With this posting, a sermon entitled As We Begin, we ironically come to the end of this centennial tribute to the life and words of Rabbi Sidney Ballon. I hope these selections have captured the depth and breadth of his lifelong message to the congregations he served. Sidney Ballon loved Judaism—its principles, its history, its people. He was passionate about the State of Israel. He was deeply concerned about the future of the Jewish people, wanting to preserve it, as much as for any other reason, to sustain its unique set of values.
What follows is not his final sermon, though it was delivered only weeks before his death. His last evening in the pulpit and presumably the last sermon he delivered was November 8, 1974. In his remarks that night he commemorated the centennial of the birth of Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader and the first President of the State of Israel. It was a scholarly depiction of an historic Jewish figure. Nonetheless, rather than reproduce those words here, I have chosen the first sermon that Rabbi Ballon delivered at his new “retirement” pulpit in Brunswick, Georgia. These were his thoughts as he set out on a new, albeit short and final chapter of his life. He was filled with hope and optimism, and beautifully expressed some of his basic values to introduce himself to his new community.
As we begin, let us resolve to come to this place often, to pray devotedly, to study faithfully and to be inspired by community togetherness. May this synagogue be for all a source of strength as the synagogue has always been the strength of our people in the past, and in the words taken from the Torah reading this evening, “May God command His blessing upon us— b'chol mishlach yadecha—upon all that we put forth our hands to do.”
Rabbi Levi Yitschak of Berditchev[i] was a saintly rabbi of the 18th century. The story is told that just after the morning service in his synagogue had been concluded, he shook hands with several of the participants and spoke to them saying, “Shalom aleichem, shalom aleichem,” and he greeted each one of them as though they had just returned from some faraway place. These congregants were puzzled and looked at him with a questioning expression on their face, and he said to them,
Why are you so surprised? Anyone could see that you were just now far away. You, my friend, were thinking about a vacation. And you were in the marketplace. And only when the prayers ended were you all back again. You had returned from your mental journeys, so naturally, I welcomed you with shalom aleichem.
Like Levi Yitschak I greet you all now with “Shalom aleichem,”[ii] however, not for the same reason. I do not at all mean to imply that your minds were wandering during the service. But you have now returned for your first gathering for worship after the inactivity of the summer and this is the first service I conduct as your rabbi, so it is appropriate for all of us to greet each other with shalom aleichem. Greetings! And may these new beginnings develop into a meaningful experience and a happy relationship through the coming year.
As we begin together, it is only natural also to raise the questions, “What are our expectations? What are our objectives?” The answers are not difficult to find. The synagogue throughout the ages, wherever it has been located, has had three traditional functions that we want to fulfill here in Brunswick also, to the best of our ability, even though the community be small. These three functions have been indicated by the three separate terms with which Jews have always referred to the synagogue. One of these terms that have been applied to all synagogues in general, you have even used as the specific name for your synagogue here, Beth Tefilla, House of Prayer. In so doing, it has, perhaps, been indicated that the founders of this congregation put a special emphasis on the need to assemble in the synagogue for prayer, even though, I am certain, that they did not at all intend the other two functions to be neglected. This emphasis on prayer is, perhaps, not as strong today as it once was. Many Jews today do not pray as often or as fervently as their fathers or grandfathers did, but the importance of prayer remains.
The significance of prayer becomes clearer when we analyze the meaning of the word. In Hebrew, the word to pray is l'hitpalel. The root of this word is closely related to another Hebrew word, nafal, meaning to fall. Thus prayer is quite naturally connected with prostration and bowing and kneeling. It indicates reverence for the power above upon whom we are dependent. But the Hebrew word to pray is also related to another Hebrew word, palal, which means to judge. What is most interesting of all is that the word to pray in Hebrew is a grammatical form, peculiar to Semitic languages, which indicates a reflexive action. Thus the root palal means to judge, but the word to pray, l’hitpalel, is a reflexive verb meaning literally to judge one's self. Thus the Hebrew concept of prayer is that it is an act of self-judgment. Approaching the High Holy Day season, as we do now, it is pertinent to point out that every time you pray, it is as though a touch of the High Holy Days is involved. In prayer one articulates goals and ideals and measures himself against their standard. He compares himself as he is to what his conscience tells him he ought to be. He speaks to himself as much as to God, and the answer to his prayer comes in the extent to which he betters himself and comes closer to the ideal. Samuel S. Cohon,[iii] for many years, professor of theology at the Hebrew Union College wrote, "Prayer makes our shadowy ideals shine forth like radiant stars... and shows us the role we are to play in life. We learn to judge ourselves in the light of these ideals."
Sherwood Eddy,[iv] a Christian theologian was of a similar opinion. "Prayer is not to change God," he wrote, "but our own ignorant and sinful hearts. It is like the pull of a rope from a small boat upon a great ship at anchor. It is not the ship that moves but the little boat."
Thus, the implication is that prayer is not to be considered as a request for supernatural intervention in behalf of our personal wants, but rather the effort to lift ourselves above selfish concerns and to reach up toward the highest and finest ideals with which we would like to be identified. The objective of Temple Beth Tefilla as a Bet Tefilla is to develop that reach.
