Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., President, Presents D'var Torah at Shabbat Morning Services at the URJ Biennial on December 14, 2013 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., President, Presents D'var Torah at Shabbat Morning Services at the URJ Biennial on December 14, 2013

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Monday, December 23, 2013

It is a great honor for me to be able to speak at this Biennial today, and I would like to express my deepest gratitude to my friend Rabbi Jacobs for extending this privilege to me.   I would also take this opportunity to reflect with you upon my life’s path today as prepare to step down from my position as President of HUC-JIR in less than a month.   Given my sole career aspiration was to devote my being to the study and teaching of Torah, it is remarkable to me that my life took the direction that it did.  All I ever genuinely aspired to and why I came to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and then Columbia University for my doctorate was a desire to study and teach our tradition.

I believe with all the fibers of my being that Torah serves as the foundation of our people.  Our literature, our Torah, both written and oral, is what gives shape to our community.  Our Torah and the writings of our people grant us integrity and provide us with Jewish authenticity.

In my own life, I attempt - on every single day - to participate in what is a three millennia conversation of Torah.  A day does not pass that I do not compel myself to read several Hebrew pages of traditional Jewish text and search them for guidance.  And on this day, as I mark the end of my term as president of HUC-JIR, there are two figures to whom I would turn for guidance in framing my remarks.  One is Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, who lived until 1966, and the other is Rabbi Leo Baeck, who lived until 1956.  These two men, Rabbi Weinberg and Rabbi Baeck, were the last two leaders of the last two seminaries in Berlin that were ordaining rabbis for what would soon be a destroyed community.  Rabbi Weinberg was an Orthodox scholar.  His seminary, the Rabbinerseminar, founded in 1874, was closed on November 10th, 1938, Kristallnacht, a day that stands forever as a day of pain in the history of our people.  Rabbi Weinberg escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, was imprisoned in camps throughout the war, and ultimately escaped to Montreux in Switzerland, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Rabbi Weinberg wrote a four-volume work entitled The Seridei Eish, "Remnants of the Fire.” It contains hundreds of legal opinions and articles.  However, it is his introduction that I would cite now.  At the very outset of these four volumes, Rabbi Weinberg says that having lived through the hell of the Holocaust, he does not understand why he, unlike so many people he loved and cherished, was allowed to live when others passed away.  Nevertheless, he points out that it is a commandment -- a statute of our tradition -- that one is commanded at the beginning or end of a journey to express thanksgiving always to God.  Therefore, on this day, as I begin my words to you, I would thank God who has kept me in life, sustained me, and allowed me to be with my beautiful family to reach this precious day.

Rabbi Leo Baeck was the last duly-elected leader of the Jewish community in Germany.  It is always meaningful to me that when the Jewish people had to deal with the Nazis and they had to have someone represent them to the German government, this evil kingdom, they did not select a businessman.  They did not select an attorney or a person more well-versed and experienced in worldly affairs and matters.  Instead, they selected a man of the spirit, because they knew that they could trust him and that he would lead them and speak on their behalf more effectively and more caringly than anyone else.  They chose Leo Baeck because he was their rabbi.

Rabbi Baeck was incarcerated in Terezin (Theresienstadt).  Three of his sisters died there.  When he did manage to survive, three years later, he published a book entitled This People Israel.  It is, in my mind, the greatest spiritual, theological history of the Jewish people ever written.  At the very end of his book, Rabbi Baeck utters words which have been always emblazoned on my heart.  He says that persons are not born into community as if by fate, but we are called by God to the task of molding community.

We are not born into community as if by fate, but God calls upon us to be partners with God in the world that is about to unfold and be created.  At this moment of thanksgiving, in response to the teachings of Rabbi Weinberg and now in response to the teaching of Rabbi Baeck, and before I turn to the parashah, I want to talk about how, from my own personal perspective, the Reform Movement has given shape and direction to my life.  My life has not, I hope and I feel, been one marked by fate, but one marked by a community that we in the Reform Movement have been able to form and mold together.

What I am about to say, in my farewell address as President of the College Institute to this great assembly, is not an attempt to enumerate why the Reform Movement is so precious and so holy.  Rather, it is my attempt to tell you why, in my life, this Movement (and the College Institute as part of it) have informed and shaped me and my direction in each and every way.  As I speak, and as all of you consider what the future of this Movement and its place among the community of Israel will be, I hope you will see how incredibly precious your legacy, your heritage is as Reform Jews.

