Rabbi Rick Jacobs' Address at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Ordination 2012/5772

Monday, June 25, 2012
Dvar Zeh Talui Bi -- This Thing Depends on Me”
Parashat Naso
Ordination Address
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, Union for Reform Judaism
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion / Cincinnati
June 2, 2012—12 Sivan 5772

 

Class of 5772, we’ve been waiting for you to reach this day.   No pressure, but we desperately need your idealism, your creativity, your dedication and your stamina.  We’ve been counting the days, and now, here you are, poised to take your rightful place at the helm of a Jewish community that stands at a crossroads.  The Jewish world that you are about to lead is awash in change and challenge. 

Naso et Rosh—“Count the leaders,” say the opening words of this week’s parasha.  The usual translation is “Take a census,” but literally it means “lift their heads.”  Naso et Rosh--So let’s count the leaders this morning: we have thirteen soon-to-be-ordained rabbis before us.  Our sacred task this morning is not just to count you but also to lift up your heads.  

The opposite of having one’s head held high is to be bent down.   New Colleagues, hold your heads high as you boldly set out to lead the Jewish people.  Our people thirst for the Torah that you know and teach.   The Judaism that you love and live is inclusive and imaginative, passionate and probing, serious and spiritual.  Proudly preach and pass your Torah to the many students who need you, even if they don’t yet know your names.  They will.  That I know.

Naso et Rosh—Lift up your heads to see the wider landscape of Jewish life.  See the challenges and opportunities that await you at every turn.  Ties that once bound Jews to our traditions and to each other are fraying.  The number of interfaith couples continues to rise, with many still not finding any open doors in Jewish life. While 80% of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue at some point during their lives, no more than half are members of synagogues at any one time.  Unless we change our approach, there is little chance that many Jews in their twenties and thirties will even enter the revolving door of synagogue affiliation.   Hoping is not a strategy.  Class of 5772, we’re counting on you to reimagine Jewish life.

Don’t be caretakers of the status quo. This moment in Jewish history demands bold thinking and big ideas. It’s time to reinvent the architecture of Jewish life. It’s a time to cast a broad net, to explore options rather than to rule things out, and to recreate a movement of meaning and depth.  Naso et Rosh—Lift up your heads to become the Jewish leaders we need you to be.

Parashat Naso outlines some of the glory of Jewish leadership past, present and future, but it starts with quotidian tasks of sacred service.  The elite Kohanim have the privilege of blessing the people with poetic words of prayer, a sacred task that we rabbis fulfill at so many holy life passages.  But the opening words of Naso remind us--not so fast.  Yes, there will be high moments of exalted leadership, but as the Kohatites, Gershonites and the Merarites learned, Jewish leadership demands plenty of sweat equity. They disassemble, pack and schlep the sacred furniture of the ancient Tabernacle to each new place on their journey.  Yet all these seemingly mundane tasks are holy work for them and for us.   

The rabbinic mantel we place on your shoulders today represents great kavod but also implicit danger that has always come with the territory.

I'm reminded of a story in the Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, about a congregation hiring a new rabbi: 

The townspeople of Simoniah came to Rabbi Judah HaNasi and said: “We would like to hire someone who can interpret Torah for us, judge us, supervise our synagogue affairs, teach us written and oral Torah, and meet all our needs.”

Judah HaNasi gave them his disciple Levi Bar Sisi.

The people of Simoniah made their new rabbi a large bima, sat him upon it and approached him with an arcane question concerning the laws of Chalitzah, but Levi could not answer their question. 

They asked him another question, and again, he did not reply.  They said, “Perhaps he is not an expert in Halacha.  Let us ask him to explain a verse from the Book of Daniel.”

They did so, but, still, he had no answer for them.

They went back to Rabbi Judah HaNasi and said, “Is this the way you satisfy our request?”

He replied, “I swear I have given you someone as good as myself.  Bring him here.”

Rabbi Judah asked him the same three questions, and he immediately gave substantial, appropriate answers.

So Rabbi Judah asked, “Why did you not answer them when they asked?”  His disciple replied, “They made me this huge bima and sat me upon it, and I became so enthralled by my own self-importance, that I forgot what I knew.”

Class of 5772, while you are students in this great academy you may clearly see the weakness and pitfalls of Jewish life, but then you enter placement and land your first position.  As you settle into your study, with your computer, your phone lines, your stationery, people saying, “rabbi this,” “rabbi that,” you stand on your bima hearing your voice resound through well-heeled holiday throngs.  Every one of us could become a Levi Bar Sisi--we can all forget what we know. It’s easy to get caught up in the trappings of rabbinic life. 

