A Blessing for JTS’s New Rabbis and Cantors

Before I offer a blessing to our new rabbis and cantors, I want to add my welcome to everyone who is with us today—family, friends, faculty, staff, and of course the new JTS alumni seated before me. Today’s graduates know, I think, that in blessing you this afternoon I return the favor of all that you have given to me over the past few years and especially in our searching and soulful discussions during senior seminar. The nature of the blessing I should offer you in this particularly difficult period of America’s history, and the history of the planet,  eluded me—until, standing for Birkhot Hashahar over the past few weeks, it occurred to me that Commencement and the Tekes Hasmakha represent a dawn of sorts, and that the words I was looking for—the wishes I have for you at the beginning of this chapter in your lives, the hopes for you in which I hope God will join me—would probably be found in the opening blessings with which Jews greet the day.

I treasure the way that litany of prayer meets us where we are each morning. You open your eyes, stretch your limbs, breathe in fresh air of the country or familiar smells of the city, begin planning the day’s activities and girding yourself to confront its challenges—and the Birkhot Hashahar infuse every bit of that routine with meaning, and  awaken you to its potential for holiness. You and I know, and teach, that every single one of the praises of God we utter carries with it a responsibility to try and help God fulfill the promise of that blessing.  We are pledged to bring Jewish learning and practice to bear on the world we bless each day. My hopes for you flow directly in that sense too from the day’s first blessings.

First: never lose awareness that all you do, you do as a person created betzelem, a human being gifted with agency and judgment, made ben horin or bat horin by the God who guides all human steps, and that you also act at every moment as a Jew created with Torah, gifted with the gevurha and tifarah that direct our particular agenda and shape our distinctive judgments. It is especially important in 2017 that we never forget either of these components of our being. This has been a year of heightened exclusion and intolerance of all sorts of others and perceived outsiders. This is also a time when increasing numbers of Jews seem to regard inherited Jewish loyalties as tribalism or even racism. Jewish leaders need to let it be known that we act, teach, and lead as human being and Jew. We are Jewish human beings, the two parts of ourselves indivisible and striving to be whole. This is basic to our calling.

Second: do not fail to remind yourself, and anyone who will listen, that we are here on earth this day, and every day, to give sight to the blind, to clothe the naked, to release those who are coercively bound, and to raise up those who are bent down. Never give in to the doubt expressed by that Roman general, enemy of Torah, who is said by the rabbis to have asked Rabbi Akiba, as he put him to death, “If your God loves the poor so much, why doesn’t He take care of them?” We don’t know the answer to that question, of course. But we do know how to use for good however many hours of however many days we are granted to spend on earth. People want you to remind them of their duty, I believe; we all need to be needed, and most of us want desperately to be good. We hope not to look back at the end of life and find that we have wasted precious time. Help us to do this, please. To this you are called.

Third: on days when you think you can’t do it, look within, and to one another, and to Torah, and to God, and I pray you will always find that you have what you need. There will be days when the blessing that means the most to you, as it has for me on some days in the past few years, is ha-noten la-ya’ef koah. You will be weary, and cry out to God “who gives strength to the weary.” Physical exercise, I’ve discovered, actually gives a person more energy rather than making us tired. Exercising courage is like that too, I think. The same is true of compassion. This seems to be a major way that God answers the prayer for strength.

And when the doubt arises that you don’t have what it takes in other ways; when you fear you don’t know enough, after a mere five years at JTS; that you are not deep enough or smart enough; that you haven’t worked out your own relationship with God, so how can you possibly help anyone else with theirs or lead them in prayer—I hope you will find sustenance in remembering that God is she-asah li kol tsarki—who has provided for all my needs. The older I get, the more I appreciate this blessing, and the more I wish it for every Jewish leader. We can’t always get what we want to have in order to do our jobs well. But when we try sometimes, we just might find, that we have what we need. God has blessed us with it. That has been my experience. I wish it for you

I have one final hope for Jewish leaders in 2017:  that we have the discernment and the courage to distinguish day from night like the rooster, and—when we see night being called day, and day being called night—that we cry aloud with every ounce of our strength and say it is not so. That’s what it means to rub sleep from the eyes, at a time when many would rather turn over in bed and hope against hope that the bad stuff happening will go away like a bad dream. That’s what it means to stretch out a dividing band of solid earth over swirling, churning, chaotic waters. Tomorrow you greet the dawn of your vocations. You will wake up for the first time bearing the title of rabbi or hazzan. The planet will be that much closer to dangerously warm, the world will roil with instability, and our country may be tested further as a democracy under God with liberty and justice for all.

I don’t know what is coming, of course—no one does for sure, right now. We are at that point in our country’s history when night and day seem blurred. I believe Jewish leaders must always take care, especially this year, not to confuse moral insight and religious obligation, which you and I are duty-bound as representatives of Torah to declare and fulfill, with partisan political campaigning and endorsement, which belong to another province entirely. This too is a divide that must not be blurred—precisely because, as Jewish religious leaders, you are commanded when you clearly see injustice, to cry out like the prophets and, like priests, to distinguish pure from impure and holy from profane. I hope that you will always do so out of love for God, for Torah, and for the Jewish people, and that your concern for God’s creatures and God’s world will spur the communities you lead to concerted action.

My wishes for you, my students, are many and large this day—and my confidence is great that you are prepared for the responsibilities of your calling and will taste often of its joys. What a privilege it is to address God in blessing each morning as a Jewish religious leader, to teach Torah, and to serve as sheliah tzibbur for the prayers of Am Yisrael. May you do so for many years to come.