Rabbi Hara Person, incoming Chief Executive of CCAR, delivered this sermon during the Ordination at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati this past Shabbat. It was her great honor to have been invited by the ordinees to address them, and she is grateful to have been invited to be part of their ordination.
In the waning days of my fifth year as a rabbinic student, a rabbi posed a question to my class. He asked: How will you come to feel authentic as a rabbi?
And I remember instinctively blurting out an answer: When I grow a beard.
In retrospect, it’s funny. But it’s also not so funny. The image I had in my head even after five years of rabbinic school was still man with a beard and a kippah. In part my comment was about gender, but it wasn’t only about that. I was gauging my sense of self by what I believed to be the view of others. I was looking at myself from the outside rather than searching within. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine who I would become as a rabbi, and what my rabbinate might look like. All I could feel was the gnawing dread of not being authentic.
My worry about authenticity wasn’t simply that I was insecure – yes, that too. But there were bigger forces at play. At that moment I knew what I couldn’t be as a rabbi, but I couldn’t yet imagine who or what I could be. I worried that as a first- generation Reform Jew, not having attended Reform summer camp or been in NFTY, not having those childhood connections and shared vocabulary, that I would be less than fully authentic. I also worried that being a woman rabbi with two small children, and the employment choices I made as a result of my children, would make me less than a “real” rabbi.
Today’s parashah asks the questions that I struggled with as I looked toward ordination twenty-one years ago: Who do you want to be? How will you get there? What’s going to happen if…?
Much of this parashah hangs on the word im, “if.” The first “if” follows with a cascade of goodness. IF you follow my laws and my commandments – rain will fall on your fields and you will have everything in abundance, you will live in peace, and Adonai will be your God, present always in your midst. The blessings are all conditioned by that one initial “if.” But the flipside of the equation pounds forth with “if” after “if.” IF you do not obey me, IF you spurn my laws, IF you remain hostile – the “if”s hammer away at us, one after the other, an ongoing reminder of the potentiality that things may not work out well.
The repeated trope of “if,” harsh as it may feel in that second list, actually reminds us: the future is not based on what we’ve already done. Rather, the text insists that the future is still in formation, it is dependent on the choices we make in the present, and will continue to make, as we set the direction of our own internal compasses.
“If” is a perfect word for today, a liminal space between what is and what will be. Imagine who and what you want to be as a rabbi. Whether you are setting out to work in a congregation, chaplaincy, a school, an organization, Hillel, the military, go to medical school, or wherever your rabbinic calling may lead you, you are choosing to set out to do sacred work. Your IF, your rabbinic compass, is setting you in the direction of doing what you can to bring more goodness, more justice, and more healing into the world, to live up your highest aspirations.
This path you’re choosing requires great courage and great faith. Sometimes the way through is going to be obvious to you. You will be at a bedside or in front a classroom or on the bima, and you will suddenly realize that you are fully there, fully rabbinic and sure of yourself in that moment. But sometimes, you will feel less certain.
The choices we face as rabbis are often not as clear as the binary choice between right and wrong, good and bad, as set out in our parashah. There will be moments when you find yourself writing at your desk or sitting with someone in pain or trying to soothe someone’s anger, or for that matter, maybe when you’re moving chairs for the tenth time in a week, and you’ll think: Why am I here? Is this who I am? Why does this matter? What am I supposed to do now?
I remember the deep angst I had upon becoming ordained and watching my classmates take what looked like big and exciting positions – full-time congregational callings rather than the less-than part-time organizational job to which I was headed. I looked to their glorious futures, and felt that my choice, by comparison, while realistic for me, a not-totally-full-time position that would enable me to be at home in the evenings with my small children, was insignificant compared to the careers my classmates were sure to have. They were going to be real rabbis, while I was, I didn’t even know what, juggling as fast I could just to keep all the balls in the air, doing the best I could. Twenty-one years later, what I can stand here and tell you today is that no one’s journey was as expected. Not mine and not theirs. Along with many successes there were also unanticipated detours and curves in the road for everyone, many opportunities for self-reflection, much learning and growth, and sometimes redirection. The journey hasn’t always been easy, but it has always remained a sacred challenge to be our best selves, to make the best choices, and to do our best for those we serve.
Our Jewish history is full of people called by God to embark on a sacred journey. Think of Abraham, told by God to leave his country, his homeland, and his father’s house, and to set out into the unknown. Etz Hayim teaches: God’s first words to Abram, Lech Lecha, mean, “go forth and discover your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” This is to be a journey not only to fulfill God’s plan, but of self-discovery, one that allows Abraham to grow into his true self.
Think of other examples of going out into uncomfortable new spaces – recall Rebekah being asked if she would leave her home to make a journey with a stranger, to go marry Jacob, also a stranger, and live amongst a tribe of strangers. Dr. Judith Baskin, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, cites a comment from Midrash HaGadol that typically, when a woman would be promised in marriage, she was too embarrassed to give her consent or to reject.But as Baskin notes, Rebekah forcefully and clearly makes known her assent. Her direct response, “I will go,” reveals a sense of mission and purpose, and an understanding that her destiny lies elsewhere. As Dr. Yairah Amit writes, “Women’s contributions to the fulfillment of national destiny finds its expression not only in their role as child bearers but also in their ability to take bold and vital action at critical moments.”
Both Abraham and Rebekah, with no idea of what lay ahead, boldly set out on epic missions, journeys that impact dramatically on the narrative of the Jewish people. They go into the uncomfortable unknown, with faith as their compass, to become who they are meant to be and to fulfill their destiny.
