Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., The Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at HUC-JIR/New York, presented the address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's New York Ordination service on Sunday, May 5, 2019 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York:
President Rehfeld and Provost Weiss, thank you for the privilege of addressing the ordinees at this, my final ordination ceremony, as I officially retire from this Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that I have loved with all my heart, for over half a century. Rabbi Davidson, I especially appreciate doing so from your rabbinic pulpit of Temple Emanu-El, a synagogue that I value beyond measure, as I do you. My message this morning is my own, of course, but, thinking of myself as representing all my faculty colleagues, any one of whom would love to have the privilege I now enjoy in standing here, I begin with the traditional words of trepidation.
Bir’shut rabbotai, “with your permission,” colleagues, teachers, teachers of the ordinees, but also my own teachers, for we are all teachers of one another -- with the permission of you all, I now send forth this class with words.
Yes, words. I send you forth with words, dear ordinees – as if you haven’t had enough of them in all your college years: heavy heavy tomes of them, endless practice singing them; chanting them; declaiming, proclaiming, exclaiming, and explaining them. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, Hamlet feigns madness saying, “words, words, words”; but words are hardly madness, Shakespeare, of all people, surely knew, and we Jews didn’t need Shakespeare to tell us what, for us, was an established fact already. “Jewish continuity,” say Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, “has never been about bloodlines [and] chromosomes … but about the role of words.”
Plants, say our philosophers, are tsame’ach – they grow; animals, one step up, are chai – they live; but humans, God’s crowning touch, are like God, because we are m’daber, we “speak.
K’doshim tihyu, God says to us this week – yes “says” to us (in words) “Be holy, as I, God, am holy.” “You can be like me,” God might have continued, “because you know the power of words.” Our Jewish cultural ideal is not the monk locked silently away in meditation but the talmid chakham, the student, locked noisily in verbal conflict, the deep debate of divrei Torah – the words of Torah.
And not just words drily spoken, but words chanted and sung. [spoken in monotone] “On-ly-first-gene-ra-tion-Ho-llywood ro-bots, speak in mono-tone” – after all. Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss says words and music require one another. Melody alone attracts lyrics; lyrics alone attract melody. [chanted as Talmudic argument]
TraDI-tional Talmud study comes with a CHA-ant: [chanted as in Torah] A-all the MORE so, do our Torah reading and our PRAYers. The most complete work of art is said to be the opera, where words and music coalesce into a drama of the human condition. But we Jews wrote operas centuries before Verdi, and even Monteverdi – we call it tefillah: prayer.
And we send you forth with words not just for prayer. Jochanan ben Zakkai, whom we presume knew Judaism pretty well (!), is said by the Talmud to have conversed with angels and demons and even palm trees. Your conversation should be at least as good as his.
So we send you on your way with the keys to the entire Jewish conversation of the centuries -- all the centuries, from Yochanan ben Zakkai to Alyssa Gray, Andrea Weiss, Merri Arian, and all the rest of us; for whatever else Judaism is, it is a spectacularly absorbing conversation – not just about text and music but truths and aspirations, time and space, falling ill and getting better (or not), being young and growing old, getting up in the morning and going to sleep at night and living wisely and morally in between. It is about everything.
Its pinnacle achievement, the Talmud, all by itself, is about everything, sometimes all at the same time and all on the same page. It is even arranged as a conversation among rabbis who lived lands and centuries apart, not to mention Elijah, who is still alive and kicking up in heaven but who drops in, on occasion, to offer his opinion in rabbinic debates; and where even the bat kol, the reflected voice of God, gets cameo appearances (and sometimes loses). We send you forth as masters of words, spoken and sung, invoked and intoned, chanted and enchanted: words to touch the heart, challenge the mind, and elevate the soul; words that move us to tears; and that dry those tears with comfort; words that never let us forget the grand privilege of simply being alive, and words to protest on behalf of those for whom simply being alive is not the grand privilege it was meant to be. You are keepers of the Jewish conversation through time. And by moving people to live with that conversation foremost in mind, you are keepers of time itself.
When people ask you what you do (and they will) tell them this: “I continue the conversation of the centuries; I sit sometimes with Maimonides, Miriam and Moses; I take a master class with Salomon Sulzer and Salomone Rossi, and then I carry the conversation back to you. At times I sing it; at times I say it; at times I pray it; and I share it with you as the conversation that can change your life, by giving you the means to connect life’s dots.
