Cincinnati Ordination Address”Responding to God’s Call”
Rabbi Sally J. Priesand – May 21, 2022
Thank you for that gracious introduction and for the warm welcome I always receive whenever I come to Cincinnati. Plum Street Temple has always been near and dear to my heart, having had the privilege of serving Wise Temple as a rabbinic intern during my last year of rabbinic school. Erev Shabbat services that year were held every week here at Plum Street, so standing on this bima today feels like coming home, bringing back fond memories of those who helped to shape my rabbinate and remembering Isaac Mayer Wise himself, the one who established this sacred place and chose Cincinnati to be the heart of Reform Judaism in America.
I am grateful to this year’s class for inviting me to speak this morning. I have been attending ordination ceremonies for nearly sixty years now, and as I began to think about what I might say, two lessons I have learned over the years came to mind. First, be brief. You would be surprised how many times I have been present when the featured speaker has gone on for nearly an hour. I promise not to do that, knowing how eager you are to receive Rabbi Weiss’s blessing. The second thing I realized is that my responsibility is to speak directly to the class itself, to those about to embark upon a lifetime of service to God, the Jewish people, and all humanity. Everyone else present here this day is welcome to listen in, but my message is primarily for those about to be ordained.
With that in mind, I would ask each of you, our ordinees, to think of today as the day when you respond to God’s call with the time-honored response of our ancestors: “Hineini – Here I am.” This was Abraham’s response when called by God to sacrifice his son. Moses uttered the same word at the burning bush. Joseph said hineini when Jacob sent him to find his brothers. Centuries later, at a time of disaster and difficulty, God asks, “Who shall I send, and who will go for us?” The Prophet Isaiah responded, “Hin’ni sh’la’chay’ni” — “Here I am; send me.” These are just a few of the fourteen times in the Hebrew Bible when individuals are asked to show themselves fully present at a time of challenge, ready to respond for the benefit of others and the well-being of all. Hineini — here I am — the Jewish response that reflects a great deal about the character, commitment, and integrity of the one who speaks it.
I believe that Hebrew words have many meanings that go beyond the most basic. For example, many years ago I began blessing students as they became Bar or Bat Mitzvah by taking their Hebrew name and giving each letter a meaning that reflected a quality they possessed. I would like to do something similar today with the word “hineini.” It begins with the letter “hay” which I am going to suggest stands for the word “ho-da’ ah,” gratitude or thanksgiving. In Judaism, every day is thanksgiving day. Every day, we begin with the prayer Modah Ani, thanking God for returning our soul and bringing us back to life after a night of sleep, and in the Amidah we recite Modim Anachnu Lach, expressing gratitude for the many blessings that brighten our days, especially the ones we so often take for gratitude. Sometimes we get so busy that we forget to heed the advice of Rabbi Meir who taught us to recite one hundred blessings a day. Moreover, our sages taught that the essence of all prayer should be gratitude, not petition. In other words, we should always approach the act of prayer with grateful hearts, giving thanks for what we have instead of lamenting the difficulties that have come our way. I guarantee that in the years ahead you will face many challenges, moments of difficulty, times when your patience is tried beyond the nth degree, but they will be easier to deal with if you try always to look for the Shehecheyanu moments in life. The Shehecheyanu is our blessing of gratitude par excellence not only for times and seasons, but also for what we have and who we are and what life brings our way. If we look for the Shehecheyanu features ingrained in our daily activities, if we turn our needs and fears and wants into an expression of gratitude for what we are able to do, for what we have accomplished and for what we can yet become, then our lives will truly be touched by the presence of God, and we will be able to face the challenges that come our way with tranquil minds and hopeful hearts.
At the center of the word “hineini,” we find the letter “nun” twice. Let this stand for “na-aseh v’nishma,” the words spoken by our people as they stood at Sinai prepared to enter into covenant with God. Na-aseh v’nishma — we shall do and we shall hearken. This reminds us that Judaism is an experiential religion, one that requires action, one in which the survival of the Jewish people depends upon each of us. When I interviewed for my position at Monmouth Reform Temple forty years ago, I remember telling the search committee that I did not think it was my responsibility to be Jewish for all of them, but rather to teach them how to be Jewish for themselves and how to create Jewish memories for their children, memories that would be so powerful that they would want to make certain that their children would have the same memories. That is one of our most important responsibilities as leaders of the Jewish people: helping others learn how to say “na’aseh v’nishma” with intention. If we fail in that effort, there may not be a Jewish community a hundred years from now.
After all, we have often been called the ever-dying Jews, and that has been so since the very beginning of our history.
Think of Abraham who complained to God before Isaac was born: “What can You give me seeing that I will die childless, for You have granted me no offspring.” Think of the image: the first Jew already complaining that there will not be a second generation. And later Rebekah complained to Isaac that Esau has married out of the faith and their other son Jacob is still a bachelor. What is that if not the heartfelt concern of every Jewish parent: “Am I ever going to see Jewish grandchildren?”
In modem times, Simon Rawidowicz wrote an essay in which he said that “the person who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora period that did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain… Each generation grieved not only for itself but also for the great past which was going to disappear forever, as well as for the future of unborn generations who would never see the light of day.”
The good news is that somehow we always manage to survive, and we survive because we always strive to be better Jews, embracing the present instead of focusing only on the future. What we have learned is that continuity without content is meaningless. In other words, the best way to give our children and grandchildren a sense of belonging and positive Jewish memories that encompass the joy and meaning of Judaism, memories upon which they can build the foundation of their Jewish identity, is by living our own lives Jewishly and showing them by example that Judaism is a religion for life, not just for childhood, that being Jewish can be something infinitely precious, enriching the quality of life for all of us. When we live in this way, then continuity will take care of itself.