In this time of memory and thanksgiving, I want to talk about how I have arrived at this day.  I was not born into the Reform Movement, nor raised in it.  Frankly, I knew nothing about the Reform Movement, and the little bit I did know as a young man was essentially pejorative.  I knew it was anti-Zionist (or at least I had been told it was) and that the Reform Movement did not take tradition very seriously.

But at the age of 21, after I graduated from the College of William and Mary and felt alienated and distanced from what I regarded as the unnecessary strictures and the lack of commitment to social issues in the world in which I had been raised, I was embraced and welcomed by a rabbi and his wife in Roanoke, Virginia.  That rabbi was Donald Berlin. He and his wife Norma brought me into the Reform Movement at a time when all I felt deep in my soul was anguish over what I regarded as rejection by the Judaism in which I had been raised.

Rabbi Berlin performed a simple act of kindness. He opened the door, taught, and welcomed me into his temple and his community.  I have cherished my relationship with him since 1969.  Several years later, I entered the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.  I was blessed there to study Talmud with an incredible figure, Professor Michael Klein, the associate dean. I was able to sit with Michael and study texts.  He taught with remarkable intelligence and unbelievable erudition.    From him, I learned that there was a richness of our tradition in which we had to be anchored if we were to go out into the world and express an authentic Judaism.

A year later, my friend Rabbi Robert Lowey was the one responsible for introducing me to the Reform Movement.  At the end of my Year-in-Israel Program at HUC-JIR, Bob said, "You have got to come to Camp Eisner."  I had never been to a Jewish camp.  In fact, I had never been to any camp.  And at Eisner I experienced a living Judaism. 

I also made a discovery there that was incredibly distant from anything I had experienced in my Orthodox background,.  There was, I discovered, a phenomenon that I would simply label "the cult of the song leader."  I had never witnessed a song leader. At my very first Shabbat there, I encountered Louis Dobin Jeff Klepper, Elyse Frishman, and some young song group – Kol Beseder -- with a fellow named Danny Freedlander in it.  Some of you may remember it!  And I thought, "You know what?  This movement really isn't so bad." 

Several years later, I was able to serve as a rabbi at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York, under Martin Rosenberg.  I have friendships from that year that have remained to this day -- Bob and Amy Heller, the current Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz and many, many others. 

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) was a source of incredible, incredible joy to me.  Among my closest friends, indeed the godparents of our son Rafi, are Karen Fox and her husband Mickey Rosen, who held Rafi at his bris. Karen's baby brother, Rabbi Steven Fox, now leads our movement as the chief executive of the CCAR.  And I first came to know Rabbi Rick Block, the President of our conference, through service on a nominating committee of CCAR as a teacher.  

At HUC-JIR, how much my students taught me.  I remember very well an informal discussion on a late Saturday night at a School of Jewish Communal Service retreat. Jane Fantel, Andy Rose, and Sandy Bogen made me conscious of an issue of which I was totally ignorant.  They described what it was to be gay and lesbian, the pain of exclusion, the pain of discrimination, the hurt they felt by not being able to express their whole personhood in public.  I learned crucial lessons about human dignity and equality from them.  The commitments that I have tried to demonstrate to LGBTQ rights in our world stem directly from that conversation.  Indeed, “Mikol m’lamdi hiskalti - I have learned from all my teachers.”

However, I have learned more from my students than anyone.

My thoughts turn to Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, my congregation, and my friend and y’did nefesh of 40 years, Rabbi Robert Levine, Senior Rabbi today of my congregation. It was at that congregation that Assistant Rabbi and youth director David Saperstein guided and inspired a young girl, Jackie Koch, who became President of the youth group there and later became my beloved partner in life. I would thank him tonight.

To all of you who are here, you have walked with me along this path for more than 30 years.  I have been a guest in your homes and in your congregations.  You have given me the privilege of not only teaching Torah to your cantors, your rabbis, your educators, your communal workers, and your scholars, but you have let me teach in your communities.  To all of you who are here today and who represent the totality of our Reform Movement, I say thank you. 

I would not forget Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a most worthy successor to Rabbi Alexander Schindler. Eric’s integrity and steadfast loyalty inspired and supported me throughout what were the most difficult years in this office.  When I would hear Rabbi Schindler speak and later Rabbi Yoffie, they uplifted and inspired my soul.  They gave direction to our people in ways that make me so proud to be a Reform Jew. And to my beloved friend who was once my student and has now become my leader, Rabbi Jacobs, -- you are a blessing to our people. You lead us with such passion and insight, intelligence and love.

