Rabbi Zucker’s final Sermon at NWSS

Here is a copy of the sermon Rabbi Zucker delivered during his last Shabbat service at NWSS on Saturday 17th June 2017.

Good morning. Shabbat shalom. In the words of the psalmist, Barukh haba b’shem Adonai, beyrakh-nukhem b’veit Adonai.  Blessed are you who come in God’s name, we bless you out of the house of God (Psl 118.26).  Now we are here, the middle of June 2017.  This is my final Shabbat service at NWSS. There is a long and time-honoured tradition that rabbis preach from the Torah text of the week. The Torah portion this week, Sh’lakh l’kha takes place in the second year of the Exodus from Egypt. The people are at an oasis in the wilderness of Paran, somewhere near the Negev.  It describes the initial reconnaissance of the Promised Land. God instructs Moses to send out scouts.  Each of the twelve tribes is to be represented by one leader.  They are to go northward as a group, through the Negev and into the hill country.  They are to see what kind of a land this is: what are its strengths and weaknesses?  In that sense, this is a forward looking, an anticipatory section in the Torah.  As we know the scouts come back with mixed reviews about the land. They are enthusiastic about its variety and its vegetation, its abundance and its natural gifts.  They report that the land does flow with milk and honey, and it is very fruitful. That is the good news. Then comes the other part of their report. Ten of the twelve scouts fear that Israel at this point is not ready to move forward. Only Joshua and Caleb feel that now is the correct time. As things turn out, the majority opinion holds. The net result is that the Israelites need to spend another thirty-eight years in the desert before they can enter the land.

If we now fast-forward in the Torah to the last period of the forty years, we see a new situation. Moses has lead the people, and now he is coming to the end of his career. At the end of Deuteronomy God asks Moses to climb Mount Nebo, what today would be in the far western reaches in the hills of the modern state of Jordan.  There God shows Moses the whole land: “Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negev and the plain, the Valley of Jericho . .  as far as Zoar.” (Deut 34:1-3). God tells Moses he will see this, but Moses is not to enter the land. Moses, however, has prepared for this moment. Earlier he said to the people that they needed a new leader, who would go out before them and come in before them, so that they would not be like sheep without a shepherd. Consequently, Moses had appointed Joshua and invested him with authority to take the people on their next part of their journey (Num 27:15-23).

In standing here today, I can easily relate to both of these images of Moses. The first image is that of a person who thinks that he knows pretty much what the future holds. Well, it does not turn out as he imagined. Life intervenes.  The second image is at the end of his career. He takes pride in what has been accomplished and he is reasonably confident about the future of his community.

Three years ago in the late Winter/early Spring of 2014, Donna and I were living in our home in Aurora, a suburb of Denver Colorado. I had been retired for nearly three years. We enjoyed retirement. We traveled, we had activities, and I took great pleasure in being able to do research and publishing in my areas of interest, including Bible, Midrash, and Chaplaincy. I had recently published two more books and was working on my next book, The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views. Then, out of the blue, in effect I was headhunted. I was invited to come to beautiful leafy Surrey, just a bit southwest of London, to lead NWSS for a short period between permanent rabbis. In conversations with representatives of the congregation, we spoke of a six-month position, or maybe as much as a year. For the congregation, its leadership, and for me, this was like that first image of Moses, that of a person who thinks that he knows pretty much what the future holds. Well, as we now realize it did it did not turn out as any of us imagined.  Life intervened. Instead of six months to a year, Donna and I willingly devoted three years of our lives to our community here in Weybridge, both giving and receiving much in return.  In these three years we have met many members of our congregation. As I wrote in the Rabbi’s Reflections for last month’s Haderech, meeting people often occurred during regular office hours, or at the weekend. It took place before and after services, during social gatherings, pastoral visits, and life-cycle events. I met and interacted with people at countless meetings, and sometimes just by chance. You have shared your dreams and your hopes, with me, your concerns and your fears.  I have learned a lot during our years here. I have learned about you and I have learned about myself. Of course, it has not always been smooth sailing. There are strong personalities in our community. On occasion there have been differences or disagreements in approach or in style. While thinking of that, please, if I have given offense to someone, knowingly or unknowingly, I regret if my words were hurtful. That was not my wish.

My intent certainly always was to make our congregation stronger, increasingly viable, and more thoughtful. My goals always were for the best for our NWSS family in the wider picture. Over these three years, in my mind we have grown together, and we have grown closer; mutually we have left deep impressions upon each other. Donna and I will leave Weybridge filled with many, many wonderful and positive memories. To cite but just one such memory by way of an example, the monthly early morning collaborative Reflective Services on many a Shabbat was a time of great personal and spiritual meaning to us, as was the Spiritual Service on a Sunday afternoon, less than a fortnight ago. There have been numerous joy-filled occasions, deeply satisfying times and seasons. For three years you, our congregation, have become part and parcel of our daily lives. So much good has been accomplished. We each have grown and developed together.

In June 2017 we – the congregation, and we, the Zuckers – are not who we were in June 2014. Working in tandem we have developed innovative and interesting programmes. During these years, several new people came forward to join with other leaders to help to take the congregation into its next period of growth. In a month’s time Rabbi Kath Vardi will begin her tenure here. She will bring many new, fresh, and wonderful ideas, new approaches, new understanding. Even as you have been receptive to ideas that we brought, even as you have welcomed us, so I urge you to be receptive and welcoming to the teachings and the style of Rabbi Vardi and Meir, her husband. Welcome them. Embrace them. Value them.

In the coming year and years, Rabbi Vardi will need your support. Love her. Listen to her. Praise her. Respect her. Walk with her and talk with her. Invite her into your homes and into your hearts. Be patient with her. Work with her. Share your dreams and hopes.

These have been memorable years for Donna and for me. We began my rabbinic career as a newly married couple in England in 1970.  For two years I led the Bradford Reform Synagogue in the West Riding of Yorkshire, with some responsibilities also in Newcastle and Hull. Then from 1972 to 1979, for seven marvelous years I led the Birmingham Progressive Synagogue in the West Midlands. Our two elder sons were born in Birmingham. Over those many years we made what would become forty plus year friendships in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Here too we have made good friends and acquaintances, primarily in the Jewish community but also in the non-Jewish world. As I began my rabbinic career in England, so I will close out that rabbinic career here. This time I truly intend to retire from congregational rabbinic life and will have more time to write. These years will serve as the capstone of my professional life. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your ongoing and frequent kindnesses.   Thank you for all the memories we will take back with us. May NWSS grow and develop, may it flourish and prosper in the years ahead. Barukhim haba-im b’shem Adonai, beyrakh-nukhem b’veit Adonai. May you know blessings and goodness for many years to come.  Amen.