JTS Ordination Address 5773 (May 17, 2013)

Dear graduates, it is my great honor to address you and your loving supporters—your family, friends and teachers—as we begin the ceremony of your investiture and ordination. We are pleased to welcome many distinguished guests, including our JTS faculty, and members of the Cantor’s Assembly and the Rabbinical Assembly, whose presidents will participate in ceremonies of investiture and ordination. We are especially grateful for the presence of your mentors, whose names are listed in the program, and who will soon be offering you their personal blessings.

In chapter 9 of Leviticus we read: And it was on the eighth day that Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and to the elders of Israel.

ויקרא פרק ט

וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי קָרָא מֹשֶׁה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו וּלְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

This day was a day of hasmakhah—of dedication for the first clergy of our people. In English we call this ritual either ordination or investiture, but in Hebrew we use the word semikhah, or the more modern hasmakhah—literally a laying-on of hands and leaning into the recipient as if to act out the transfer of energy from one body to another. In the Talmud Bavli, Hagiga 16b, Rami bar Hama teaches that the act if semikhah requires all of one’s strength:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף טז עמוד ב

אמר רמי בר חמא: שמע מינה סמיכה בכל כחו בעינן.

Now, he was talking about the laying on of hands before sacrifice—as the Mishnah says, ותכף לסמיכה שחיטה (Menahot 9:8), which is somewhat different than what we plan today…. Still, there is something tactile about the transfer of authority, and it is not only from teacher to disciple. This week in Parashat Beha’alotekha we read that the entire people gathered and laid their hands on the Levites, dedicating them to serve as clergy. We read,

במדבר פרק ח

(ט) וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהִקְהַלְתָּ אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

(י) וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד וְסָמְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הַלְוִיִּם:

Notice that the Levites stood before the tabernacle, which contained the Torah. They stood also before the entire people, who had gathered to lean upon them and embrace them. And they stood before God. The Levites became our first clergy—the singers of our sacred songs, the teachers of Torah, the officiants in worship, and the healers of the people’s spiritual and physical wounds. The Levites accepted the weight of these sacred tasks and became sanctified before God.

Elsewhere in the Talmud, Bavli Megillah 10b, we read that the day that the children of Aaron became priests was the happiest day before God since the creation of the universe:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף י עמוד ב

 ויהי ביום השמיני, ותניא: אותו היום היתה שמחה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא כיום שנבראו בו שמים וארץ, כתיב הכא ויהי ביום השמיני, וכתיב התם  +בראשית א’+   [ויהי ערב ויהי בקר] יום אחד!

The day when the ancient priests stood before the entrance of the tabernacle, before the attentive people, and before God, declaring their willingness, they eagerness, their desire to serve—that was the happiest day since the creation.

That day was a lot like this day. You too have come to this center of Torah, to the Jewish Theological Seminary, in order to become our clergy. Cantors and rabbis, you have become experts in prayer, and study, and in observance of the mitzvoth. You have dedicated years to this preparation. Each of you began your journey separately. Supported by family, friends, teachers, and students, you began to develop the formal skills—of language, of interpretation, of voice—that would allow you to FUNCTION as clergy. But you also began the deep internal work of purification—to transform yourself into a person who could channel and direct the people’s yearning to come closer to God, and also God’s palpable desire to be known by the people.

Your teachers, and family and friends have come to lean on you, lismokh aleikhem, and this leaning will continue throughout the years. But it need not be a heavy weight. You are not, in the end, asked to become a sacrifice, a korban, but rather a mikareiv or mikarevet—a person who helps others come closer to fulfilling their potential as human beings, created in the divine image, and as Jews, members of an ancient covenant with the God of Israel. This will require great strength of you, but you need never be alone. Today, and every day, you have the love and support of your entire community. We at JTS are so proud of you, and so filled with excitement about what you will yet accomplish. This is the day of our greatest joy. It is as if the entire world was created for this holy moment.

It is traditional to separate from a friend with a D’var Halakhah—a legal teaching, but hyper-literally, a word to walk with. In the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim, Section 130 קל , there is an instruction regarding נשיאת כפים, the raising of hands by the priests:

מאן דחזא חלמא, ולא ידע מאי חזא, ניקום קמי כהני בשעה שעולים לדוכן ונימא הכי

This text is derived from the Talmud, Bavli Brakhot 55b. In the Talmud, where the three sages Ameimar, Mar Zutra and Rav Ashi each offered his own version of what to say. I’d like to share the second version:

A person who has a dream, and does not know what it means, should seek out the Kohanim who are standing up to offer blessings, and then say, You who dwell on high in majesty and might, you are Peace, your name is Peace! May it be your will to grant peace between us.

לימא הכי: אדיר במרום שוכן בגבורה, אתה שלום ושמך שלום, יהי רצון שתשים עלינו שלום.

New rabbis and cantors—like the ancient priests, you will have many opportunities to offer blessings to the people. Realize that they are bringing their dreams to the encounter, uncertain of what these mean. They know that there is more meaning to be found in life—in the joys, in the sorrows, and in the ordinary days between—but how, precisely? Too often it is like a confusing dream. Help them see that God is Peace, and help them to live in peace with one another. That may be enough. The rest is truly commentary—zil g’mor—go out now to listen, to learn, to teach, and to bless. May God bless you and give you many years of joyous and meaningful service.