What I am trying to convey to you today in speaking of our Movement in this very imprecise and partial way is that it is relationships that are critical. There is a matrix of relationships we all enjoy because of the Reform Movement and its institutions – and the people who constitute the Movement and serve and are present in our institutions – that stand as the essence of our being.  In citing some of the persons and venues I have encountered over my adult lifetime, I can never adequately express my undying gratitude, but only point to my thanks to this Movement for everything it has given to me.

There are so many people at HUC-JIR that I would and should thank. However, I will limit myself today to two persons -- to Rabbi Norman Cohen and to Rabbi Michael Marmur, who each served as Provost during my years as President.  No one could have had better partners that Norman and Michael to inspire and direct our faculty as we attempt to educate your leaders today and for tomorrow.

And to my precious successor, Rabbi Aaron Panken -- your devotion to our people, to our faith, to the task of educating future Jewish leaders is so immense.  To you, and to your beloved Lisa, I express special gratitude as you assume the presidency of HUC-JIR in 17 days.

To my partner, my best and most trusted, my most candid, my most honest, my most critical, but also my most supportive friend, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson.  On our ketubbah, we inscribed words from Shir HaShirim, "Mazati et sh’ahavah nafshi - I found the one whom my soul loves."  Words cannot capture what you mean to me.  To see you here today with Micah, with Sarah, and with our granddaughter Lily -- thank you.

And now let me turn to the Torah itself.  In this week’s parashah, there is a plethora of blessings.  Jacob on his deathbed gathers all his children around him and offers each a blessing, an admonition, a comment, to which I will return later in my remarks.  But now I want to focus specifically on Genesis 47, which contains one of the most poignant scenes from the Torah. Joseph, the son that Jacob believed had been killed is alive, and brings his sons, Jacob's grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to Jacob’s deathbed.  Let me read the text:

When Israel saw Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, he asked, "Who are these?"  And Joseph said to his father, "These are my sons, whom God has given me here."  And then Jacob said, “Bring them to me that I may bless them." 

Israel's eyes had grown clouded with age.  He could no longer see.  And Joseph brought these boys over to him and the text says that “he kissed them and he hugged them.”  And Israel then said to Joseph, "I never expected to see your face again and here God has let me see your children as well.”

Imagine for a moment, as a parent or a child yourself, what it would mean to think that your child had died, that you would never see your child again, or that you would never see your father or your mother again.  And then suddenly you discover that your son has become the king of Egypt.  And he brings you not only himself, but he brings you his grandchildren.
And at that point then, Joseph removed the boys from before his father's knees.  And what is it that Joseph does?  He bows down before his father to the ground.  And then Joseph took the two boys, Ephraim, the younger, with his right hand to Israel's left, and Manasseh, the elder, with his left hand to Israel's right.  And he brought them close to him.

But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed it on Ephraim's head, even though he was the younger.  And he put his left hand on Manasseh's head, crossing his arms, though Manasseh was the firstborn.  And he then blessed Joseph, saying, "The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has shepherded me since I came into being until this day, the angel who rescues me from all harm, bless these lads.  Through them, let my name and the name of my fathers ever be recalled.  And let them greatly multiply within the land."

As a child, I would recite these words prior to the Shema at bedtime.  And for those of you who are interested in classical Reform Judaism, the very first confirmation ceremony held at the Hamburg Temple, in the 19th century, cited these words  as the prayer to be recited over the boys and girls when they were confirmed in Hamburg in the 1800s.
When Joseph saw that his father had placed his right hand on Emphraim's head, it seemed wrong to him.  So he took hold of his father's hand to move it from Ephraim's head onto the head of Manasseh.  Joseph says explicitly to his father, "Not this way, Abba -- not this way, Daddy.  This one, Manasseh is the firstborn.  Put your right hand on his head."
But his father refused.  And so he blessed them that day saying (and these are the words we use to bless our boys all the way to the present day), “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh."  And he put Ephraim before Manasseh.  Our commentators on this verse have asked question after question about this action on Jacob’s part -- "Why is it that Jacob reversed this order?  Why is it that Israel offered the blessing of the right hand to the younger son Ephraim and the blessing of the left hand to the elder son Manasseh over the explicit objections of his son Joseph?"