Some of you will lead from a large bima, others from smaller ones, while still others will lead our people without pulpits at all.   But no matter what form your sacred service takes, you will all be pioneers in the new frontier of Jewish life. 

Ashraynoo, how greatly we are blessed today to honor our beloved colleague and pioneer par excellence, Rabbi Sally Priesand.  Sally broke through the barrier forging a path that so many have followed.  And just this week, Rabbi Miri Gold broke through another barrier, which has kept non-orthodox Israeli rabbis on the periphery.  She will be the first non-orthodox rabbi to be paid a salary by the Israeli government.  Halleluyah!  May the Holy One give strength to all of our rabbis who, like Sally and Miri, boldly leap onto ever-new paths of blessing, holiness and equality.  

In this new Jewish world, we are called to engage unaffiliated Jews outside the walls of the organized Jewish community.  But not only that; too many of those we count as affiliated remain uninspired to live Jewish lives of depth and purpose.  

We in North America need to learn new rabbinic skills from our Israeli colleagues. Galit Cohen Kedemand her Israeli rabbinic colleagues are true pioneers.  As a rabbinic student, Galit is growing a new Reform congregation in the middle of Holon, an Israeli city of almost 200,000 people just six kilometers south of Tel Aviv.  When she began, there was nothing: no building, no support staff.  And no people.  Each day, she makes new connections bringing individuals into a growing community of spirituality, learning and activism.   Entrepreneurial skills such as Galit’s are essential for this new epoch of Jewish history.  Working to build connections outside the walls isn’t about neglecting the good people who belong to our congregations, but rather it is an opportunity to lower the barriers that keep too many of our people outside our walls.

It’s not just our parasha that describes priestly leaders.  Frequently, we modern rabbis find ourselves in priestly roles.  But those roles are shifting from the priestly rabbi, who vicariously observes and studies Judaism, to the rabbi who enables or empowers others.

During his farewell address to the CCAR, the late Rabbi Joe Glaser, gave a powerful sermon about the state of the rabbinate.  In his talk he said:  "We hear it said more and more that the rabbi should be a facilitator.  For someone to say this is hubris and flies in the face not only of the Jewish tradition but of effectual institutional life.  For a rabbi to say this is abdication of responsibility."

Joe worried that the new, less hierarchical style of leadership would diminish the unique and central role of the rabbi.  Joe was right to warn us that we must not abdicate our rabbinic mantle in favor of being mere facilitators, but I think it is wrong to assume that by being less priestly, rabbis will lose their rabbinic power or authority.  Empowering others can actually demand more of a rabbi’s strength and backbone than the priestly mode.

Sometimes we are required to practice a kind of tough love as a way to force people not always to turn to us but instead to value their own spiritual resources.

A farmer and his wife pleaded with the Maggid of Mezeritch to intercede on their behalf: 

“We are childless; we want a son."

“Very well,” said the Maggid.  That will be fifty-two rubles [fifty-two being the numerical value of Ben, the Hebrew word for son].

The couple bargained, offered half.  But to no avail.  The Maggid would not budge: 

“You want me to pray for you?  Then you must pay the price.”

Finally the peasant became angry, and turning to his wife, he said:

“Let's go home, we'll manage without him, we'll say our own prayers and God will help us without charge!”

“So be it,” the Maggid said, as he smiled at his success.

The Maggid's example shows us that we are not the first generation to understand the need for rabbis to empower congregants.  But in our day this task has become more than an issue of leadership style.  Our very survival is at stake.

Marty Linsky of the Kennedy School at Harvard gives us the side of leadership we tend to resist, noting: “Leadership would be a safe undertaking if your organization or community only faced problems for which they already knew the solutions.”

The easy facets of leadership are the technical problems.   Emailing information to temple members solves a technical problem of the high cost of printing and mailing.  But the big challenges facing synagogues are adaptive challenges, like how to reverse the trend that sees participation in Jewish life as fee-for-service instead of lifelong commitment.

Here’s another adaptive challenge.  Robert Putnam, one of our country’s preeminent social scientists, writes about a phenomenon called NONES, not the nuns who wear black and white habits.  NONES are people with no religious affiliation.  Back in 1958, only 3% of Americans were NONES.   But by 2008 17% of Americans defined themselves as unconnected to any faith or religious community.  Among young people in their 20s and 30s, that number was between 30 and 40%.  This is a huge adaptive challenge to religion in the 21st century.  When Putnam met with our Reform Jewish Think Tank in Boston this past March, he challenged us to stop thinking about this as a transitory phenomenon.  

It is hard to imagine our religious future with this group continuing to grow so dramatically.  Some in the Jewish world want to write off the NONES and focus on those who are already deeply committed to Jewish life.  To my thinking, this is not a responsible option.  We cannot walk away from millions of people who are simply uninspired.  Inspiring them is at the core of our job descriptions. 

