JTS Ordination Address ל”ג בעומר תשע”ט/ May 23, 2019

This ceremony of investiture and ordination, Tekes Hasmakhah, represents the transmission of knowledge and authority down through the generations of Jewish leaders to the wise minds, sensitive souls and capable hands of our new cantors and rabbis. It is a moment of great celebration radiating from this room across the world, and up to the very heavens. Mazal tov to all of us!

Hasmakhah literally means “laying on of hands,” and it hearkens back to the moment when Moses recognized Joshua as his successor, placing both hands on his head and sharing the divine spirit with him, וַיִּסְמֹךְ אֶת יָדָיו עָלָיו וַיְצַוֵּהוּ.[1] Private ordination of disciple by mentor is one model for this transmission, and today each of our graduates has chosen a mentor to bless them and to lay on hands. However, the Torah gives us an additional model when all the people lay their hands on the Levites, designating them as leaders, וְסָמְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הַלְוִיִּם and we at JTS view the transmission of authority as a collective responsibility involving many teachers.[2]

Each of our new cantors and rabbis has received the blessing of instruction from parents and other relatives, from teachers, mentors, friends and colleagues. We recognize and thank the people who have helped our students reach this day, and who will continue to support and guide them in the years to come. In particular, I we thank the mentors who will be participating in the service, and our faculty, both the full-time academic faculty and the many adjunct faculty who have come to campus or welcomed our students in their communities, guiding them in every way.

We at JTS are blessed with a tremendous staff and I want to recognize my fellow members of the Division of Religious Leadership for their skillful and loving support of our students. On this 25th anniversary of my own ordination, I feel extraordinarily blessed to work with such talented and kind people:

Rita Gordon and Meron Baissa support our programs with kindness and efficiency. Rabbi Ariella Rosen is our new admissions director and is out representing us at a conference now, sending her blessings. Dr. Jason Rogoff and Rabbi Matt Berkowitz are in Jerusalem, watching online, and sending their blessings from the holy city. Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, our RS Associate Dean is here and will participate in the Beit Din, as will Cantor Nancy Abramson, the Director of our H.L. Miller Cantorial School—both are amazing partners in teaching our students in the ways of wisdom and compassion. I also want to recognize two team members who began the journey with your class, Rabbi Lisa Gelber, who served as RS Associate Dean and is now Rabbi of Congregation HaBonim here in NYC, and Rabbi Joel Alter, who was your admissions director, and is now Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Milwaukee.

The cantorial and rabbinical schools are part of the JTS Division of Religious Leadership, which functions as a tightly integrated unit. Rabbi Jan Uhrbach is director of the Block/Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts and has been a teacher and mentor to many of you. So too with Rabbi Mordy Schwartz, director of the Beit Midrash and of the Nishma program. We are grateful to these teachers for sharing their gifts of mind and spirit with each of you and look forward to hearing their blessings today.

Finally, there is Rabbi Mychal Springer, who is the founding director of our Center for Pastoral Education. For the past 17 years Rabbi Springer has been an extraordinary leader at JTS, first as Associate Dean of the RS, then as founder and director of the Center. She has taught our graduates in many contexts—theology, processing groups, pastoral care classes and units of CPE. She has been a beloved mentor to many of you and has helped all of you in ways unseen through her broad leadership at JTS, making ours a supportive and safe environment to learn. For me personally, I have known Rabbi Springer or Mychal since I first arrived at JTS 30 years ago in the summer of 1989. She was the big sister of one of my college friends and became a bit like a big sister to me at JTS, supporting and challenging me both as a student and as a dean. I cannot express our gratitude adequately, and so I want to share a brief word of Torah in your honor.

Megilat Rut is the next scroll in our festival cycle that we will chant on the festival of Shavuot. This short biblical book tells the story of friendship and loyalty between two women, Naomi and Ruth, as they deal with loss, displacement and a search for integration. In the new JPS commentary by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and the late great Tikva Frymer Kensky, z”l, it is suggested that the book may have been written by a woman or group of women given the great concern with women’s voices and experiences.

In chapter 2 Ruth says to Boaz: “You are most kind, my Lord, to comfort me and to speak to the heart of your maidservant.”