Perhaps, then, we should be less concerned about the survival of Jews and more concerned about the survival of Judaism. Posterity begins with us, and the message we seek to transmit must be imparted both through preaching and through practice. It is our ritual, after all, that sets us apart from our neighbors, that distinguishes Judaism from all other religions, that brings us to the synagogue to mark sacred moments in our lives and in the history of our people. All religions share certain basic ethical values, part of the universal covenant that God made with all humanity, before making a particular covenant with the Jewish people standing at Sinai. Not through social justice alone do we make that covenant come alive, but also through our rituals, those acts that shape the personality of our people, that communicate tradition, that unify us, that make all of life holy. Our ritual reflects the values we consider to be important, keeps alive for us those historical events that shaped the life of our people, and perhaps most importantly, enables us to celebrate time, to live according to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar.
As rabbis, we have the responsibility to help our people understand the difference between Jewish holidays and secular holidays. A secular holiday is little more than a day off from work, a day for parties and picnics, for fireworks and festivity. But Jewish holidays represent sacred time. Shabbat is a day not for work but for God, a day not for profit but for spiritual awareness. Passover teaches us the value of freedom, Shavuot the meaning of law and covenant, Sukkot the importance of gratitude, the Holy Days a time for taking stock, for introspection and new beginnings. The more we do the more we feel part of that sacred encounter between God and the Jewish people. The more we do the more we feel that our lives have meaning and purpose and that we count in the universe. And the more we do the less we have to worry about continuity because continuity will take care of itself.
The final letter of the word “hineini” is the letter “yod” which stands for God. There may be among those you serve people who do not believe in God. They participate in Jewish organizations, come to the synagogue, do acts of lovingkindness and commit themselves to the task of tikkun olam, but they wrestle with their faith. Remind them always that in Judaism that is okay — that is what the word “Yisrael” means: one who wrestles with God. And share with them the words of the Talmud which portray God as saying to the people Israel: “I hope you will follow My laws rather than believe in Me because perhaps through following My laws you will come to believe in Me.”
Remember when Moses asked to see God’s face? God responded: “Wait here in this cave while I pass by, and then look. You will not be able to see My face, but you will see My back.”
What does it mean to be able to see God’s back? Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that what Torah teaches is that we cannot see God but we can see God’s after-effects. That is what seeing God’s back implies: the difference that God makes as God passes through our lives — in the same way that we cannot see the wind, but we can see things being blown around by the wind. Perhaps that is why the Hebrew word for wind “ruach”is also used to refer to the spirit of God — “ruach Elohim.” The ancient Israelites did not see God, but they saw the gates of freedom spring open and they knew God was at work. Torah says that you and I cannot see God, but we see things happening that could only be happening because God is at work.
When we see people helping people, we know God is real. In the words of a nineteenth century Chassidic master, Menachem Mendel ofRymanov: “Human beings are God’s language.” In other words, quoting again from Rabbi Kushner, “when we cry out to God, God hears us and responds by sending us people, people to sit with us and hold our hand and listen and assure us that we are not alone and rejected, God’s promise is not that everything will be all right, but that when things are not all right, we will be all right because God will be with us through friends who care and people who want to help.” As rabbis, through deeds of caring and compassion, we have the privilege of sharing with others the most significant moments of their lives, showing them the many different ways in which God is present in their lives.
That is our faith. It is what Judaism is all about. Every time we recite a blessing we affirm that God is present. Think of the words we say: “Baruch Atah — Blessed are You” — to say You in a prayer is to acknowledge that God is here with us, not in the place, but in the moment, in the feeling of gratitude, in the act and in the ritual. Whenever we say “Baruch Atah Adonai,” we affirm that we do what we do because God is real and God is moving us to act in this way in order to create a moment of holiness.
Many years ago, I learned from Rabbi Sidney Greenberg an important truth about the distinction between the English word “life” and the Hebrew word “chayyim.” “In the middle of the word life is the smaller word if, a little hinge,” says Rabbi Greenberg, “on which the door of destiny swings.” In the middle of every life there is a big if. What if I had chosen a different career? What if I had married a different person? What if my ancestors had never made it to America? What if my parents had never encouraged me to be myself? There is an “if’ at the center of every life, an “if’ that places conditions on the way that we live, no matter how much we choose to love life unconditionally. Our world is one of cause and effect, where every action has a reaction. If we want a harvest, we must plant seeds. If we want good health, we must watch what we eat. If we want friends, we must be friends. If we want to be successful, we must try our best and learn from our mistakes, knowing that the world moves forward every day because someone is willing to take the risk.
The Hebrew word for life is also a four letter word, “chayyim,” but unlike its English counterpart, it has in the middle, not that little word “if,” but two “yuds” which spell the name of God, Adonai. If we put God in the center of our lives, and help others to do the same, then we can meet any challenge without being defeated or overwhelmed, and we can live with the certainty that life has meaning and purpose and that God depends on us, even as we depend on God.
“Hineini — Here I am” — the Jewish response when God calls. In a few moments, each of you will be called to make that commitment as you stand before the open Ark and participate in the ancient ritual of ordination. I am grateful for the opportunity to welcome you as colleagues on this sacred day in this sacred place, and I wish for you the same satisfaction in serving God, the Jewish people and all humanity that has graced my career these past fifty years. Hatzlacha, v’shalom, v’kol tuv, v”Adonai emachem — May you be blessed with much success, a peaceful sense of life’s purpose and everything good — and may God be with you.