As you become rabbis and set out into the unknown today, it is your emunah, your faith in God, in the future of the Jewish people, in our collective destiny, that has gotten you to this moment of being a Rav b’Yisrael, a rabbi. The people you serve, in whatever way you serve, are going to look to you to be someone in whom they can maamin – believe in, have trust in, and entrust with theiremunah – their faith. It will be up to you to provide a sense of rabbinic authenticity that comes not from knowing all the right answers, but from having the courage to ask the right questions.
It won’t always be easy. After all, for all that faith matters, we are not B’nei Emunah, we are B’nei Yisrael (with no offense meant to any members of any Congregation B’nei Emunahs), not the Children of Faith but the Children of Israel, those who struggle with God. Faith leads us, but if struggle comes to you, welcome it, use it for self-reflection because that too is real and will allow you to keep growing.
There may be voices that question or challenge your authenticity – but only you get to determine it and define it. How you convey your authenticity and your sense of emunah as you grow into your rabbinate will enable those you serve to feel that you are amin, reliable and trustworthy. And when you are amin, those you will serve will be able to truly say, amen; you will be a blessing to them.
The root that amin shares with emunah goes into many other directions as well, one of which is oman, artist, and omanut, art. In becoming your authentic rabbinic self and growing into your rabbinic authority as someone who is aminand leads from a personal sense of emunah, you will also become an oman, the artist of your rabbinate, defining its contours and texture, its colors and brushstrokes.
The companion to rabbinic authenticity is rabbinic authority. Being the careful, thoughtful author of your rabbinate will nourish your rabbinic authority. A successful rabbinate depends on maintaining the right balance of authenticity, authority, and, yes, humility. Be sure of what you stand for, nurture and question and redefine your emunah, ask the big and hard questions, and be willing always to learn, and to be wrong. If you encounter a challenge or a problem, be open to the truth of it, no matter how painful, and figure out how the situation can enable you to grow. No doubt about it, this is hard work: being a rabbi, taking care of yourself and your family and the Jewish people, and remembering why this work matters. Have courage, be brave, and ask for help – talk to a trusted friend or a teacher or mentor. Call the CCAR. Get a coach. Take a class in an area in which you need to further develop.
You will grow as rabbis and as people, and the rabbis you become will likely look different from what you can imagine today. Not every day will feel fulfilling and meaningful. But each of you, no matter how and where you serve, no matter how winding your path will be, will grow into your own rabbinic authenticity. You will become a new model of a rabbi – each of you will broaden the definition of who and what a rabbi is, what a rabbi looks like, what a rabbi does, whatever your gender expression or sexuality or color or size or skill, with beards or without, with kippot or without, in congregations or in organizations or Hillels or hospitals or schools or in whatever rabbinic path you follow. Be open to surprising avenues that may unfurl before you. Remember that you don’t need to know everything, and remember too that you never will.
In her poem “Insufficient Knowledge” the poet Bronwyn Lea writes:
You have to start with insufficient knowledge,
yes, this, and yes, praise be, then this,
you have to have that kind of courage.
A breath, a step, a word: it’s to your advantage
to begin. There isn’t time to wait for grace—
you have to start with insufficient knowledge.
Think of the first human to sail over the edge
of the world, or a base jumper departing an edifice:
you have to have that kind of courage.
Break your fists, your back, your brain, punch
yourself an opening. This is all there is:
you have to start with insufficient knowledge
of the heart, that higher organ, which
from time to time catches us by surprise
and we startle with the kind of courage
that will spend it all, not hold back, wage
everything, all, right away, every time, yes.
You have to love with insufficient knowledge,
you have to have that kind of courage.
I share this poem with you today because it speaks to my rabbinic story – the fear of not knowing and not being enough, the impulse toward courage anyway, the voracious willingness to jump all in despite the trepidation, the stretch of opening the heart and being vulnerable. “Punch yourself an opening,” the poem tells us, get yourself in there where you long to be. So much of these twenty-one years since ordination has felt like that. My early years in the rabbinate were a constant master class in assertiveness training as I learned to speak up and be heard, to be in the conversations that mattered, to claim my authenticity and authority as a rabbi, to create my rabbinic self and share it with others.
So now here we all are together. You’re about to start your rabbinic voyage, taking on new responsibilities and challenges. And I’m about to start my new rabbinic adventure as well. None of us know what awaits us. But I do know this. These experiences ahead of us will change us. And from these changes will arise new hopes and new possibilities, new understandings of self, new skills and outlooks, new callouses and muscles. Like it has for me, your path will most likely contain unexpected plot twists. Those children I mentioned, who so shaped my choices upon ordination, are now adults out in the world. As they grew, I grew, as a mother and as a rabbi. The road before me that I once thought was clear, albeit limited, branched out into surprising new directions that I could not have imagined at ordination, standing as I did in the present of that moment.
So as you step out in the unknown, have courage. And also unapologetic tenacity. And chutzpah. Don’t prevaricate. Practice humility, yes, but not having all the answers doesn’t mean apologizing for who or what you are, or aren’t. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you’re ready.
Go out there into the unknown. Write your rabbinic story. We can’t wait to see it unfold.
Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Strategy Officer of Central Conference of American Rabbis and Publisher of CCAR Press. Rabbi Person was recently named the incoming Chief Executive of the CCAR and will assume that position on July 1, 2019.