Yes, dots. When children of my generation were sick, our mother’s friends would drop by with a veritable treasure (it was worth getting sick to receive such a gift) -- a humongous workbook with things to do on every page: crossword puzzles, rebuses, word-searches, find the missing shapes of dogs and flowers and pussy-cats up in the trees, and more – but most especially, “connect the dots.” How much we loved tracing our pencil from 1 to 2 to 3 or from a to b to c – and so on -- until the seemingly random set of dots cohered magically into a picture. I confess, dear ordinees, I have occasionally wondered how you got this far in life on mere computers -- and not those precious workbooks. But fear not! All is not lost. I have discovered that they make apps entitled “Connect the dots,” and advertised, as “beautifully addictive puzzle games” that do in color what the miserable notebooks of my childhood years could not even imagine.
There is good reason for children to be enamored of the simple exercise of endlessly connecting the seemingly arbitrary arrays of stupid dots on a page. It is because they thereby practice being like God. “When God began making the heaven and the earth,” we read, “the earth was tohu vavohu, utter chaos,” just like the pages of unconnected dots. But God connected those dots. God thereby brought forth worlds; and God did it with words. “Let there be light,” God said; “and there was light!” No wonder children love connecting dots: who wouldn’t love playing at being God?
Being like God is not just play, however. The unfolding lives of everyone in this sanctuary, everyone out on the street, everyone in the world, are nothing but collections of successive dots that speed across our personaI horizons in the form of events, planned and unplanned: the satisfactions we are blessed to celebrate; the disappointments that trash those satisfactions; the joys and milestones we share; the tragedies that we think happen to other people only, until we find out that we are those other people; such miracles as love discovered, a goodnight kiss, and finding each other in the dark; but also, when love dies, the nights we are alone and just plain darkness with no one finding, or maybe even searching. This is the stuff of life: dots, dots and more dots, that we yearn to connect into a pattern that has order, purpose, and hope. And here is the problem: the dots of life are harder to connect than the dots on a page or an app, because the dots of life do not come numbered.
It is your privilege to help people number their dots: what dots matter, what dots don’t; which dots get priority; which are better left behind; what the final picture can be like, and what it need not be at all. God said, “Let there be light” -- and there was light. You will find people sitting in darkness, and you will say, “There can be light” -- and there will be light. God said, “Let the world teem with life,” and there was life; you will find people feeling lifeless, and you will promise, “There can be life,” and they will feel alive. Your very smile, the sound of your voice, your healing touch, your prophetic ardor, and your prevailing love (your undying love) will be God’s presence, sustaining us, instructing us, embracing us, that we may say of life, as God once said of creation: Tov, tov m ‘od, “It is good, very good.”
Above all, however, you will do all this because you have words – words well chosen from the Jewish conversation of the centuries. Rabbi Akiba is said to have known the array of Hebrew letters that created the world; Letters alone, mind you. How much the more so, words. The right words for the right moment, you see, do not just connect dots; they create worlds, the personal worlds that each of us calls our own. How many worlds there are in the galaxies that we are increasingly discovering I do not know. That there are several was no secret to the great kabbalist schools of Tsfat. But there are actually many more than the scientists and kabbalists together have foreseen, not just scattered among the stars or masked in mystic creativity but here, right here, on earth.
Just count the number of people on this planet: 7.53 billion and growing; each of us has a world, a world that we create by connecting our dots.
For dots, dots, dots, you have words, words, words -- words of the Jewish conversation, words that create worlds. You are rich in words. You are the maker of other people’s worlds.
When you leave this mighty sanctuary today, celebrate fully with those who love you most; give each of them a hug and thank them for making you who you are; take time to thank God too, for this moment of moments; and then find a good mirror and acknowledge yourself for all that you yourself have done to reach this milestone (you deserve it). But then go home, and as your first task as rabbis and cantors in Israel, inscribe on every one of your screen savers, the advice of the Prophet Hosea, 14:3, a verse that became one of my life’s mantras (you cantors, especially, should note) because of the way I once heard Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller chant it. K’chu imachem d’varim v’shuvu el hashem. “Take words with you,” Hosea said, “and turn to God.”
But not just God; look also to the people who now call you cantor or rabbi. V’al tikri SHUvu ela hitYASHvu. Read the verb not as SHUvu, “turn” but as hitYASHvu, “settle in.” Turn to God? Of course. Always. But equally, settle in among your people and bring them the gift of the Jewish conversation, words that connects their dots and create their worlds. If you do that, your own world too will flourish, alongside theirs, because as of this ordination moment, your world and theirs are inextricably interdependent. May your world, their worlds, the world of the Jewish People, the world of whatever community, city and nation you inhabit, the world of all humanity (all God’s people) – may all these worlds be fulfilled. May it be said of you, that because of you, these worlds were all fulfilled for good, for blessing and for peace. Amen.
 Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, Jews and Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 52.