Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, Professor of Cantorial Arts at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and Rabbi Lester Bronstein, Bet Am Shalom Synagogue of White Plains, presented the Ordination Address at HUC-JIR/New York Ordination on Sunday, May 3, 2015 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.
Their address is below.
[Benjie begins by singing the single word “Hineni” from Aharon Charlap’s Akedat Yitzchak]
Les: Hineni. I am here. I am ready. Ready to serve. Ready to comfort.
Benjie: Hineni. I am here. Ready to teach, to lead. To listen. To be fully present.
Les: Ready to find the words or the song at the eit ratzon, at the time when they are needed most.
Benjie: And ready to be silent when there are no words and no song. For even that silence is Hineni.
Les: On the day when each of you found the courage to send in your application to the cantorial or rabbinic school of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, long before you began your studies in Yerushalayim and here in this city…
Benjie: Long before the faculty and administration carefully considered you and accepted you, you had already intoned deep within yourselves the response, “hineni/I am here; present and ready.”
[first part of song a capella: aley eylai, aley eylai hahara…veh’yey sham, veh’yey sham; Come up to me…come up to me on the mountain…and be there…and be there]
Les: There is a beloved text in our Torah that seals this idea of “hineni” into our hearts without ever mentioning that word. In Exodus chapter 24 verse 12, in the portion Mishpatim, after Moses has heard and taught the Decalogue and the people have promised to “do it and hear it,” (na’aseh v’nishma), and after he has invited the elders of Israel up to partake of a mystical meal in the divine presence, God summons Moses to ascend all by himself. God says to Moses, “aley eylai hahara – “Come up to Me on the mountain” – “veh’yey sham” – “and be there.”
Benjie: Rashi says that “and be there” must mean that Moses is to “stay there for forty days and nights.” Ibn Ezra teaches that God means for Moses to “wait there until he receives the Tablets.”
Les: The great spiritual genius, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk, says that “and be there/veh’yey sham” actually constitutes a second, separate commandment perhaps more important than the first, “come up to me on the mountain.”
Benjie: He believes God is acknowledging the difficulty we humans have of committing ourselves to being in “hineni/I am here” mode, to being fully present, even at moments as profound as the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
Les: We humans cannot help thinking of other things, other implications, other ramifications, other distractions, even while we are being given the gift of a moment of revelation, of prayer, of lovemaking, of music or silence. “Come up to me on the mountain?” No problem. “And be there?” Next to impossible.
Benjie: Dear new colleagues: On the day you return to this room to think back on the twenty-five years that will have passed since you “ascended the mountain,” received your blessing and went out into the world as a rabbi or cantor, you will be grateful for many things.
Les: Among them will be your knowing that ever since the day of your ordination, you will have tried b’chol l’vav’cha, b’chol l’vavech, with all your heart, to be “present.” You will have strived to fulfill the commandment “veh’yey sham,” “and be there.”
[First part of song again a capella: aley eylai, aley eylai hahara…veh’yey sham, veh’yey sham; Come up to me…come up to me on the mountain…and be there…and be there]
Les: “And be there.” Now we offer you one more verse to take with you up the mountain today, and then forward on your life’s journey. Here it is:
Va’ani t’filati l’cha a-do-nai, eit ratzon
“And as for me/va’ani, my prayer is for you/t’filati l’cha a-do-nai. It is a beautiful verse from our ancient Psalms [69:12]. Re-imagined, it becomes not “as for me, my prayer is for you,” but rather, “I am my prayer/va’ani t’filati.”
Benjie: When one works as a cantor or rabbi, one often finds oneself “praying for” people: for their reaching the age of mitzvot or a landmark birthday; for their safe journey to Israel; for their ascent to the presidency of the congregation or for their recovery from horrible illness or a harrowing experience.
Les: And yet, our students and congregants do not necessarily want us to pray “for them” or sing “for them,” or even to “bless them.” Rather, they want us to be the prayer, to embody the blessing; to be fully present with them so that they can become their own blessing; express their own prayer. In this way they can find the blessing inherent in themselves – their inner Torah, as it were; their own inner prayer; their t’filati.
