Monday, August 17, 2009

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - June 26, 2009

Dear Friends and Supporters,

Although I officially "signed off" for the summer in my last email, I wanted to take this final opportunity to share with you my remarks from the semikha ceremony this last Sunday. It was a wonderful and uplifting event, as we gave semikha to eleven mature, thoughtful, and learned young men, who are heading off to be rabbis of communities, rabbis on campus, and rabbis in our schools. They join their forty-four colleagues in the field, so that now, at the end of our ninth year, we have fifty-five rabbis in the field, teaching and spreading Torah, guiding and sustaining communities, and supporting and inspiring individuals. Each of you should derive strength and inspiration from the work that these amazing young men are doing, and from the part that you have had in supporting them and making it happen.

Here, then, are my remarks from the ceremony. I want to again wish everyone an enjoyable and relaxing summer.

All the best,
Rabbi Dov Linzer

Remarks delivered at YCT Chag HaSemikha, 5769

My dear students,
Maurice, Ben, Kenny, Daniel, Steven, Ben, Drew, Michael, Benji, Devin, and Eric,

Today, as you become rabbis, you set out on your path as religious leaders for the Jewish people. What is the nature of this religious leadership?

The Torah, in yesterday's parsha, presents a form of leadership in the persons of Caleb and Yehoshua. Men with courage to believe in the promise of God, despite the odds, and to defiantly stand up to those who would lead them to disaster. Men who had "ruach acheret emo vayimaleh acharay," "a different spirit in them, men who followed after God." This, however, is not religious leadership, but political and lay leadership - to plan military strategies, to lead the people into battle, not to impart Torah, not to give religious guidance. As rabbis, you must work with your lay leadership, you must help them shape their leadership with a "ruach acheret" with Torah values, so they can see more than what is before their eyes, so that they are not led astray, so that they can see with a greater vision. But theirs is not a religious leadership. Their path is not your path.

The Torah also recently described the path of the nazir. The nazir divorces himself from society, forswears wine, and lets his hair grow long, so that he can focus on his religious growth and connection to God. This is not the path of religious leadership. This is a path of self-serving religious growth, one that takes no responsibility for other people or for society. Even when the nazir serves the people, he does so in spite of his nezirut, not because of it. His deepest desire is to seclude himself, to free himself from such responsibility, so that he can focus on his own religiosity, on his own holiness. Do not be seduced by the life of the nazir. His is not a path of leadership. His path is not your path.

True religious leadership is to be found not in the model of Yehoshua and Calev, not in the example of the nazir. No. True religious leadership is to be found in the Kohen. His very name bespeaks his role. L'khahein - to serve. His is a life of service. Of service to God - L'khahein l'Hashem - and whose service of God consists of his service to the Jewish people. The Talmud questions whether the Kohanim serve God or serve the people. The truth is, the two are one - they serve God by serving the people.

The Kohanim spent much time in the Temple, it is true, but they did not do so for their own selfish religiosity. The Kohanim's charge was to sustain a holy space for the people, a place where God's presence could always be encountered, and to assist the people in their striving to connect to God in that holy space. Moreover, the majority of their time was spent outside the Temple. The Kohanim were spread throughout the Land of Israel, bringing the holiness of the Temple and of the Torah to the people, "teaching God's laws to Jacob and God's Torah to Israel."

Indeed, immediately after the Mishkan was sanctified, and the Kohanim were dedicated to their service, we read, "and Moshe and Aharon entered into the Tent of Meeting and they came out and they blessed the people, and the Glory of God appeared to the entire people." This is the true role of the Kohanim. To come out of the Temple and to bring the Birkat Kohanim, the blessing of God and of the Torah, to all the people.

My dear students, this is your path. Create a sanctuary, a holy place, for people to go to encounter God. Be it the synagogue or the classroom, create and sustain a space where people can be inspired and edified, protected and supported. But do not rest there. Leave the security of this space, and go out and bring Torah, bring kedusha to the people. Seek out all people, those who are close, and those who are distant, and, perhaps hardest of all, those who were close but have become distant. Spread God's Torah and God's blessing throughout the Jewish people.

Like the Kohanim, be prepared to be with people even for the messy parts of their life. When they sin, and they come to you bearing their regret and their chatat, their sin-offering, help them find their way back to a life of holiness. When they have illness, when they have their own form of physical or psychological tzaraas, affliction, comfort them, console them, help them identify and name their problem, so that they can find healing and become whole. Like the Kohanim, there is tremendous power in your actions and in your words. Always use them to heal, to elevate, and to inspire.

Know that to serve God by serving the people requires being honest with your responsibility to God and God's Torah. Never compromise your integrity or that of the Torah that you represent. Remember the famous statement of R. Yisrael Salanter, that a rabbi who fails to challenge his congregation is not worthy of being called a rabbi. But when you must challenge, do so with love and with grace. Remember the conclusion of that statement, that a rabbi of whom people are afraid, is not worthy of being called a man.

Know, also, that to serve the people you must not neglect your own, personal serving of God. Never lose sight of your own religious growth, of your need to nurture your soul. You will serve God's people best when you yourself remain deeply connected to God and to Torah.

The Kohanim spent five years focused on their own growth so that they could prepare to serve the people fully. You have spent the last four years learning Torah, growing in your avodat Hashem, and gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to become religious leaders. You have not just learned how to act like rabbis, how to play the role of a rabbi, but, like the Kohanim, you have become transformed and sanctified in the process. As rabbis, you will become an embodiment of Torah and an embodiment of kedusha. To say this of a human being would be almost an act of sacrilege, but it finds its justification in a life of service, a life of kehunah.

Eric, Devin, Benji, Michael, Drew, Ben, Steven, Daniel, Kenny, Ben, and Maurice,
My dear students,

You are a class of eleven that among you has four Kohanim. But, in fact, today you all become Kohanim, as you now dedicate yourself to a life of kedusha that comes through kehunah, a life of holiness that is found through service. Although not a Kohen myself, allow me to give you the Birkat Kohanim the blessing of the Kohanim, a blessing that I know you will - each in his own distinct and unique way - bring to the entire Jewish people.

Yevarekhekha Hashem vi'yishmerekha. Ya'er Hashem panav eylekha viy'khunekha. Yisa Hashem panav eylekha vi'yaseim likha shalom.

May God always shine God's countenance upon you and may you only go from strength to strength.

Mazel Tov!

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