The answers are legion.  But there is one commentary offered by Hermann Cohen, the famed philosopher of classical Reform Judaism, in his work The Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, that would build upon and cite it today, for I believe it provides an answer to the direction in which our Movement moves.  It bears an important lesson to all of us during this time of transition and change. 

Professor Cohen, building upon the medieval commentators on this passage, points out that throughout the Book of Bereshit, conflict is constant.  Brothers and sisters always fight. They hate one another.  They kill one another.  It is as if, throughout the entire book, there is never enough blessing. Cain kills his brother Abel.  Isaac and Ishmael, their mothers Sarah and Hagar, are in a state of constant conflict with one another.  Ishmael taunts Isaac.  And Abraham finally, in order to achieve shalom bayit, peace in his home, has to send Hagar and Ishmael away.  Rebecca helps her son Jacob cheat her other son Esau out of his birthright.  And they fool Jacob's father, Isaac.  Leah has weak eyes.  And the commentators point out, "Why are her eyes weak?"  In one interpretation, it is because she is constantly crying because her husband, Jacob, loves her sister more than he loves her.

And then think of Joseph and his brothers.  His brothers dislike him so much they sell him into slavery.  The Book of Genesis describes our ancestors are one large dysfunctional family.  Here I think of the New Yorker cartoon where only one person sits alone in a vast auditorium larger than this.  And there is the sign at the front saying, "Convention of people from functional families." Of course, that is not true in this room, but in others! 

The Book of Genesis suggests that this is the way the world is.  Rivalry, jealousy, conflict, anger, struggle are constants.  Combat and hostility are seemingly unavoidable.  And then comes this chapter where Jacob blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh.

Israel had despaired of ever seeing his son Joseph again.  Israel had surrendered hope.  And now at the very end of his life, as he lies on his deathbed, a miracle has occurred.  He has an opportunity to bless not only Joseph, but Ephraim and Manasseh, as well.  And rather than blessing Manasseh with the blessing of the right hand that was Manasseh's right as the eldest son, Jacob chooses to bless the younger Ephraim with the right hand and places his left hand in blessing over the elder brother Manasseh.

It is a situation that is designed to foster conflict.  It would appear that there can be no other outcome.  Yet, as Hermann Cohen points out, what is remarkable about this passage is that conflict does not result.  There is no tale of struggle between the brothers.  They live and love in harmony with one another.  And I would suggest, as Hermann Cohen did years ago, that the brothers Ephraim and Manasseh grasp instinctively the lesson that their grandfather Jacob wishes to teach them, even as their own father Joseph does not.

For Jacob, at the end of his life, finally comes to understand there is sheaf b’rachot, an abundance of blessing in the world.  The world need not be seen as one of triage, a zero-sum game where blessing for one means deprivation for the other.  Ephraim and Manasseh understand that there is sufficient blessing for them both.  And through their conduct, their love for one another, they indicate how the world ought to be. That brothers and sisters ought to live in harmony and tolerance and love and caring and kindness with one another. That the way the world ought to be is, in fact, the way the world is. 

This is the vision that our religion and our Movement ultimately have of existence.  Conflict is all too often present.  It mars life.  Yet our Torah teaches us through this parashah that the world need not and cannot surrender to such a Hobbesian vision of a world marked by a struggle of all against all.  The world is capable of tikkun, of restoration and repair.  Brothers and sisters can treat one another with respect and love.  This is the mitzvah, the divine imperative that lies at the heart of our tradition.  It is the ethos that animates our movement.  When we recite the words, “May God make you as Ephraim and Manasseh," we are expressing the hope and the confidence that, through our actions, God can be present in a world where the model of love and devotion to one another as established by Ephraim and Manasseh can be realized.  This is the hope that is repeated on every occasion when we bless our sons.  The Book of Genesis is only able to come to an end when the way the world ought to be, that brothers and sisters can love and forgive one another, is the way the world is.  
This concept was evoked insightfully and movingly last night by Rabbi Pesner, when he memorialized and spoke of Nelson Mandela. For who embodied this message more perfectly than President Mandela? 

In concluding my remarks to you I would offer you one last teaching – one that returns to the scene I mentioned at the outset of my remarks where all the sons of Jacob – not just his grandsons -- are gathered around their father, to receive his blessing.  According to ancient rabbinic midrash, at the conclusion of his blessings to all his sons, his sons respond to their father Jacob, and as a sign of fidelity and loyalty to the faith and teachings of their father, the sons reassure their father Jacob of their commitment to Judaism with the words that we label the watchword of our faith “Shma Yisrael, ….”  Amichai Lau-Lavie alluded to it in his Storahtelling today.

