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Voices of Rodfei Zedek

Kol Nidre 2012
Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
Rodfei Zedek, Chicago

Last year I had occasion to hear a CD of music commissioned by the talented Cantor Roslyn Barak of Temple Emanu‑El in San Francisco.  I was delighted to hear that in a work entitled “Consolations of Isaiah,” the gifted Israeli composer, Aminadav Aloni, of blessed memory, had included the verses from Isaiah of the Returning Exiles that gave our congregation its name, Rodfei Zedek:

Shim’u eilai rodfei zedek,
Listen to me, ye who pursue righteousness, ye that seek the Lord;
Look unto the rock from which you were hewn,
And to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look back to Abraham your father,
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him,
But I blessed him and made him many.
Truly the Lord has comforted Zion….
He has made her wilderness like Eden,
Her desert like the garden of the Lord.
Gladness and joy shall abide there,
Thanksgiving and the sound of music. (Isaiah 51:1-2) (Choir sings.)

It’s a beautiful passage from which to derive a synagogue’s name, isn’t it?  And what a beautiful suggestion for those who would be rodfei zedek, pursuers of righteousness, to look back to the founders of our faith, or to the founders and builders of our congregation, while finding comfort that the Jewish People will experience revival and joy, with Zion at its center.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to be the rabbi of this congregation, and to have benefited from the stories and insights and loyalty and friendship of all the members of this congregation, longtime and new members alike, and of staff members through the years.  I learned so much from so many.  I thank you for trusting me with your moments of joy and sorrow, and with the religious education and b’nai mitzvah training of your children and grandchildren.

Many voices of Rodfei Zedek people stand out in my mind, particularly those from the earliest years because they became the voices that guided me in the formative stages.

Though I cherish all the voices through the years of those who have taught me, trusted me and given me friendship, I would mention four this evening because they illustrate aspects of the biblical concept of zedek that can guide us with challenges to us as Jews and as individuals and as Congregation Rodfei Zedek.

I.

Tonight I recall, first of all, the voice of Rabbi Ralph Simon speaking about the State of Israel.  When he discussed from the pulpit the privilege of having a Jewish State and of the need to do everything we can to preserve the Jewish State, he preached with reason as well as emotion.  Often he would shed tears when he spoke about the State of Israel and its importance and of the justice or zedek that should be shown to the State of Israel.

In archiving his sermons, I found some remarkable early sermons defending the State of Israel, among the first preached in this country.  His argument was that if a democracy in the Middle East was not defended, then decency and freedom would suffer everywhere.

He noted the remarkable achievements within the first years of the State of Israel, including the development of irrigation systems that helped African nations.  Yet Israel remained hated by its neighbors and vilified in the United Nations, where even countries that small Israel had helped were intimidated into silence.  Also, Israel was expected to make concessions that no other nation would be asked to make, with hopes that its enemies would not destroy the small, new country.  He likened this to the young men in the Air Force parachute battalion, who, nervous about the parachutes, wanted assurance that these parachutes were well-made and would work.  Their commander assured them, “If they don’t work, you can ask for a refund.”

We know that things have not changed very much at all, except that Israel does have economic and military strength that are as vulnerable as any economic and military strength, if not more so.  Even the good news that Israel may have large, unexplored reserves of oil and natural gas, found in Gaza as well, has not led Israel’s neighbors to want to do more business with Israel, but to further hostility.  Even the cold peace with Egypt and Syria is in jeopardy.

Today an Islamist-leaning Egypt is rattling the saber in the Sinai and an even more Islamist Iran is boasting about being close to nuclear capability and an embattled Syrian regime is threatening to unleash stockpiles of chemical weapons against dissidents, some of whom are Islamists and would like to have those weapons for their own purposes.  Israel is again testing gas masks, while the world would have Israel rely on parachutes of vague assurances.

I counted some 24 of my sermons that mentioned Israel during the 24 previous High Holy Days at Rodfei Zedek, some as the main theme, some as a theme among themes or a theme growing out of other themes, sometimes twice in one year. Through the 1990s I was hopeful that the peace accords would bear fruit, until the violent Palestinian rejectionism of 2000 and the Islamist outrages of 2001 and beyond.

Rabbi Ralph Simon and other voices of Rodfei Zedek impressed me with the importance to Jewish spiritual life of advocating for Israel.  After all, the High Holy Days culminate in the festival of Sukkot, during which we pray every day:  “May God uphold the cause of His servant, the cause of His People Israel, as each day requires.” For zedek, right, righteousness, justice, to prevail in the world, it must prevail in Israel and for Israel.  That’s what the Prophets suggested, and our job is to advocate tirelessly, no matter how repetitive and futile the job may seem.  We all have our ideas about how to improve Israeli policies and programs and legislation.  But the doing of zedek for Israel and for the world demands that we make every effort to cultivate common ground and civil debate with all our fellow Jews who advocate out of love and appreciation for the Jewish State, both those to the left of us and those to the right of us.

II.

Zedek has a global meaning: the justification of Israel among the nations in order to allow for the redemption of the world itself.  But we all know that it has a personal and societal meaning, as well: zedek as zedakah, righteous giving and helping.

Joseph J. Abbell, who was a past president of our congregation and a successful attorney and real estate developer, told me that when he established his first, fledgling law practice, he was visited in his small office by his beloved high school Latin teacher, Mary Zimmerman, known affectionately to her students as “Aunt Mary.”  She came to tell him that she was about to retire and had decided to devote the rest of her life to raising funds for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Joe gave what he could at the time, but later became active in that organization and in others, including Congregation Rodfei Zedek.