Benjie: And the end of the verse, “eit ratzon?” “At a favorable moment.” “Let me be my prayer eit ratzon, at the time You, O God, request my prayer.” Cantors and rabbis,
we get called upon by God whenever our people call upon us; at the eit ratzon, at the time we are truly needed.
Les: The special, difficult challenge of the rabbinate and cantorate is to be wanted, needed, called upon, not on a fixed schedule, but at “the time when we are needed,” the eit ratzon.
Benjie: When will that time be, that time when they will call upon you to be the prayer, to be fully present? When will you need to summon yourselves to be present with almost superhuman strength?
Benjie (cont.): When you sit beside a deathbed as your congregant goes from fear to resignation to peace, and passes to the other side.
Les: When you stand with one of your families in the freezing rain as they stare into that grave and watch their loved one go to her final place of rest.
Benjie: When you hold a couples’ hands beneath the chuppah and say the words they could only dream of hearing - that they are henceforth covenanted in kiddushin, in holy marriage.
Les: When you look down into the eyes of a frightened bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl and make them feel loved, respected and dignified as they have never felt before.
Benjie: When you assure a new convert with dripping wet hair that he or she is fully accepted into the loving arms of our people’s family.
Les: When you stand before the open ark with your community in the darkening sanctuary at the close of Yom Kippur as they sing with abandon “Sh’ma Yisrael” and “Adonai hu ha-elohim,” hoping against hope for yet another year in the Book of Life.
Benjie: And when you lead the same set of Shabbat prayers with the same music for the umpteenth time, for the umpteenth b’nai mitzvah family, and you still find a way to recognize that this is that family’s once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Les: When you celebrate a model seder in a nursing home filled with holy people who only remember leaving Egypt but not their own names or their whereabouts.
Benjie: When you instruct curious teenagers or thirsty college students in the scientific history of our texts and also in the immeasurable mystery within those texts.
Les: When you lead your congregants through the public square to speak out for justice, for Israel, for a greener planet, for economic sanity, for equality and opportunity, for all the prophetic hopes your ancient predecessors imparted to you through the words and music you have pored over during these past five years of study.
Benjie: Whenever you represent the Jewish people to the community and the world. AND, whenever you represent the Jewish people to themselves.
Les: And when, countless time after time, a person comes to you to find the prayer within himself, within herself, and hopes against hope that you, Rabbi, that you, Cantor, will truly be “there” for them. That you can say to him or her in a way that no one else in their lives can, “hineni.” Let us be that prayer.
[Second part of song a capella: va’ani…va’ani t’filati l’cha, Ado-nai eit ratzon; As for me, let me be my prayer…let me be my prayer…when the time is nigh; let me be my prayer…veh’yey sham…let me be there]
Benjie: Now you are about to walk up the mountain. [point to aron kodesh] Our advice to you: Be there. Veh’yeh sham. Don’t miss it. It is instantaneous, and it will not happen again.
Les: And then, dear new colleagues, you will walk down the mountain. As with Moses our Teacher, your real work begins far down at the base of that mountain. And, as with Moses our Teacher, you will never personally return to the mountaintop, except in your heart, where you will return to it all the time.
Benjie: (You must) bring that instance of revelation with you throughout your life, so that you can be fully present, fully prayerful, for the people who will call on you at their eit ratzon, at the time when they will need you and want you.
Les: When will they call on you? Day and night, yomam valaila, for that is the eit ratzon. That is the time we will need you, new cantors and new rabbis, to be there.
* * *
[Full song with accompaniment and choir:
aley eylai, aley eylai hahara…veh’yey sham, veh’yey sham;
Come up to me…come up to me on the mountain…and be there…and be there
va’ani…va’ani t’filati l’cha, Ado-nai eit ratzon;
As for me, let me be my prayer…let me be my prayer…when the time is nigh;
let me be my prayer
veh’yey sham…let me be there]
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