I just spent the last two days of Shavuot studying. While Shavuot is supposed to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I find it more meaningful to be grateful for the enduring cycle of regiving or transmittance of Torah (which of course cannot be explained without Sinai). This Shavuot, I found myself wrapped in the comforting words of a voice as familiar to me as any Rabbi I’ve ever met – Rabbi Vernon Kurtz.
You see, Rabbi Kurtz has been the Rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL since I was seven years old. And his new book, “Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion” is an accomplishment thirty-six years in the making. The book is a compilation of ninety-two sermons by Rabbi Kurtz, approximately two on each weekly Torah Parsha. Not only can you read the book as a means of gaining insight into the Torah, but also as a way of making Torah relevant in your life. Many of you who read the book will find depth in the teaching and beauty in the message. I find the voice of Rabbi Kurtz.
It wasn’t until I read the book that I fully realized how impactful Rabbi Kurtz’s words have been in my life. It was because of Rabbi Kurtz ‘s invitation that my parents, who were great Zionists but had never traveled to Israel before, decided it was time for all of us to go. Within one of his sermons on Lekh Lekha, Rabbi Kurtz writes, “Aliyah should be considered one of the highest mitzvot of our generation… Within the Conservative movement, we have always been proponents of Zionism.”
There is no doubt that the trip to Israel changed the course of my life. Rabbi Kurtz made it impossible for me to imagine a Jewish life without Israel playing a central role. And now, as my family prepares to move to Israel in three months, the words of that sermon make me understand where it began to take shape.
I can also see where I began to care about the Jewish community at large. In his sermon on Va-Ethannan, he wrote about the second generation of Israelites wandering in the desert, “As they become further removed generationally from the actual events of the Biblical record, how will they internalize the experiences and the lessons of the preceding generations?” My grandparents, all Holocaust Survivors, all adore and adored Rabbi Kurtz. My parents are proud to call him a friend. My siblings and I look up to him. He relates to everybody in a way that is truly inspiring.
Rabbi Kurtz answers that question with the way he runs Beth El. It’s not just a big Synagogue, it’s also a Shul. Fathers wrap their sons with Tefillin on Sunday mornings in Vav Class. Mothers teach their children how to light Shabbat candles in the preschool. How do we solve the problem of transmitting the experiences and the lessons of the preceding generations? Each one of us has to assume the mantle of teacher, preacher and role model for our own children. And if each of us does this for our own family, then maybe each community will be lucky enough to have a devoted Rabbi. And if we can hope for even more, our Rabbinic communities will have role models like Rabbi Kurtz. Thank you Rabbi Kurtz for all of your teachings over the course of my life. I look forward to many, many more in the years to come.
If you are interested in purchasing “Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion”, please click here.