רות פרק ב, יג. וַתֹּאמֶר אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲדֹנִי כִּי נִחַמְתָּנִי וְכִי דִבַּרְתָּ עַל לֵב שִׁפְחָתֶךָ וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶהְיֶה כְּאַחַת שִׁפְחֹתֶיךָ:

The word for comfort, נחמה, is used in contexts of loss and affliction. One person offers friendship and perspective to the other, and in this way comforts them. The second clause, “speaking to the heart” requires that the comforter first listen attentively to the person who is suffering, and then speak with compassion and concern to their feelings and their needs.

Midrash Pesikta D’Rava Kahana imagines God watching this scene and learning from the example of Boaz and Ruth, emulating them in offering comfort to Israel.[3] Mychal, I suspect that God has also been watching you as you have spoken to the hearts of so many people, comforting them and giving them the strength to live through their challenges and reintegrate. In the words of Megilat Rut, ישלם ה’ פעלך, May the Lord reward you for your deeds (2:12). Please accept this gift of the JPS Ruth Commentary from your friends at the DRL, with our admiration and affection.

[Presentation to Rabbi Mychal Springer]


And now some words of Torah for our graduates:

Arise, shine for your light has dawned; the Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!

קוּמִי אוֹרִי כִּי בָא אוֹרֵךְ וּכְבוֹד ה’ עָלַיִךְ זָרָח:

Raise your eyes and look about; they have all gathered and come to you.

שְׂאִי סָבִיב עֵינַיִךְ וּרְאִי כֻּלָּם נִקְבְּצוּ בָאוּ לָךְ

These words from chapter 60 of Isaiah describe what I see. The light of God is shining upon you; this is apparent to all who have gathered and come to be with you at this moment of dedication and joy.

It is, in other words, time to emerge from the cave. The cave? Yes, the cave—it is a metaphor for a place of seclusion, but not necessarily one devoid of light. In the Talmud and in our mystical literature, the cave is a place where people go for secret knowledge. There is a famous story told about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, known as Rashbi or just Rabbi Shimon, and his son Eliezer, who hid in a cave for 12 years. Why? Because Rashbi had the temerity to criticize the Roman Empire, saying that their public works were all meant to enrich themselves and impoverish their subjects.

Rashbi had a sharp tongue when it came to injustice, and also towards his colleagues, so he had to run for his life, hiding with his son in a cave: אזלו טשו במערתא. According to the Talmud, a miracle happened then and there. At the mouth of the cave a carob tree sprouted and a well of water bubbled up: איתרחיש ניסא איברי להו חרובא ועינא דמיא. And so, the two of them sat there, father and son, studying Torah for 12 years. What were they studying? The Talmud doesn’t say, but the suggestive silence gave room for later generations to imagine them discovering the secret meanings of the Torah, the teachings later revealed in the Zohar.

It sounds idyllic in a way—to study Torah full time with no need to worry about physical sustenance. No student loans either! It is somewhat like Moses on Sinai, except less lonely, and much longer. Finally, after 12 years, a heavenly voice proclaims, the threat has passed, come out from the cave. Out they come, but when they encounter normal people going about their lives, working in the fields, providing food for their families, they blaze with self-righteous anger. חזו אינשי דקא כרבי וזרעי, אמר: מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה! כל מקום שנותנין עיניהן – מיד נשרף. Wherever they gaze they set ablaze. A divine voice declares, “Have you come out to destroy my world? Back to your cave . יצתה בת קול ואמרה להם: להחריב עולמי יצאתם? חיזרו למערתכם!

Back they go, for another 12 months; this time when they emerge, they are calmer. At least Rashbi is. His son remains self-righteous and destructive. The Talmud says that everything that Eliezer attacked, his father repaired. Eventually they find a man who has bought groceries for his family—a lot of them. They ask him why—he says they are for the honor of Shabbat—to remember and guard Shabbat. Rabbi Shimon says to his son—look how beloved the mitzvot are for the people! And Rabbi Eliezer’s mind settles. Finally, he has learned how to live in community.

