Strong roots lead to a sound future

Strong roots lead to a sound future

Cantor Rick Berlin
Cantor Rick Berlin

Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:19

Within Parshat Shoftim (Judges), it says:

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

The most well known words in this parsha are tzedek, tzedek tirdof — “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” Trees are our entire future; they are to be treated with justice. Fruit trees grow from seeds, over many years, and their fruit nourishes us. Futures don’t just happen; they spring from the past as well. Even trees that do not produce fruit must be used for building a future. No scorched earth policy here.

Pittsburgh’s Jewish community — regardless of denomination — stands on the shoulders of giants. These indomitable trees built our past, transmitted it to us so that we may tend to its future.

For half of my life in Pittsburgh, I was a cultural Jew as are many Jews today. Then, I became an invested cantor and spiritual leader. God led me to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and then to Parkway Jewish Center, where my life began anew.

Who I am today is mostly because God directed my path. There are many Pittsburghers who helped me along the way. This is not the place for a long list of names, though the incomparable Hazzan Moshé Taubé would top that list for me.

Think of the shuls, past and present that Pittsburghers created: B’nai Israel of the East End stands first in my mind. Many of us grew up there. As a musician and hazzan, I learned that many of the musicians who started there became the foundation of Jewish music throughout the area.

Since the ’70s, hazzanic flourishes have been less appreciated and the “Great Age of the Cantorate” has slipped away. Yet the spirituality it brought our ancestors remains a desire within our neshamot. The need fulfilled by Cantors Lefkowitz, Barkan, Heiser, Silversmith, Taubé and many others filled me with joy, and helped to create my own pathways.

At PJC, I was able to find my voice, literally.  My desire to communicate the meaning of our prayers was strengthened by your encouragement. My understanding of Torah grew as you questioned me and gave me feedback. My ability to love and trust others was elevated by the love and trust you showed me.

Today, many other congregations walk amongst so many trees that the forest is less comprehensible. Yet, still all of us strive for the security and peace that music opens in our souls during worship. While fewer in number, today’s Pittsburgh cantors still touch our souls. We rock to the singable tunes and they cradle us as well; guitars and voices blend together.

At PJC, we were able to approach such security and peace. Our Friday Night Fusion service, and the other events or outings you created helped make PJC into the heimishe shul we all love. That strength and commitment shows still through the minyan we manage to reach most Shabbatot. From the roots of PJC’s founders, the branches have grown strong.

Knowing ourselves begins with knowing our (tree) roots. Creating a future begins with tending those young Jewish seeds. Some may knowing God is equally hard work. Finding God is always possible.

Thank you for all that you have done for me; for your friendship that I hope will endure, and for bringing me into your heimishe family. May the One who established peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to all Israel and to all humanity.

Shalom v’hitraot chaverim.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)