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Vayelech: September 15, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

I recently came across a story of an old Lithuanian Jew who had survived the Holocaust, Siberia and many other tribulations of life. And yet, after all he had experienced, his faith was still intact. They asked this elderly man why, after all he had endured, that he never lost his faith? He told his friends that as a young man, his parents had sent him to one of the most prestigious Yeshivot in Europe. He was not such a great student of Talmud and Gemorra, and he made the long journey in fear that he would not pass the entrance exam and would have to go home as a failure.

Arriving at the Yeshiva, he was met by the Rosh Yeshiva, one of the great Sages of Eastern Europe. The Rabbi noted that the boy looked dazed and haggard, so he asked him where he had come from and how long was the journey. The young man told him he came from Lithuania and had been traveling for many hours. The Rabbi then started the exam: “I have two questions for you” he said. The young man, utterly afraid, shook his head to begin the exam. Asked the Rabbi, “When was the last time you had hot meal and when was the last time you slept in a warm bed?” The Rabbi smiled, took him by the hand and gave him a hot meal and showed him to a warm bed where he could sleep.

The elderly Jew then concluded the story. “The Talmud and Codes I learned as a teen were long forgotten because of the struggles I faced, but no matter what happened to me, I never forgot those two questions, and as long as I live, I will never forget them.”

I thought of this story just this week, after services on Rosh Hashana. There were two young women, who had grown up here at Beth Sholom. They had not seen each other in many years and they stood behind me as I was shaking hands with the congregation and I could hear them catching up with what had been going on in their lives since they had moved away. When I finished shaking the last hand I turned to them and smiled, “You have a lot of catching up to do.” They turned to me and said, “We celebrated our Bat Mitzvahs here just a week apart. And now, we are preparing for the B’nai Mitzvah of our sons. We both wanted Rabbi Plavin, who officiated at our Bat Mitzvahs to attend the Bar Mitzvahs of our children, but we both picked the same day for the celebration. He can’t attend both. She got her invitation out first so Rabbi already accepted her invitation, so he will have to miss mine.”

I was impressed that there was no malice between the two women nor with Rabbi Plavin. In fact, I had already heard from Rabbi Plavin about this conundrum. I could see that his decision would not disrupt the friendship of these two women and that they were only sorry that, because each of their son’s Bar Mitzvah was on the same day, that Rabbi and Lisa could not attend the simcha of the other.

I don’t know if either one of these two women remember how to recite their Bat Mitzvah Haftara. I don’t know if they remember what Rabbi Plavin said to them at their service years ago. I am not sure that either of them could still lead a part of the service on Shabbat. But they did remember the kindness of their Rabbi, and the respect he gave them at that formative moment in their lives, and they knew, maybe instinctively, that he needed to be at the Bar Mitzvah of their sons as well.

We have gathered here not in memory of some teaching Rabbi Plavin gave long ago. We are here to dedicate our library to the Rabbi who, through his words and deeds, shaped our lives. It was the many times he gave us words of encouragement when we needed them. It was the words of comfort that came from him in our moments of grief. It was the way he smiled in celebration at the B’nai Mitzvah, weddings and anniversaries that we celebrated that remain fixed in our minds. What we may have learned from him may or may not be remembered, but the gentle way he taught us will never be forgotten.

At the end of this service, we invite everyone to join us as we dedicate our library to Rabbi Plavin, and as we dedicate a stone to Rabbi and Lisa Plavin on the tree of life. I am sure that both plaques will see, for many years to come, people gazing on the inscriptions and remembering their Rabbi’s kind words.

And those are the best testimonials that a Rabbi can ever dream of. Yashir Koach Rabbi Plavin; know for certain, that you will always be remembered with love and respect in the halls of this congregation. May you be invited to more B’nai Mitzvah as each generation recalls all your good works and all your good words.

As we say…. Amen                 



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, September 15, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779