Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, Associate Rabbi, Central Synagogue, New York City, presented the Ordination Address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Cincinnati Ordination on Saturday, May 21, 2016 at Plum Street Temple.
Her address is below.
Good morning and Shabbat shalom. I’m honored and grateful to be here with you today, on a day of great holiness, a day of profound hope for what is ahead. If you don’t have goosebumps right now, I don’t even know what to tell you – today is a big day. I want to offer my immense gratitude to the senior class for inviting me here to share words with you today. It means so much to me, truly. And thank you Dean Cohen, Dean Kanter, and members of the faculty for welcoming me here. And of course, thank you, President Panken who is so dear to me, was my thesis advisor, my teacher, and is someone whose leadership brings honor to us all.
In just a few moments, you, the six ordinees who have worked so hard to reach this day, will stand before God, Torah, and Rabbi Panken, who will lay his hands on you and he will utter ancient words and you will be changed. We are a people who believe that ritual has the power to create a new reality. There is one truth before it and a different truth after it. Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches us that ritual is performative, transformative. Your heart’s intentions, combined with your body’s willingness, and Rabbi Panken’s authority to transfer smichah to you – comports great weight onto this day. And I know – we know – that you take this moment quite seriously. So do we. Because the world needs you very badly right now.
There’s a really interesting chart, like a Venn diagram of sorts, that floats around Facebook every couple of years – perhaps you’ve seen it. It has 4 circles, each with a question in it - and the sweet spot in the center where these four circles overlap, is called: your purpose in life. By answering its 4 questions, this chart supposedly helps us figure out what we should be doing with our precious time. I thought it might be useful today. These are the questions:
One, What do you love to do? Two, What are you good at doing? Three, What will someone pay you to do? And finally, four: What does the world need from you? You are figuring out the first three – you know some of the things that you love to do and certainly some of the things you are good at. You know now what someone will pay you to do – mazal tov on finding meaningful employment. But I want to focus on the 4th question, the 4th circle – What does the world need from you right now? Because that sweet spot, where these 4 things overlap, is not so sweet if we miss the part where we are called to be of service to the world. So what does the world need from you?
We just read from parshat Emor, no doubt the raciest, most compelling, and heart stopping of Torah portions. Alright – it’s really not that racy at all. But still, it happens to be overflowing with insight on this question.
And so, through the lens of Torah and humbly, with your permission, through my own experience as a rabbi over the past decade, I want to offer these three alliterative proposals of what I think the world needs from you – from us – today: Compassion, Collaboration, and Chiaroscuro (I promise I will explain that).
First, Compassion. In a conversation about who is qualified to offer sacrifices to God, our text says: ish asher y’hiyeh vo moom lo yikrav l’hakriv lechem Adonai. A man who has a moom, a defect of some kind, is not qualified to bring an offering. The text continues with a list of categories that would disqualify a person – if they have something missing, something broken, something too big or too little, some things that are crushed. Too many eyebrows, not enough eyebrows. You know, your basic classifications. But commentator Sforno sees something deeper in this text. He references the book of Esther in which we learn that one cannot approach the palace gates wearing sackcloth – a rule we encounter when Mordechai tries to do just that. He reads this as a statement about drawing near to holiness while being “less than” in some way. As you know, the verb we use for “making an offering” is l’karev, or to draw near. And so read with the emotion that Sforno embeds in this text, we find a narrative about a person with a moom, a deficiency, who cannot draw near to holy places, to God.
And so we arrive at the first thing the world needs from you. Deep and endless wells of compassion. There is not one person in your community-to-be without a moom of some kind – something missing, something broken, something crushed. The person standing before you in every moment needs your radical compassion. The world today offers us sharp edges and cracks to fall into. Be the person in whom others can find gentleness, and forgiveness. Be the person who sees them always as unblemished and good enough. Your teenagers who think they are not beautiful, the parent who thinks they have failed their child, the woman who can’t conceive, the spouse whose marriage is over, the person who just did something they deeply regret, the lonely, the lost, the one ashamed of their financial problems. And more than just being the person in whom these healing balms are found, more important than even that - is this: create the space and shape your community such that compassion and gentleness are the law of the land. You have the power to set that tone and make those rules. Where the culture of your community is one person caring for another, where vulnerability is rewarded with kindness – not judged with side glances.
