Rabbi Yael Splansky ’98, Senior Rabbi, Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, presented the Ordination address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Cincinnati Ordination Ceremony on Saturday, June 2, 2018 at Plum Street Temple.
Zeh HaYom Asah Adonai. Nagilah v’Nism’chah Vo.
“This is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24)
Thank you, Rabbi Kamrass, for sharing your enchanting bimah with us today. Thank you, Rabbi Ellenson, Interim President and Chancellor Emeritus. One of my favourite days was when you and Jackie came to Toronto for my Installation at Holy Blossom Temple. And now today is one of my favourite days. I know I speak for everyone when I say how grateful we all are for your steadfast devotion to our Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. May God bless you for your loyal and loving leadership.
I thank our Ordinees for inviting me to be a part of your special day. And I must thank, Rabbi Panken, alav haShalom, who delivered the invitation. How he delighted in you, Rabbis-to-be! President Aaron Panken was proud of all that you stand for, proud of all that you are becoming, proud of all you will surely bring in service to God and the Jewish People.
Sometimes we open the Book of Torah and the words leap off the page to address us directly – panim el panim! If anyone should need evidence of how Torah can reflect our own lives in very real and relevant ways, just hear these words of our parashah:
“You shall bring the Levites forward before the Tent of Meeting.
Assemble the whole Israelite community!
Bring the Levites forward before the Eternal God.
v’samchu V’nei Yisrael et y’deihem al haL’viim.
Let the Israelites lay their hands upon the Levites.
(that is: Let the Israelites give smichah to the Levites)
V’hei-nif Aharon et haL’viim
and let Aaron designate the Levites before the Eternal God
t’nufa lifnei Adonai, mei-eit b’nei Yisrael
as an elevation offering from the Israelites
v’hayu la’avod et avodat Adonai.
That they may perform the service of the Eternal God.” (Numbers 8:5, 9-11)
That is what we are doing, right here and now.
This is the assembly!
You are as Levites!
And in just a matter of moments, hands will be laid upon your shoulders. And through this simple-yet-profound ritual, you will change. You will be designated; you will be dedicated as a kind of elevation offering. You will be ordained la’avod et avodat Adonai -- to work in service of God.
This is one of those rare moments when your life changes forever and you know it. Your families who stand by as witnesses know it. And the Jewish People who awaits your leadership knows it, too. What lies between you and the moment of change are these few steps. I encourage you, when it’s your turn, walk up these steps slowly and consider your ascent.
The very name of our parashah frames this day as a day for ascent. “B’Ha’alotcha.” “In your ascents.”
The Talmud describes the Levites climbing the steps of Jerusalem’s Temple. There were fifteen steps from one courtyard to the next. In ceremonial procession the Levites would graduate from one step to the next, while playing their instruments and singing one of the fifteen corresponding Psalms -- one psalm per step. Fifteen in all. Masechet Sukkah notes that out of the 150 biblical Psalms, fifteen of them are introduced with the words “Shir HaMaalot.” Literally, “A Song for the Steps.” Figuratively, A Song of Ascents. Shir HaMaalot. A going-up Song. Shir HaMaalot. A rising-to-the-occasion Song.
Today, is for you, dear Ordinees, a Shir HaMaalot in time. This Shabbat B’Haalotecha is your personal Song of Ascent!
To my amazement, I realize that my Ordination Day was already twenty years ago. How can that be when I think I’m really just now getting started? In preparation for today, and upon reflection, however, I do see that I have accumulated some learnings that might be helpful to you. Some I learned from role models and mentors, others from colleagues, and others I had to discover for myself, as you will, too. I offer you these fifteen learnings I’ve picked up along the way, as a kind of Shir HaMaalot, a song for your ascending.
First and foremost – Something I learned from my father, my teacher, Avi uMori, Don Splansky who now celebrates 50 years as a rabbi. Whenever someone asks why he became a rabbi, his answer is always the same: “It’s a great way to be a Jew.” He’s right, of course. Rabbis are afforded time and a salary, no less, to do mitzvot all day long. Every Jew is called upon to pray and study, to visit the sick, comfort mourners, rejoice with brides and grooms, but we get to make a career of it! So #1, remember that being a rabbi is a great way to be a Jew, to fill our days and years with mitzvot. Ashreinu! Mah Tov Chelkeinu! UMah naim goraleinu. How fortunate we are! How good is our portion! How pleasant our destiny! How beautiful our inheritance!
