Tribute for Rabbi Weissman on her 10th anniversary | Congregation Beth Am

Tribute for Rabbi Weissman on her 10th anniversary

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
June 15, 2018

It is written in the Talmud: A person should not say: “I will study the Torah so they will call me a ‘Sage’; I will study Mishna so they will call me ‘Rabbi’; I will review my studies so I will become an Elder and sit in the Academy.” Rather, learn out of love, and eventually the honor will come of its own accord [Nedarim 62a].

This passage in the Talmud is concerned with the proper motivation for Jewish study. As the medieval commentary Tosafot says, it should come from love of the Creator, not from the desire for praise, recognition or personal glory -- “mei-ahavat haborei v’lo lichvod atzmecha.” And yet there is a paradox: a person who is not driven by the demands of the ego, will in the end receive full honor and recognition: “lamed mei-ahava – learn out of love – v’sof hakavod lavo – and in the end honor will come.”

Honor comes, that is, not because an individual yearns for the spotlight; it comes when it is earned. We have a living example of this lesson tonight: a rabbi and teacher who is modest and self-effacing, who positively shuns the spotlight, but has earned honor and recognition nevertheless. She’s earned it because quality invariably shines through. Its intrinsic brilliance and radiance, that is, creates its own spotlight.

Two words I associate with Rabbi Sarah: quality and love. Quality: a high level of value or excellence. No matter the task, her preparation is careful and thorough; her presentation is clear, articulate and rich in substance. She’s detail-oriented but is also a conceptual thinker; she pays attention to both the trees and the forest. She’s blessed with a cornucopia of talents – intellect, analytical ability, sound judgment, a prodigious memory, a beautiful voice and a killer sense of humor – all enhanced by a sterling work ethic. She never slides by on talent alone, but invests effort, persistence and patient-follow through. This makes Rabbi Sarah a person who can be trusted and relied on by all those around her – a precious quality indeed.

All this perfection might seem a bit intimidating if not for the second word I associate with Rabbi Sarah: ahava, love. She deeply loves and respects Torah and Jewish tradition; she loves, respects and enjoys her students; she approaches her pastoral work with kindness, love and compassion. She is sensitive to the human dynamics of any situation and finds many quiet ways to offer help and support to others, myself very much included. As a result, she herself is not only respected but loved by those who have the good fortune to know her and learn from her.

A third word that Rabbi Sarah embodies: courage. In an environment not exactly supportive of such views, she speaks forthrightly about her personal faith in God, demonstrating that an extremely smart and sophisticated person can also be a believer. She’s spoken about her personal struggle with depression, thereby making it safe for others to do the same. She’s addressed topics such as racism, white privilege, the MeToo movement, and the ways we interact with fellow congregants whose politics differ from our own; she’s offered her own take on Israel, knowing it will not be popular with all. Because she approaches these topics thoughtfully and with integrity, without bombast and without attacking those who disagree, her words unfailingly enrich our congregational dialogue.

Finally – and I hope this doesn’t embarrass her too much – when I think of Rabbi Sarah I think of that smile. You know, science now distinguishes between the genuine smile and the fake smile – something we can all do, as well. The genuine smile is called the “Duchenne smile,” named for the 19th century French physician Guillaume Duchenne, who studied the physiology of facial expressions. The Duchenne smile involves both voluntary and involuntary muscles: the zygomatic major (raising the corners of the mouth, which we can do voluntarily) and the orbicularis oculi (raising the cheeks and producing crow’s feet around the eyes). We can’t voluntarily contract that muscle – so that kind of smile can’t be faked – it has to come from within.

When you see Rabbi Sarah on the bima, singing and praying, or when you see her teaching; when you see her connecting with community, or distinguishing herself on the stage each year on Purim; whenever you see her doing the things she loves, you will see that smile – warm and genuine and radiant. It tells us that she finds joy in what she’s doing – in being a rabbi, in being our rabbi. That makes me very happy, because I have treasured her as my colleague and friend for these past ten years, and I truly don’t know what I would do without her.

So I am glad that this remarkable person and superlative rabbi is receiving honor and recognition tonight, because every day of these past ten years, she has earned it.


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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).