How remarkable that a retired schoolteacher would spend her time collecting money for the needs of the Jewish People, and that she would go to a former student, struggling to begin of his career, to get him into the habit of giving zedakah and to demonstrate to him the mitzvah of fundraising even a small amount.  Some of our Talmudic Sages observed that it is more of a mitzvah to get others to give zedakah than to give oneself, and to give oneself is, of course, a very great mitzvah. Since Yom Kippur is one great day of confessions, I probably should confess that if I have any regrets, it is that I did not spend more time soliciting funds for Jewish and general causes.  Most of us, I suppose, could do better at the mitzvah of soliciting funds.

More remarkable than this retired schoolteacher reaching out to her former students is that this particular student grasped, through his own family background and personal understanding, the importance of what she was doing and allowed that encounter to become life-transforming, choosing to emulate her.  The mitzvot of giving and of getting others to give are very important if there is to be any kind of Jewish community at all.  And so is the mitzvah of supporting a synagogue and remaining loyal to that congregation through transitions and even through tribulations.

III.

Being among the rodfei zedek, the pursuers of righteousness, also means zedek for the individual, in the sense of justification and validation of those in our lives. I’ll never forget the voice of Ada Turner, who had been one of the leading kosher caterers in Chicago.

After losing her mother to typhoid fever during the suffering and starvation brought by World War I to her native Koretz, she settled in Gary, Indiana, with her father and siblings and married young.  Her husband became ill and incapacitated at a young age.  She washed pots and pans in the synagogue in order to send her son and daughter to Hebrew School.  She observed the women around her who did the cooking, concluding that the Sisterhood cooks would produce more tasty and efficiently prepared meals and baked goods if they increased portions of certain ingredients.  But she felt that the other women would not listen to the voice of the dishwasher without evidence.

One day Ada let the others see that she was saving dough for the rogelach that the Sisterhood cooks would usually have for breakfast on Friday mornings.  After everyone left, she bought increased ingredients on credit, and returned to mix a new batch.  The next morning she waited with baited breath to see how the women would respond to the rogelach made her way.  The woman in charge told her friend, “I don’t think we could ever get this to taste better.”  Ada went to the cupboard, took out the pieces left the day before, and found the courage to say, “The prepared rogelach are the ones that I made, and we can make many more this way.”

Immediately, one of the women said, “You don’t belong by the sink.  You can do something better.”  The women surrounded her, embraced and kissed her, saying, “From now on you’re going to do the parties.”  Ada told me that she wanted to cry, but didn’t want to show them a lack of confidence, though she cried as she told me this story many years later.  “In ten minutes,” she said, “I became a somebody.”

Many people go through life feeling that no one ever validates their talents or acknowledges their help and skills.  This is an unnecessary tragedy.  From the women in that synagogue kitchen, we all need to learn to validate spouses, children, parents, colleagues and students.  Some people are given opportunities, encouragement, saving moments, both professionally and personally, on one standout milestone occasion, or even many times, and never pick up on them. This, too is an unnecessary tragedy. We need to recognize our own moments of validation and to build upon them.

To be rodfei zedek, pursuers of righteousness, we must validate the right actions of others and be able to accept and to build on the validation of others.  After all, one of the important biblical meanings of the word “zedek” is justification or validation.

IV.

They called her “The Sergeant.”   ally Frooman, whose given name was Sarah, was a past president of Rodfei Zedek Sisterhood and, when I met her, she ran the Friday night dinners here, like a sergeant.  She recalled proudly that though Rodfei Zedek had a long membership waiting list during the 1950s, she and her husband Abe were put right at the top of the list because they had been so active in their synagogue in the Chatham neighborhood.  In fact, Sally had always been such a good organizer that, while still in grammar school in Des Moines, she was elected president of her mother’s garden club.

As a teenager she had the reputation of being the fastest runner in Des Moines, for always winning the races at state fairs. She and Abe won many trophies for dancing throughout their married life, and until her last illness she could still do the Twist.

I’ll never forget Sally’s recollection of being in a terrible car accident on Lake Shore Drive, and having to be rescued through the car window.  A reporter for the Daily News told her how miraculous her survival was; she was virtually unscathed.  She responded, “I have always believed that no matter what happens, I must walk with God.”  She would say: “Abe and I always tried to plan things.  We can’t always plan because there’s Someone more powerful than all of us who does have a hand in life, but we tried to do the best we could do with planning our lives.  And it was a happy life.”

We Jews have walked with God by doing zedek, righteousness, as taught us by the Torah and our Sages’ understanding of it.  Rabbi Ralph, Joe, Ada, and Sally were some of the many memorable “doers” in our congregation who taught me about zedek.  Our Holy Ark testifies to the importance of doing zedek:  “Naaseh v’nishmah—We shall do and gain understanding of all that God has spoken.” (Exodus 24:7)

This past year at a concert in memory of Max Janowski, the master composer of synagogue music for Hyde Park and the world, whose centennial is now being celebrated,  I found his wonderful setting for the verses in the Torah that give us the words above our Ark.  You’ll hear it as I conclude. God grant that in listening to the voices of our fellow rodfei zedek, pursuers of righteousness, we shall be inspired to walk in God’s path and to take up the cause and support of Torah and of the People Israel.  Amen.

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