Poems for the Omer
A Listening Tour weekend in Vancouver

A nation of priests

(A Listening Tour d'var Torah for Shabbat morning at Or Shalom)


This week's Torah portion includes a description of the smicha (ordination) of Aaron and his sons -- the first ancient Israelite priests. The word smicha comes from a root meaning "to lean," as in the laying-on of hands. Aaron and his sons place their hands on a ram, which is then slaughtered. Blood from the ram is painted along their ears, thumbs, and big toes, perhaps representing the charge to seek holiness in all that they hear, in all that their hands create, and in every place where they walk.

When I received smicha from ALEPH, my teachers placed their hands on me as they spoke the words which transformed me into a rabbi. I experienced the press of their hands as a conduit for the transmission of wisdom and blessing. Afterward the only thing I could compare it to was the birth of my son: a feeling of yielding to a great transformative process which was rewriting me from the inside out.

My ordination as a rabbi, the seal on years of study, happened on a single day -- but the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests lasted for seven. Seven is a meaningful number for us. Think of the six days of creation culminating in the seventh day which is Shabbat, or the seven colors of the rainbow, or the seven weeks of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot. The Hebrew word for seven, שבע, contains the same root letters as the verb meaning to swear an oath or make a covenant. With seven days of ordination, Aaron and his sons entered into a covenant of service to the children of Israel and to God.

Here we are on Shabbat, the seventh day, reading about the ancient priests and their seven-day ritual. And maybe this ritual feels distant and foreign to us, as maybe the priesthood itself feels distant and foreign to us. But Torah also teaches (Exodus 19:6) that the hereditary priesthood of old isn't the only kind of priesthood. The whole community of Israel is instructed to be a ממלכת כהנים, a nation of priests. The priesthood wasn't just for them or for then. All of us are called into holy service. Shabbat, as the seventh day, is the day of smicha for everyone: the completion of readiness for holy service.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that access to God didn't depend on mastery of Talmud. He taught that God is available to all of us, no matter who we are or what we know. For the Baal Shem, connection with God was for everyone. Deep spirituality was for everyone. Jewish joy was for everyone. As the idea of being a nation of priests expands the hereditary priesthood to the whole community, the Baal Shem's teachings expanded God-connection to the community of all who yearn.

That democratizing impulse has always been part of Jewish Renewal, which Reb Zalman described as a new "turning" of Hasidism. Reb Zalman, z"l, reached deep into the treasure trove of our tradition. He translated prayers and teachings and experiences into a vernacular designed to reach people where they are. Today it is his students, and their students, who carry on that holy service of connecting seekers with our tradition and with God. 

And that holy service involves a lot of inner work -- or it should. Reb Zalman taught about this in his workshop on Spiritual Leadership in the summer of 1996. (Coincidentally, summer of 1996 was the last time I was blessed to be here in Vancouver!) That workshop was a weeklong meditation on what he called "rebbecraft." Being a rebbe, he taught, isn't just about the external, visible stuff but about what a rebbe does on the inside, in working on her- or him-self, in order to serve.

For Reb Zalman, rebbe was not a fixed identity, but a relational role. One who serves as rebbe shouldn't be locked into that role -- indeed, it's better both for the rebbe and for the community if the rebbe is also able to slip out of the role and be an ordinary person who eats sushi and watches television, or has a day job, or writes poetry in her spare time. Rebbe is a temporary state. And like the angels in our morning liturgy who give each other permission to pray, we give each other permission to serve in that capacity -- and to serve when we aren't in the rebbe role, too.

There's a great story about how Reb Zalman used to host gatherings around his Shabbes tisch. (Some of you here experienced this; as a student of his students, I know it only as lore.) He would sit in the Rebbe Chair at the head of the table and give over Torah. And then he would rise, and everyone would move one seat to the left, and then someone new would be in the rebbe chair, both literally and metaphorically. Someone else would get to be the rebbe -- and Reb Zalman would get to be the hasid. "These are temporary roles," he said; they are roles "that we assume for the benefit of that mutuality which we try and create."