I tell this story for several reasons. First, today is Lag B’Omer, a day associated with the Hillula, or anniversary of Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai, and this is one of his best-known stories. The origins of Lag B’Omer are obscure but are explained well by Daniel Sperber in his book on Jewish customs.[4] In the Talmud at Yevamot 62b, we read an exaggerated account of the deaths of 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the period between Passover and Shavuot—the plague is said to have been because they did not treat each other with respect, מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה. Finally, Rabbi Akiva raises up five new students, among them Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai, and they establish the Torah, and rebuild the world.[5] In the Geonic period we first hear that on the 33rd day of Omer, Lag B’Omer, the plague ceased, making this into a minor holiday in the middle of a period of mourning. Its historical origins are dubious, but the custom of Lag B’Omer has taken hold.

What is the connection to Rabbi Shimon b’ Yochai? That is even more obscure. Morris Faierstein says that the association begins in the 16th century, but there are problems with all available explanations.[6] Yehudah Liebes has shown that Rabbi Shimon’s hilula is probably Yom Kippur. So, how can we connect Rashbi to Lag B’Omer? I have no scholarly basis, but I will give my own highly speculative theory. First, the Talmud’s description of the plague that afflicted Rabbi Akiva’s students is explained because they didn’t show sufficient respect to each other. The same could be said about Rabbi Shimon, who was fierce in argument, and even more so about his son Rabbi Eliezer, who was once called חומץ בן יין, vinegar, the son of wine.[7] In other words—he was self-righteous and destructive. Rabbi Shimon recognized this tendency towards harsh judgment in himself, repaired it, and then engaged his son until he too became reconciled. Where do we learn this story of the cave and their enlightenment? On the 33rd page of Tractate Shabbat. And of course, the counting of Omer begins ממחרת השבת, after Shabbat, so perhaps there is a hint here.

Back to the cave–this image of Rabbi Shimon’s cave recurs in the Zohar to the portion B’ha’alotekha.[8] The text clearly refers to the Talmud’s story, featuring even the same expression, לאתרחשא לן בנסין, “miracles will be performed for us.” Professor Eitan Fishbane writes in his recent book, The Art of Mystical Narrative that, “the cave motif depicts the discovery of kabbalistic secrets…and reverberates with the pregnant symbolism of interiority and mystery.” (207-208; 216-218). That story concludes with the mystical students finding two ordinary people studying together in the cave—suffused with light, with joy and with love.

What does this mean for us? Something very important about Jewish leadership, I think. There is virtue to seclusion and study. By withdrawing from the world one can learn a great deal and refine one’s soul and spiritual practice. But there is danger to such seclusion. For some people, the more they learn, the more intolerant they become of others. Rabbi Akiva’s students were disrespectful to each other, and Rashbi and his son could not tolerate seeing ordinary people going about their lives. It took them time to settle down and become capable of recognizing the merits of others. The ability to see the virtues of other people, even those whose knowledge and practice is far from your own, is the source of wisdom and the secret of successful leadership. Lag B’Omer may be the holiday when we celebrate scholarship, but only when tempered with kindness and respect.

I wouldn’t say this to you if I didn’t see the same danger today, not in you חס ושלום, but in society. We are living in a time of intolerance and anger. We need religious leaders who are deep in their knowledge of Torah and consistent in their practice of mitzvot. But these leaders must lead with compassion and humility. JTS is a wonderful place to learn and to grow. It is like the magical cave of Rashbi and of the Zohar. There is brilliant light here, and it sometimes feels miraculous to find teachers and friends who share your enthusiasm to learn and to live Judaism with joy.

Step outside this cave now and let the fire in your eyes be a fire of enthusiasm and welcome. Look around the world, appreciate the different types of wisdom that you find there, and then take out your Torah, and share it with kindness. Do not stop studying-never stop studying! And do not grow weary in your practice. Renew yourselves with periodic retreats to the cave of mysterious enlightenment, and then come out again and see that there is light in the world, even in the routines of daily life.

As Isaiah concludes chapter 60:

And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time; they are the shoot that I planted, my handiwork in which I glory.

וְעַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים לְעוֹלָם יִירְשׁוּ אָרֶץ נֵצֶר מַטָּעַי מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי לְהִתְפָּאֵר:

The smallest shall become a clan; the least a mighty nation. I the Lord will speed it in due time.

הַקָּטֹן יִהְיֶה לָאֶלֶף וְהַצָּעִיר לְגוֹי עָצוּם אֲנִי ה’ בְּעִתָּהּ אֲחִישֶׁנָּה:

To you our beloved students, our colleagues and teachers, we say, Godspeed—go forth in joy, and let your light shine.

