Another mother poem: grandparents' house
Another mother poem: Thanksgiving

Smicha preparation and the empty cup

Seven weeks from yesterday, nine of my dear friends and I will receive smicha. In our class there are one cantor, two rabbinic pastors, and seven rabbis. We will all become musmachim together.

We've been meeting regularly via conference call to plan our smicha ceremony, and in one of those calls, we wound up talking about our spiritual preparation for smicha. I'm all too aware that the process of learning everything I need to know in order to be the rabbi I want to be is a lifelong journey; I'm not sure I'll ever be finished becoming. But the smicha ceremony is a marker that I've done the learning which my teachers deem necessary (necessary, perhaps, to prepare me to continue doing the learning which awaits!) It's easy to list the many subjects in which ALEPH requires its students to achieve mastery, to say that I've taken this many Tanakh classes and this many liturgy classes and this many Hasidut classes and so on. But this program requires more than just intellectual learning:

The foundation and center of the Rabbinic Program is the Mystery we name God. We understand Judaism to be the individual and collective responses of Jews throughout our history, both in thought and deed, to the ongoing manifestations of the Divine. In studying religious texts, Jewish history, and the visions and values of our spiritual leaders, we are concerned with how the Divine has been and is now being revealed through Jewish experience. And we are equally concerned with how we -- as individuals and as communities -- respond to Divine revelations in our solitude, in our relationships and in our work.

We expect students to become masters of tradition, in continuous dialogue with our ancestors. But we keep in mind the teaching of the Ba'al Shem Tov: "We say, 'Eloheynu v'elohey avoteynu' (and now imoteynu) in that order because our first concern is with how we experience the Divine." We have faith that the still, small Voice will direct our students in each present moment -- as we continually experience Divine direction -- im b'kolo tish'ma-u, if we choose to hear. We pray that they listen, and in their pursuit of Torah, learn how they are being called to the task of integrating spiritual and moral treasures from our heritage into their own lives, that they become messengers to those who seek to drink from the Living Water.

(That's from ALEPH's description of the program.) So one big piece of my own preparation for smicha is getting my spiritual house in order. Trying to enact and embody the prayerful consciousness and the gratitude with which I want to approach the world. Staying in close touch with God.

Although it marks the culmination of a program of study, smicha isn't a graduation. The word can be understood to mean leaning-on, and our teachers will literally lean on us -- a laying-on of hands -- as they confer their blessing and their ordination on us. This is one of those awesome moments when the words we speak change something in the fabric of reality. As at a wedding, when the words spoken by the couple beneath the chuppah change their state of being, so at a smicha -- and we, and our teachers, will stand beneath a chuppah then, as I remember walking beneath a chuppah when our community formally celebrated (at Ohalah, in 2006) the group of us who had entered the ALEPH programs during 2005.

In my understanding, smicha is also a moment of transmission -- of blessing, of something ineffable which I don't know how to describe (and may still not know how to describe even once it's happened!) Before our smicha weekend, one of my classmates is going on silent retreat in the mountains, with a beloved teacher as her spiritual guide, to empty herself out in order to be wholly ready to receive. I'm planning a mikveh immersion at Mayyim Hayyim at the end of December which will be my opportunity to wash away anything I want to leave behind, welcome in the blessings of these six years of study, and seal myself in preparation for what's coming.

Ethan and I used to study karate together. We haven't been karate-ka in many years -- our sensei moved away and over time it became too difficult to drive two hours to reach his school -- but as I prepare myself for smicha, I find myself remembering the story of Nan-in and the empty cup which I first learned from my sensei and from his sensei (may his memory be a blessing.) I want to approach smicha not with a sense of how much learning I've done, but with awareness of how much more learning I still need to do. My cup needs to be empty in order for me to receive.

My dear friend Yafa noted, in last week's call, that yesterday would be seven weeks before our smicha. We count the Omer during the seven weeks leading up to the revelation of Torah at Sinai (which we celebrate, and re-experience, each year at Shavuot) -- why not also use that framework to measure the time leading up to our smicha ceremony? In the kabbalistic model, each week of the Omer is linked with a given sefirah (divine quality/attribute), and so is each day. I'm not sure I have the focus to be mindful of each day over the next seven weeks, especially with everything else that's going on in my life right now (including, um, finishing my coursework!) but I like the idea of seeing how each of these divine qualities manifests in my life over the next seven weeks.

The first week of the Omer is the week of chesed, abundant and overflowing lovingkindness. I hope I can bring more chesed into the world this week as I prepare myself to receive.