Genesis Hebrew College Presidential Installation: Words of Reflection and Hope
Honored guests, beloved family, friends, teachers, students, colleagues, alumni, members of the Shabbat Table and President’s Council and the Hebrew College Board of Trustees. Thank you.
To everyone who worked so generously to create this special evening – guided by our installation chairs Rabbi Suzanne Offit and Rabbi Sonia Saltzman, with extraordinary vision, grace, and loving attention – Im kol halev, todah. With all my heart, thank you.
Andy, and Art, I am grateful beyond measure to both of you for your blessings, your steadfast support, your leadership, and your passion for our future. Art, thank you for teaching us to heal the divide between the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life – so that our learning might open our hearts as well as our minds and make us wiser, more compassionate people.
To our talented and dedicated staff, and to our faculty –whose teaching is infused with the love of Torah and with the love of our students –thank you for your partnership, your trust, and your lack of cynicism in our all-too cynical world.
Angela, Yehuda, and Idit (and Jed!), thank you for your inspiring work in the world and for your amazingly generous words and presence tonight. To you, and to all of my students and former students – I have been blessed by decades of conversation about things that matter, with people who are willing to take the risk of caring, even when it hurts. Hinei anochi nitzevet al eyn hamayim. With you, I stand at the edge of the spring, ever replenished and renewed.
To my earliest and most important teachers my mother, and my father of blessed memory, thank you for your love, and for teaching me to befriend complexity, to listen well, to avoid hubris, and to ask honest questions.
And to Shimi, Daniel and Tali – limnot yameinu ken hoda. I am so grateful to be counting my days with you. I love you.
One of the things my students know about me is that I can’t resist a good paradox. (Well, chocolate, and a good paradox). So it’s with a paradox that I want to begin.
Over the last 97 years, much has changed at Hebrew College. But some things have remained constant. I frequently have the opportunity to speak with wonderful alumni from almost every era of the College’s illustrious history. And I can tell you this. Across generations, programs, denominations, and locations, We have rooted ourselves in the love of Torah – in the shared study and interpretation of the vast and varied world of Jewish texts and traditions, Hebrew language, a rich legacy of literature and ideas.
Torah study — in the deepest and broadest sense of the term – is where we find our home. But here is the paradox. We also understand that the study of Torah entails a willingness to leave home, to embark on a journey of heart and mind. In the words of the Passover haggadah: Tzei u’l’mad only when we go forth – when we open ourselves to what we don’t already know – can we truly learn.
This week we read Parashat Lech Lecha the Torah portion that begins with the divine call to Abraham: Lech lecha me’artzecha . . .Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house El ha’aretz asher ar’eka. To the land that I will show you.
Lech lecha. This is how our journey as a people begins. Tonight, I offer a reflection on that ancient and timeless call – the way it reverberates in our work at Hebrew College and speaks to the journey we undertake when we engage in the study of Torah.
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With God’s opening words to Abraham the Torah reminds us that the journey forward and the journey inward are simultaneous and inseparable. This is the deep grammar of Lech Lecha.
From the beginning, the Jewish journey has been one of engagement, of responsibility for rather than retreat from the world. To love God is to love God’s world. The imagery of the midrash sharpens the message: The world is God’s palace, and the palace is on fire. Such awareness is difficult to sustain, we well know. But the words Lech lecha vibrate with divine urgency: Go forth, the world needs you.
Yet, in the same breath, God beckons — Lech lecha, Go inward.With a subtle shift in inflection, the same word convey another layer of meaning: Start with yourself, the places where your own heart is aching, the chambers of your inner palace that are in need of repair. Go inward and go outward. This is what we ask of our students and each other again and again. Go deep and go wide.
Learning and leadership are not separate parts of our mission at Hebrew College. They are passionately and purposefully intertwined, Talmud gadol, sh’meivi lidei ma’aseh. Our study is more expansive and more profound when it is linked to a life of service. And our service is more substantive and more supple when it is linked to a life of study.
Listening closely to the language of our text, it is also significant that Lech Lecha is addressed to Abraham in the second person singular. Abraham’s private journey launches our collective journey, but he must feel himself intimatelyaddressed by the divine call.