[1] במדבר פרק כז, יח-כג. וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה קַח לְךָ אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ בּוֹ וְסָמַכְתָּ אֶת יָדְךָ עָלָיו: וְהַעֲמַדְתָּ אֹתוֹ לִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן וְלִפְנֵי כָּל הָעֵדָה וְצִוִּיתָה אֹתוֹ לְעֵינֵיהֶם: וְנָתַתָּה מֵהוֹדְךָ עָלָיו לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן יַעֲמֹד וְשָׁאַל לוֹ בְּמִשְׁפַּט הָאוּרִים לִפְנֵי ה’ עַל פִּיו יֵצְאוּ וְעַל פִּיו יָבֹאוּ הוּא וְכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִתּוֹ וְכָל הָעֵדָה: וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֹתוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וַיַּעֲמִדֵהוּ לִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן וְלִפְנֵי כָּל  הָעֵדָה: וַיִּסְמֹךְ אֶת יָדָיו עָלָיו וַיְצַוֵּהוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה:

[2] במדבר פרק ח, י. וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵי ה’ וְסָמְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הַלְוִיִּם:

[3]  פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא טז – נחמו ד”ה [א] האנוש מאלוה. ותאמר אמצא חן בעיניך אדני כי נחמתני (רות ב: יג)…. והרי הדברים קל וחומר, מה אם בועז שדיבר על ליבה של רות דברים טובים דברים ניחומים, נחמה, כשיבוא הקדוש ברוך הוא לנחם את ירושלם על אחת כמה וכמה, נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלהיכם (ישעיה מ: א).

[4]  מנהגי ישראל, כרך א, ע’ קא-קיז. וע’ בטור, ב”י ושו”ע אורח חיים סימן תצג.

[5]  תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף סב עמוד ב. אמרו: שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא, מגבת עד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה, והיה העולם שמם, עד שבא ר”ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום, ושנאה להם ר”מ ור’ יהודה ור’ יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע, והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה. תנא: כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת. אמר רב חמא בר אבא, ואיתימא ר’ חייא בר אבין: כולם מתו מיתה רעה. מאי היא? א”ר נחמן: אסכרה.

[6] Morris M. Faierstein, Jewish Customs of Kabbalistic Origin: their History and Practice (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2013) pp.77-79. It seems that pilgrimage to the graves of Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Eliezer on Meron were originally held on Pesah Sheni (14 Iyyar), but shifted later in the week to 33 Omer.

[7]  תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף פג עמוד ב. אתיוה לרבי אלעזר ברבי שמעון, וקא תפיס גנבי ואזיל. שלח ליה רבי יהושע בן קרחה: חומץ בן יין, עד מתי אתה מוסר עמו של אלהינו להריגה! – שלח ליה: קוצים אני מכלה מן הכרם. – שלח ליה: יבא בעל הכרם ויכלה את קוציו.

[8]  זוהר כרך ג (במדבר) פרשת בהעלותך דף קמט עמוד ב. אזלו כל ההוא יומא כד רמש ליליא סליקו לחד אתר ואשכחו חד מערתא, א”ר אלעזר ליעול חד גו מערתא אי אשתכח אתר דאיהו יתיר מתתקן, עאל ר’ יוסי וחמא מערתא אחרא בגויה נהורא דשרגא ביה שמע חד קלא דהוה אמר בהעלותך את הנרות אל מול פני המנורה יאירו שבעת הנרות, הכא נטלא כנסת ישראל נהורא ואמא עלאה [קנ עמוד א] מתעטרא וכלהו בוצינין מינה נהרין בה תרין טופסירין דקיקין פרחין שושבינין (ס”א שבשבין) כלהו קטרין לגבי עלאה ומתמן לתתא, שמע ר’ יוסי וחדי אתא לגבי ר’ אלעזר א”ל ר’ אלעזר ניעול דקודשא בריך הוא אקדים לן האי יומא לאתרחשא לן בנסין, עאלו כיון דעאלו חמו תרין בני נשא דהוו לעאן באורייתא, א”ר אלעזר (תהלים לו) מה יקר חסדך אלהים ובני אדם בצל כנפיך יחסיון,