The 134th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held February 20-26, 2023 in Israel, where over 250 Reform rabbis gathered in person. At this Convention, the CCAR also installed its new 2023-2025 Board of Trustees with Rabbi Erica Asch serving as President. Here, we share Rabbi Asch’s powerful sermon addressing the Reform rabbinate.
Watch the video here, or read the sermon below.
February 25, 2023: Parashat T’rumah teaches us the importance of bringing our unique gifts and talents to the community. In the parashah, the Lord commands the Israelites to build a Mishkan and calls on each of them to contribute their own special offering. This passage teaches us that every one of us has something valuable to offer, and it is our duty to share it with others. As we reflect on our own gifts, let us be willing to share them with our community, and strive to make a difference in the world with what we’ve been blessed with.
At this point, some of you might be a bit concerned about my sermonic abilities. Others might have guessed that this opening paragraph was not actually written by me, but by ChatGPT. Perhaps you were tipped off by the clichés, the awkward grammar, or the use of the word Lord. I think it is safe to say that ChatGPT has not yet passed the Turing test invented by mathematician, computer scientist, and philosopher Alan Turing in 1950. The test was simple: Can a computer successfully pretend to be a human being in a text-based conversation? While ChatGPT did not fully capture my sermonic brilliance, I appreciate that it got me started.
I imagine that many of us, whether we are newly ordained or recently retired, have given some better-written version of that opening paragraph. We have preached—just as Moses asks and the Israelites answer, bringing their own unique gifts with a full heart—please bring your own unique gift to our community. In our sermons, we are Moses, exhorting the Israelites to build our community. But in our jobs, we are not Moses. Rather, we are the Israelites, bringing, with care, our own gifts to the communities we serve.
When Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus was installed as CCAR President in 2009 in Israel and spoke on this parashah, she taught us: “…these gifts are essentially who we are and what we do as rabbis. These gifts that we bring are the gifts of our minds and our hearts and our hands and our souls. These gifts are our sweat and our tears. These gifts are our energy and our time. This is why we are rabbis: because our hearts are so moved.”
We are rabbis because our hearts and souls are so moved. And sometimes, maybe often, our gifts are received with love and compassion, whether we bring a thought-provoking sermon, an insightful teaching, or a caring pastoral presence. On good days, we build communities where we help to make the lives of those we touch a little better, and our world a little bit more just, and perhaps then God dwells with us.
But sometimes, maybe often, we bring our unique set of gifts and they are not accepted. We are a brilliant strategic thinker, but our congregants want someone who can sit on the floor at Tot Shabbat. Our vision for the organization upsets our board chair who wants us to “stay in our lane.” Our big new program flops, and our abilities are questioned. Sometimes we suffer untenable job situations in silence because we are too scared that if we say something, we might not get another job. Sometimes our contract isn’t renewed. But more often it’s the little difficulties that wear us down—the feeling that our gifts aren’t acknowledged. What happens when our hearts are moved and we bring our unique combination of gifts, the gift of ourselves, and we are rejected?
What happens when the gift of ourselves is rejected? This devastating possibility never occurs to our commentators. In all the discussions of various colors of wool and what exactly are those t’chashim, they give no thought that gifts for the Mishkan could be refused. In our Torah portion, unlike our lives, every gift is accepted and valued.
While being a rabbi is often rewarding, it can also be heartbreaking. The last few years, in particular, have not been easy. When we face difficult situations in our communities, we desperately want things to be better. If they were able, I have no doubt the dedicated staff of the CCAR would rectify all of the challenging professional situations we face. They do their very best. But our staff can’t change the leadership of an organization, or curb the behavior of difficult personalities, or make others embrace the gifts we bring.
We work as hard as we can to make our communities the picture of compassion and acceptance we see in our parashah, but ultimately we are not in control. We cannot single handedly change the culture of the places we serve.
However, we are in control of our own rabbinic community. Together we have the power and the obligation to make the CCAR a place of compassion, understanding, and support. Our actions shape this community.
One of my first official encounters with the CCAR left me in tears. I was in the midst of undiagnosed postpartum depression and the response I received was not only not pastoral, but felt cruel. That was not the intention, but I left feeling hurt and disrespected. “They don’t understand me,” I remember thinking. “They don’t care about me.” I could have justifiably slammed the door and never looked back; or let that hurt, which I still feel, color my impressions to this day. But around that time, I had another encounter, not with CCAR staff, but with two rabbinic colleagues who also had a newborn. This baby was their third and as we sat together on the floor, with our infants, outside the opening dinner at a CCAR Convention, they told me that I could do this; I could be a rabbi and a parent. They assured me that I would find my way. And another colleague not only told me that having a child is hard—which I needed to hear—but helped me to find meaningful, part-time work in the city where I was moving. And these experiences, too, are part of the narrative of my involvement with the CCAR. Because the CCAR is not just staff, it is all of us. We all help to shape our shared rabbinic community.
