Jewish learning Becoming Wiser
Rabbi Nancy Flam received a honorary degree from Hebrew College at Commencement on June 6, 2021 and delivered these remarks at the ceremony.
Thank you so very much, Rabbi Cohen Anisfeld. Thank you, too, Rabbi Art Green, my deeply beloved and honored teacher. And thank you to the Board of Trustees of Hebrew College.
It is so moving to receive this recognition from you and from an institution I so admire. I extend a heartfelt wish of congratulations to each one of you graduates on this wonderful day.
I’d like to share just a few words. And I’ll begin with a poem I wrote some decades ago.
Being young is no picnic.
There you are, a giant soul in a small body
beset by the overwhelming task of
learning how to become a person:
use a toilet eat with utensils speak a language convey your needs
dress right look attractive relate to television have something to say.
And then at some point
they start asking you
what you want to be
when you grow up –
What you want to be
when you grow up –
in terms of work, they mean
You are ten
fascinated with drawing designs in dirt
marveling as you look up at the source of shade
that plums grow on suburban trees.
You are full of fears
and your parents’ unspoken unhappiness
and the knowledge that you are very small
in a human world you do not understand.
And they ask you what you want to be
when you grow up
and all you can think is one thing
and you know it is not what they mean
and you know you cannot say it
and you know it is true
it comes from that place no one names.
They ask and you shrug
to protect your soul)
and you think:
It’s true, that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up: wiser. And to some extent, it worked out.
But I did, after all, get a profession. I became a rabbi. Doing so allowed me to trade in wisdom, as it were. When I look back on my work and my life, wisdom is the sacred thread that always drew me.
You, too, have a sacred thread that drew you and draws you now to your profession. It is the חוּט שֶׁל חֶסֶד, the steadfast thread that accompanies you by day and by night.
Today you celebrate the work of these past years and the appellations you now bear: Rabbi, Cantor, Educator, Master of Arts and of Jewish Studies. It is a day to glory in these hard-won titles, and to wear them like a crown.
You job in the years going forward will be to keep your own thread woven tightly in to all you do as rabbi, cantor and educator. Titles bestow power—and power can be seductive. Let me tell you, our yetzer, our ego inclination, really likes honors and titles! Of course, without the yetzer houses would not be built and babies would not be born. Or we might say, without knowledge and titles, houses of study would not be built and generations of students would not be raised. But the yetzer is wily. It will sometimes draw you into an over-identification with your title. And when that happens, the thread can get lost.
You will need to work hard to keep that deep impulse that brought you into your learning and your dedication clearly at the center of your life and your work. For me, that impulse was toward wisdom. For you, the thread of your dedication might be a love of God, love of the Jewish people, love of Torah, a call to Tzedak U-Mishpat, to service, or all these things together. This thread of dedication is what you need for essential nourishment, and ultimately the place from which you will nourish others. As well-known educator Parker Palmer puts it in his language, we will certainly fail ourselves and we will fail each other if we fail to keep our role and soul together.
I’ll close with a brief poem by William Stafford called, “The Way it is”:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Rabbi Nancy Flam is a pioneer in the field of Jewish healing and contemporary spirituality. She co-founded the Jewish Healing Center in 1991 and served as director of the Jewish Community Healing Program of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco. She served for five years (1999 – 2003) as the Founding Director of The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a retreat-based learning program for Jewish leaders, before becoming Senior Program Director (2004 – 2019), where she headed retreat-based learning programs for rabbis and community leaders, directed the highly-innovative Prayer Project, and taught on the faculty of the Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training program. She has served as a consultant for Synagogue 2000, the National Center for Jewish Healing, Romemu Yeshiva, and other emerging Jewish organizations. She currently serves as a spiritual director to many rabbis, cantors and Jewish lay people.