By a surprising coincidence of timing, this week I celebrated two thirtieth anniversaries. In Columbus Ohio, I celebrated the thirtieth year of the Wexner Foundation together with 1200 Jews who were graduates of the Israel Fellowship Program, the Heritage Program or, like me, were alumni of the Graduate Fellowship. I flew home on Monday night to drive into New York City for a two day Rabbinical Assembly celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the ordination of women.
Why such a big deal about thirty? (Believe me, I ask myself that question as I consider that Jonathan and I will celebrate thirty years of marriage this May.) In Ethics of the Fathers, one chapter lists developmentally significant ages and identifies each with a unique characteristic: “At five, the study of Torah. At ten, Mishnah. At thirteen, responsibility for mitzvot. At fifteen, Talmud.” The list continues until it declares: “Ben shloshim, l’koach.” At thirty years, the age of strength.
A midrash asks why thirty is the age of strength. The answer begins with a list of those who rose to greatness upon reaching thirty: Joseph began to serve Pharaoh at thirty. Priests began service in the Beit Mikdash at thirty. David became King of Israel at thirty. Then the midrash asks: why at thirty did they rise to greatness? The answer is stunning: Because at thirty, they were humbled and heartbroken.
This teaching played like a leitmotif in my mind throughout four days of intense learning, listening and rejoicing. True leadership requires humility and vulnerability. At the Wexner conference, much of the message was about leading through change – change in our lives, organizations and the world. Yes, leadership requires optimism, grit, resilience, and creativity. But in order to respond to the fierce urgency of now, we must first and foremost cultivate empathy to the other.
I felt challenged by questions of how to move people from caring about an issue to acting on it. I understood that in order for Jews to sit in a room together, we must acknowledge that all of us think about our Judaism from our own prisms. Partners in leadership must be asked to fine tune skills and generously use their gifts.
Shimon Perez was the great anniversary surprise. He told us that Israel is not just a country. Israel, he asserted, is an idea. He promised us that there are two things in the world that we can experience only if we close our eyes a little bit: love and peace. The common thread throughout the Wexner learning was that the leader who can lead through change must be humble and vulnerable enough to recognize the potential greatness in others.
At the conference of the Rabbinical Assembly, we learned sweet Torah, discussed models of successful change, and heard from inspiring thinkers and teachers, including one of my heroes, Letty Cotin Pogrebin, in conversation with her daughter Abigail Pogrebin. We celebrated with great joy the change that affected the whole Jewish world thirty years ago when Rabbi Amy Eilberg (another hero of mine) became the first woman ordained in the Conservative Movement after years of halakhic and sociological study and debate.
At the same time, we acknowledged that there is much work still to do in the arena of an equal place for men and women, boys and girls, in our congregations, schools, camps and communities. Rabbi Pamela Barbash taught that egalitarianism is not about women’s participation; rather, it is about increasing the adherence and participation of all Jews through obligation, study and mitzvot. I was reminded that women’s rise to a place beside men in Judaism would have never begun without the humility and vulnerability of men who became empathic allies to the cause as they studied and interpreted the Torah through the eyes of modern Jews.
Rabbi Scheff and I delighted in seeing OJC rabbinic interns, now our colleagues over these two days. We reconnected with friends and classmates, ate and prayed together, and recharged our leadership batteries. We’ll be teaching about the halakha, the sociology and the moral questions of the 30th anniversary of Women’s Ordination during Sisterhood Shabbat, June 19–20. We might even give you a version of the session that we taught about men and women as equal partners in pulpit life! Both rabbis look forward to sharing with our community the learning that filled us at the RA.
Kol tuv, All the best, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
The Torah’s narrator tells me that two sons of Aaron the High Priest brought a strange fire as an offering to God, an offering not commanded. A fire goes forth before God and devours Nadav and Avihu. Moses, in a moment of poor pastoral care, blames Nadav and Avihu for their failure to sanctify God when they had the opportunity to do so. Our rabbinic commentators, relying upon the juxtapositioning of the verses that follow, accuse the boys of being drunk or arrogant. All these readings justify one troubling presupposition: God willed the death of the boys.
Sorry, not my God. Even if the boys did something wrong, “God does not desire the death of the sinner.” And if the Torah’s narrator and commentators are just grasping at straws, trying to assign to God something beyond our limited comprehension, what kind of just God takes innocent life? How can I possibly believe in a God who would claim–or even permit the slaughter of–a million children’s lives? And if I pass off all that I don’t control as “bashert” (predetermined or meant to be), then what happens to my free will and ability to grow, learn, change and make a difference?
My God is a God that dwells within me. Perhaps there was a time in the early history of humanity, when God had to intercede in the course of history, make a big splash, split a sea, or bring food from the heavens to earn our faith. But that was before God made a covenant with the Jewish people that expressed God’s will for this world and the directions to fulfill it, making room for us to show our potential as humans created in the image of the Divine.
My God is the God that has blessed me with strength, resilience, perseverance and humanity. My God is the God that has made room for me in the world, empowering me to act, to influence, to show humanity its greatest potential.
