A Tribute to Rabbi Seymour Essrog
The following is a text version of Rabbi Steve Schwartz's talk at Congregation Adat Chaim's Rabbi Seymour Essrog Memorial Lecture (Friday, October 25th, 2019).
Let me first thank Toby for the invitation to be here tonight, and the opportunity to share some thoughts with you and pay tribute to my friend of blessed memory, Rabbi Seymour Essrog. Thank you also to Rabbi Seidler for his gracious hosting of this evening, and also a personal point of privilege, for all of the work he does at Sinai for the patients there, not only for the patients there, but for the rabbis in the community, always helping us to serve our congregants.
I don't think any of you are aware of this, but this is not the first time I've spoken here at Adat Chaim. The first time was in the building on Cockeysmill Road, and the date was October 18th, 2002. Seventeen years ago - almost exactly - to the day that Seymour passed from this world to Olam Ha'Bah, to the world to come. That was a Friday, and at Beth El, we received a phone call from Adat Chaim in the late morning, telling us that Seymour was gone, but also asking us if we could help run the services that Friday night. At the time, I was the assistant rabbi to Mark Loeb, also of blessed memory, and Mark, who could be gruff at times on the outside, had a heart of gold and also always did the right thing. He called me into his office and asked me – actually he told me – that I would be speaking at services at Adat Chaim that evening.
And so it was.
I don't honestly remember what I said that night. I am sure I said some words about Seymour and something to do with the Torah portion of the week, which was Lech Lecha. I suppose I spoke about the journey the congregation needed to make after losing its beloved rabbi. I certainly do remember the emotion in the room – the sadness, the disbelief, the prayers for strength and courage in the face of a terrible time. Seymour, as well as anyone I ever met, knew how to walk the line between mensch and leader. His loss was deeply felt by your congregation, by the community, by the Conservative movement. His loss was also felt deeply by the rabbis of Baltimore, and this last piece is key to understanding Seymour. So let me pause there for a moment to wax nostalgic about the glory days of the Baltimore rabbinate.
These days the Baltimore Board of Rabbis is a convivial group. When we meet, we chat, have some lunch, talk a bit of business, catch up, and head back to work. But in 1998, when I came to town, the Board of Rabbis was serious business. Imagine for a moment walking into a room where Mark Loeb, Joel Zaiman, Mitchell Wohlberg, Floyd Herman, Gus Buchdahl, and Donald Berlin were all sitting around the table, eyeing each other respectfully, but a bit warily as well. In those meetings, the business of the community really got done, the agenda of the Associated was often set, turf issues were navigated, and these great rabbis solved the community's problems and laid down the community's foundation.
Seymour Essrog was at the center of those conversations. He was known and respected by all. He was a voice of reason and wisdom. When he spoke, people listened – when the conversation came to an impasse, it was Seymour who often figured out a way through.
All of this is to say that Seymour was a rabbi's rabbi. When you needed advice, you know you could call him and get a good perspective on things. When you needed a sermon idea, you could check in with Seymour. He wanted you to succeed, to do well, and he wanted that for two reasons. First, because he thought it was good for the Jewish people. He believed that you couldn't have a strong Jewish community without strong synagogues, and he thought that you couldn't have strong synagogues without quality rabbis. But the other reason he wanted you to succeed is that he cared about you. He genuinely did. When my wife and I came to town, one of the first welcoming phone calls I received was from Seymour. He and Toby invited us to their house for Shabbas dinners. That was just the way Seymour was, that was the kind of life he and Toby lived, that was the kind of home they made. As I said before, both a leader and a mensch.
I suppose I would be remiss if I did not spend a least a few moments thinking about this week's Torah portion. After all, it is hard to resist when you have Bereishit right in front of you. It is the rabbi's equivalent of a 90 MPH fastball coming right down the middle to a Major League hitter. All kinds of narratives. The creation story. Adam and Eve. Cain and Able. The snake, the forbidden fruit. Quite a bit to choose.
But tonight I would like to point your attention, not to the text itself, but to a comment made by Rashi, the medieval sage and commentator, in fact, the very first comment that he makes in his Torah commentary. And he says לא היה צריך להתחיל את התורה אלא מהחודש הזה לכם – which means, 'you could have started the Torah from the verse "This month will be for you the beginning of months." If you were to take out your concordance and find that verse, you would see that it occurs at the beginning of the 12th chapter of Exodus. So Rashi is suggesting that we could eliminate all of Genesis – the Creation story, the stories about Abraham and Sarah, about Isaac and Rebecca, about Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Joseph and his brothers – all of those beloved stories! – Rashi seems to be saying – could be skipped over. They are not needed. They could be discarded.
If that isn't enough, Rashi also suggests that we throw out the beginning of Exodus, all the way up to Chapter 12. Those first 11 chapters of Exodus contain Moses' birth story, the burning bush text in Exodus 3, the beginning of the Pharaoh-Moses clashes, the first series of plagues. Why does Rashi suggest we start at Exodus 12? He says, that is where the mitzvot begin. It is at that point that the Torah starts giving commandments to the Jewish people.
Rashi's point is that Judaism is a faith tradition based on laws. Without the laws, you don't have Jewish life! So go right to the laws! After all, that is what you really need.
But then Rashi goes on to say this: wait a minute! Maybe we need those stories, after all. Those narratives give us our history. They teach us about who we are and where we've come from. The stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs remind us that we are descended from the first people to ever think about God in a monotheistic way. The Exodus story reminds us of universal Jewish values, like freedom and human dignity, and the importance of justice. We need those stories, Rashi seems to suggest, because without them, without the context they provide, the law wouldn't have any meaning to us.
You see, you need an infrastructure – the law. But you also need a compelling narrative, stories that will motivate people, capture their attention, and connect them.
We might say the same of Jewish community. We need our infrastructure – the Associated, the synagogues, Jewish Community Services, Israel bonds, you can go down the list. One of the things that makes Baltimore so strong as a Jewish community is the quality of its infrastructure.
But the infrastructure alone isn't enough. It needs to be matched with a story that speaks to people, with a narrative that motivates people. Another way to say it is that the 'how' of the infrastructure – in other words, this is how you do this – has to matched by they 'why' we do it.
Seymour was a master of both. He helped to build the infrastructure of Baltimore's Jewish community, and he is one of the reasons that infrastructure is still so strong today. At the same time, like the Magid of old, Seymour knew how to tell the story so that it spoke to people's hearts.
We are still telling that story today, as we carry his memory forward, here at Adat Chaim, and throughout the Jewish community. May we continue to tell it for many years to come.