Rabbi Donald M. Goor, Temple Judea, Tarzana, California, presented the Ordination address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Jack H. Skirball Campus/Los Angeles Ordination on Sunday, May 19, 2013, at Temple Israel of Hollywood. The text of Rabbi Goor’s address is below.
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From All My Students I’ve Learned. 
Every time I walk into HUC-JIR I feel as if I’m coming home – a spiritual home, a home of learning, a home of personal growth. I felt at home on the Los Angeles Campus as a student in the early 80’s and I so look forward to my Thursdays knowing that I will walk in the doors of HUC-JIR and feel at home once again. It’s not the building that creates that feeling (no, it’s not the building!) it’s you, the community, my community. For that sense of comfort, of support, of learning and of growth I say to all of you, my students and my teachers – Modeh Ani – I am truly grateful.
So….Last Sunday on Mother’s day, Alex called his grandmother on his way to visit her in her new apartment. She gave very explicit directions on how to find her. “Come to the front door of the apartment complex. I am in apartment 14B. There is a big panel at the door. With your elbow push 14B. I will buzz you in. Come inside, the elevator is on the right. Get in, and with your elbow hit 14. When you get out I am on the left. With your elbow, hit my doorbell.” “Grandma, that sounds easy…why am I hitting all these buttons with my elbow?” Alex’s grandmother was quick to respond, “Well, you wouldn’t think of coming empty handed would you?!!”
Today, on this day of celebration and gratitude, I wouldn’t want to show up empty handed! So, instead let me give you the gift of a text - a text that hangs (hung) on the wall in my study, a favorite Talmudic text – Rabbi Chanina said: הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי, ומתלמידי יותר מכולן – I have learned much from my teachers, and from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my students more than from them all. As I reflect on my years at the College-Institute, it’s clear to me– how much you, my students, have taught me.
While there is much that I’ve learned, let me share with you three lessons I’ve learned over these years and then together, with lesson number 3, we’ll ask the question that I like to call the “so what?!” question.
I was in a parking garage recently – the kind where you pay before you exit. The machine asked me to insert my ticket and then the read-out announced: “change is possible”. Well, change is possible in human beings as well as in machines. Change reminds us that we can escape our biography, that we have the power to create a new person within ourselves. Lesson #1: Change is possible – in fact it’s desirable
Our tradition actually celebrates change. When Abram and Sara enter into their covenant with God, their names are changed with the addition of the letter “hey”, representing God’s presence in their lives. Just as their change of name signaled a new sense of holiness so too may your change of name today, as you take on the title rabbi, bring a new sense of holiness in your lives.
I learned in my rabbinate that change is not just a religious principle, it’s also a personal goal. Years ago a lovely, warm, engaging student came to me, almost in tears, as she shared with me what was happening in her student pulpit. She had been told by her contact there that congregants had complained about her - that she came off as bossy, and even, at times, obnoxious. We sat and talked about what it felt like to receive this kind of feedback and I asked her to share with me what had happened. Then we focused on solutions - techniques that could help her, at stressful moments, overcome her anxiety and allow her warmth and passion to flow. Small changes – however changes that effected not only her and her rabbinate but also her entire community.
It may seem to some of you -- especially those blessed with a glass-is-half-full personality (and that’s surely a blessing) -- that this kind of change is a small thing. Trust me, it is not. In your rabbinic career you will receive criticisms. You will feel stuck. Your willingness to hear critique, to hear and then to act, becomes a gift – a gift to others, a gift to you.
מתלמידי יותר מכולן- I feel fulfilled in my rabbinate because you, my students taught me a lesson that I hope you will remember in the years ahead: that even though it’s often quite challenging, change is possible, change is achievable, change can be holy.
Lesson #2: Labor in the here-and-now of each day while dreaming to reach the far horizon. Our days can be so demanding. When you leave here as newly minted rabbis, the demands upon you will grow and grow. The demands of the here-and-now can deny us the ability to focus our energy and our attention on the far horizon, on the future. Your time at HUC-JIR has given to each of you a gift – the gift of a future that you will create.
However too often we get stuck in the here and now. We are simply afraid to dream. Again our tradition has much to teach us - the importance of dreams. When Jacob lays his head upon a rock one dark night, he dreams… he constructs a ladder that connects earth with heaven. It is precisely through his dream that he realizes God is present. We have the power, through our dreams, to bring God’s presence into our lives.
Evan and I are living our dream and committing to building a new future in Israel. Each of you responded to God’s presence in your lives when you dreamed of attending HUC-JIR, of becoming a rabbi. It took five years, or six! Yet you attained that dream. And now what? What is your next dream? How will you continue to bring God’s presence into your life? Maybe it’s continuing your learning and getting an advanced degree. Maybe it’s writing a book. Could you be the next president of the URJ? Of HUC-JIR? What do you want to accomplish next? Will you continue to dream? May you leave this Bimah today glowing with a new energy, a new determination to spend time in the here-and-now while imagining a future, ensuring that God is present in your life by focusing on the far horizon.
מתלמידי יותר מכולן- I feel fulfilled in my rabbinate because while I find meaning in the every day, I am drawn to Judaism’s emphasis on the future. That is the gift we give to you today – may, you like Jacob, continue to dream for your future, and as a result of those dreams realize God’s presence in your lives.
Finally, “so what”?! Last summer, while sitting in a lecture by a young scholar at the Hartman institute, my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman (Zichrono Livracha) , interrupted from the back of the room and cried out: “so what?!” That question echoed for me. “So what?!” What have I done, what have we done, that makes a difference? Does our work as rabbis really matter? We too need to ask ourselves that basic yet crucial question – “so what?!” What will make our work matter?
My answer to the “so what” question? Lesson #3: It’s important – it’s crucial - for Judaism to bring comfort at significant moments in our lives, However, it’s also important - its crucial - for Judaism to serve as our voice of conscience, reminding us that there is still work to be done to heal a broken world.
Our challenge as rabbis is provide opportunities for Jews to do what’s right, to be right.
We shouldn’t be afraid as Rabbis to stand up and declare a fact – that no child should be hungry, that no person should face prejudice, that healthcare is essential – these are clear religious messages. And then our responsibility as Rabbis is to work to bring what’s right into reality. Judaism teaches us what’s right. Our role as rabbis is to preach about, to teach about, to create opportunities, to do what’s right. That is our answer to the “so what?!” question.
מתלמידי יותר מכולן- from all my students, from all of you, I have learned. As your teacher, my mission has been much more than simply teaching the how to’s of being a rabbi. My mission has been to share with you the vision that I believe Judaism holds for our lives and our world, so that you, as rabbis, might act Jewishly to right the wrongs of this world. While you will expend tremendous energy on the holy tasks of the every day, may you always remember the larger vision, the far horizon, so that your rabbinate will answer the “so what” question.
You, my students and my teachers have made my rabbinate a holy journey – never showing up empty handed. You have made my rabbinate matter – Modeh Ani – I am truly grateful. And now I look forward to hearing from of you, what you did in your lives to change, adding God, a sense of holiness to you name; how you, like Jacob, began to dream for your future and found that God was with you; what you did, like Rabbi David Hartman, to answer the “so what?!” question, to right the wrongs of this world.
הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי, ומתלמידי יותר מכולן. I am so grateful to you for teaching me. I am so grateful to you for opening your hearts and your souls to me. I am so grateful to you for giving me the gift of being your teacher and your rabbi. May you continue to enjoy the blessings of change, of living an authentic answer to the "so what" question, of dreaming of the far horizon.