Community Blog Slivers of Possibility in the Sky

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
rosh hodesh header

On behalf of our faculty, staff, and alumni, on behalf of the Hebrew College Board of Trustees, on behalf of the entire Hebrew College community, I am delighted to congratulate you today and to wish you a warm and heartfelt mazal tov

Sharon Cohen Anisfeld_Commencement 2021To all those who have supported and sustained you, who have rooted for you, who have believed in you, family members, mentors, colleagues, communities, friends. Thank you all and congratulations to you as well. 

We are sorry once again not to be able to gather with all of you in person.  Nonetheless, we are overflowing with gratitude, pride and joy as we mark this milestone with you today. And we are thrilled that so many of your loved ones near and far are able to celebrate with us virtually as well. 

I want to ask you to take a moment now to think about all the people who have been with you on your journey who have helped bring you to this moment. 

Think back—to a person who first kindled your love of Jewish learning or who saw something in you, who had faith in you and encouraged you to bring your gifts to the world. Think about who helped you decide that you wanted to become a rabbi or a cantor or a Jewish educator. Think about who helped you decide to keep going  even when you doubted yourself or when things conspired to make it more difficult than you had ever imagined. 

Think also about people who have been touched by your own teaching. Someone you have accompanied through hardship. Someone for whom you have been a source of wisdom, comfort, or hope. Someone who felt outside and you invited in. Someone who has felt heard by you or seen themselves reflected more fully through your eyes. 

We have learned this year in such deep ways—ways we never would have imagined—that even when we are not physically together we do not stand alone. We do not journey alone. 

To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost: 

“We work together, ” I said from the heart
“Whether we work together or apart” 

Our actions have ripples we cannot begin to fully understand. We are each held in a complex web of relationships that both limit us and lift us up and together we are held in the embrace of the One who sustains and connects us all. 

I say this today with a particular sense of urgency because, even as this past year has revealed to us the stark and tender truth of our interconnection, it has also revealed deep tears in the fabric of our society and in our own communities. 

My fervent hope is that as leaders as teachers and singers and sacred weavers of Torah and life you will strive to be a force for greater connection and compassion, greater empathy, greater humanity, greater dignity for all. 

The pluralism that has infused your education here at Hebrew College flows from our conviction that every human soul is a unique reflection of the divine.  Human diversity is sacred and woven into the very fabric of creation; the dialogue that takes place in our classrooms and around the tables of the Beit Midrash is therefore not only a battle of ideas but a meeting of souls,  an encounter of whole human beings.  

You are stepping into the sacred work of spiritual, educational, and communal leadership at an enormously complex and challenging time. We are witnessing a rise in antisemitism on the left and the right, reawakening a fear that feels different now than it has in some time. We are witnessing the deepening of divisions among us, extremism begetting extremism. Hate begetting hate. Self-righteous speech mistaken for righteous action. Polarization mistaken for principle.  Hearts hardening against each other. 

In this context, the decision to try to bridge, to try to humanize to try to heal  is a courageous decision in and of itself.  You will have to decide that this is where you want to stand. On the side of compassion; on the side of complexity; on the side of human connection.  I hope with all my heart that you will. 

I hope that when you are tempted to retreat, as we all are at times, you will try to stay in relationship. Take a break when you need to. Breaks are important! But stay.  Listen. Admit when you’ve made a mistake. Forgive when someone else has. Assume you are in this for the long haul. If you want to teach others the importance of empathy, treat them with empathy. If you want to teach others the importance of humility, treat them with humility. If you want to teach others the importance of listening, listen. 

I hope that you will return again and again to the principle of Tzelem Elohim that you have learned together here. When in doubt, humanize.  A vital part of what this means is to remember that we are all more than one thing. We contain multitudes. When we confuse part of a person’s identity or experience  for the totality of who they are, we diminish the fullness of their humanity.  This essential act of dehumanization is at the heart of so many forms of prejudice and most systems of oppression. It is also manifest in the polarized and polarizing discourse of our time. In the easy demonization of those who disagree with us. At its root, it is an expression of a kind of idolatry. 

Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit write in their book “Idolatry” that one classical form of idolatry is “the worship of an aspect (of the divine)—the separation of a part from its unity and the worship of that separated part.” I would argue that it is similarly idolatrous to take one aspect of a human being — created in the divine image — and mistake it for the whole. When we flatten ourselves or each other in this way,  we diminish our humanity,  and we diminish the One in whose image we are made. 

Rabbi Arthur Green has shared with us a teaching from his teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Why is the Torah so concerned with idolatry? You might think … that it is because God has no image, and any image of God is therefore a distortion… ‘No,’ Heschel said, ‘it is precisely because God has an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. But the only medium in which you can shape that image is that of your entire life. To take anything less than a full living, breathing human being  and try to create God’s image out of it—that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry.’” 

The work that you are going to do as educators, as cantors, as rabbis, is work that, by definition, can only be done in relationship with others. And the measure of your leadership will not be the brilliance of what you can accomplish alone but the beauty of what you can build with others by eliciting, inspiring, and drawing forth the best in them. 

In a few days, we will mark the beginning of a new Hebrew month, Rosh Hodesh TammuzRemember that the announcement of the new moon in ancient Jerusalem began when two witnesses came before the bet din and testified that they had SEEN the first sliver of moon. Once their testimony was accepted, a signal was sent out. A messenger—waiting on a mountaintop in Jerusalem would light a bonfire. Another messenger—waiting on the next mountaintop— would see the light of the first fire and kindle his own. And so on—from mountaintop to mountaintop—all the way from Jerusalem to Babylonia. Today I would add all the way to Newton, Massachusetts and to every community, every hilltop where you will go on to serve! 

Today, we celebrate the hope for renewal that becomes possible when we watch carefully for the lights that are kindled by those around us and add to that light by kindling our own fires.

In this new month, in this new year, wherever you are, may you help those around you be attentive, generous, loving witnesses to one another—ready to see bonfires on the horizon; ready to see the promise in each human being; ready to see slivers of possibility in the sky.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is president of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

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