JTS Ordination/Investiture Address 22 Iyar 5777 / 5.8.2017

In April of 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published an article in the journal Nature describing the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. This molecule of life was arranged in a double helix structure comprised of four nucleotides symbolized by the letters A, T, C and G. Aided by the photographs and analysis of a Jewish scientist named Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick explained how the four letters are arranged in pairs—A with T, C with G—and in their arrangement along the strands of DNA, how they form a genetic code from which proteins are created, and all organisms are formed. They are the letters of life. Each nucleotide is indispensable, but in isolation, they are powerless. Only in their combination do the components of DNA assume their great ability to fashion life in all of its diversity and wonder.

What scientists spent much of the twentieth century discovering and describing was similar in a sense to the intuition of our ancient Sages of blessed memory. They too believed that life was formed from building blocks, and that these could be identified with a letter code, specifically with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Talmud at Brakhot 55a, Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav that Bezalel, the architect of the tabernacle in Exodus, knew how to combine the letters used by God to create the world.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף נה עמוד א

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: יודע היה בצלאל לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ. כתיב הכא וימלא אתו רוח אלהים בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת, וכתיב התם ה’ בחכמה יסד ארץ כונן שמים בתבונה וכתיב בדעתו תהומות נבקעו.

The Talmud was playing on its own combination, not of letters but of verses, comparing Proverbs and Exodus. In Proverbs we read that God employed wisdom to found the world, and in Exodus we read that God filled Bezalel with wisdom. And since the tabernacle was a microcosm, it makes sense that its architect needed access to the letters of creation.

The first book of Kabbalah is known as Sefer Yetzirah, the book of creation. According to Gershom Scholem it was written sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries, arguably as early as the Mishnah, though traditionally it is ascribed back to Avraham Avinu. It opens with the claim that God creates the world with 10 numbers—the Sefirot—and with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, called אותיות יסוד or elemental letters.

ספר יצירה פרק ב משנה ב

עשרים ושתים אותיות יסוד חקקן חצבן צרפן שקלן והמירן וצר בהם את כל היצור ואת כל מה העתיד לצור.

The thing about Hebrew letters is that while each one has its own name, and shape, and symbolism and story—alone they mean nothing. The Hebrew language has no single-letter words. The forbidden labor of writing on the Sabbath is triggered only once one writes two letters, הכותב שתי אותיות. You always need to combine them—צירוף אותיות—but when you do, there is no limit to their power. Letters arranged together summon forth sound and significance; they capture memory and fire imagination; letters allow for communication and creation. But they need to come in pairs or larger groups to form words and realize their great potential. The 22 letters of the alef-bet, when combined just so, create all that ever was, and all that ever will be. Words make wisdom, and wisdom makes the world.

And with this we come to you, our 22 talented and remarkable graduates. Six of you are about to be invested as cantors; 16 will be ordained as rabbis. When we met to plan this ceremony, you asked if the number of 22 graduates could form a theme, and so it shall. Each one of you will be called up to the bimah in association with a letter—like on Sesame Street, “This rabbi is brought to you by the letter Aleph.” For each of you we have selected a verse beginning with your letter, and then turned it into an English blessing just for you.

But remember, that letters alone have limited power. You did not come to JTS intending to study alone. You sought colleagues and found friends. In the combination of your voices we have heard beautiful songs of prayer and brilliant words of Torah. As the bimah fills up with 22 of you, I ask all of us to see you not only as the wonderful individuals who you surely are, but as the powerful alphabet that has created and will continue to create new worlds of meaning.

In the book of Psalms (118:24) we read, נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ “this is the day anointed by the Lord, let us celebrate and rejoice in it.” But in the Song of Songs (1:4) we read, נָגִ֤ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה֙ בָּ֔ךְ “let us celebrate and rejoice in you.” There it is again, ב-ך, the number 22. We celebrate the 22 letters of creation, and we celebrate the 22 individuals who together form a gathering of angels, elevating our people, and honoring our Creator. Though each of you gives us joy, together you awe us.

There is a remarkable moment in the life cycle of DNA when the two strands separate, and the base pairs break apart. This separation is necessary for the DNA to be copied by RNA in order to replicate and grow. So too with you—after this day you will separate, going to new locations near and far, where you can form new bonds, replicate your unique message, and change and grow. You need not lose your connections to each other, but now your task is to seek out additional souls with whom you can share your gifts. At JTS you have formed a magnificent chain of meaning. We bless you as you go forward as new cantors and rabbis, and ask that in all that you do, draw upon the model of partnership that has been your blessing at JTS, and identify those isolated letters, combining them into holy communities, attaching them to the life of Torah and Mitzvot. Then the mystical code of creation will glow with new light, power and joy.

To you, your families, friends and teachers we say mazal tov—may God bless you on your way.

משלי פרק ג, יט ה’ בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד אָרֶץ כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם בִּתְבוּנָה:

שמות פרק לה, (לא) וַיְמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים בְּחָכְמָה בִּתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת וּבְכָל  מְלָאכָה:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף נה עמוד א

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: יודע היה בצלאל לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ. כתיב הכא וימלא אתו רוח אלהים בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת, וכתיב התם ה’ בחכמה יסד ארץ כונן שמים בתבונה וכתיב בדעתו תהומות נבקעו.

רש”י מסכת ברכות דף נה עמוד א אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ – על ידי צירופן, ובספר יצירה תני להו.

ספר יצירה פרק ב משנה ב

עשרים ושתים אותיות יסוד חקקן חצבן צרפן שקלן והמירן וצר בהם את כל היצור ואת כל מה העתיד לצור.

בראשית רבתי פרשת בראשית עמוד 1

ולפי שבכ”ב אותיות ברא הב”ה כל עולמו כמה דתנינן כ”ב אותיות חקקן וחצבן שקלן והמירן, צרפן וצר בהם נפש כל היצור ונפש כל העתיד ליצור, לכן אותיות שיש בראשי התיבות ז’ שבבראשית חשבונם עולה כ”ב, כנגד כ”ב אותיות.

תהלים פרק קיח (כד) זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְקֹוָ֑ק נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ:

שיר השירים פרק א (ד) מָשְׁכֵ֖נִי אַחֲרֶ֣יךָ נָּר֑וּצָה הֱבִיאַ֨נִי הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ חֲדָרָ֗יו נָגִ֤ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה֙ בָּ֔ךְ נַזְכִּ֤ירָה דֹדֶ֙יךָ֙ מִיַּ֔יִן מֵישָׁרִ֖ים אֲהֵבֽוּךָ:

שיר השירים רבה (וילנא) פרשה א

דבר אחר נגילה ונשמחה בך, רבי אבין פתח זה היום עשה ה’ נגילה ונשמחה בו אמר רבי אבין אין אנו יודעין במה לשמוח אם ביום אם בהקב”ה, בא שלמה ופירש נגילה ונשמחה בך בהקב”ה, בך בישועתך, בך בתורתך, בך ביראתך, אמר רבי יצחק בך בכ”ב אותיות שכתבת לנו בתורה בי”ת שנים כ”ף עשרים הרי בך.