Friday, May 30, 2014

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

Chodesh Tov! This week was the last week of our Spring zman and our 2013-2014 academic year. The final week saw students working hard on their chazara and their final tests and projects. Students in the first-year Modern Orthodoxy class heard the last round of final presentations from their fellow students, covering the topics of Hair Covering - Sources, Halakha and Facts on the Ground; New Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Torah she'b'al Peh; Tfillah in Modern Orthodox Synagogues: Visions and Realities, and Tfillah in Modern Orthodox High Schools: Successes and Failures. First- and second-year students also completed their final Gemara projects and third- and fourth-year students wrapped up the year finishing their tests on Hilkhot Aveilut and reviewed their highly detailed Siddur Kiddushin tests from last quarter.

Tuesday night, erev Yom Yerushalayim, all students, rebbeim, faculty and staff, celebrated a year-end barbeque at the home of Miriam Schacter. It was a lovely opportunity for chevraschaft, relaxing and connecting, and a beautiful way to end out the year. The evening ended with singing of Israeli songs, and we continued to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim the following day in Yeshiva with an uplifting tefillah chagigit.

Of course, the highlight of the week was the semikha ceremony of this year's musmakhim, Daniel Millner and Haggai Resnikoff, which took place on Thursday night. Rabbi Jeff Fox (YCT 2004), of the first (actually, pre-first) class of YCT, was the master of ceremonies, and we honored that evening not only our current musmakhim, but also the entire first graduating class, who now celebrates their tenth year in the rabbinate. Last night we also awarded our first honorary semikha to Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi of B'nai David-Judea in Los Angeles, and President of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. In his accepting of honorary semikha, Rabbi Kanefsky joked that his congregants in L.A. were quite confused, as half of them assumed that he was already a YCT musmakh, and the other half wanted to know how he had been their rabbi so long without having had semikha!

But, of course, the stars of the evening were our two new musmakhim, Rabbi Daniel Millner and Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, who now join the ranks of their fellow YCT musmakhim and bring our numbers to a total of 87, with 83 of them still serving in
avodat ha'kodesh, an amazing retention rate of 95%!  And this coming year we will be admitting our largest number of new students ever, so as of next year we will have 44 students enrolled in YCT, our largest student body ever!  To Dan and Haggai, we say, mazal tov! May Hashem continue to grant you the strength to serve Klal Yisrael, to grow in your avodat Hashem, and to continue to teach, lead, and inspire. Mazal tov!

Below I share my words from last night to Daniel and Haggai:

Dan and Haggai, my dear students,

In just a few days we will be celebrating Chag HaShavuot and commemorating the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Such a day should, logically, be fully devoted to the study of Torah and yet, we find in the Talmud that this is the one yom tov that we demand lakhem, that it be "for you". It is on this yom tov that we are required to express our joy not only in the spiritual dimension, but in the physical realm, through eating and drinking, as well. Why? Says the Gemara in Pesachim 68b: For it is the day of the giving of the Torah.

What is the meaning of this quizzical statement?  First, that the Torah is not meant to reject the world, but to embrace it. Unfortunately, this is not a message we have been good at conveying. Many believe that to lead a Torah life means to lead a life of denial, and have been taught a Torah that is experienced only as a burden.  People are looking for a different Torah, one that creates life of meaning, a life of purpose. They are looking for a Torah that can translate into their day to day existence, and imbue it with joy and with depth, with community and with connection.

But the message here is deeper. For the Torah, on this day, was taken from out of the heavens and given to the earth. It was taken from the heavenly angels who wished to be its sole proprietors, who fought to keep it in heaven, to protect it from being sullied by mere humans.The Torah, however, was meant to be given; it finds its purpose and fulfillment in this messy engagement with human beings, with their shortcomings, with their questions, and with their challenges.

There are those who even today would like to protect the Torah. To keep it locked up in the Beit Midrash, to be its sole proprietors, to control the degree and manner of engagement. This cannot be our way. We must trust the Torah enough to set it free, to let it breathe, to interact with the world and to be challenged by the world.

Not long ago I lost a dear friend, Rivka Haut, z"l, a woman who was my conscience in so many ways. Rivka attended my daf yomi, and would never fail to challenge me when we encountered a morally problematic passage in the Talmud. I remember one day when I was attempting to defend or explain away a certain passage. She said to me, "It is not your job to defend the Talmud. The Talmud says what it says. It is your job to take responsibility for how it is taught, if it is taught as unquestionable, God-given truth, or if it is taught with an acknowledgment of its problems and challenges." 

This is what it means to take the Torah out of heaven and bring it to the earth. This is the Torah that we must teach and represent. We must be leaders who can hear the cries of the daughters of Tzelafchad, למה יגרע, or of those who could not bring the Korban Pesach, למה נגרע, "why should we be excluded," "why should we be marginalized,"  and rather than seeking to protect the Torah and to silence them for their impertinence, we must be able to respond עמדו ואשמע מה יצוה ה' לכם - let me go back, let me go back and see, let me see how this can be a commandment that is lakhem, that is true to you, that hears your challenges.

Daniel and Haggai, you have spent the last four years at the foot of Mt. Sinai, learning and absorbing the Torah of your rebbeim, growing in your own understanding of Torah, and preparing to become our religious leaders and teachers. It is now time to travel forth, to leave Har Sinai and to bring the Torah into the larger world. We, your teachers and rebbeim, could not be prouder of you at this moment. We know that you will teach a Torah of depth and meaning, and we know that you will teach a Torah of honesty and engagement. It will be a Torah that will be lakhem, true to you and true to your communities. And as such it will become a Torat chayim, a Torah that gives life because it is true to life.

Alu vi'hatzlichu!  Mazal Tov!

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