The wonder of it all is that I still believe in the possibility of miracles. I can’t rely only them to ward off the consequences of our actions or to change the natural course of nature, or even to control the measure of randomness that exists in this world. I trust in those miracles, nevertheless, to keep me humbled and in awe, hopeful and striving. Israel’s establishment was such a miracle in my eyes; but it came about with sacrifice of thousands of lives whose agency enabled the miracle to happen.
I can’t blame my God for that which I don’t understand; I can’t accept everything as God’s will. My God mourns with me; hurts with me; cheers me on to get it right; rejoices with the display of my empathy, compassion and humanity. My God believes and anticipates with full faith the coming of my redemption. And even though I may tarry, my God believes in me, and waits.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Consider the candle and how it can both define and defy the darkness. — Anne Frank
The sanctuary is silent and dark except for pages turning softly and six candles burning on the bima. Hour after hour, congregants come to serve as Keepers of the Flame, praying, reading, writing, honoring. It is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.
After last night’s evening minyan, the Holocaust Committee facilitated a poignant, meaningful program. Congregants spoke about the OJC Kaddish Project, explaining how they had committed to knowing the story of a child killed in the Holocaust. They chose a yahrzeit date for that child and promise to light a candle and say kaddish for him or her every year. [For more information on the Kaddish Project, contact Sandy Borowsky firstname.lastname@example.org.] Sixth graders presented their stories, reports and posters about the Righteous Gentiles they studied. Rabbi Scheff chanted El Maleh and six candles were lit to mark the beginning of the twenty five hour vigil.
And now it is my turn.
It is uncomfortable to be in the sanctuary at 6:00 am when I yearn for sleep, but who am I to complain when I am here by choice, when the hours of a day are all left to my discretion?
It is a bit cold in the sanctuary, but who am I to complain when I can pull on a sweater, when the time of feeling chilled will soon end?
It is lonely here in the sanctuary, but who am I to complain when the ones I love are safe and healthy and right where they are supposed to be?
And then it is 6:45, time for morning minyan. Our prayers are an act of defiance.
I lay tefillin
with a silent minyan.
The sanctuary seems empty except for the ten of us.
Six candles are our witnesses.
We lay tefillin and daven shacharit
and fill our beautiful sanctuary
with six million souls who join us
as true witnesses.
We lay tefillin and daven shacharit and leyn Torah.
God enters the sanctuary with The Words,
quietly pleased, relieved that we remember.
God is the True Witness. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.
In ways mundane and transcendent, it is impossible to wrap my mind or my soul around the reality of the Shoah. The best path seems to stop seeking answers and focus instead on action: loving, whole-hearted actions anchored in the hope of a better world.
May their memories be for a blessing.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
When I was much younger, in my junior high and high school years, the last days of the Passover holiday were a time I truly cherished. Even if school was in session, my father would allow me the days off from school to be with him in synagogue for holiday services. It was school policy that no new material or exams could be assigned on the holy days, and my parents were willing to make sure that policy was observed. After all, as I was the only student in my class of 550 students to utilize the excused absence, there wasn’t much incentive for teachers to abide by the policy.
There are 13 “holy days” on the Jewish calendar: the first and last 2 days of Passover; the 2 days of Shavuot; the first and last 2 days of Sukkot; the 2 days of Rosh Hashanah; and Yom Kippur. Schools are closed on the 3 days of the “high holy days” in most New York and New Jersey districts, and some of these holy days occasionally fall on weekends (especially this year). Given that our calendar and dietary rules are two of the things which serve to best distinguish Jewish people from others, one would think that the Passover holiday would be an ideal time to avoid school and find our way to synagogue (where we are serving the very tastiest of Passover cakes this Friday and Saturday). When Jon Stewart of The Daily Show claims that Easter crushes Passover as holidays go, he skips the fact that Easter always takes up a Sunday, whereas 4 of the days of Passover are excused absences from school!
So maybe you scheduled a family vacation on some kosher-for-Passover island to avoid all the extra work that accompanies this holiday. But if you can’t join us this Friday and/or Saturday to celebrate our freedom, you have another opportunity that is 45 days away! As we count up to the holiday of Shavuot to celebrate the giving of the Torah, please consider that our next festival’s 2 holy days fall on Sunday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend! That means that you (and your children!) can pull an all-nighter with us at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (our all-night learning session from Saturday night through Sunday morning), catch up on your sleep through the day, and then join us on Monday for services and a Shavuot/Memorial Day barbecue picnic! Okay, so dairy is the prescribed holiday food, but we can make an exception for one meal if it means that we can bring true meaning to our religious and secular holidays. Besides, the opportunity to celebrate receiving the Torah, to recite Yizkor in remembrance of our own loved ones, to give honor to our fallen troops and to be together as a community–all in one day? Who could ask for anything more?!
And maybe, just maybe, the experience will inspire you to give your kids a holy day off from school when we celebrate Simchat Torah on Tuesday, October 6.
Rabbi Craig Scheff