Ruth Messinger on tikkun olam at OHALAH 2015
Va'era, freedom, and Reverend Martin Luther King

Channeling smicha for the first time

I wrote recently about three ineffable moments from late last week -- visiting the prayer space where Reb Zalman z"l used to daven, leading prayer with my friend Rabbi Evan Krame, and savoring the davenen on Shabbat morning at the Shabbaton (Shabbat retreat) preceding the ALEPH ordination programs' smicha (ordination) ceremony and the OHALAH conference. But Sunday was ordination day, and it was more intense, more powerful, and more beyond-words than any of those.

On Sunday I got to do something which brought me more joy than I know how to describe. On that day, my beloved friend David became Rabbi David Markus. And at the moment of the rabbinic smicha -- the laying-on of hands and the speaking of the holy words which transform a student into a rabbi forevermore -- because I had been one of his teachers, I was privileged and honored to be able to be one of the people who stood behind him, through whom the words and the transmission flowed.

Along with others among our teachers and colleagues, I placed my hands on his shoulders. He closed his eyes and leaned back into our hands. And we called forth the words which created the change. In English, some of them are these:

Herewith we ordain you
To officiate as rabbis in Israel,
To publicly teach Torah,
And to clarify and pronounce truth in ways
that make a tikkun for the Shekhinah.

We hereby appoint you as delegates and emissaries
just as those who appointed us
delegated us and sent us to be rabbis...

May your hands be like ours
Your decree like our decree
Your rabbinic acts, valid like ours...

They are awesome words. Awesome in the original sense of that word; they awaken awe in me. Ever since the first smicha I ever attended, every time I hear them they go straight to my core.

It was only four years ago that I stood in front of my community, leaned back into the loving hands of my teachers, and took in the transmission of their blessing and their energy. I remember how it felt to receive that. I remember how it felt to walk around afterwards, my spirit buzzing and tingling, my heart as wide-open as the Colorado skies, feeling as though my spiritual DNA were being rewritten. And this time I got to be one of the channels for that transmission, that blessing, that change.

And then I got to look into the eyes of one of my dearest friends, who has been an integral part of my life for well more than twenty years -- who in college gave me the Rodger Kamenetz book which set me on the path to finding Jewish Renewal; who gave me my tefillin when I turned thirty; who took my advice and enrolled in a Jewish Renewal training program even though he wasn't certain where the path would lead; who has been my hevruta and my brother and my friend -- and call him Rabbi.

Naming him Rabbi felt as though something fundamental were snapping into place. Of course, it's transformative speech, like saying "I do" -- the words create change in the world. But it wasn't just the words. It was also the touch, the press of hands, the honored teachers clustered behind and around, their love and intention flowing through me along with my own. Serving as a channel for the transmission of smicha reminded me spiritually of birthing: something coming through me.

ALEPH's smicha ceremony always brings me joy. And every smicha I've attended since my own has reminded me of my own, and has strengthened my sense of smicha. (It's perhaps like -- as I've heard my Christian colleagues say -- how every baptism invites the adults present to renew their own baptismal covenant.) But this year was different. This year the joy was multiplied: a hundredfold, a thousandfold, I can't quantify it.

This year, when I helped to confer smicha on my dearest friend, I also changed myself. I became not only a recipient of this incalculable gift, but also a transmitter. Not only someone who has received, but also someone who's opened a space so the gift can flow through me into others. And then there are the particularities of the two of us. He led me here, I led him here in return. I had the indescribable privilege of channeling smicha for him, and in return he enabled me to grow even deeper into my own.

I can't quite grasp words to explain how that felt, how it still feels. Can you imagine hearing music -- maybe the songs of the angels on high -- which, once heard, leaves you forever changed? Can you imagine the upwelling joy of the harmonies, soaring and uplifting, the way your heart would brim over with gratitude and surrender? Can you imagine how you might feel in the silence after the song, the harmonies lingering long after the melody has faded from the air?