Rabbi Joel Mosbacher ’98, D.Min. ’07, Senior Rabbi, Temple Shaaray Tefila, Manhattan, and Rabbi Rachel Timoner ’09, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn, NY, presented the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion New York Ordination address at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on Sunday, May 7, 2017. Their address is below:
Mima’amakim karaticha Adonai… shima b’koli… tihiyena oznecha kashuvot l’kol tachnunim
The Psalmist teaches: From out of the depths I call to You, O God; hear my voice… May Your ears be attentive to supplications.
My call came with tears and silence. My call came in concentric waves. It came with denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
It began with the silence and tears of my mother on the other end of the line. All she could say was, “just come.” My father had been shot and killed at his place of business.
I heard the call of my own soul, and that of my family that day, and for many days after that. I was called in that moment to take care of myself, my family, and those I loved. I did the best I could.
The next call came from a friend some 15 years later, a day after 20 school children and six teachers had been massacred. He had a simple and terrible question -- the kind only a friend could ask: “Are you ready to tell your story?”
What grew from that first call -- one that no one should ever have to take, was a story I learned how to tell -- one that no one should ever have to recount.
Accepting that second call helped transform unimaginable pain into power -- it was the opportunity to serve something larger than myself -- to add my story to those of thousands of other Americans -- a half a million stories since my father was killed -- that we might find an effective way to fight the scourge of gun violence that wracks our nation every day. It is a call I would give up in a nano second to have my father back; and yet, nothing can make that happen. I can’t unhear that call.
In the intervening years, I have been blessed to help build a campaign to reduce gun violence. I have been privileged to see how sacred stories can move mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs, governors, attorneys general, and even a President, to use their power to force gun companies to play their part in reducing gun violence in America.
To our soon to be colleagues, before whom we are privileged to stand this morning, the question isn’t: will you be called to serve something higher than yourself? You have each been called to this moment -- each because of stories that Rachel and I were privileged to hear when we met face to face a couple of weeks ago. The question is only: what higher purpose are you meant to serve? Perhaps you are most called to the work of making justice, or to be a deep teacher of transformative Jewish text, or to tend to the bedside of those who badly need a pastor, or to create worship experiences that will comfort the discomfited and discomfort the comfortable. But you have all been summoned.
Even though many things will require your time and attention as clergy, and we know that you have been well-prepared by your years at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to do all of those things well, we urge you this morning to discern what you are most called to do in this sacred work, because when you allow your heart, your head, your hands, your voice, your ears, your entire self to be called, and when you accept that call, you will feel most fulfilled, and the Jewish people and the world will be better for it.
When I started at my first congregation, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the blur of all that was unfamiliar to me. Immediately, however, faces came into focus as they approached me in kindness. One belonged to Esther Smith, aleha hashalom, whose bright eyes crinkled and sparkled with a smile that hinted at mischief. Esther was about 80 years old when I met her, an avid hike leader for the Sierra Club and a weaver of tallitot. Soon she and I were leading Shabbat hikes together and teaching people how to make their own tzitzit.
When I decided to move my family across the country to become the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim two years ago, I brought with me a tallis Esther wove. It hangs in a frame on the wall of my office today. Because Esther taught me that in congregational life it's seeing God in the faces of people that matters most. So in my first summer in Brooklyn, I sat in 36 different living rooms with my new congregants and took my time to see each face and hear each story.
I could not have know then that I'd be asked less than a year later to lead my new community in an expansive grassroots movement for human rights, civil liberties, and democracy. On the night of the election as the results were becoming clearer, I received pleas from congregants. “Please rabbi, we need to hear your voice.” By the next morning, Jews were writing, texting, calling to say that they could not stop crying, and they did not know what to say to their children. “Please rabbi, I don't want to be alone.” “Will you gather us?”
We opened the sanctuary for four hours that afternoon. That day, on which people expressed their sorrow and fear, led to a healing service, and a week later to what's now called #GetOrganizedBrooklyn, with thousands of people taking action to defend human dignity and democratic freedoms. I spoke out clearly and passionately and often against the words, behaviors, and proposed policies of our new president.
