive interpretations of dreams to those who paid him and negative interpretations to those who did not pay!

We have such a rich tradition of dream interpretation. The Talmud teaches:

If an ox kicks you in your dream, a long journey awaits you. If you see a male chicken in your dream you will have a son. If you see a fig in your dream, you will remember all you who have learned. If you see an egg that breaks in your dream, your dream will be fulfilled. If you are in chains in your dream, you will be protected. If you see a well in your dream, you will behold peace and become a great Torah Scholar.[ii]

“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud. We are a people who believes a dream needs interpretation.

Our Torah portion this week, Balak, tells of the prophet Balaam who is sent by King Balak to curse the people – although the words Balaam speaks can only come through God. The three times the prophet opens his mouth to utter the commissioned curses, he is only able to give the Israelites blessing, as this is God’s will.

In another Talmudic passage there is a beautiful prayer offered in regards to dreams which is linked our parsha. It is recommended as a prayer to say when in a traditional synagogue, the priests do duchanan, when they offer their priestly blessing over the congregations, Tallitot over their heads, their arms out wide and hands shaped in the priestly Vulcan “Live long and prosper” formation. It is a time when it is believed that the conduits between here on earth and the heavens above are made most open through that holy moment and hence the words of our hearts and souls are most effective.

Such a beautiful prayer. It reads –

“Master of the World! My dreams and I belong to You. If the dreams are good — bolster them like the dreams of Joseph. And if they need to be remedied — fix them like the bitter waters that Moses sweetened. Just as You transformed wicked Balaam’s curses into blessings, so too, make all of my dreams be for the best.”[iii]

We are celebrating this weekend the 4th July, American Independence Day, when our country celebrates its dream – the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson and his cohorts wrote –

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[iv]

It is a dream echoed in the words by the Reverend Martin Luther King in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech which had become also part of the American experience.

When I became an American citizen just last High Holy Days, I fulfilled a waking dream of making myself not just a permanent and participating citizen in this country, but part of a society that dreams of honoring all: no matter their origins, gender, color of skin, sexuality. I became part of this American dream that believes in tolerance and as Australian’s would say: “Giving everyone a fair go!” What a beautiful dream that has made this country great.

But not always are our dreams fulfilled. So too with our American dream. The events of the last few weeks so fresh especially here in South Carolina has bought to the fore of national discussion where our American dreams have fallen short.

Rav Kook, an early Zionist, orthodox rabbi and spiritual teacher teaches us about bad dreams, dreams that have gone awry. He suggests that like the prophecy of Balaam which started out bad and turned to good, there are two ways we can transform evil dreams into good outcomes.

The first way is turning the evil around towards good. He examples that when Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he ultimately he rose to greatness, and was able to prepare a region to sustain itself through famine. Out of the nightmare we can refocus and realign to see the good that has come from misfortune.

So we see how the pundits comment on the way that people on both sides of the political spectrum have joined forces to ensure that the Confederate Flag is taken down from the State House close by. Or how the American community has come together to support and mourn with the people of faith at the Emanuel African Methodist Church with expressions of national grief. We refocus to make the best of the nightmare.

Rav Kook teaches that an even more impressive way of dealing with nightmarish situations is when the causes before realized are transformed into positive ones, so that our dreams become sweet because of our actions. This is the proactive approach of turning the bad to the good.

He writes as his sample that God could have let Balaam curse the people of Israel, only later turning the curses into blessings. But instead, God controls Balaam’s mouth so that only blessings are uttered.

Rather than waiting for the ills and injustices of society to fester and foster an incident… this more impressive approach asks us to take our American dreams and values and ask the question – is our society living up to our aspirations? And if not, how can we make this happen? We must examine who we are as Americans, we must focus our sensitivities towards other people’s pain, we must address inequalities before the bad dream takes on true nightmare qualities. We must affirm not just with dreamy words but in waking reality, equality for all and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all working towards a favorable American world.

The men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, had a vision, a dream for a society better than the one they had known under British rule. When I became an American, I was inspired by this dream of a country with great opportunity.

“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud. We are a people who believes a dream needs interpretation. Let us dream for the good. For the auspicious. For the beneficial. So that all may live and American sweet dream.

[i] Berakhot 55a

[ii] Vanessa Ochs: The Jewish Dream Book pp. 29-31

[iii] Berakhot 55b

[iv] The Declaration of Independence