CCAR Presidential Sermon, Rabbi David Stern 2018

March 19, 2018
Irvine, CA
Rabbi David Stern

Boker tov everyone. I want to begin with thanks – to Mari and Jeff for such beautiful worship; to Daniel Septimus, Rick Kellner and an outstanding Convention Committee; to the remarkable Steve Fox for his everyday partnership, deep dedication and for the great staff he leads; to the Board with whom I am privileged to serve – I wish I got to see you guys in person more often. And to my wife Nancy, who puts up with this gig with wisdom, grace and love – I really wish I got to see you in person more often.

And speaking of seeing people in person, welcome to Convention. We come together here – not just as a Conference, or on a conference call, but in community, and in person. To see cherished colleagues, old friends and new, our mentors and those we’ve mentored. Some of us are here after a year of deep loss or professional disappointment, some in the flush of fulfillment or anticipation of great joy, some just trudging along – and all of us know all of it, for none of it is alien to this chevra. It is good to see you.

You all might remember (though I don’t expect you to) that when I spoke to you at this service last year, I reported having spent some time looking at past CCAR Presidential addresses. Well, I did the same thing this time around – specifically, I looked at mine from last year. And that’s when I got totally depressed. Because the litany of ills that you and I perceived in March of 2017 has proven distressingly stubborn as we come to March of 2018. Here are some direct quotations from last year’s sermon – let’s see if they’re still current:

“Civil discourse in America has disintegrated.” (check)

“Civil rights are under siege.” (check)

“Racist white nationalism has moved from the fringes of society to a frighteningly hospitable center.” (check – and that was five months before Charlottesville)

“In Israel, our home of the heart, we have too often traded in the nobility of vision for the narrowness of political calculation.” (check – and that was three months before the government froze the Kotel agreement)

If that litany implies a punch list for repairs to the body politic, we should all be fired as contractors. Tzedek tzedek tirdof – the architectural vision seems clear, but the renovations feel almost hopelessly stalled.

And now, Parashat Tzav comes to up the ante on what can be. The vision is inspiring: V’ha-eish al ha-mizbeach tukad bo lo tichbeh – “the fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out.” And then just one verse later: eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tichbeh – “a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” ( Lev. 6:5,6). Lo tichbeh times two – our sense of service is supposed to be inextinguishable.

Add to that what Rashi says about God’s opening charge to Moses in the parshah and Tzav ups the ante even further. The verse gives us Tzav et aharon v’et banav (Lev. 6:6:2); Rashi comments, “ayn tzav eilah ziruz miyad v’ladorot: “the word tzav always indicates enthusiastic urgency, immediately and for future generations.”

That was a high bar for the priests, and it’s a high bar for us rabbis, but a potentially inspiring one – to fulfill the demands of our calling with zerizut – not only with alacrity, but consistent and enduring enthusiasm. From Bat Mitzvah kid to Bat Mitzvah kid, derash to derash, shiur to shiur, meeting to meeting, from one posting to another, from one hospital or campus committee to another, all with consistent and enduring enthusiasm.

It’s hard to do, but it does describe us at our best – when we recognize that every kid on every Shabbat really is different; that the parshah really does have layers we have yet to explore; that yet another organizing call on the same justice issue might spur some progress; that the conversation with the bereaved family doesn’t only give me material for the eulogy, it gives them the opportunity to surface something sacred.

The yotzer or has it right. Michadeish bechol yom tamid ma’aseh vereshit is clearly divine work. But we are charged to emulate it – to find renewal in tasks that sometimes feel as old as creation itself, to be stubborn about discovery in the face of the familiar. It is a redemptive alchemy when we can achieve it.

One of my favorite descriptions of this kind of zerizut comes from Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial we will observe this summer, and who once described how he knows when he’s done a good job of conducting a great symphony by Brahms or Tchaikovsky:

“The only way I know that I’ve done a really good performance is when I’m making the piece up as I go along … as if I have the feeling that I’m inventing it for the very first time: ‘Hey, that would be a great idea … let’s bring in the English horn here … a bass pizzicato there … now a trombone chord!’” (Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein, Jonathan Cott, p. 123)

Now that’s how to offer the V’ahavta, or yet another invocation, or even the Kaddish, (“Hey, I think after bechol levavcha let’s bring in bechol nafshecha; maybe after oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.”) Bernstein’s idea provides, to me, a much richer and broader perspective on a phrase that’s already at risk of becoming shopworn – “the entrepreneurial rabbi.” That phrase shouldn’t define where we work, but how we work. Bernstein suggests – Tzav suggests – zerizut suggests – we should all strive to be rabbis who make it up as we go along.