#2 – If it’s true that the world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim (Pirkei Avot 1:2), then so do we. But most people do not pursue Learning, Prayer, and Deeds of Chesed in three in equal parts. Most of us lead with one and the other two follow. Or it we’re really good maybe two are strong and one lags behind. Know yourself. Know your strengths. Do you lead with intellect, with the spirit, or with deeds? Whatever is your inclination, lead from there, but don’t stop there. Challenge yourself to find ways to reinforce the other one or two pillars, so that the world of your rabbinate is sustained by all three.
#3 -- I’ve come to see the importance of Rabbi as Matchmaker. A big part of our job is to make good matches between people and the mitzvot for which they are especially well-suited. If someone has a spark of leadership, we recruit them for The Board. If someone is good with
kids, we ask them to teach in the school. If someone has good Hebrew, we ask them to read Torah or lead a shiva minyan. And yes, if someone has deep pockets, we invite them to the mitzvah of meaningful tzedakah. Our job is to draw Jews closer to Judaism, so we shouldn’t be shy about asking. More often than not, I find people appreciate being called upon and do their best to carve out the time. And very often, as our Sages say: “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to another. “
#4 -- When making a hard decision, clarifying questions are: “Is it good for the Jews?” and “What’s best for the congregation?” Rabbi Dow Marmur taught me that the needs of the collective take precedence over the needs of the individual. It’s best if we can creatively provide for both, but sometimes we have to choose.
#5 -- If you’re an introvert, pretend. Not all the time, but enough of the time so you can build real relationships. Relationships are the glue that holds any community together. You know that already, but you may find you have to remind yourself when you feel yourself retreating from your own good people.
#6 -- They ARE good people. Still, after all these years, when I enter the sanctuary for the High Holy Days and I first lay my eyes on my congregation, they actually take my breath away and my heart skips a beat. I see them as a whole unit, as Amcha and I fall in love with them all over again. They are such a good people! And then, my eyes drift across the pews and I see the individual faces, the individual families. I know them. I know their stories. I care about them. I admire them. I literally thank God for them. And then it is easy to join my prayers together with theirs.
My favourite part of this magnificent Plum Street Temple is not the vaulted ceilings or majestic chandeliers or intricate stained glass. It’s the floorboards! Do you feel the grooves under your feet? Those bends in the wooden planks were created by the shuffling of hundreds of feet. Throughout the decades, women and men have come and gone from these pews – Shabbat after Shabbat, Yom Tov after Yom Tov. Only some were faithful. Only some were generous. Only some were wise. But ALL of them strived to be good! A congregation needs its rabbi to believe in them. And a rabbi needs to believe in his or her congregation. We learned this first from Moses, the first to be called “Rabbeinu.”
#7 -- Jews have a very long memory. So show up and your people will never forget that you were their for them. Unfortunately, they will also never forget your absence. So whenever you can be there, be there.
#8 -- Don’t take yourself too seriously, but DO take the title of Rabbi very seriously. It isn’t always fair, but as rabbi you will be seen, in the eyes of many, as an emblem of God in the world. This is why when Martin Buber was asked “What is the most important attribute for a rabbi?” he answered: “Trust.” People need to know they can trust us. When a rabbi breaks that trust, it is more than hurtful; it is harmful. The shem tov of the synagogue, the shem tov of the Jewish People, even of Godself takes a hit. And like I said, Jewish memory is long.
#9 – I predict you will miss being a student. This esteemed faculty has taught you how to navigate Jewish history and Jewish texts. They have shown you how deep and wide is our tradition. And they have taught you how to swim in it. Soon you will find yourself in a room where the person who knows the most Torah is YOU. And this will terrify you! So commit to weekly chevrutah or participate in the excellent study programs designed especially for rabbis or here’s a trick – rather than teach what you already know, put yourself on the hook to teach something you don’t yet know and that will force you to study up. And know that your students will be your greatest teachers.
#10 -- Whenever you can, be an optimist. People look to rabbis – sometimes skeptically, sometimes desperately – for a message that God is good and that there is reason to be hopeful. Our people reject simple answers and see through foolish promises, but they do want reason to believe that despite life’s trials, still many things are possible.
A little Yiddish poem by Aaron Zeitlin describes this particular kind of faith.
Being a Jew means
running forever to God
even if you are God’s betrayer.
Means expecting to hear any day
-- even if you are a nay-sayer --
the blare of Messiah’s horn;
Means, even if you wish to,
you cannot escape God’s snares.
you cannot cease to pray –
even after all the prayers,
Even after all the “evens.”