For the benefit of that mutuality, we are called to be a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש, a nation of priests and a holy people. No less than Aaron, we are called to holy service. Maybe that service takes the form of being rebbe sometimes. Maybe that service takes the form of opening the riches of our tradition to those who thirst. Maybe that service takes the form of leading davenen, or teaching chant, or facilitating a spiritual direction relationship in which divine flow can be discerned. Maybe that service takes the form of tending to our planet as a living Temple where the presence of holiness is manifest. Maybe that service takes the form of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing loving care for the sick.

Jewish Renewal, like the expressions of Hasidism which came before us, teaches that direct experience of the Holy One of Blessing is available to all of us. There's no way we can "repay" God for that. But we can respond to that flow of shefa, that flow of blessing and abundance, by keeping our channels open and seeking to pass on that flow to others. We can seek to listen in a way that is holy, to build structures both physical and metaphysical in a way that is holy, to walk on paths of righteousness in a way that is holy.

In this week's Torah portion, Aaron and his sons have their earlobes painted with blood as an embodied bracha for holy listening. David and I are here in Vancouver this weekend to listen to all of you. We're dedicating the first year-and-a-bit of our term as chairs of ALEPH to the holy work of receptive listening. We're doing this listening via zoom videoconference calls and email correspondence, via coffee dates and conference sessions, and via Shabbatonim like this one where we hold open mike sessions to harvest hopes and dreams from the community. We want to know what ALEPH and Jewish Renewal mean to you. We want to know how ALEPH has served you well -- and also how ALEPH has let you down. We want to hear your stories, your frustrations, and your visions for what Jewish Renewal might yet become. 

In this week's Torah portion, Aaron and his sons have their thumbs painted with blood as an embodied bracha for holy building. David and I are here in Vancouver this weekend to dream big and build with all of you. Just a few weeks ago we completed the cycle of Torah readings describing the construction of the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled with and within the children of Israel. ALEPH is like that mishkan, built with the freewill offerings and loving craftsmanship of the community. ALEPH can be a holy container for the presence of the Divine. And just as Aaron and his sons were consecrated to serve in that mishkan, all of us here today have the opportunity of dedicating ourselves to sacred service. We want to know what forms that service might take. David spoke last night about keeping our spiritual fires burning: what holy flames are burning in you?

And in this week's Torah portion, Aaron and his sons have their big toes painted with blood as an embodied bracha for holy walking. David and I are here in Vancouver this weekend to walk with all of you. We are blessed this morning with the presence of Rabbi Daniel Siegel, your founding spiritual leader, who taught us halakha when we were in rabbinic school. Halakha doesn't just mean "the law." Halakha is a perennial conversation between past and present, between reality and hope. Halakha is our Jewish way of walking. Just as the feet of Aaron and his sons were consecrated to walk on holy paths, so we seek to consecrate our feet by the act of walking with you for this short time -- and continuing to walk alongside you even once we have returned home again. Because even when we're not physically co-present, we remain fellow travelers. 

The work of his hour -- the work of dreaming, and visioning, and building, the next turning of Jewish Renewal -- belongs to all of us. It always has. That's the nature of התחדשות, renewal: if it isn't constantly being renewed, it fails to live up to its name. We want you to help us renew. 

May we truly be a nation of priests. May we empower each other to be sometimes hasid, and sometimes rebbe. May our shoulders feel the imprint of the generations before us as they transmit their wisdom and their love. May our ears hear for the sake of good, may our hands build for the sake of God, may our feet lead us in paths of righteousness. And may our service bring joy to us, to the Holy One, and to the world. 


Deep thanks to the community of Or Shalom for honoring R' David and me with the opportunities to help lead davenen and to offer divrei Torah at Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services.