Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig’s Farewell Sermon

Rabbi Lustig at the bimah

The following is a transcript of Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig’s sermon from his Retirement Celebration Shabbat, October 14, 2022. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

I want to take just a minute and really short, to humbly say thank you to all of you. And tell you that I’m so profoundly honored to share with so many of these people who labor every day in extraordinary ways to make sure we have a better world. I had a bet and he almost won it, that Pastor Bob Roberts was going to convert all of you. And I want you to know, I moved the water from up there because otherwise, he would have baptized y’all.

Bob is an extraordinary man. Imam Majid, David Saperstein. I have walked the world with them and we’ve tried to do some extraordinary things. And I am so honored that you’re here. Beverly I’ve known for a long, long time and she is somebody who is true to the core. And Beverly, I stand by your side and walk through raining fire with you, babe, and you know that.

And to the pastors that are here, I want to thank you. But most importantly, I just want to thank all of you for giving me the opportunity. To Marcus and Eve, thank you for not ridiculing me too badly. But they and their mom gave up an awful lot, in order for me to be as intense in the way that I have been.

Most of all, I want to thank two people. I’ll try to hold it together. One of them is not here. The other, I’m sure, will watch the tape. That’s my mother and father. They’re very different people, but extraordinary. My brother Ron, who is here, knows that we grew up in a household because our mother was a Holocaust survivor, we didn’t really have a childhood, so to speak. We were forced to be young adults early on. But if I have fire in my belly, it’s because my mom believed that she lived for a reason. And that reason was to make sure that atrocities, like she had witnessed, didn’t ever happen again. She is 92 years old and she still rules the roost.  And she’s an extraordinary woman. And I thank her for all that she has given me. Not just life, but the fact that she gave me the courage and the solace and the support to be who I needed to be. I’m a dyslexic. If you ask me to spell the word rendezvous, and my life depended on it, I’d say, “Just shoot me. I have no idea.” Ask my kids. Half the time I yell out and Eve will come over and go, “Just let me do it.” I learned to dictate things. When I came to this congregation, I was honest. I came to them and said, “Listen, I’ll tell you, if you want me for spelling and grammar, you better get somebody else. But if you want somebody to work hard and believes in the future of Judaism, I can do that.” And Froma Sandler took a risk on me. Froma Sandler and Stuart Bindeman. They hired me, and she’s been by my side every step of the way. And I thank all the past presidents.

I also just want to say that my father was an extraordinary man. He believed in principle over anything else. He was exacting in the things that he did and he was a consummate teacher. He was gifted. He had hands. He could fix anything. And my brother and I grew up working by his side, which meant as you went through the house, you better do damn sure that if you put on a light cover that either those screws were both horizontal or both vertical and that they matched throughout the house.

He was an extraordinary teacher and a brilliant man, and he wasn’t very successful in business because he believed in principle over profit. When I told him I was going to be a rabbi, she said, How the hell are you going to make a living? I said I don’t know. He’d never become a bar mitzvah, but he was the most religious man I knew. He believed in truth, injustice, and doing things the right way. And he never backed down from that, ever. He would tell somebody, “You could do a job and it would cost $1,500 to do this way. But there’s another way. The right way was to do it this way. But I could do it for $800.” They’d say, “Of course, I want it for $800!” Well, then he would do it the $1,500 way and take the loss. He couldn’t compromise on doing something less than the right way. And that’s what we grew up on. And despite it all, my brother’s a phenomenal and brilliant architect, and I’m the schlub in the family who became the rabbi. I’m going to tell you two other quick stories and then we can all go and eat because this is one of the longest services I’ve ever been in in my life.

If I still have influence, I used to always be going, let’s go. This guy. I tried to get him a cut, but one story is one I want to tell you that is one of my favorite stories. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in 100 Years of Solitude has a story that simply says about people in a town, they’re losing their memory and they put a sign on everything.

This is a chair. This is a table. This is a book. And outside of the town, put a big sign that said, God exists. Because if we forget that, we no longer have memory or capability. You know that I’ve stood before you and I have struggled. I don’t know still at 64, what I believe and what I don’t believe, but I’m not going to give up trying or struggling. If there’s a God, I’m a tough one because I’m going to hold God accountable. If there’s not, I believe we have to be accountable. But God’s vision of what can be? It’s up to us now.

So as I leave you, I want to remind you, as I’ve always said, there are no right decisions in life. There are decisions that we make right. I hope in the future that I can talk to my good friends. I want to continue because Bob Roberts, Imam Majid and David Saperstein introduced me early on to something that I have craved and given me great opportunities.

I’m a pisher from Nashville, Tennessee. I was born in Nashville, Tennessee. I can’t even spell the word rendezvous. They want to kick me out of the Hebrew Union College because I couldn’t pass certain tests because I did everything by memory. I’m a dyslexic. That’s why I took every student that had trouble with Hebrew, to make sure that they didn’t feel alienated by their own faith, telling them that this is what they had to do to be Jewish.

Menachem and Jaffa have heard me every time, laughing as I mumble and bumble Hebrew all the time, when in time, one time years ago, went into a butcher and with the whole time and wanted to supposed to order of, but instead, I said kof and he said, “there’s only one here” — and a kof is a monkey and of is a chicken.

Despite our flaws, we can rise above and be who we need to be. It is tough to be a rabbi. It’s even tougher to be a rabbi’s kid. Ask Mark Newman. But what is amazing, and I agree with David Saperstein, there is no job that gives you the opportunity to have the privilege to walk into people’s lives and to be welcomed, to be embraced, to be loved, to be touched.

I humbly want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part and parcel of your life, of this congregation. As I’ve told people, this congregation has incredible bones. It was great before MBL. It’ll be great after MBL. It’ll be great after. Sue Shankman, who’s a brilliant choice for you because there is no one who’s more empathetic and a better listener than Sue Shankman.

And she has been a partner every step of the way. And I commend you and I look forward to watching her lead this congregation to new and even greater heights because she will. And to my other colleagues, to Susan and Misha and Aaron, I want to thank everyone, Rabbi Fischel. I want to thank you. To my friends and colleagues. I’ve been blessed. So I think we have one more thing to do. And then we get to do motzi. And then let’s eat, and then let’s go home and go to sleep.

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