Many of us have struggled within this small group. We have experiences where we have not felt heard or understood or valued by colleagues; where we felt our gifts have not been accepted. We may have felt as if only the senior rabbis of large congregations were given kavod within the Conference. Maybe we thought we had to pretend that everything was fine even when it was not. Maybe we live outside of the United States, like so many here this morning, and don’t feel that the larger Conference recognizes us. As a part-time organizational rabbi with no discretionary fund, I went to my first convention thanks to the generosity of a colleague. As I talked to my classmates, many of them assistant rabbis in large congregations, I thought their lives were perfect. Moses valued all gifts equally, but it didn’t feel like that was the case for me. Was my gift worthy?
How often have we had these internal doubts? These narratives are so difficult for us to carry and they are unfair. Unfair to ourselves because we diminish our own gifts. Unfair to others because we don’t show them our own struggles, and in showing them, give our colleagues the chance to lift us up. Fifteen years later, it is that conversation on the floor, and many more like it at the back of the ballroom, in restaurants, and over phone calls and Zoom screens that have kept me going.
There was certainly a time when new ordainees were expected to sit silently in the back row (not by choice) and listen quietly to the g’dolei hador, but that is not our Conference today. We have a board, and a leadership, and a Conference made of people on a variety of rabbinic paths, and each person brings different gifts to our community. We need and value them all. Our Conference has changed. We talk about wellness. We understand the pastoral aspects of placement. We recognize the variety of ways we serve as rabbis. We are not perfect, but we are different, and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t recognize and embrace the way that, together, we have changed our rabbinic culture.
Our culture can continue to change only when we bring the full gift of ourselves—messy, complicated, and fundamentally human—to this space. Nineteenth-century commentator Rav Chaim of Volozhin teaches that God’s intention in building the physical tabernacle is to show us that just as the Mishkan is made of holy materials, our own actions should be equally holy—then God will dwell with us. Similarly the Malbim, writing in the 1800’s, who would have been horrified to be quoted by a female Reform rabbi, but nevertheless teaches some wonderful Torah, reads v’shachanti b’tocham not as I will dwell among them, but I will dwell within them. It is the action of bringing our gifts that will create a holy community where God dwells with us. That brings us back to ChatGPT and the Turning test.
In his podcast “Cautionary Tales,” economic journalist Tim Harford brings up a little-known incident from 1989, a text chat between a student at Drake University in Iowa and a chatbot at University College in Dublin known as MGonz. MGonz was not, as Harford says, “a gentle conversation partner.” Their one hour and twenty-minute conversation was peppered with obscenities and insults and included a lot of boasting about their sex lives. MGonz, because it was programmed to insult, passed the Turing test with flying colors. But here Harford makes a provocative argument about our inability to distinguish if we are interacting with a chatbot or a person. “If it’s impossible to say which is which, that’s not because the bots are so brilliant, it is because we humans have lowered ourselves to their level.”
It is not that chatbots have passed the Turing test, but rather that we humans have failed it. Too often our conversations mirror what could be done by a chatbot—oneg chit chat, passive listening, returning the conversation, over and over again, to what we want to discuss. This happens not just in our communities, but with one another.
Talking to one another in real and meaningful ways is risky, for sure, but it is ultimately rewarding. In a world where we might often feel like we can’t be our full and authentic selves at work, where our role can be a barrier, we have a chance, with one another, to pass our own Turing test. To share how we are really doing, to support one another, to question respectfully. To say something that could not be mistaken for a computer; to invite one another into genuine relationships. We can jump into real interaction with all the risks and all the rewards that are possible. We have the opportunity to bring our full selves, our proudest moments, our missteps and our uncertainties, to this community.
In order to build our Mishkan we just need the gifts of ourselves—messy, complex and dedicated. Some of us will bring brilliant sermons, some inspired teaching, some meaningful worship. Someone will offer a loving question. Someone else will bring a kind word when it is desperately needed. We don’t know what the next year will bring for us personally, professionally, or as an organization. But if we place gifts of ourselves at the center of this community and accept the gifts of one another, then the sacred space we create will make the journey ahead easier for us all.
 Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus graciously shared her entire sermon with me.
 Rav Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChayim, Gate I, 4:18.
 Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (Malbim) on Exodus 25:8 Vaasu li mikdash.
 The “Cautionary Tales” podcast can be heard in its entirety.
 This quote occurs at 29 minutes and 56 seconds in the episode.