Not everyone agreed. Some came forward to say that they were not comfortable with my words and the actions of our congregation. I had been their rabbi for only 17 months.
I remembered then what Rabbi Leonard Beerman of blessed memory taught me when I was a rabbinical student. “How,” I asked him, “can I speak out for social justice as a rabbi without losing my job?” He answered, “Love the people. If you love them and they know it, they can tolerate disagreeing with you.” Gratefully that’s my way. I'd been listening and loving at CBE from day one. But now I went deeper, right into the discomfort. You can't fake loving people. You have to listen under their anger and alienation, you have to see their hearts. You have to believe in them, believe that you can find them where they are and they can find you where you are. I did this. You can do this.
One by one they felt heard and understood. And, I also had to say: I am compelled as a teacher of Torah, as a representative of our people with our particular history, I am compelled to stand with the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the religious minority, the ethnic minority, the poor, homeless, disabled, sick in need of health care, the descendants of slaves, the imprisoned. As a Reform Jew, I am obligated to speak for the equality of women and LGBT people. Our prophetic tradition demands that we provide a moral voice against lies and corruption. I do not feel that I can refuse that call.
Not everyone agrees with everything I say or do, but they know that I'll be there for them no matter what. And that they have a respected place in our community, where they will always belong. And many are proud to be part of a congregation that is taking a stand.
It’s not only rabbis and cantors who are called. This morning, we assert that every person in this sacred space -- partners, spouses, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends, strangers, teachers, students -- every one of us has been called to service in this time.
In a moment, we will ask every person in this beautiful sanctuary to turn to a person next to you, and to tell a story about a time when you were called to serve something greater than yourself. You have just one minute each for your story -- 60 seconds -- and we will let you know when your one minute is up and it’s time to switch. We are going to begin with one minute of silence for you to think of your story, so that when you turn to the person next to you, you feel prepared, and can fully listen to their story. Here’s the question again: Tell another person a story of a time when you were called to serve something greater than yourself. And say briefly what your answer to that call was. And then we will take a few moments to ask just a couple of volunteers to share the story they heard from someone else. Take one minute now to think of your story.
When people share their sacred stories of calling with others, those stories create trust between people; they create urgency within people to seek out their Jewish identities in deeper ways; they can transform congregations into true communities; and they can remind each of us of what we have to bring to this world that so desperately needs us.
In these turbulent times cantors and rabbis are needed to serve in new ways. The world needs our moral voices. The Jewish people need our courage. This is a time to be brave in the tradition of the prophets – to speak for what is right, to protest what is wrong. But the prophetic role is not the only role.
The Torah this week, in parashat Emor, articulates the role of the priest, in one sentence alone employing the word kadosh five times. Kadosh hu lelohav v’kidashto, ki lechem eloheicha hu makriv kadosh yihyeh lach ki kadosh ani adonai mekadishchem. The priest is holy, but not because he’s in an elevated position or because his behavior is circumscribed. These limitations are the consequence of his holy status, not the cause. What makes the priest holy is that he facilitates the sacrifices of others. Hu makriv.
Holiness is serving God not by drawing oneself close, but by drawing others close to God, enabling them to see that their seemingly ordinary offerings can become a conduit to the divine.
Love is an essential ingredient in this project. What enables a person to believe that her ordinary gift is worthy of God? That she is worthy to bring forth a sacrifice? The Zohar teaches that a kohen who does not love the people or is not beloved of them should not spread his hands to bless the people. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches The whole foundation of the priestly blessing is love. V’az yesh makom she’teshareh habracha al hatzibur. It is love that creates the conditions for blessing to be received. Through their love, the kohanim show the people that they are worthy of God’s love.