In this midrash, our rabbis understand this first line of the Sh’ma not as an admonition or instruction to our entire people.  Rather, it is a declaration of personal address offered by sons to their father Jacob, who, as we all know, also bears the name Israel.   After Jacob has blessed his sons and as he is prepared to die, the sons, at the last moment of their father’s life, declare, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Listen, hear, our father Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  And Jacob, hearing them make this pledge, this declaration, this affirmation, responds quietly to his children, in his final breaths and says in a whisper, “Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam vaed – blessed be the Name of God’s glorious Kingdom whose teachings will endure forever and ever.”  So understood, this line is a statement that reflects the contentment and happiness Jacob feels knowing that his children will build upon and strengthen – in their own ways and in accord with their own insights and inspiration – the legacy and traditions he has bequeathed to his children.   It is how I feel today.

If one is in an Orthodox congregation, when you recite the Sh’ma, it is recited out loud.  But the second line, "Praised be the name of God's glorious kingdom forever and ever," is recited either silently or in a whisper. According to this rabbinic tradition, when Jacob's children say to him, "Here, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one," Jacob, Israel is able to feel a sense of of contentment, of satisfaction. This is because the tradition that he loves and that he has affirmed is going to be carried forth by his children into the world in their own unique and distinct and inspired and inspiring ways. And so it is Jacob who recites the words as he dies, "Praised be the name of God's glorious kingdom, forever and ever."  As we, today, reach out into the larger world and attempt to embrace a Judaism of joy and inclusion, we must remember that we are still anchored to an inheritance that gives our community a sense of boundaries and a sense of meaning.

As President of the College-Institute, I have been blessed with an incredible privilege.  To stand at the head of our seminary that educates leaders for our people is a unique blessing, a zechut.  Isaac Mayer Wise had a vision when he created the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the Hebrew Union College.  He knew that without inspired, intelligent, and inspiring leadership, the Jewish people could not prosper and survive in this continent or throughout the world.

The direction of the College-Institute is bound by the past, as is our Movement, but our ways wind and wander, as well.  For 138 years, the College-Institute has educated persons to lead and guide you.  We remain true to what is an enduring vision.  We strive to create leaders who will inspire you to aid God in this task of repairing the world.

The message of our parashah is that the way the world ought to be is, in fact, the way the world can be.  And at this moment, as I step away from the presidency of the College-Institute, I am filled, as Jacob, Israel, our father was, with tremendous confidence and hope.  I know, just as Jacob did, that our Movement and our people through the CCAR, through the Union, through all the organizations of this Movement, could not be in better hands. And the institution that has forged my life now for more than 40 years – the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion -- is truly in gifted hands. 

And so it is in light of the spirit of this teaching, in gratitude to you, to this Reform movement, for all you mean, for all you have done through your congregations, camps, kallot, the Religious Action Center, and through the work of our rabbis, cantors, educators, and administrators, that I express gratitude to you once again.

And I would now call up, if I can be Jacob for a moment, my beloved friend and successor, Rabbi Aaron Panken.  In your presence, I would offer him the same blessing in the same spirit that Jacob offered to his grandchildren millennia ago.

To you Aaron, my colleague, my student, my friend, I say:  “Y’simkha elohim k’efrayim u’ki’menashe -- May God regard you as Ephraim and Manasseh were regarded.”  May you help, through your leadership of this College-Institute, to continue that chain of learning and teaching of our tradition that has produced leaders who engage in this shalshelet hakabbalah, the chain of tradition, of which Jacob dreamed.

Just as God instructed Moses to do when he selected Joshua as his successor, I say to you, Aaron, in front of this community, “You are a person in whom there is a proper spirit – ish asher ruah bo."  Aaron, you are a child of this movement and of everything that is best in it.

I pray, “y’va’rekhekha Adonai v’yish-merekha,” that God always blesses you and keeps you. “Ya-er Adonia panav ei-le-kha v’huneka .”  May God's countenance always shine upon you and be gracious to you.  “Yisa Adonai panav ei-le-kha v’ya-seim l’kha shalom.”  May God lift up his face to you, your beloved Lisa, Eli, and Samantha.  And through your leadership, may you help to create a world that is ever more complete and ever more repaired, a world that not only is but can become truly what it ought to be.  And for this, I bless you, Rabbi Aaron Panken, President-Elect of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, with peace.  Amen.  

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu