As the Torah says in Shemot (33:11) “G-d spoke unto Moshe Face to face, just as a Friend speaks to a friend…”
When speaking to you, Bill Surkis looked you in the eye. He would not avert, nor would he let you glance away. A friend is sure and assuring. Bill understood intuitively that friends don’t engage in putdown. Rather the opposite: caring people enlarge one another. Bill would run to a person who had been made to feel small. If he suspected you were suffering an experience of smallness, he would begin a litany of praise: you are kind, you are strong, you are sweet… you are good. The rabbis believe we should always end an offering of praise by invoking the concept of goodness. This builds up shalom within the other person, and among all of us. We all crave a community to belong to, and yet it takes courage to allow oneself to feel deserving to belong to a good society. Goodness in society is indicated by welcome and well-being (particular fortes of Bill’s). Communities of shalom are holy and Bill Surkis led us to build Beth-El into a kehillah kedoshah.
Bill was instinctively a leader — eager to be so, anxious when he was not. He enthused for cultural awareness, communal growth. He shared his finest selection of movies and songs, pouring his kishkes into his multimedia mash-ups. Smitten with Yiddishkeit, he was a devoted davener, profoundly inspired by Cantor David’s chazanut. He was also a passionate Jewish history teacher and he researched salient points about the parshiyot, week after week, year through. Always developing himself, ever offering. When Lorraine died, a lot died within him, but he cared for and cared with the community. I pray that we were good to you, Bill. I could have been better. I pray for mechilla even now, two days before Hoshana Rabbah—the last day before Final Judgment. Yet praise is eternally lifegiving, and you, Bill, are praiseworthy and we grew with your presence.
We can only speak to G-d eye-to-eye b’olam haba, in the Next World, but G-d spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu, as the text says, face to face as a Friend speaks to a friend, here in the land of the living. Yet the people of Israel were scared to look Moshe in the eye. They would look down at their feet, the light was so piercingly bright. They were absorbed in yirah, acutely suffering their smallness, but Moshe had ahavat HaShem and braved a direct connection to G-d for the good of the people. Moshe Rabbeinu taught us the hardest commandment of all: v’ahavta et HaShem Elokecha b’chol l’vavcha u’v’chol nafshecha u’v’chol m’odecha … love G-d with your sacrosanct heart, with your Shabbat-extra soul, and with your greatest effort. You are strong enough to love the Al-Mighty above the din of your fear of the Al-Mighty. This is a message for how to actualize holiness, and our Bill Surkis was a man who taught and embodied that largesse.
We read in last week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, of G-d’s compassion for the people of Israel: “He found them in the desert land, and in a desolate howling wasteland. He encompassed them; He cared for them; He guarded them as the pupil of His eye” (Devarim 32:10). Follow the lead of Bill and look deeply into the eye of your friend, for you can see right there in each other’s pupil your own Image of G-d that you carry in the world. Love it, refine it and hone the good of yourself into this world. Strain to reach the heights of Torah’s good in G-d’s beautiful world. Amen.