Our tradition teaches that all of the people have the potential to become holy like priests. Isaiah says: “You will be kohanei Adonai, you will be called servants of our God.” According to Rav Kook, it is the priests who make us all a mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh, using their kedusha to bring out the kedusha in the people. When you give voice to your calling, when you share your sacred story, when you speak and teach and act from a place of calling, you will give others the courage to share and act on their stories, too. As community organizing rabbis, Joel and I know that even more powerful than using our own voices for justice on the bima or in the streets, is using our role to draw out hundreds of voices, to let the people lead for a more humane world.
As cantors and rabbis, you will be entrusted with people’s lives. With their vulnerabilities and dreams. Many people believe that what they have to offer is quite ordinary: that they don’t have an interesting story to tell, or don’t have great gifts to give the world, or for one reason or another, cannot pursue their highest calling. It will be your role to facilitate the transformation of the ordinary into the holy. Through love, to find what is powerful and beautiful in their stories and their calling so that they can find it too.
Some people will tell you that you have to make a choice between the role of the prophet and the role of the priest. We are here to say that the roles are not separate but interdependent.
If you are priestly but not prophetic, what is the Torah to you, that you will not defend it?
If you are prophetic but not priestly, beware: on din without rachamim the world cannot stand. It is precisely your priestly inclination to love people that motivates you to do the prophetic work of making the world more whole. It is your prophetic inclination to engage your people in the work of justice that has the priestly outcome of drawing them closer to Judaism and to communities worthy of God’s blessing.
This week’s portion teaches about the clay vessels that were made to be used in the mishkan, in the wandering sanctuary the Israelites built as we made our way through our Exodus journey toward the promised land. It teaches as well of the gemstones, 12 in all, representing the 12 tribes, that were affixed to the priestly breastplate. As the text says, chotam ish al shemo t’hiyena l’shnay asar shavet; the stones shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. The medieval Italian commentator Sforno notes that, kesheyakdishoom hamitnadvim, y’hiyeh hekdesham. The vessels and the gemstones only achieved their elevated status by dint of the fact that the Israelites designated them as sacred.
The clay used to make those ancient vessels was like any other clay -- some combination of hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates with variable amounts of iron, magnesium, and alkali metals. The lapus lazuli in the breastplate was like any other lapis lazuli -- bits of calcite, sodalite, and pyrite mined in places like modern Pakistan and traded from hand to hand to hand along trade routes that traversed the ancient near east.
The clay vessels and the stones were generous donations by the Israelites, to be sure, but in and of themselves, they were just like millions of other vessels and, no doubt, numerous other precious stones. It was only when the Israelites dedicated these stones, only when they inscribed their names on them, only when they put their holy intentions into them, only when they set them apart for sacred purpose, only when they recognized that they could serve a higher good, that they became holy.
Today, we are dedicating these precious gems. My friends, who, in a few moments will be our new colleagues, today, you become klei kodesh -- vessels of holiness.
And tomorrow, and for decades to come, we pray, you will be called again -- called to respond to the needs of your own soul, and to the needs of those you love. You will be called to serve the Jewish people in new ways every single day -- challenged to listen to the beautiful and complicated calls of the people you will serve. And you will be called as prophets and priests to hear the cries of our broken world, challenged to marshal the power of sacred stories -- yours and those of the people all around you -- to bring wholeness to this world.
You’ll hear the call to serve something higher than yourselves. And we know that each of you, inscribed today with the name chazan, inscribed with the name rav, will shine like the gems of the breastpiece.
Rabbi Timoner: Hear your people.
Rabbi Mosbacher: From out of the depths you call to God.
Rabbi Timoner: Lead your people.
Rabbi Mosbacher: From out of your depth God now calls to you.
Rabbi Timoner: Help people see the sacred in their own stories.
Rabbi Mosbacher: Help people see the power their stories have to change the world.
Rabbi Timoner: Be a prophet
Rabbi Mosbacher: May your ears be attentive to supplications.
Rabbi Timoner: Be a priest
Rabbi Mosbacher: Be a gem in the breastplate of our people
Rabbi Timoner: You are called
Rabbi Mosbacher: You are ready
Together: Chazak v’ematz!