But we all know the challenges that can make the standard of zerizut feel unrealistic. We burn out – from stress, from boredom, from mounting and clashing demands. Our teacher David Ellenson used to say of the Rambam – yes, he was a court physician, a philosopher, a halakhist and a polymath, but he never had to drive carpool. Parashat Tzav comes along and asks us to be inextinguishably enthusiastic. While driving carpool.

So let’s grant that Tzav’s vision, while inspiring, can also feel daunting, or perhaps over the top for the rabbi I might seek to be. (There were, after all, plenty of critics who rolled their eyes at Bernstein’s enthusiasm on the podium.) And that’s why (courtesy of the Chasidic commentary Or Torah ) I was happy to fall down a rabbinic rabbit hole which started at the altar in Tzav and eventually led to a different altar in Exodus 20:21, where God commands: mizbach adamah ta’aseh li. The altar God instructs us to build just verses after the Sinai revelation is an altar of earth – not of wood or copper or bronze, at first not even of stone. So just when Tzav’s inextinguishable-fire-of-enthusiastic-service might feel like a bit much, the model of a mizbach adama puts important possibilities within our reach.

I believe we do our most important service at earthen altars – where the solutions are imperfect, and the progress is incremental, and it’s hard to find offerings without blemish. Where we do a humble good when nobody is looking. Where, if we’re smart, we let the complexities instruct us. Where we open up at least as often as we double down, and where we are vigilant about the thread-thin line between righteousness and self-righteousness.

Mizbach adamah: it’s the Bar Mitzvah kid practicing with the Torah in his every day t-shirt and shorts and not the suit he’ll never wear again, because it’s an everyday Torah, and not just for special occasions. It’s about how we speak to people less powerful than we are, and how we are heard speaking to them. It’s about showing up when zerizut is not even within sight. It’s about offering the best we have, even when we’re not at our best.

It’s the work of the orchestra, and not just the conductor. The work of the organizations we serve – our synagogues and schools and agencies and chaplaincy departments – and not just the names at the top of their letterheads. The work of our organizations is earthen altar work because it usually partakes of the mundane rather than the marquee, because it’s usually more slow than sexy, because it involves different people with different styles who communicate and miscommunicate and then try again. It’s earthen altar work because it’s sometimes muddy and sometimes messy and still a reminder of how sacred the everyday can be.

It is the work of our organizations, and it is the work of this organization, our Central Conference of American Rabbis. While I wouldn’t call it a parah adumah, the CCAR is nonetheless a strange beast. A highly skilled, deeply dedicated and mostly centralized professional staff works with a lay leadership of rabbis who live from coast to coast and beyond, and together that centralized staff and that dispersed lay leadership serve an international membership of thousands of rabbis who are even more widely dispersed and even more diverse than the leadership that serves them. We are diverse in age and stage, in commitment and conviction; diverse in our rabbinic paths, in experiences shaped by gender and generation and even the campuses where we studied. And because we are rabbis, we all have something to say about it.

But more than a strange beast, I would say that the CCAR is a mizbach adamah. Biblical scholars teach us that the mizbach adamah was an altar made by heaping up a mound of earth in an open field, and that these altars were established in multiple places rather than a centralized location. Well, thanks to you, here at the CCAR, mizbechei adamah are popping up everywhere.

As we continue to learn and lean into what we know about the loneliness and isolation of colleagues, we continue to develop our commitment to member services. The commitment of volunteers, staff and resources to tend to the lived experience of being a rabbi – from support in crisis to spiritual mentoring to nurturing sustaining relationships among our members, the work of supporting our rabbis in all their diversity is part of our overarching commitment to making us all better at what we do, and to giving us mooring in each other.

Member engagement is a fundamental part of this work. That is not always easy in a large diffuse organization like ours, and while we have made some strides, we still have a long way to go. We need to systematize our efforts to create greater surface area for involvement, because the engagement of our members in the work of our conference simply makes our Conference better. In the meantime, every member of our Board is charged with keeping ears and eyes open for folks who want to engage more directly in the work of our mizbach adamah. Names forwarded by Board members have produced some wonderful appointments of colleagues I had never met before. Like the ongoing learning we will promote if the proposed system for continuing rabbinic education is approved at this convention, care of our members is not a special occasion – it is a fundamental and ongoing dimension of what we do.

The Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate is a mizbach adamah. Led by Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Amy Schwartzman, the Task Force has begun its critical work, work that we will all have the opportunity to share in at this convention and beyond it. It is earthen altar stuff – no shiny new programs, but the slow, deep work of inquiry and transformation. We should be proud of the diverse group of colleagues that is leading us, and grateful for how the WRN has for years paved the way to the work we do today.

On a related path, we will also have the opportunity at this convention to learn from our Responsa Committee’s new responsum on pay equity. Whether gender bias has been manifest in unequal pay or in demeaning treatment, there is too much that has gone unspoken or unrecognized, and we are beginning the sacred work of listening and hearing our way towards a rabbinate of safety, opportunity, and growth for all our members.

The Governance Implementation Task Force led by Randy Sheinberg and Ken Carr is doing its own mizbach adamah work – continuing to refine our nominating process, and exploring the 21st century question of whether a member should have to be present at convention to vote on a matter before the plenary. Their report and recommendations will come to our Board in June.
Thanks to Bill Kuhn and his URJ partner Robin Kosberg, we are reinvigorating the NCRCR, with the goal of creating a well-trained cadre of people who can help rabbis and congregations work through minor issues in their relationship before they become major issues. Stay tuned for how you can help us with the rebuilding.

Our Retiree-Successor Task Force, led by Peter Knobel, will be helping us to articulate best principles and best practices for the sacred ground of retiree-successor relationships. Some of this work will involve putting in one place what currently exists as scattered wisdom – some of it will involve deeper listening and discernment to help us create new guidelines for relationships that honor colleagues and add blessing to the lives of predecessors, successors and the congregations and organizations they serve. It is a mizbach adamah.

While the process doesn’t have an official name, I am happy to report that we have taken some good steps forward towards mutual learning with our colleagues at MARAM. As I wrote in the newsletter earlier this year, we have much to learn from each other, and the deepening of our relationship with MARAM colleagues and our partners in the IMPJ is fundamental to a generative sense of what 21st century progressive Zionism can be – fundamental to effecting change in Israel, and to strengthening attachment to Israel in the Reform Jewish community in the North America. This year’s seventieth anniversary reminds us that we have much to celebrate, and much to do.

I began this morning by expressing dismay at the stubbornness of some of the social justice challenges we confront, the carry-over of frustration from last year to this. On every issue we face – from gun violence to race relations to predatory treatment of women to immigration to the suppression of religious pluralism in Israel, to fundamental questions of peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians, it is easy to become discouraged.

But I do believe that earthen altars show us a way – to remain unequivocally committed to sacred values, and to build humbly. To remain open to solutions that are incremental and incomplete, because the gun debate teaches us that polarization and the cynical paralysis it creates are literally killing our children. We need a practical urgency, for we can never forsake zerizut. Because the stubborn litany of unfinished business from one month of March to another calls for an urgency just as stubborn. To recognize that progress will be imperfect, and to recommit ourselves to the work every day. In our pursuit of justice, we need both the humility of the earthen altar and the power of its fire.

Because in the end, they need each other – the fire of heaven and the altar of earth, the glorious peak of Sinai and the dirt mound below, the aish tamid and the structures that help keep it burning bright.

And how blessed we are, as rabbis, to have this chevra in which we can tell the truth and gain the strength and hear the words again and again: Lo tichbeh.

How blessed we are to sense the mizbach adam in the mizbach adamah, and to know that the greatest offering we can bring is of our human selves.

And how blessed we are in the ancient teaching. For though the Torah says that God dressed Adam and Eve in kotnot or, garments of skin, with or spelled with an ayin, Bereshit Rabba (20:12) teaches that in the Torah of Rabbi Meir, the word or in the verse was spelled with an alef.

From the beginning, we are flesh and blood, garbed in light – compounded of humility and hope. We rabbis are earthen altars, blessed to carry this holy ziruz fire of creativity and spirit and compassion and strength and Torah and justice and justice and justice – in our lives, in the lives of those we serve, in the life of this Conference which sustains and strengthens us for every sacred task, miyad v’ladorot.

Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tichbeh. May the light of the Holy One awaken our way.

Ken yehi ratzon.