And if you are sitting here thinking that this must be the easy one, it won’t always be.
You will be tired, frustrated. You will get impatient. You will want to perform and impress and be right. There will be a person who yells at you or says something that hurts you. A person who disagrees with everything you believe in and makes sure you know it. And you will have the power to either confirm the world’s coldness or to repeal it, replace it, reverse it, revoke it. Shape your community to be a place where a person can find healing – in the hearts of their fellow congregants and in yours.
So what of our tradition that suggests that a person in sackcloth cannot approach the gates and a person with a moom may not draw near to holy places? Perhaps we can read this not as a rule, but as the problem itself. Not that they shall not, but a person in sackcloth often physically feels they cannot draw near, and a person with a moom is certain they don’t belong in holy places. We pray that you will create communities that welcome every broken heart through the gates and every imperfect soul into holy places.
A second thing the world needs from you today: Collaboration, or better, a collaborative spirit.
In our profession, it’s very easy to believe that our success is best measured by whether our little fiefdom has more members in it or a bigger building than the little fiefdom down the block. Back in the day, between some, although certainly not all, that was a fairly common comparison made between clergy. But that is not what the world needs from you right now.
I want to offer that rather, the world needs you to believe that part of your success as a rabbi will be whether you are willing to be an agent of collaboration. This is not to say that you shouldn’t tend to your own community – you should and must but ALSO to see that your success is bound up with the success of others. Because the world today has problems and suffering that need more than one rabbi, more than one congregation – it is an all hands on deck moment and you, who are about to take or share the helm of one of our many ships can do great things if you will sail with us.
We are blessed to be part of a Movement that believes that there is great value in acting like a movement, greater than the sum of our parts. In recent years, California Reform rabbis and congregations – under the banner of Reform CA - have acted together to protect 3 million immigrants, win billions of dollars for affordable housing, and begin to address a distressing culture of racial profiling. North Carolina rabbis and congregations have joined forces to protect transgender individuals from violence and indignity. Right here in Ohio, rabbis and their congregations are building Reform OH, a strategic and visionary partnership in which they will address injustice in this state by reaching beyond their own walls to be bigger than the sum of their parts. These examples are experiments – each one – partnerships of rabbis willing to take some risk together. Congregations open to casting their lots together. The URJ, CCAR, RAC, and HUC courageously aligning strategies and resources in unprecedented ways.
This experiment is still in its early stages. And the world needs you to see yourself as part of it – and not you alone, but as the person who can bring your community in to play on this enormous playing field.
Let’s be real with one another (since we’re speaking in this very private and intimate setting) - It is tempting and seductive to want to do things all ourselves, to hunker down and just worry about our own community or reputation. What if a shared victory waters down your own work? What if another congregation has a better 20/30 program and your numbers drop and theirs climb? But I know you have not gone through 5 years of school because you expected this to be simple. To quote the president of Central Synagogue, Abby Pogrebin, “No good comes out of territorialism.” That is true for tikkuning this olam, for sharing ideas, for celebrating holidays, for strengthening one another.
In parshat Emor, we find a simple verse that inspires us toward collaboration. God instructs Moses with the common phrase: daber el b’nei Yisrael v’amarta aleihem – “speak to the children of Israel and say to them . . .” Simple, no? But commentator Ibn Ezra teaches that we should actually read God’s words here as: “Speak to them, Moses, and tell them that they should gather, and then explain to them.” Tell them they should gather? Where does he get that from?
