Sermon—Parashat Bo 5778/January 20, 2018
Judaism: A Burden, or an Opportunity?
A Tribute to Rabbi Leonard Cahan, z”l
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
In this morning’s parasha we get a heavy dose of Pesach—would you believe it’s only 10 weeks away now?—including a description of the first Pesach in Egypt, as well as the instructions for an annual celebration in perpetuity. And, speaking of Pesach, we also find in this parasha three of the four questions that make their way into the Haggadah as the questions of the four sons, or four children, four different types of individuals and learners reacting in their own way to the Seder—and Exodus—experience. We’ll save a full exploration of these different passages and how the rabbis used them for a different time, but I will highlight the first of the four passages, found in Exodus 12:26, when we anticipate our children asking, “Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lachem,” “What does this service mean to you?”. This question is later attributed to the rasha, the wicked son, and the wording of “to you” is interpreted to mean that the wicked son is excluding himself from the Jewish communal memory and experience, i.e., it’s not MY service, it’s YOUR service. In an interesting linguistic twist, it turns out the question that the rabbis use for the chacham, the wise son, also is posed with a second person formulation, “etchem,” which theoretically could be seen as taking that same exclusionary stance as the wicked son. In some versions of the Haggadah the word is emended in the question of the wise son to read “otanu,” us, but the truth is that we shouldn’t get too hung up on the idea of “to you” or “for you” as being problematic, as this kind of wording is used by many wise and worthy characters in the Bible, and it is not the subject of critique there.
So how else might we differentiate between these two children who both address their question to their elders in the second person plural? Perhaps we should focus on another word used by the wicked son—the word “avodah”. In modern Hebrew, avodah is translated as “work”, but in biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, it is understood to mean “service”—as in serving God. So the failing of the wicked son is what is highlighted by the Jerusalem Talmud, which reads his question as “What is this burden which you impose on us year in and year out?” Thus the wicked son regards the celebration of Pesach as a burden, not as an opportunity to serve the Divine, and that’s what sets him apart from his family and his people.
So how do we view the practice and perpetuation of our Jewish traditions and life? As a daily or annual burden, or as a precious opportunity in which we can serve the Divine and bring God’s presence into our lives and into our world?
This week the Jewish community lost a leader who very much fell into the latter category, whose deeds testified to the importance of regarding Judaism as a precious gift to be treasured. This was my childhood Rabbi, Rabbi Leonard Cahan, of blessed memory, the Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, MD, where our mutual dear friend Rabbi Adam Raskin now serves as the rabbi.
Rabbi Leonard Cahan was a special kind of rabbi. He wasn’t just a teacher of Torah or a pastor in a conventional sense. Yes, he gave thought-provoking and well-crafted sermons and led meaningful Torah discussions. And yes, he was there for us and for the entire community in times of joy and sorrow. But he was so much more than that. For one thing, he was a one-stop shop for Jewish books and even some Judaica. Over the years so many members of Har Shalom could tell you a story of how they remember going to his office to buy their first Gabrieli tallit, like we did for my Bar Mitzvah, or to browse through the Jewish books on his shelves looking for the right one to purchase, long before Amazon Prime was at our beck and call? Though I never directly asked him why he operated a veritable storefront out of his office, I would venture a strong guess that Rabbi Cahan wanted to open doors for all of us to access Jewish learning and practice and feel the same passion for it that he did. It wasn’t just about sharing his knowledge and his love of Judaism with others; it was also about empowering them to connect with Jewish books, ritual objects, and practices.
Rabbi Cahan was also a great lover of Jewish music and tefillah, and his recent beautiful duet with his son Josh—my longtime friend and a rabbi as well—of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf melody for Zacharti Lach brought back memories of my first learning that melody at Har Shalom, the melody that, since that first moment, has been my favorite melody from the High Holiday liturgy. And speaking of his affinity for tefillah, my mother so enjoyed working together with him on behalf of the Rabbinical Assembly as he edited the Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, a Siddur that became a vital prayer resource in many Conservative Jewish congregations after its publication 20 years ago, the same siddur that we used here at Shearith Israel until very recently.
Rabbi Cahan was also a rabbi’s Rabbi—that I am one of six rabbis of my generation to be produced by Har Shalom in the Rabbi Cahan era is a remarkable testament to the role model and inspiration that Rabbi Cahan was to all of us. He was a trusted advisor to me when I first contemplated Rabbinic school, during my training, and once we became colleagues and he gave us permission to call him “Leonard”. He officiated at my installation at B’nai Shalom of Olney back in the fall of 2006 and helped make that moment incredibly special for me, my family, and the congregation.
But beyond all of that, I remember fondly hours upon hours spent with the Cahans at their home during my childhood years. I would come over after shul on Shabbat or Yom Tov, and his son Josh and I would play ping pong, baseball, and assorted other games until it was time for all of us to recite havdalah together. Those were some of the best days of my youth, spent in Leonard and Elizabeth’s home, that they opened so warmly.
Yesterday I happened to go to my bookshelf and grab my personal copy of the Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, looking for a translation for a verse from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers. I wasn’t even thinking about it, I just grabbed the book of the shelf, and then in that moment remembered that both he and my Mom had inscribed and signed my copy. So I opened up the front cover, and read this: “To Ari—May God grant you many opportunities to study and to learn, and to fulfill the teachings of Torah. Shalom, Leonard S Cahan”. And there it was, once again right in front of my eyes, in his own words: Torah—and Judaism—is a joyous, precious, opportunity, a gift to be treasured, explored, cultivated, loved deeply, and lived. It may have been a burden to the wicked child in the Haggadah, but it wasn’t to Rabbi Cahan, and, in large part due to his inspiration, it’s never been one to me. It’s the good kind of avodah, a deeply rewarding and enriching kind of service.
Rabbi Cahan—my Rabbi—our rabbi—was tall in physical stature, but his stature was not just physical: he cast a giant shadow as the spiritual leader of Har Shalom for so many years, and as a leading rabbinic figure in the Conservative Movement. I will miss him, as will so many others who were blessed to call him their Rabbi, teacher, and friend. Yehi Zichro Baruch—May his memory and legacy continue to inspire us to live learned and vibrant Jewish lives.