Rabbi David’s Installation Remarks: The Path of Service

Rabbi David delivered these remarks at his Installation Ceremony on March 28, 2015, coinciding with Shabbat HaGadol – the Shabbat of the High Priest’s installation and the Shabbat preceding Passover, when traditionally we prepare for purification and the journey of liberation.

Shabbat Shalom.

I feel wondrous joy to be here with people I cherish, who made it possible for me to become a rabbi – my parents, teachers, congregants and friends.  In a spiritual sense, this joy helps us mingle and become parts of each other: it takes a village to raise a rabbi.  In this village, our spirits really do become parts of each other: I can see the joy in your eyes, reflecting the joy in my own eyes.  This mingling of joy amidst joy is what I hope for all of us each Shabbat.  Thank you for helping make today’s Shabbat one I’ll remember for a lifetime.

Today’s Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat before Passover, traditionally is when we ready ourselves for purification and liberation, cleaning out and going free.  Today’s Torah portion also recalls the installation of Kohen HaGadol, the High Priest.  Shabbat HaGadol and Kohen HaGadol: purification, liberation and installation.  These two Gadolim – gadlut, spiritual expansiveness – mingle and become part of each other today.

This gadlut of spiritual expansivenesswhere Shabbat HaGadol and Kohen HaGadol meet, is the calling of all spiritual life.  The word Kohen hails from the Hebrew verb l’kahen – to be a spiritual servant, spelled kaf, hey, nun.  For one who becomes a spiritual servant, the verb l’kahen becomes a noun: that person is a Kohen, spelled kafvavheynun.  Adding this extra letter, the vav, turns the verb into the noun – the idea of spiritual service into actual spiritual service.  The vav turns potential into reality. 

In Jewish mystical thought, spiritual service is like the letter vav.  Mystics call the letter vav hachibur, the vav of connection.  The letter vav literally means “and,” and the word vav means “hook” – both of them connectors linking one thing to another   Even the shape of the vav is a connector – a vertical line, which mystics imagined to connect sky to sea, heavenly life to human life, this world to the next.  The Ba’al Shem Tov, first rebbe of Hasidism, taught that the mystical vav evokes the ladder of Jacob’s dream, the ladder on which angels and prayers ascended and descended – in Torah’s words, olim v’yordim bo / angels and prayers ascend and descend on it, spelled betvav – it referring to the ladder.  The Besht re-reads Torah as: Angels and prayers olim v’yordim b’vav / ascend and descend b’vav – on the vav.  The vav becomes the ladder of connection on which angels, prayer and spirit can flow into the world.

The Kohen was our first ritualist vav, channeling between worlds, tending life’s portals of birth and death, grief and joy, spiritual and secular.  In time, this role shifted from Kohen to “rabbi,” but the function of spiritual service still links back to Kohen HaGadol whose installation Torah evokes today.

Somehow, this function got fixed in a title – the Kohen, the Rabbi, the Cantor.  Today we are re-learning that the truest spiritual service emerges not from a title but from a radical openness that can flow through all of us.  Among the most profound teachings of Reb Zalman, teacher of my teachers and first connector for Jewish Renewal, was precisely this.  Surrounded by his students, Reb Zalman got up from his rebbe chair and had each student sit in it.  He said to them, “Okay, now you’re the rebbe.  Be the rebbe.”  And as he invited them to become holy connectors, with love and humility, so they became.

Spiritual service is not title but truth, not control but connection, not hierarchy but flow.  Truth, connection and flow are the callings of all spiritual life.  After the liberation from Egypt, in Exodus 19, God spoke to Moses saying: “You saw in Egypt what I did to free you … how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Me.  So now, if you hear My voice and keep My covenant:  

וְאַתֶ֧ם תִהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ
You will be for Me a nation of Kohanim, a holy people 

אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵל:
.These are the words you will say to the Children of Israel

What an amazing empowerment.  Torah calls all of us to become Kohanim: this is the purpose of the liberation we honor at Passover, to channel holiness into the world – not just in potential, but for real.  Aaron, first Kohen HaGadol, was only the first to have the title, but today all of us together share this calling.  The role of Kohen, now the role of rabbi, is not to fulfill the calling alone, but to help open channels so everyone can do the same, each in their own way – to invite everyone up the spiritual ladder to channel holiness back into the world. 

Which returns us to Shabbat HaGadol, this Shabbat before Passover, when we focus on purifying ourselves for our journey of liberation.  During the year, our spiritual channel – vav hachibur, our vav of connection – can get clogged with the detritus of our lives – disappointment, ego and inner constriction.  We can call this clog chametz – sourness, things that swell up.  When we get clogged, we can’t connect and we can’t transmit. Before Passover, we clear chametz from our homes to symbolize clearing chametz from our spiritual channels.  We clear our channels not only to prepare to celebrate freedom but also to restore a clear flow through our inner vav.  We do this intending to fulfill our very purpose of liberation – to be a nation of Kohanim, to turn spiritual potential into reality.

So on this Shabbat HaGadol, and in the merit of Kohen HaGadol, may each of us become ever more a vav hachibur, a clear connector through which spirit can flow from this village, this nation, out into the world.  This gift is much the one you’ve given me, here at Temple Beth-El and as an ALEPH rabbinical student.  You help teach me how to see my own vav hachibur, and hopefully to become the kind of rabbi that can make the spiritually possible real, together with all of you.  From the depth of my heart, thank you for this gift of a lifetime.  

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach.

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