2011 Ordination Charge to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies Ordinands
This year marks the Bar Mitzvah Ordination of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; the 13th class of an illustrious progression of rabbis. Such a moment is surely a covenantal occasion! Covenant - a brit - is a contract in which two parties join together for a common purpose and stipulate that purpose, its benefits and its consequences. Here I would like to draw your attention to the reality that the act of covenant functions in two intersecting dimensions: such an agreement covenants the Jewish people with God, and it simultaneously intertwines the generations of the Jewish people. It is the nature of covenant that the stipulated agenda exceeds the lifespan of any single generation. We set out to establish a community responsive to justice, compassion, and holiness, but that elaborate goal cannot be achieved by any one generation. Each new cohort must commence where the previous generation concluded. We transmit the task to our descendants, trusting that they will advance the sacred work we inherited from our ancestors and which we augmented during our watch. Brit, then - covenant - binds us across the generations: those who came before us, through us, to those who will follow after us. At every moment of the blossoming of brit, we are called to ask ourselves, what are the needs of our time? In what way can the brit be made responsive to the needs of our people and all people? To the needs of our planet and all spacetime?
On this auspicious night, we also find ourselves in the middle of one of Judaism's more picturesque, biblically-mandated mitzvot - the counting of the Omer. We were commanded from the second night of Passover until the eve of the Festival of Shavuot, when the Holy Temple still stood, to harvest the new barley grain and carry sheaves to the Mount Zion in Jerusalem every night and to count off the evenings linking the two holy gatherings - each night for seven times seven nights, 49 in total. Now lacking our Holy Temple in Jerusalem, we enliven the memory by continuing to count. Observant Jews, every single evening between Pesach and Shavuot, recall which day of the Omer it is, how many weeks and how many days of the Omer, and notice where, on the chart of the Kabbalah's Sefirot that places us; with the intersection of 7 x 7. "From the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, the day after the Sabbath - you shall count off seven weeks. They shall be complete: You must count until the day after the seventh week, 50 days, and then you shall bring an offering of the new grain to the Lord (Leviticus 23:15-16)."
Let's examine that striking requirement: Minhah Hadashah - a new offering.
I remember a film in which the comedian Steve Martin suddenly finds himself fabulously wealthy. He dines at the most exclusive French restaurant instructs the waiter: "Now that I'm loaded, I want your absolutely newest bottle of wine." This quip encapsulates a Jewish mistrust for things that are new. If something is really new, how do we know it's not a scam! How do we know it's going to stand the test of time? Come back to us in 1,000 years! On the other hand, the yearning for something new is also deep; as deep as the barley grains that our pilgrim ancestors brought with them to Jerusalem. We are called here to balance those conflicting urges, to integrate them into a deeper, variegated synthesis.
When you bring a new grain of barley, you are bringing the same object you brought before, but in new embodiment. It's the same. It's different: both at once. Similarly, we are asked to maintain an ancient tradition, and - at the same time - to renew it; not simply to fossilize and freeze into stagnation what was the inheritance of our ancestors, nor also to invent on our own whatever we select and pretend it is continuity because of a shared label. Rather our ongoing commitment is to wrestle to cling to that which we have inherited, and to transmute it in such a way that it speaks anew to each new age, beginning with our own.
There is a wonderful teaching from Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Lunschitz, a 16th Century Polish author, who wrote a Torah commentary called the Kli Yakar. He understands Minhah Hadashah to teach, "The Torah must be new for each person every day as the day that it was received from Mt. Sinai." He goes on to explain, "For the words of Torah shall be new to you, and not like old matters which the heart detests. For, in truth, you are commanded to derive novelty each and every day."
I want to share with you, you who will soon be the world's newest rabbis, my favorite Aggadata(rabbinic legend). It is found in the first chapter to Pirkei de Rebbe Eliezer, in which the young Eliezer ben Hyrkonos realizes that his vision of himself is going to take him away from his childhood home, and that the people with whom he was raised cannot envision him as he sees himself becoming. So he travels from his small farm town up to the big city of Jerusalem to study, but not just to study with anyone, but with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai! (For those of you who are not familiar with rabbinic greatness, an illiterate going to study with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is like someone who doesn't yet know the Hebrew alphabet, saying, "I want to learn Torah, but I am not going to study anywhere but the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies!") Rebbe Eliezer studies, we are told, for three years. And after three years, Rabban Yochanan holds his Academy's annual fundraising banquet - a concept with which many of you are familiar. The wealthiest magnates of Jerusalem are present, and Rabban Yochanan turns to his student, Rebbe Eliezer, and says: "Speak to us words of Torah!" Here's the part that makes this tale my favorite. The Midrash recounts, "He stood up to teach words of Torah and he spoke words that had never been heard before. And his face shone with radiance, like the sun rising in the sky." Because that Midrash does not trust us - its readers, the author then goes on to specify, like Moses at Sinai. But we got that already!
If all you do is codify your own predilections, you are not teaching Torah. If all you do are transmit the words of Torah already harvested, then you and your teachings are redundant.
My prayer and charge to you is that you should teach words of Torah such that have never been heard before! You should mine the riches of our tradition and make it sufficiently your own so that what comes out of your mouth is authentic Torah, and unprecedented. Only then will you open our Heritage in such a way that it shines to this new questing generation the fresh light of the living God.
We are counting on you, dependent upon you. You will enter the land that we can only see. And you will bring your fresh, new, authentic Torah to striving, seeking hearts that are yearning for meaning, and purpose, healing, and justice, and inclusion. Thirsting for those ever-flowing springs, they will be straining for your unprecedented, never-before-revealed revelation. And that moment will be as the very day that we received Torah at Sinai.
My blessing to each and every one of you is that you should know that you stand in a formidable chain that links you through your teachers, and their teachers, and their teachers, all the way through every generation of our people to Moshe Rabbenu. And you should know that in yourselves, in your very cells, you have genetic heritage that links you all the way back past Moshe Rabbenu to the very first forms of life, all of whom are your brothers and your sisters. May you stand on their protoplasmic shoulders, arm yourself with the teaching of Moses, the visions of our prophets and sages, resonate the heartbeat of our mystics and our poets, and bring with you the admiration and the love of your teachers.
May you, in all your teachings, transmit our inheritance, mine novelty and shine your light! God Bless.