#11 – Speak the language of faith. Invoke God’s name. It gets easier with practice. If not you, then who? There will be time later to explain your personal theology -- what you mean and what you don’t mean by the G-word. But in the meantime, don’t be afraid to play the part of the Kohen. Rabbi Julie Schwartz taught me never to leave a hospital room without saying the words: “God bless you.” When we invoke God’s blessing, rabbis give voice to the longings most people sense, but wouldn’t dare articulate. Baruch She-amar V’haya HaOlam. God is the One Who Spoke And The World Came Into Being. In the image of God, you, too, can use words to create worlds of wonder and the sacred. (And remember that sometimes silence is better still.)
#12 -- Today I wear my grandfather’s tallit. Ernst Lorge, alav HaShalom, was ordained right here in 1942. He married my grandmother Eudice the very next day in HUC’s chapel. Not long after, he returned to his hometown in Germany, this time wearing the uniform of a U.S. Army Chaplain. He was courageous when he helped to liberate Buchenwald. He was self-sacrificing when he stayed on for three years after the war to help resettle the DPs. He was fearless when he marched with Dr. King in Selma and co-founded the Chicago Commission on Race and Religion. He remained true to his convictions when congregants asked him not to rock the boat, and when strangers called in the middle of the night to threaten him. I wish I could say: “Gone are the days when a rabbi needs to demonstrate true courage,” but I fear our world is growing more callous and more cruel once again. Rabbis must give voice to moral memory and like the prophets of old, be willing to say the things, which must be said, even when people do not wish to hear. Know what you stand for and know what you will NOT stand for. Chazak veEmatz! And may you be protected from any hurt and harm.
#13. -- More than Priest, more than Prophet – a rabbi must be a Rav, a teacher of Jewish wisdom. At the end of the day, whatever measure of authority we may be granted lies only in our ability to access Jewish wisdom and offer it in such a way as to clarify, inform, expand, and inspire. Whether in the confidences of counseling on family matters or publicly advocating for social justice, or even when setting a strategic direction at the Board Room table, people do not just want “our opinion.” Rather, they depend on us to mine the stores of Jewish wisdom and let the radiance of core Jewish values be their guide.
#14 – I’ve already assured you that being a Rabbi is a joy and a privilege and very hard work, but I must add that there is also urgency in this work. The stakes are high. Liberal religions are waning today. Liberal Judaism is too-often misunderstood, too-easily ignored. But our world needs to be brought back to the core, to the sane centre – where old wisdom shines new light on what it means to be human and what it is to be humane.
In his last public address President Panken told us straight: "Here's the thing,” he said. “The Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before, and we have lived through it, and thrived and built again and again and again. We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and fearlessness, of adaptation and endless creativity."
So don’t hold back and waste no time. Through you and your sacred mission, God will be manifest in the world.
And #15. Last, not because it is least, but because it is hard to admit outloud. The Rabbinate can be a lonely business. Hold onto your friends and classmates. You will need them. And if you are blessed with loved ones who are committed to charting these waters with you throughout your rabbinate – treasure them. They will be your anchor, your sail, your breeze, and your good harbour.
Our Parasha began: The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak unto Aaron and say to him, ‘B’ha’alotecha el mul p’nei haMenorah, yaIru Shivat haNeirot.’ ‘When you ascend to face the Menorah, let the seven
lamps give light.’” (Numbers 8:2) Our spiritual ancestors did more than ascend 15 steps and offer up 15 psalms of praise and longing. They also ascended to light the Menorah, which would, in turn, light up the world. You, soon-to-be Rabbis, will not only ascend to light the lights. You ARE the lights.
Today you stand proudly together as seven branches on the Menorah. (As an ordination class you are seven plus one.) It is written that each branch held a cup shaped like a flower, like a holy blossom. And each blossom contained the oil for lighting. Each one was poised and ready to offer its unique radiance for all to behold. YOU are those lights. What will be kindled in each of you? What sparks will catch and glow even more brightly with time and with God’s blessing? How will each of you carry the light of Torah and the lamp of mitzvot to illuminate the way for the Jewish People and all the world? We can’t wait to find out.
For today, however, let us simply behold this exquisite menorah, the Ordination Class of 5778 and greet you with the joyful shouts of our Haftarah: “Chen! Chen! Beautiful! Beautiful!”
And in conclusion I offer the morning blessing recited upon witnessing God’s light. We offer praise for the One who has brought us to this moment, beaming with such potential and such promise.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Yotzer haM’orot. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of these luminaries. Amen.