Friday, February 10, 2012

YITRO 5772

Yitro 5772

Vision Statement: Talmud Torah, Lifelong Jewish Learning

6th Grade Shabbaton

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Westchester Reform Temple

So the number one question I’ve gotten lately is… get ready for it:

“As senior rabbi, are you still going to sing?”

My answer has been straightforward and immediate:


“It’s much too serious a job. Sorry, no more singing for me. I guess I’ll just have to talk my way through Oseh Shalom from here on out.”

Of course I’m going to sing! Singing is how I pray. And what a thrill to collaborate with the most musically gifted clergy team in the Jewish world in making music together.

The number two question I’ve been getting is:

As senior rabbi, are you still going to teach?

To be a rabbi is to be a teacher of Torah. The Hebrew word for rabbi, Rav, means teacher. And on a rabbi’s semicha, the certificate of ordination, from ancient Talmudic times to the present day, you will see four very simple Hebrew words that express the innermost meaning of a rabbi’s calling.

Those words are: Yoreh yoreh yadin yadin.

They mean: May this person teach? He (or she, we would nowadays add) may teach. May this person judge? He (or she) may judge. Yoreh yoreh, yadin yadin. A rabbi is a person who teaches Jewish tradition and who adjudicates, evaluates matters of Jewish law. And that’s it!

Did you know that there are very few responsibilities in Jewish life that actually require a rabbi? A wedding does not require a rabbi; it just requires two Jewish witnesses to sign the ketubah, the marriage contract, and a capable reader to recite the prayers. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah can, according to Jewish custom and law, lead the service entirely by him or herself. (Don’t worry, sixth graders, I promise that a very caring rabbi and cantor will plan to join you on the bimah at your special day--you know, for important things like spiritual guidance, calling out page numbers, and basically keeping things calm and groovy. And of course we rabbis rejoice inside and out while you chant Torah and Haftarah, lead our prayers, and teach us the day’s message from the Torah portion. We love that you do most of the work.)

Where was I?

A rabbi is not needed to conduct a funeral, a baby naming, a bris, or even a High Holiday service. In Jewish tradition, anyone who feels comfortable leading the prayers can conduct these ceremonies.

A rabbi is not required in order to bring a caring word to the sick or the lonely, or lead a trip to Israel, or organize a social action project, or fundraise for the synagogue although we embrace all of these these responsibilities as part of our modern-day spiritual calling. A rabbi certainly need not sing or play guitar or grow a beard although many of us can and do.

Yoreh yoreh, yadin yadin. May this person teach? He (or she, we would nowadays add) may teach. May this person judge? He (or she) may judge.

A rabbi is, however, summoned to teach and to judge. Singing songs and storytelling with our pre-schoolers; talking with teenagers about the challenges of adolescence; exploring the history of Reform Judaism in an adult ed class; sharing this special Shabbaton with our sixth grade families, exploring the meaning of Bar and Bat Mitzvah: these are all ways of teaching and learning and living Torah.

And to judge: to sort out matters of Jewish law and practice for the community. In particular, rabbis convene to judge whether or not someone who has opted to convert to Judaism is ready for admission to the Jewish People.

When a candidate for conversion feels ready to take the final plunge, he or she meets before a council of three rabbis who in that configuration constitute a Beit Din, din as in yadin, “he may judge,” that is, a rabbinical court. We hear a story of a journey into Judaism, ask some probing questions, and declare our readiness to accept this person into the midst of the Jewish community before taking him or her to the mikveh, the ritual bath, for a little ceremony. We teach. We judge.

These basic rabbinical responsibilities come from this week’s Torah portion, Yitro. In our parasha, Moses has been the senior rabbi for the Jewish people for about 10 minutes and he is already on the verge of burnout. His wise father-in-law, a religious leader from a different faith tradition, confronts him with some loving but firm advice. “You’re gonna wear out,” Jethro says to Moses. “If you keep trying to do everything yourself, you’ll never make it. So delegate, man! Share your responsibilities with other responsible leaders and then let the hardest cases come to you.” And then Jethro summarizes the essence of the rabbi’s calling:

You should counsel the people about the laws and the teachings, and give them knowledge about the path on which they should walk and the deeds that they should do (Ex. 18:20).

In other words, yoreh yoreh, yadin yadin! Help the people know and understand and embrace and love this sacred tradition of laws and teachings. Help others walk the Jewish path and do Jewish deeds. That’s what a rabbi does.

And that is what this rabbi loves to do. Jewish learning is a lifelong journey and I feel thrilled to take that journey with you. WRT gives us so many opportunities to begin that journey, to deepen it. We offer adult Hebrew classes for levels suitable to beginners all the way through experienced readers. Many parents of upcoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah students have availed themselves of this special time in their lives to begin their own study of Hebrew, or to take their skills to the next level. Every Saturday morning, two different communities at WRT engage in the study of Torah--parents who participate in Sharing Shabbat, and an ever-growing community of congregants who show up for bagels and conversation about the weekly Torah portion, no prior knowledge necessary. Throughout the year, amazing guest speakers and your own in-house rabbis and cantors share their love of the Jewish tradition through classes, films, music, and art. Last night I taught about the holiday of Tu BiShevat by way of an Israeli wine tasting.

I want to share a word specifically with our sixth graders and their parents. That word is Mercaz.

Mercaz means “center.” Every Wednesday during the school year, from 6:30 to 8:30, WRT opens its doors wide to grades eight through twelve, creating a Center that I believe is one of the best post-Bar and Bat mitzvah programs of any congregation. At 6:30 our teen community, teachers, rabbis and cantors all dig in to a huge buffet of pizza, salad, ziti and Italian Village’s famous garlic bread (infamous garlic bread, if you ask my wife). At 7:00, after bonding as a community, we break into elective classes. Elective, as in students choose their course options. Classes might include an exploration of contemporary ethical dilemmas; modern-day Israeli film and TV; viewing the Holocaust through storytelling; interactive drama; or Jewish cooking.

Throughout the middle school and high school years we take trips--a campsite Retreat that students have described as “life-changing”; a trip to Washington, DC to learn about how we participate in the political process. What happens after Bar or Bat Mitzvah helps our students make sense of their Jewish identity and connect deeply to WRT and to one another. Ultimately, our hope is that Mercaz, our Center for teens, will become a central part of your own teen’s life as it is for a majority of our students.

Caroline Rodman is now a junior at Scarsdale High School. Last year for Confirmation, she wrote these words:

“Being a Jewish thirteen-year-old is a significant … time in one’s life. Not only do thirteen-year-olds have to deal with awkward physical changes, but there is also an immense amount of work in preparation for their B’nei Mitzvah. ...I remember it as a time in my life in which I learned… about who I was as an individual. Though similar in some ways to the Bat Mitzvah process, Confirmation has been a rewarding experience with several key differences…. Many of us, at the age of sixteen, are more comfortable with ourselves than we were at thirteen. With that maturity comes an interest and openness in learning about others. We tend to focus less on our similarities and embrace our differences. Jocks and artists can actually be friends! ...[T]he biggest and most rewarding difference between my Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation is that this has been a group experience--one that we have all shared together…. I’ve come to know and appreciate so many unique personalities. For me, this is what made Confirmation such a meaningful and interesting journey.”

When a student grows up to embrace the study of Torah, the words on my ordination certificate come to mean something. But they mean even more when a student grows up to embrace the other members of her community; when a student leaves WRT filled with happy memories, ready to take on adult Jewish life and leadership.

In the end, isn’t that what we all want for the next generation of our People?