NY Ordination/Investiture Address -- Rabbi Norman J. Cohen, Provost - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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NY Ordination/Investiture Address -- Rabbi Norman J. Cohen, Provost

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009




Prior to crossing the Jordan River, the Israelites were camped in the Plains of Moab.  Looking westward, they could see the hill country in the distance, the land promised to their forebears, and they knew their journey through the desert was drawing to a close.  The destination about which they had dreamed for so long was at hand. They could almost reach out and touch it.


                        But prior to entering the land, God insisted that they had to do three things:


A.                                 Review of their Journey as a People

First, they had to turn around and look back; to rehearse their people’s journey-- from Abraham’s departure from Ur in Southern Mesopotamia all the way to their 40-year-trek through the heat and the aridity of the desert.  They were forced to remember past experiences; to remember the hardships they faced as a people and as individuals; the moments when they were so tired that they didn’t think they could ever reach the next oasis; all the experiences that brought them to the point of crossing the Jordan. And they had to remember all those who died in the desert and wouldn’t be able to set foot on the Promised Land; all those whom they left behind, whom they loved.


So, as you are about to commit yourselves to service as Rabbis and Cantors, to see your dreams fulfilled as you enter the next stage of your lives, this is a moment to turn around and look back; to reflect on what and who brought you to this place, to this moment in your lives—events and individuals who shaped your decision to embark on this journey of devotion to the Jewish people and then nurtured it—parents, grandparents, relatives, teachers, spouses, loved ones—some of whom may only be here in spirit today and you miss them — those who touched your souls and taught you what it is to be a Jew and human being; who showed you the blessing of touching and teaching others; all those who will be standing with you on the bimah at the moment of your Ordination or Investiture.


Look back and remember the dreams and goals you had when you first began your study at HUC-JIR; the passionate commitment you felt; the power of the first words of serious Torah you ever learned—the energy and voraciousness with which you consumed them.

Listen to one verse in Jacob’s Blessing of Ephraim and Menasheh in Genesis 48, in this regard:

(v.16) “Videgu b’rov b’kerev ha-aretz,” May you multiply across the face of the earth.” The rabbis, who pay attention to every word, realize that the word, “videgu” comes from the Hebrew word dag, meaning “fish,” and therefore read the verse, “May you multiply like fish across the face of the earth.” Then, in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, they proffer a very simplistic analogy, but one which can touch our souls – “Just as fish who live in water…yet, when  raindrops pierce the surface of the river, they go after every drop of rain as if they have never tasted another drop of water in their lives, so voraciously and energetically,  so, too, the Jewish people, all of us, all of you, who are immersed in water – mayyim hayyim, the water of life, Torah, the elixir of our lives. When we hear a new word of Torah, a new tippah, drop, it should be as energizing and uplifting as the first word of Torah we ever learned.  


B.                                  Reviewing the Covenant


Then, after rehearsing the journey that brought them to the shores of the Jordan, the people were asked to recall the terms of the covenant to which they had pledged themselves at Sinai—the laws, rituals and principles that were the basis of their relationship with God; the vision of the world which they were given which became the raison d’etre of their lives.

                   For you, as well, this is a moment of renewal of commitment to the values, ideals, beliefs which have fueled your life journey and which you will now share with those whom you will be blessed to teach and lead; a moment to focus upon what truly animates you as a Jew; what enables you to experience  kedushah -- holiness—in your lives.


—But also to be unafraid to acknowledge your doubts and fears—which we all share, even the most accomplished leaders among us—that which makes us human.  And then to come to realize that in that honest recognition of self, the moment of acknowledgement that we will always find ourselves in the midst of the journey, at times struggling to make our way through the desert of our lives, only then will we begin to model for others.


C.                                 The List of Blessings and Curses

Finally, the Israelites also had to come to understand that every thing they would do from that day forward would have real consequences, not only for themselves, but for the Jewish people as a whole, for all humanity; that how they chose to live their lives would have ultimate meaning.


So, too, now all of you who are about to be ordained and invested, new rabbis and cantors; the newest links in the Shelshelet ha-Kabbalah, the chain of Tradition.

This is reminiscent of a text I mentioned in passing in the basic course in Midrash; a simple text but one fraught with lasting meaning:

Leviticus 26:42:

            [42 Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember

also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham.]


This is a unique biblical verse; it is the only place in the Bible in which the order of the names of the Patriarchs is reversed—And so we ask: “Why is Jacob stated first, before his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham?


The Midrash suggests that it focuses us on Jacob=Israel=the newest link in the chain of leadership; and as such, the newest link is as important as those who came before; —they are shekulim—equal, because each ensures Jewish survival; fosters tikkun olam; each new generation of leaders --every new cantor and rabbi -- can bring us closer to the messianic; to a world of wholeness.


               But if you were looking at the classic text of the Bible, you would notice that the name of Jacob, the newest link in the chain, has a sign over it, which points to the fact that it is written  malei =full=with an extra vav.

Rashi notes in his commentary that there are only five (5) places in the Bible in which the name of Jacob is written with the extra vav.  But then he adds that there are also five (5) places in the Bible in which the name of Elijah = the precursor of the Messiah, is written  haser   = defectively, without the vav at the end. Elijah is missing a vav in 5 places; Jacob possesses an extra vav in 5 places; and then Rashi gives us a gift for all generations; he reaches across time and space and speaks to every aspiring leader, when he says:


Jacob holds the extra vav as a pledge, as an eiravon,  that one day Elijah will come and announce the coming of the messiah; the beginning of redemption.


            You, this generation of new leaders, each one of you possesses the extra vav, you hold the key in your hearts, minds and souls to the future;  you have the potential to help us fulfill the messianic vision—to bring us all to wholeness, to strengthen our communities, to repair our broken world; to transform the bitter waters of our lives into waters of sweetness and bring us from mitzrayim, Egypt, metzarim -- the narrow places of our lives, where we all have occasionally lived, to God’s place; to the Promised Land. This is your blessing; this is your challenge!


    As Deuteronomy draws to a close, we read in chapter 34:

“Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land:  Gilead

as far as Dan; all of Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negev; and the Plain—the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar.  And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’  I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.” Even the greatest among us must realize that the journey is always cut off in the middle; that we never really reach the Promised Land.


But, Joshua, the son of Nun arose who was invested with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him, ordaining him as the leader of the people.  And Moses blessed Joshua, saying “ Hazak   ve-ematz” -- Be strong and be courageous.

·        So we say to you, you who are poised to lead us across the divide into our future:   Hizku ve-imtzu

“Even as you experience the uncertainty of what lies ahead, the insecurity of not knowing for sure the contours of the terrain before you, have the strength to       

give the highest and the best of yourselves, and the courage to act upon your beliefs and principles.  And if you do, you will continue to know the joy of singing God’s song; teaching and living the words of Torah.”


We who are here-assembled pray with all the strength that we can muster that this may be so ----  keyn yehi ratzon.




Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu