November 21, 2017
Where Thanks are Due
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Sometime during my senior year in college, while walking along the lake in the neighborhood park across the street from the home where I grew up, I recited the Twenty-Third Psalm to myself. I knew the Psalm by heart not because of my religious education but because of my public school education. My experience will sound familiar to all of you educated in American public schools prior the Supreme Court’s 1962 and 1963 rulings that ended prayer in public school.
When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, each morning began with the teacher leading us in the pledge of allegiance and then the Lord’s Prayer or the “Our Father,” Pater Noster. The teacher or a student would then read a Psalm of his or her choosing. Whenever a student chose Psalm 117, all the other students would giggle. It is the shortest Psalm, all of two verses. But when a student chose Psalm 119, the other students would all groan. At one-hundred seventy-six verses, the longest of all Psalms provoked the wrath of the class. Psalm 1 and Psalm 100 were popular, but the Twenty-Third Psalm was chosen most often, clearly the class favorite, corresponding with its overall renown as the world’s most famous poem. By third grade, I knew it by heart. Many years later, the Psalm remained so deeply embedded in memory that I easily recalled it as I walked in the park.
The verses of the Psalm resonated with that moment when I would soon make the momentous transition to true adulthood signaled by college graduation. What better guidance at that moment than “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want?”
“He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me besides still waters.” Walking in the park, a 3,000 year-old poem had come alive.
“He restores my soul. He guides me in straight paths for the sake of His Name.”
Now comes that subtle yet profound transformation of God from the third person, “He,” to the second person, “You.” God comes closer, giving strength in the face of life’s greatest challenges. “Yea, ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and staff comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”
If you had asked me as I began that stroll through park what I plan to do with my life, I would have said, “I want to be a doctor.” But as I recited the Psalm’s final verse to myself, my life changed forever. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I was suddenly seized by a thought I had never had before: “I want to be a rabbi.”
I hearken back to that pivotal and inspirational moment in my life this evening because, come next June 30, I will be retiring after forty years in the rabbinate, thirty-eight years here at Temple Emanuel, along with thirty-eight Interfaith Thanksgiving services, tonight being my last. As retirement draws closer, I find myself looking back over the years. At that pivotal and inspirational moment in the park, I could not begin to imagine this particular dimension of being a rabbi – interfaith work – nor could I imagine the gratification I have found in these interfaith endeavors over the years.
For my first Interfaith Thanksgiving service, memory takes me back to a planning meeting I attended in the fall of 1980 with Monsignor Conroy of Our Lady of Grace Church, Reverend Phillippi of Bower Hill Community Church, Reverend Isch of the then South Hills Interfaith Ministries, and Rabbi Sajowitz, Temple Emanuel’s Senior Rabbi. Surely these names stir fond memories for many of you.
More to be said about my thirty-eight year history with this service shortly. In the meantime, more to be said about that pivotal moment in the park, and the pleasant surprise that evolved from it.
As I pondered the role of a rabbi, I understood that the title “rabbi” means “my teacher.” I assumed naturally that this meant teaching Jews about Judaism. However, to borrow from Psalm 133, Hinei mah tov u’mah na-im, “How good and how pleasant” it has been to have countless Christians also as my students.
Over the years, I have been invited to teach in many churches throughout greater Pittsburgh. I was an adjunct professor in the Theology Department at Duquesne University for three years until the University decided to make this a full time faculty position. I taught at Seton Lasalle High School for eight years. I have been invited to teach Christian children either in their churches or when their church schools or youth organizations have visited Temple Emanuel. A Catholic nun, a Lutheran pastor and several Christians have been on-going participants in my Shabbat Torah Study sessions. Whether here or there or everywhere, my subject has always been Judaism. And my curricular goal has always been simple: teaching Judaism to Christians should only deepen their Christian faith because Christian faith ultimately derives from Judaism.
The perfect example is the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father” or Pater Noster.
