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Three scenes from the day of my smicha

The story of my ordination day in three parts. Part one: the ceremony for new and outgoing talmidim (students).

David blesses me with words and with ears.


The student community lines up outside of two doors, the soon-to-be musmachim (those who will receive smicha, who will soon be ordained) in one line and the incoming students (accompanied by current-student "buddies") in another. To the sound of drumming and singing, the musmachim enter the room. Our fellow students are sitting in a grand circle, with members of the va'ad interspersed, and we orbit the inside of that circle, dancing, pausing to hug our teachers as we go. There is a smaller circle of ten chairs inside the big circle, and we ten take our seats in those chairs, facing outward as the bigger circle faces in.

Then the new students are sung in, and after they circle the room they take their seats in the outer circle with the rest of the students and the faculty. One by one, their buddies stand and introduce those who are new to the ALEPH ordination programs. After each introduction we chorus baruch ha-ba (or brucha ha-ba'ah) b'shem Adonai, "welcome is the one who comes in God's name." There are a string of new Davids entering the program, and as we move around the circle with the introductions, our beloved Reb Elliot rises and pretends to introduce the two teachers on his left and right as "David and David." Laughter washes the room.

The new students step forward and stand facing the musmachim, in pairs and trios, and as the community sings we give them blessings for the journey they are beginning which we are about to complete. I bless a dear friend from my DLTI family. I tell her that the smicha program is like DLTI, only bigger and more. I bless her that her journey be as sweet and surprising as mine has been, and that she always have friends with whom to share the path.

And then we musmachim stand and are each met by the one student we asked to bless us. My blessing comes from David, who I have known since I was seventeen. First there is an embrace, and when we step back and look at one another, his gaze says volumes. Then he places a pair of rabbit ears on my head and over the singing and drumming and the sound of the nine other private blessings taking place I can hear the room bursting into laughter. I am laughing so hard I'm almost crying. Then David gives me his blessing -- the story of a young rabbi who yearned to become real, the reality that becoming real can hurt, the Voice which says "You were Real to Me because I loved you. Now you will be Real to everyone." -- and I am crying so hard I don't know how to stop. Laughter and tears, tears and laughter.

To close, we sing Ivdu et Hashem b'simcha -- serve God with joy -- and there is a snaking spiral dance around the room. The spiral dance breaks into circles: one tight group of men kicking and whirling, other pairs and trios and circles interweaving as we sing. My dear friend Simcha and her husband Shawn pull me into their circle dance for a minute or two. We dance and sing and rejoice.


Part two: document-signing and blessings.

My smicha certificate - English edition.


The ten musmachim congregate downstairs in a private room along with the members of the va'ad and other teachers we've asked to join us. We are presented with our smicha certificates. Reb Daniel had asked each of us to name a middah (quality) which we felt exemplified us, and I said "wonder," so my smicha document mentions wonder as one of the qualities I bring to my rabbinate. The certificates are beautiful. Each of us receives two pages: one in Hebrew, one in English. All of them have been signed by Reb Zalman, Reb Marcia, and Reb Daniel.

Other beloved teachers sign for me. One jokes that signing legibly is a symbol that she's willing to stake her reputation on us. My document is filling up with the names of some of the teachers who have been most important in my learning -- not all of them, but many of them. I am incredibly moved to see their names accruing.

And then the ten of us sit in a circle facing outwards, with another ring of chairs facing us, and one by one, our teachers take turns sitting in the chairs which face us and they give us blessings. My teachers bless me with savlanut (patience), with the ability to balance the rabbinate and motherhood, with the awareness that it's always okay to put my family first. My teachers bless my ability to write, and also bless me that I might be aware that sometimes the writing is a safety net because words come so easily to me. They say extraordinary things about who they understand me to be and who they understand me to be becoming. I am blown away. Again and again my cup overflows. One teacher blesses me with words about the smicha of Moshe and the rabbis of the great assembly, placing hands on my shoulders, and I weep.

We move into mincha (afternoon prayer). Reb Daniel asks us to remember the first moment we felt called to become rabbis -- called by God, called by Yiddishkeit -- and I remember the Friday morning of my first week at Elat Chayyim, walking in the fields wrapped in my tallit speaking to God in the manner of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav. I remember saying to God that I was so glad we were on speaking terms again, and that I was sorry I would have to leave God behind when I went home. And I remember realizing that of course I didn't have to leave God behind -- that God was with me -- that God had always been with me, even when I had felt exiled from the Presence.

Stitch together that moment of the call and this moment, Reb Daniel says. But don't elide what came between; remember every step along the journey, the sweet moments and the annoying ones, what was good and what was hard. For your teachers, too, this has been a journey. Sweet and frustrating and wonderful, just as it's been for you. And now you will be our colleagues. We walk this road together.

After mincha our teachers leave the room and the ten of us sit in a tight circle and create a mikvah of sound to purify and prepare ourselves for what's coming. Our eyes are closed; we are each singing our own sounds and words and verses. Our voices weave into one song.