Well, he explains, Moses has already shared with the people rules about how to observe the sacred occasions that they’d already had while wandering the wilderness. But what God is NOW asking Moses to tell them about are the sacred occasions they will observe only once they enter the land. That is – once they are a people that has to dwell together, coexist as neighbors, set laws and structures for how they will live amongst one another. For that, Ibn Ezra explains, Moses first has us gather, as one community, one people. Because things are going to get harder now and we’re going to need one another. And step one is gathering.
When Jennifer Kaufman, former head of the Commission on Social Action of the Reform Movement called Assembly Member Ammiano, author of the immigration legislation that Reform CA would work on, and told him we were on board, he said to her: “I’m sorry, the Reform Jews of California care about what now?” Because there is weight in those words that mean first we gather and then we act. The world needs you and your communities to be part of this collaborative experiment, for the problems we face today are too big for any one of us, but not too big when we stand together.
Alright, we’re two down. One to go on what the world needs from you. Compassion, Collaboration, and . . . because at some point you just have to commit to your own alliteration, Chiaroscuro (or as the internet would have me pronounce it: chiaroscuro.) What is chiaroscuro you ask? It means the interplay of light and shadow on a surface.
Whether you will preach from a pulpit, shape the education of youth or adults, pastor to the sick, do justice work, or any other rabbinical job – your faith voice is needed to bring light to counter the shadows cast on our world through hate, fear, and vitriol. Theological, spiritual, revolutionary light. Today, in our very day, our Muslim brothers and sisters may be given numbers and forced to register, or be banned from this country. The numbers still etched into our people’s arms cry out for the light you can bring to this shadow. Americans of the Sikh faith are beaten in the street while their terrorizers, mistaking them for Muslims, call them bin Laden and tell them to go home. Our ancestors who were and sometimes still are beaten in the streets for being Jewish cry out for the light you can bring to drive out that shadow. Our African American neighbors articulate with urgency what might be the most poignant assertion in American history – that the lives of Black people matter. Not more than yours or mine, but the same, and your and our ability to join them in that truth and participate in the dismantling of systemic racism in our country brings a much needed light.
I make myself vulnerable saying this to you today, I know that. Because these stories are complicated and we represent the fullness of the political spectrum. And that is a good thing. For no matter who we are, as the Jewish people, we seek out light in the dark places.
As rabbis, you will have the opportunity to reach out to people across lines of race and faith. To tell your story and listen hard to theirs. To dig deeply into our Exodus texts of empathic grandeur that teach us that because we were slaves in the land of Mitzrayim, we are called to protect those who are vulnerable today. To extend our hands and hearts to the other in what some of our interfaith partners are calling Revolutionary Love. We are a world whose surface needs more light, less shadow, and – grounding yourself in Torah, drawing on your own heart, you have the light inside of you to do it.
“Command the Israelite people,” God says in parshat Emor, “to bring you oil for lighting – l’ma’or l’ha’a lot ner tamid – for kindling an eternal light.” And keep them lit. When? Mei’erev ad boker. From evening until it is morning – from darkness until it is light. You carry forward the charge not just to ignite a ner tamid, but to be a ner tamid, this light eternal, to journey from the darkness of evening until we arrive collectively at the light of day. You will find the right words and the right times to say them. Inspired by a Judaism that you love, the world needs you to guide our people in a way that casts light among the shadows.
Compassion. Collaboration. Chiaroscuro. The 4th circle.
In the years ahead, ask yourself this question over and over – what does the world need from me? Your answers will grow and change, though I imagine they will always be rooted in Torah and a humility that comes with knowing that to some degree we are all just making the best guess that we can. Remember, too: You won’t have endless wells of anything to give unless you fill yourself up. Be gentle with you. Nurture and pay attention to your personal relationships. Learn. Study Torah from every angle until it is over and over again yours. Laugh a lot. You join a team today that, in partnership with some of the best lay leadership in North America, with some of the greatest interfaith partners in the world, with some of the most visionary souls who lead our movement . . . we can change this world. Welcome to the team. We are proud to stand with you – the world needs you right now.
Mazal tov and Shabbat shalom.