Needless to say, with the Lord’s Prayer recited every morning of my elementary school education, I knew it by heart by second grade. While I am not an advocate of bringing prayer back into public schools, I am living proof that a Jewish boy can learn the Lord’s Prayer and recite it each morning and still grow up to become a good Jew, a rabbi no less! And what I have learned as a rabbi is that the Lord’s Prayer indeed is a good Jewish prayer.
“Our Father who art in heaven.” In the ancient world, Judaism was unique in describing God, the One God, as “our Father in heaven.” The gods of all the pagan religions could care less about humankind. But our God was a loving God who created us in His own image, a protective God who freed us from slavery in Egypt, a father-like God who guides us in creating peace on earth as He created peace in the heavens.
“Hallowed be Thy Name.” God’s Names indeed are sacrosanct. It is precisely the holiness of God’s original Hebrew Names – Adonai, Elohim, and El Shaddai among them – that make the Bible altogether holy.
“Thy Kingdom come” is an expression of the yearning for God’s reign of peace on earth as envisioned by the ancient prophets, and the coming of the Mashiach, God’s anointed, the “messiah” that the great Jewish theologians at the turn of the common era offered to give hope to a people suffering under cruel Roman rule.
“Thy will be done.” This is the essence of Judaism: Keep the commandments.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” To realize our full spiritual and moral potential, created in God’s image, we first need to tend to our physical needs.
“And forgive us our trespasses.” We are frail, imperfect. Forgive us.
“As we forgive those who trespass against us.” May we be forgiving, as well as forgiven.
And so it continues, theological principle upon theological principle, fundamentals of Judaism through and through, some of Judaism’s incomparable gifts to the world, and giving rise also to what I have called “Judaism for Gentiles, Part One,” known more commonly as “Christianity.” “Judaism for Gentiles, Part Two” would arise a few centuries later; it is called Islam.
What I find particularly gratifying is that invariably, I have been invited back to the various churches and Christian schools where I have taught, or the various Christian groups who have visited Temple Emanuel have come back again.
Most gratifying, I believe that we are blessed to live in an age of philo-Semitism. Anti-Semitism had been the eternal blight on interfaith relations. Today, anti-Semitism still persists, indeed it has spiked here in the United States in the last year, and world wide in recent years. But my own positive experiences are only a fraction of the overwhelming evidence that philo-Semitism has far surpassed anti-Semitism, bringing Jews and Christians together as never before in our history. Thank God. Thank you. And thank community programs and services that have brought us together as never before such as this Interfaith Thanksgiving service.
For our South Hills community in particular, beyond our respective houses of worship we must also recognize the vital role of the South Hills Interfaith Movement: for this Interfaith Thanksgiving service, for the Interfaith Holocaust Memorial service, and for the many endeavors that transcend all faiths in particular and unite all faiths in general.
I conclude by once again expressing my gratitude, but also offering a plea. This may be my last Interfaith Thanksgiving service, but let me call upon our community that this not be the last Interfaith Thanksgiving service altogether. Over the decades the numbers of participants have declined significantly, while the ages of the participants have risen correspondingly. These facts do not bode well for the future of this service. Indeed in years past, we clergy have discussed whether or not to continue holding this service. Certainly the novelty of an interfaith service has worn off. But the need for this service may be greater than ever. Religions no longer divide us, but deep and dangerous chasms now divide the country politically. Racism remains the great American tragedy. Violence, mass shootings and massacres are our American plagues. In their wake, communities come together to mourn. For fifty-one years, our community has come together to celebrate and give thanks for life’s bounty and the blessings promised by the better angels of American nature.
Several years ago, we bolstered our numbers by welcoming Good Shepherd Church to our celebration. I believe that Beth El Congregation would welcome participation. In years past, we have sought to include the Muslim community in our service. That our efforts proved fruitless does not mean that such efforts should end. I checked the website calendars of various Washington Road churches, believing that they hold their own Thanksgiving service together. If they once did, they no longer do.
The point is that there is still great potential to revitalize this service, and there certainly is the need.
Nowhere can such needs be answered as well as in our shared traditions’ sacred literature. So let us return to our service folder, and please join me in the reading of the Twenty Third Psalm.