What I Learned in Rabbinical School
Whenever I told someone I was a writer, they’d say, “If I had the time, I’d write, too.” Lucky me that I don’t have much to do. Now that I’m ordained, people say, “I always wanted to be a rabbi, but I don’t have time to be in school.” So I thought some of you, especially those who have dreams of rabbinical school, would like to know what I actually learned.
It may surprise you to hear what I didn’t learn. I didn’t learn how to lead a service, conduct bar mitzvahs, weddings, or funerals. I didn’t learn how to manage a congregation, deal with boards, and I took only a few classes in pastoral counseling.
In the past two weeks I discovered even more that I didn’t learn. I didn’t know what to say to Gay’s brother, Sidney, father of three who is paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. I didn’t know what to say to a nephew whose wife, pregnant with their second child, suddenly became ill and within 36 hours had died. And I didn’t know what to do when I found my own faith slipping away.
So what did I learn in rabbinical school? Mostly I studied text and the history of the people who wrote it. Are you thinking that it was irrelevant to our day to day concerns, that the curriculum ignored life’s agonies and avoided what most people need from rabbis? Were there in fact no answers and therefore they kept us busy paying attention to whether an egg laid on the Sabbath is kosher? I don’t think so.
The narrative we call Torah tells the story of our ancient family, and it is not a simple nor pleasant story with a happy ending. Rather, it reveals the searing struggle of what it is to be human. Jealousies, war, violence and betrayal are part of our history; we know they are true because we know what burdens our own hearts. In the last couple of weeks I am grateful for having studied Torah, because it has given me courage to live. The stories show a people who rise up from ashes again and again, to live to experience birth, creativity, and redemption.
The drama of our ancestral family isn’t so much history but a blueprint of human experience to be understood freshly for each generation and for each person. The attempt to make Torah both new and eternal is the foundation of the commentaries that I studied. We say that the Torah has seventy faces. Every face we know within ourselves is reflected in Torah: Faces of despair, loneliness, barrenness, romance, and exaltation gaze straight at us. We are called to acknowledge our deepest truths as we see how the characters of our narrative never gave up but continued to believe that they would be delivered from life’s harshest challenges.
Our ancestors are painfully imperfect people. Abraham calls Sarah his sister so that the Pharaoh can sleep with her without harming Abraham. Rebecca plots to take the birthright from one son and give it to another. These are our models, our patriarchs and matriarchs, and they are called wholly righteous and beloved by God. They reassure me that I, in my own imperfect way, will not always behave compassionately, patiently, and generously, and it’s all right. The only sin is to despair that I will never be as good as I strive to be. Like our ancestors, I am here to learn how to be the best I can be, and their stories reveal how we can evolve and become a loving source of goodness.
But the genius of our tradition is not in text alone but in the way in which we transmit it. I didn’t learn the text via the internet, or sitting alone with a book. I learned with others and this may have been the greatest lesson I learned in school–I needed people to learn, and I needed people to be a Jew. The Academy took me from the solitude of my desk into the panim l’panim — face-to-face — world of the classroom. Mordechai Kaplan wrote, “It is only a true and close community that develops associations, traditions and memories that go to make up its soul. To mingle one’s personality with that soul becomes a natural longing. In such a community one experiences that mystic divine grace which, like radiant sunshine, illumines our lives when joyous and, like a balm, heals them when wounded or stricken.”
In communal study I learned that God dwells between us. We didn’t always like each other, but we loved each other as children of God. In that shelter of love, we revealed ourselves to each other, and in so doing brought forth creativity in each other. Through the text, we came to know ourselves, each other, and the way to God’s presence better.
As a rabbi, I carry the text of our very human ancestors as a reminder to reveal myself, and I take the unconditionally loving, accepting God who drew near to the people as my model to encourage generativity and freshness in all who I meet. I have learned my family’s stories and the many ways in which they speak to us not as an anthropologist or historian but as one who deeply believes that these stories help us to live in interconnection with all things. When we study together, Torah binds us into a trusting, intimate family that creates a place for God to dwell.
Temple Beth Shalom is my family. It was here, studying with you, that I was encouraged to pursue my longtime dream to become a rabbi.If I knew every language, if my mouth were full of every word, I couldn’t thank you enough. You’ve helped to create a rabbi. May I be worthy.