Here is how the Hasidic master, the Ma’or Vashemesh, understands the essence of Abraham’s legacy. When Abraham broke his father’s idols, he was rejecting the idolatry of rote practice – the trappings of piety without a vital inner core. Abraham needed to set out on his own path, to forge his own relationship with God. The Ma’or Vashemesh goes on to teach, astonishingly, that Isaac had to follow in Abraham’s footsteps – but how? Precisely by NOT following in Abraham’s footsteps. By setting out to discover his own relationship with the divine. So, too, for Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah — so, too, for each of us. This is the meaning of God’s name: “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” I will be what I will be – to each of you. You will each need to call Me by your own name. The journey we undertake when we study Torah — especially in a pluralistic learning community like the one we foster at Hebrew College – is not formulaic or predictable We can find our way only when we are honest about our own questions, our own longings, our own lives.
And yet,this is only one part of another paradox we are asked to hold. Our journeys are indeed personal, distinctive, even unique – but they are not solitary. They do not begin and end with us. With the call of Lech Lecha – Abraham is commanded to leave his father’s home – but a single line at the end of last week’s parsha complicates the picture. There the Torah mentions that it was actually Terach, Abraham’s father, who started the journey and took his family with him. Together, they left Ur and set out for Canaan. Terach, we’re told, only made it as far as Haran.
With this juxtaposition, the Torah reminds us – so subtly that it’s easy to miss — that beginnings aren’t really beginnings after all.
Our parents – our horim – are also our harim – the mountains out of which our own lives are hewn. We are each called to our own journeys – but, in ways we can’t begin to fully understand, we are part of something larger, older, deeper, and more enduring than ourselves.
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When I was 17 years old and living in Jerusalem, Rabbi David Forman zichrono livracha said to me: “Cohen, we need you.” He was talking about Israel, about the Jewish people, and about the world. By the way, he said this not with desperation, (I learned later, when working in Hillel, that people like to be needed, but they don’t like to be needed desperately) but with genuine recognition and respect: “I see you, I get you, we need you.” Those words were a kind of Lech lecha for me A personal summons. Forty-one years later, I still carry them with me.
Last year, I heard one of our own students from Hebrew College, Now serving as a Hillel rabbi, give a dvar torah in which he asked his students to step up and make their own contributions to the community. K’rav el hamizbeach, he said. Draw close to the altar, and bring your sacred offering. In other words: “I see you, I get you, we need you.”
Each of us carries a precious piece. Our own Torah. Our own offering. Our own spark of the divine. The journey continues. We summon each other, and we are summoned.
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I remember, sometime in the mid-seventies, Sitting at the kitchen table with my mother when she quoted the famous aphorism to me: “Life is not for sissies.” Instinctively, I responded, “That’s great. So what are we sissies supposed to do?!”
The truth is that it can be frightening to step up, to bring our offerings, to respond to the call of Lech lecha in our own lives.
That is precisely why it is so important for us to do our best. To truly see – and to summon – each other. To call each other forth. To remind each other that it’s possible to be scared and courageous and resilient all at the same time.
Together, we need to elicit new offerings to listen in a way that calls forth new voices — including those that were previously excluded or ignored – to expand our image of what leadership looks like, what leadership sounds like in the Jewish community and beyond.
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We’re living in a time when so much conspires to make us feel alone and untethered in a world that is fractured and frayed.
We are – we must be – witnesses to a deeper truth. One of connection and compassion. One of humility and hope. This is our sacred mission at Hebrew College and never has it been more vitally important.
Eyzehu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko. My translation: Who is content? The one who rejoices in knowing that she is part of a greater whole.
Let us rejoice in knowing that we are part of a greater whole. Part of the journey that began with Abraham and Sarah, part of a community that is enriched and enlivened by what we learn, when we listen with open hearts and minds. Part of an ever-widening circle of inheritors and innovators – who are joining the conversation, serving the Jewish people and the world with wisdom, creativity, and compassion. Part of the rich tapestry of creation – our lives woven together with all the families of the earth.
We do not work by ourselves alone – and we do not work for ourselves alone – but that we may be of service to the One whose lovingkindness connects and embraces us all.
It is this awareness that will continue to inform the vision and infuse the spirit of learning and leadership at Hebrew College. It is this awareness that I hope you will carry with you as leave here this evening, inspired to become part of the next chapter in our sacred journey.
We hear the call of Lech lecha and say hineini. Here I am. Here we are. Let us go forth together.
Remarks from the Hebrew College Presidential Installation Ceremony of Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld on October 15, 2018. View photos, videos and press about the event.