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Parashat Noach 5779

Drash and Remarks by Rabbi Mike Rothbaum
on the occasion of his installation on October 12, 2018


I am humbled, I am honored — I am so excited — to be installed as your rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim.  Thank you to this community, to its board and staff, for the honor.  Thank you to my parents and siblings who supported me all along the way, and — of course — to Anthony, now and always my guiding light and North Star, whose work and wisdom quite literally makes it possible for me to be in this position.

This week is Parashat Noach.  The Noah narrative stretches over five chapters.  It’s followed by the story of Migdal Bavel — The Tower of Babel.  Nine short verses.

Rabbis, of course, are not known for being brief.  So in gratitude for your sacred trust tonight, I’ll try to keep it short.  Let’s leave Noah for another time and talk about Babel.

As the scene opens, every single person on earth speaks one language.  And since there’s no language barrier, they have a plan.  Bake bricks.  Nice and hard.  Build a city.  Make a tower.  Rosho baShamayim.[1]  With its top up in Heaven.

You probably know the general contour of the Babel story.  God’s not happy with earth’s original urban planners.  God confuses their language.  Babel is hopelessly lost in a stream of babble.  They abandon their plan.

The Hebrew School telling of this story often places blame on the tower.  After all, the text tells us its top was in Heaven.  Maybe God had a NIMBY problem.  Not in My Blue Yonder.

But the text tells us why the people wanted to build the city, and its tower.  “Hey everyone!  Let’s make a city for ourselves, and a tower!”  Na’aseh lanu shem.[2]  “We’ll make a name for ourselves!”

File that under “Be Careful What You Wish For.”  Boy, do they make a name for themselves.  Babel is probably one of the best-known place names in the Bible — but not in a good way.

Babel, of course, is synonymous with nonsense.

Which raises the question: what’s so bad about wanting to make a name for yourself?

I’d say it’s depends.  How do you want to make a name for yourself?  What kind of name do you want? 

Yes, Babel is well known.  And their tower?   Super famous.  The Midrash teaches that  “the tower had seven levels on its east and seven levels on its west.  The builders brought the bricks up one side and came down the other.”  An impressive infrastructure project, no doubt.

But the Midrash continues, telling us that during the construction, “if a person [working on the tower] were to fall and die, no one would notice him; [meanwhile,] if even a single brick were to fall, they would moan and cry, ‘Oy! When will another brick be brought up in its place??'”[3]

According to our sages, the name Babel made for itself was one of misplaced priorities.  Babel concerned itself more with monuments than morality.  It cared more and more about buildings and less and less about human life.

And, today, you don’t have to look too far to see the same kind of upside down thinking.  In a world where profits, power, and public image take precedence over people, it’s the exceptions that stand out.  It’s the places where kindness and caring and fairness take precedence that you notice.

It’s places like Congregation Beth Elohim that stand out.

It’s why I’m so honored and proud to be your rabbi.

When I go out in the world, I take your name with me.

What name has this community made for itself?  How do people know Beth Elohim?  Well, often they know it as the place who lets their rabbi hold office hours at the coffee shop.  But they know it as the place where people look out for each other.  They know it as the place that comes together to take care of those in need, inside and outside the community.  They know it as the place that has a loving and compassionate sisterhood and brotherhood.  They know it as the place that cares for their kids deeply and lovingly, whether their parents are Jewish or not, whether the kids themselves are Jewish or not.  They know it as the place that serves supper at Mt. Calvary every month, at Cor Unum every Easter and Christmas.  They know it as the place that rallied to send supplies down to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a place that raised over $36,000 for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.  They know it as the place that has a regular minyan in a town not exactly flush with Jews.  They know it as the place that sends a minyan regularly to protest the deportation of our neighbors at the ICE office in Burlington, when other places send a couple of people at best.

Our name is Beth Elohim.  Under the incomparable leadership of Rabbi Lewis Mintz, it became known as “House of God.”  That God is a God of love and light, of care and concern.  People know Beth Elohim as a place where the people act as God’s hands.

This building was built of your dreams.  Everywhere you look, you see the fingerprints of the people in this room.  And, unlike Babel, it was built on justice.  Marty Krasnik attending a meeting together, about a year ago, about immigration and labor.  Someone else was speaking, and so he and I had to stay quiet — a struggle for both of us.  And so he slipped me a piece of paper, which I keep in my office.  It said, simply, “There’s no slave labor in this building.”

Beth Elohim is known as a place of openness and caring, justice and — well — goodness.

And what else can we be known for?  That’s up to us. 

As you might imagine, I have some thoughts on the matter.

Let Beth Elohim be known as a place of Torah.  It says in Pirkei Avot, right here, here on the doors of our ark, Y’hi beit’cha beit v’ad l’chachamim.  “Your house should be a meeting house, always, for sages.”  I invite you in the coming weeks to wrap yourself in the imaginative, intricate, gorgeous tapestry of Jewish learning.  Find your strand in the weaving.  Join us at Shabbos morning Torah study, middays with Waky, host an evening of our new series Bible and Bourbon, or even just read a summary of the parashah each week.  Let every one of our meetings, board meetings and committee meetings and staff meetings, begin and be informed by timeless Torah wisdom. 

Let Beth Elohim be known as a place of prayer.  You felt the sweetness and sense of community that come from our davvening tonight.  I can tell you — we feel the same sweetness at our weekday minyanim and services.  Like they say, you had to be there.  There’s a reason we call it a minyan.  We can’t make it without you.  In the coming months, let’s find ways to make our prayer community livelier, more musical, more creative, more engaged.  Maybe to you we’re not there.  Maybe it’s mindless babble.  Tell me.  Let me know what works, and what doesn’t, about what we’re doing now.  Share with our Ritual team, and with me, your vision.

And finally, let Beth Elohim be known as place that celebrates diversity.  Let everyone know the joy of community and companionship that you know.  As Barbara mentioned in the President’s remarks at Yom Kippur, we flat out need to do better in celebrating families of single parents, families without children, people with special needs, trans folks, Jews of Color.  We need to create safe community for people with food allergies and physical challenges and impairments, accessible community for fixed-income and low-income community members.

All of this is possible.  Because of you.  Because of you, Beth Elohim is truly the “little shul that could.”  The little shul that does.  I’m so honored to lead it into the next phase of its growth.  May we grow together, knowing that wherever the names of the most loving and dedicated Jewish communities are recorded, the name Beth Elohim will forever be among them.

[1] Genesis 11:4

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 24

Thu, February 25 2021 13 Adar 5781