The synagogue has also been called the Beth Hamidrash, the House of Study. In Jewish life study was also a form of worship. In the Ethics of the Fathers we are told that an ignorant man cannot be a pious man.[v] The Jew without knowledge was always considered to be a contradiction in terms. Being Jewish was never a matter of blind faith in the Jewish conception of God. Being Jewish involves an awareness of the Jewish past, and hopes for the future. Being Jewish involves knowledge of procedure and conduct, which one gains from the study of Jewish texts. Being Jewish is like being in a profession. We would never expect a physician or an attorney to practice without adequate background in medicine or law. So also is background essential to Jewishness. Take all the virtues and put them together, said the rabbis, and “talmud Torah k’neged kulam— Jewish knowledge equals them all.”[vi]
The poet Bialik[vii] paid a beautiful tribute to the synagogue as a house of study when he wrote, in part,
If thou wouldst know the mystic fount from whence
Thy tortured brethren drew in evil days their strength of soul
If thou wouldst know the fortress whither bore
Thy sires to haven safe their Torah scroll
Go then into the House of Study grown old...
Thy heart will tell thee then
That thy feet tread the marge of our life's fount.
That thine eyes behold the treasures of our soul.
It is our hope also that this synagogue will continue to be for us a source of strength of soul, a storehouse of spiritual treasure.
And the third title the synagogue has carried is as the Beth Knesset—the house of assembly. The implication of this term is that the synagogue is the center and the rallying place for every activity of Jewish interest. It is the institution through which we find fellowship with other Jews and best express our Jewish identity. True, there are other organizations and institutions through which individuals may engage themselves in a Jewish activity, but it is interesting to note that in a community such as this, our other organizations have not taken hold. Only the synagogue has maintained itself. That is because the synagogue is an historic institution deeply rooted in the past and represents all the eternal values of Judaism and not merely certain specific, immediate projects. The synagogue provides not only a means of association with our Jewish neighbors of the community in which we live, but also a spiritual unity with all of the Jewish people throughout the world and throughout all time—past, present and future. The common loyalty of Jews to the synagogue is the strongest force which binds Jews to one another and makes for Jewish survival. Therefore, Jews of Brunswick and vicinity must look upon this synagogue as a place where we seek out our fellow Jews and associate with those who share our common heritage. We seek here to give inspiration to one another and to strengthen each other in our Jewish loyalties.
Of course, we have all undoubtedly met with individuals who say they can function very well as Jews without finding their way to the synagogue. They tell you they can pray in the corner of their home, and it is just as meaningful. They can read their own books and gather knowledge in private. They can find their fellow Jews, if they want to, in secular activities. And what they say is partly valid. Jews are certainly not discouraged from praying privately in their homes, but Judaism does make a special virtue of public prayer. It has always been considered preferable to pray with a minyan. The Talmud says, "One who does not attend the synagogue to pray, if there is one in his town, is not a good neighbor.” Maimonides, likewise, offered the opinion that it is necessary for every person to join with a congregation in prayer as long as there is the opportunity to join in community worship.
Nor are Jews discouraged from studying by themselves, but the Ethics of the Fathers advises, “Asay cha rav uknay l’cha chaver—get yourself a rabbinic teacher and acquire a companion”[viii] against whom to sharpen one's wits. One learns more in a good setting with a teacher and companions than by relying on oneself alone.
And, of course, we can find our fellow Jews in secular Jewish organizations as well as religious, if there are any in our community, but Jewish activity which does not recognize our basic character as a religious people and the motivating power of the religious ideal, is lacking a basic element of Jewishness. If we want to be complete Jews, if we have any concern for a Jewish future, we must turn to the synagogue for direction and staying power.
We now approach the High Holy Days and it is a time for serious thoughts. The fact that you and I also begin tonight a new period in the story of this congregation adds to the significance of this Sabbath. As we begin, let us resolve to come to this place often, to pray devotedly, to study faithfully and to be inspired by community togetherness. May this synagogue be for all a source of strength as the synagogue has always been the strength of our people in the past, and in the words taken from the Torah reading this evening, “May God command His blessing upon us— b'chol mishlach yadecha—upon all that we put forth our hands to do.”
[i] Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Ukraine (1740–1809), was a Hasidic rabbi and one of the most beloved leaders of Eastern European Jewry. He authored the Hasidic classic Kedushas Levi, which is a commentary on many Jewish religious books and laws, and is arranged according to the weekly Torah portion.
[ii] Shalom aleichem is a greeting in Yiddish and Hebrew, meaning "peace to you." It is first found in Genesis 43:23. Only the plural form is used even when addressing one person. A religious explanation for this is that one greets both the body and the soul.
[iii] Samuel Solomon Cohon (1888-1959), Reform rabbi, former chair of theology at the Hebrew Union College -Jewish Institute of Religion. His writings include What We Jews Believe (1931) and The Theology of the Union Prayer Book (1928). He edited the Revised Union Haggadah (1923), the Rabbi's Manual (1928) under the auspices of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union Prayer Book (1945).
[iv] Sherwood Eddy (1871-1963) was an American Protestant missionary, author, administrator and educator. He served as a traveling evangelist from India, China, Japan, and the Philippines, through the Near East to Turkey, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, and then to czarist and later to Soviet Russia.
[v] Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 2:6, Hillel used to say: “A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.”
[vi] "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam—the study of Torah is greater than them all." (Mishneh Peah 1:1, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a): These are duties whose worth cannot be measured—honoring one’s father and mother, acts of love and kindness, diligent pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, celebrating with bride and groom, praying with sincerity, consoling the bereaved, making peace where there is strife, and the study of Torah leads to them all.
[vii] Chaim Nahman Bialik (1873 –1934, was a Jewish poet who wrote primarily in Hebrew but also in Yiddish. Bialik was one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry and came to be recognized as Israel's national poet.
[viii] Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 1:6, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Perachya says, "Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favorably."