Finding G-d in Unexpected Places Reviewing Rabbi Jack Riemer’s Bookby Rabbi Lenore Bohm May 28, 2018
In the opening section of Rabbi Jack Riemer’s new book, in a piece entitled “Goodbye Dubai,” the author wonders how he could move to Dubai for a larger-than-life existence and abandon his very worthy congregation, leaving them “Torah-less?” Those of us around the country and overseas who read “Finding G-d in Unexpected Places” are not part of a single congregation, but I can assure you that we are “Torah-more” for spending time with this precious volume.
Rabbi Jack Riemer, appreciated for his wisdom, humor, depth and breadth of knowledge about Judaism, is not known for his counting skills (except between Pesach and Shavuot), but he figures he has given more than 4,500 sermons over the course of an over 50-year career as a rabbi. Shabbat sermons, divrey Torah, holiday and holy day words of inspiration – all this not counting the hundreds of divrey kodesh he has spoken at weddings, funerals, b’nai mitzvah and so on. How then, to choose the 39 utterances writ large to fill the pages of his first book of sermons?
A mindful and calendar-driven Jew, Riemer selected most of the homilies for his book based on the holiday cycle. But he approaches each chag (holiday) as an opportunity to encourage us to think about the quality of our lives, the value of our relationships, and the depths of our commitments. He is not pontificating on the holiday, not its laws, customs or nuances; he uses each as a jumping off point to pose questions of meaning: What should you do when your time is almost up? Can we grow old and still stay young? How should we live in a world we cannot control? How can we weep and rejoice at the same time?
Riemer’s humility comes into full focus by posing these questions without ever really answering them. Rather, he describes why they are important, and what we may want to consider when we ask them of ourselves. He respects his audience enough to recognize that for each of us, the answers may be different.
Never superficial but always good-humored, Riemer refers to current events, celebrities and lingo along with citing Torah, Talmud and Mussar. He consistently succinctly translates his Hebraisms and his Yiddishims, avoiding condescension towards those for whom these phrases are not familiar. His forays into the weekly Torah portion always make me return to the parsha asking: Does it really say that? How come I never noticed that before?
For example, in “Reflections on a Birthday,” Riemer points out that when the Israelites saw Moses smash the tablets, ‘vayitablu,’ “the people mourned.” He writes, “To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time in the Torah where the word “aveyl,” which means “to mourn,” is used for an object.” That shows a good eye, indeed. So much to consider anew in this well-known verse once it is brought to our attention that among those standing at Sinai, the loss of that first set of tablets evoked grief equal to that which is felt at the loss of a person.
One of my favorite vignettes in the book is found in a sermon called “The Enormous Influence of the Latke on the Modern World.” He begins with a Hasidic story about the Krinker Rebbe, and ends with jokingly taking credit for Donald Trump’s rise to the Presidency! Here is the explanation in his own words, “It is clear that Donald Trump only won the presidency because he listened to me, and made “Let’s Make America Grate Again” his slogan.
But the best part of this sermon is that it is included in the chapter on Purim and ends with the wish for a “freilichen Purim.” It makes perfect sense on the holiday of no(n)-sense to give a talk on latkes when it’s the season of hamantaschen!
And so, Riemer educates, and attracts our attention and delights us – and only at the end of one of these sermons do we think to ask: how did he get us here? Under his gentle tutelage, we came along willingly, eagerly. So wonderful to learn at the feet of a master!
What ultimately stands out in this beautiful collection? Riemer’s deep love of Torah and his profound desire for it to matter to Jews. In “What Makes Israel So Special?” he writes: “If you say trivial things about the Torah, it does not mean that the Torah is a trivial book; it only means that you are a trivial reader. If you only speak about the minor details in the Torah, and if you have nothing to say about the vision in the Torah, it only means that your mind lacks imagination, and that your spirit is pedestrian.” Perhaps it is this idea that continues to motivate him to dig deep into our tradition and in his own soul to provide us, his readers and listeners, with ever fresh perspectives to inform and increase our spiritual sensitivity. Toda Raba, Jack and Yashay Koach.
Rabbi Lenore Bohm is the Director of Jewish Education at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center of San Diego. She was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1982 and has served in congregations and a variety of nonprofit organizations in San Diego for almost 36 years.
“Finding G-d in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone from the Jewish Tradition,” published by Front Edge Publishers, Cantor, Michigan, 2013, 373 pages, $19.95.