Part three: the smicha.



The va'ad enters the ballroom to the tune of Mah Nora HaMakom Hazeh ("How wondrous is this place"), a tune which links me back to that first Elat Chayyim Shabbat, the culmination of the first week I spent with Jewish Renewal, from which I returned home saying that I'd found my teachers and wanted someday to be a rabbi like they are rabbis. Some of those very teachers -- Reb Arthur, Reb Phyllis -- are holding the poles of the chuppah beneath which we enter the room.

As we enter, the song changes to va-anachnu lo neda mah na'avod et-Adonai ad boenu shamah, "And we will not know with what we are to serve Adonai until we get there." It's a text from last week's Torah portion, set to a tune written by one of my smicha classmates. The room is packed with our fellow students and our loved ones. It is amazing to see my family standing alongside my classmates and teachers. The ceremony is standing-room-only.

Reb Marcia offers an invocation. Three of us read a scripted "who we are" piece which introduces the ALEPH smicha class of 2011 in the aggregate -- between us we've been in the program for a total of 73 years; we've written somewhere between 350 and 700 papers; in order to attend classes, we've both woken up early, and stayed up as late as 2am, in a variety of time zones around the world; as animal companions, we used to have ten snakes and an alligator, but not anymore -- now we just have six cats and one dog... The room laughs in the right places and sighs in the right places.

The ten of us give our divrei Torah, in prose and song and niggun and poetry. We touch on ten moments in the journey from constriction to freedom, ten moments in our Torah story, and interweave them with our own stories of becoming. Shoshana sings the Hakhanah ("preparatory") niggun to introduce Reb Zalman, who begins his remarks by saying that this niggun is meant to preface the rebbe transmitting a powerful teaching and that the teaching and legacy he wants to give over is the ten of us. He talks about how when his son Shalom was ordained it was amazing to think that he had a son who was becoming a rabbi, and now he has all of us, too. It's amazing to be counted, alongside his children and his other musmachim, as part of his legacy.

Reb Daniel reads the piece about lineage: charting first the smicha of Moshe (as it is traditionally understood, handed down from Moshe to Joshua to the elders to the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly and so on) and then pairing it with the piece about the smicha of Miriam which is unique to Jewish Renewal. He gets choked up, as he does every year, and so do I, as I do every year. 

And then the candidate for hazzan is called forth beneath the chuppah to stand in front of her teachers, who lay hands on her and recite the words of the smicha and she is changed. And the two rabbinic pastor candidates are called forth beneath the chuppah to stand in front of their teachers, who lay hands on them and recite the words of the smicha and they are changed. And then the seven rabbinic candidates are called forth beneath the chuppah to stand in front of our teachers.

Someone murmurs "lean back," and I do. I can feel Reb Laura's hands on me, and Reb Sami's, and the weight of the va'ad and the other teachers standing with them all clustered together holding us up. Are they leaning on us, or are we leaning on them? I close my eyes; the world feels too luminous. It's like the period when I was birthing Drew; the doctor invited me to look in the mirror and see him emerging, but all I could do was close my eyes and go inside to be present to what was unfolding.

I can hear the voices of so many people who I love, teachers who have shaped my understanding and my spirit and my heart. From whom I have learned so much, who have inspired me so wholly. Who have blessed me today with their words and with their eyes and who are blessing me now with the pressure of their hands as they together recite the words which make me different than I was before. The room is imbued with energy. All I can feel is love.

When Ethan and I studied Isshin-Ryu, we learned with a Sensei who taught us that karate was about the perfection of one's character. I've used the karate metaphor often to describe this course of study. Like our old dojo, ALEPH doesn't promise a black belt in any given amount of time. It takes as long as it takes for us to master the learning and for them to be ready to put their imprimateur on our work in the world.

I only made it to brown belt, so I don't know whether this is what the conferral of a black belt felt like, but in this moment that metaphor feels inadequate. This feels like a black-belt ceremony combined with a wedding combined with a birth. And just as there's a difference between attending a wedding as a community member (I always cry at weddings, unless I'm officiating, but it's a kind of empathy from a distance) and being the bride, there is a diference between attending a smicha ceremony as a community member and being one of the people beneath the chuppah over whom the transformative words are being said.

Standing now beneath the chuppah, holding hands with one of my classmates, feeling the pressure of my teachers' hands as they transmit blessing, I am shaking. Something ineffable is happening, something I cannot verbalize or explain. Is it the emotional impact of hearing the words of the smicha formula recited for me? Is it the culmination of years of study and even longer years of yearning? Something is changing.

My beloved teachers ordain us to serve as rabbis in Israel, to publicly teach Torah and to clarify and pronounce truth in ways which make a tikkun for the Shekhinah. They ordain us. They bless us that our hands be like their hands, our decrees like their decrees, our rabbinic acts valid like theirs, our adjudication like their ajudication, our blessings like their blessings. They ordain us and call us rabbi. I lean back on my teachers' warm hands and let the change come.