There are so many wise teachers who can keep us on track, including Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter who was known as the Sefat Emet, the one who spoke the truth.   His name is derived from a Proverbs text: “Sefat Emet teekon la’ad” “Lips of truth will stand forever.” (Proverbs 12:19)

Indeed, the key to the rabbinate is to tell the truth, which is not always easy.  It’s easy to tell ourselves comforting myths about how effective our synagogues are but as descendants of the prophets we must speak the truth.  

At our recent Biennial in Washington, DC, Jonathan Stein, the rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan and the president of the CCAR, demonstrated rabbinic courage in speaking painful truths about his rabbinate. He said that two years ago, he officiated at the B’nai Mitzvah of 70 young people in his congregation.  This year, he has seven students in his Confirmation class.  What a courageous act to stand in front of our Movement and admit the painful truth that in most of our congregations we are failing miserably!  By the time they reach twelfth grade, 80% of our Reform B’nai mitzvah have dropped out of Jewish life.  Class of 5772, you must help reverse this painful statistic.  The first step is to speak the truth.

A few months ago, Synagogue 3000 published a study that included a remarkably encouraging finding:  79% of Reform leaders said their congregations are “willing to change to meet new challenges.”  Colleagues, these lay leaders are ready to be your partners in shaping a more engaging Jewish future.  We can do better, but not by doing the same things the same way while hoping for a better result.

The Sefat Emet also taught that his life was possible because he stayed connected to the “root and source from which the life force ever flows.”   It sounds simple, but in the frenetic world of busy rabbis, it is easy to lose that connection to God, the ground of all that is.   Dear Colleagues, movers and shakers of tomorrow, stay connected, not just to the endless waves of information that flow forth from our digital universe, but more importantly, to the deeper sources of truth and holiness.  You need that sustenance.  And, even if they don’t know it, your congregants and followers need you to continually drink from those precious waters.

Our parasha begins with Naso et Rosh and concludes with Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha—first we are taught to lift the heads of the leaders and if we succeed they will help lift God’s countenance upon all those who will seek blessing on their life journeys.

By lifting our countenance to the world of possibility before us, we will sometimes experience God’s countenance shining upon us.

Our teacher, Rabbi Jerry Davidson wrote, “A rabbi’s world is a vision that others often cannot see.  Rabbis find themselves bringing to their people frequently not what they want, but what the rabbi feels they need. Not seeking to make them comfortable and content, but rather challenged and disturbed.  And often the rabbi is alone.”  Colleagues, the balance between leading and listening, agitating and comforting is art--not science.  

Dig deep into the well of our tradition and into your own soul to find your rabbinic compass.  When you feel the need to go the opposite way from the crowd, stand your ground--even as you remember that your view is never infallible, but it remains authentically yours. 

To the Jewish people’s thirteen newest rabbis, savor this day, linger in the promise of this moment, because soon -- I promise, soon -- you will leave this grand bima and this holy moment of consecration to lead our people forward.   

In conclusion, in tractate Berachot of the Babylonian Talmud there is a teaching for all of us who lead the Jewish people.   God tells Moses, "lech rayd," "go down from the mountain," because the people have lost their way.   God tells Moses to get down from Mt. Sinai, but also from his inflated idea that his position of honor is separate from the fate of the people.  God tells our greatest rabbi that his position of greatness is forever tied to the people.   So when God threatens to destroy the people of Israel, instead of just feeling relieved that he will be spared, Moses realizes: "Davar zeh talui bi," "this thing depends on me." Moses then immediately stands up and challenges God to withhold the threatened punishment.

Moses finally hears God's threat of destruction as a call to action; he understands that something is hanging in the balance, and that the actions of one person deciding to step forward can shape the course of future events. These four words change his world: "Davar zeh talui bi," "this thing depends on me." Moses models for us what it means to take profound responsibility for our lives and for the lives of others.  That’s what rabbis can do. 

To our newest rabbis:  In the coming years, as you and our people face difficult circumstances, remember “Davar zeh talui bi—this thing depends on me.” Don’t worry that everything depends on you, but just as surely do not doubt that your holy work can transform lives. Remember that our position of honor in our communities as rabbis and as leaders is permanently bound to our people.  And yes, for the Jewish people, and for the ideals that anchor our lives, we can challenge anyone, including the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the one who creates and sustains creation.

Our Newest Colleagues, Lech Rayd, go down from this liturgical mountain, for your people calls to you.  As you head down, remember Naso et Rosh—Hold your heads high.  And as you do, Yisa Adonai Panav Elecha, May God lift up God’s countenance upon you and grant you peace.   Amen.

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Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to 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 American Jewish Archives, 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