Every year, I have the privilege of ordaining a new class of rabbis. And as a climactic moment of the ordination ceremony, our beloved Rector, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, recites the words of an ancient poetic blessing found in the Talmud in Tractate Berakhot (Blessings).
The blessing, as found in the Talmud, is itself in a charming context: After studying together all day long, the rabbinic sages would not simply walk out of the Beit Midrash (the Study Hall) anticipating what meal they were about to eat, what chores they were going to engage, what childcare they were having to clean up after. No. They ritualized a loving and elevated way of blessing each other every time they parted. As the rabbinic sages emerged into the world, they walked out with the blessings of their colleagues ringing in their ears. And the blessing is four stanzas of three lines, beginning with:
May you see your world in your lifetime,
may your future be for the life of the world that is coming,
and your hope for generations of generations.
When I was a child one of the recurrent stories that I was told was Aesop's fable about the Grasshopper and the Ant. I was told the Jewish version of that story, in which the grasshopper is a no-good bum. He only lives for the moment; he only takes care of what his pleasures at the instant are, but that hard working and diligent ant, was the heroic one who put away for his retirement down the road. In my adult years I have imagined that the Buddhist telling of that story would have a very different spin. It would be that that crazy restless ant never enjoyed a single day in his life. For all we know he dies from a coronary before he is ever able to eat from the stuff he had put away for his retirement. Whereas, the grasshopper truly was mindful and lived in the moment, and therefore he enjoyed each and every day until he froze to death with the fall.
The genius of the rabbis is to point out this is an artificial dichotomy. If you live in the moment in such a way that you ignore the future which will surely come, then you will soon enough no longer be able to live in the moment. But if you allow yourself to be so consumed by fears of the future that you never truly inhabit the time that you live, your life will pass you by unlived. May you see your world in your lifetime. Now. Live in eternity in the moment, and may your future be for the world that is coming. Both.
The blessing continues:
May your heart meditate with understanding
and your mouths speak wisdoms (hokhmot).
May your tongue be moved to songs (rananot).
Not just wisdom, but wisdoms. Not just song, but songs. Because the rabbis are telling us that some wisdom is not just of the brain but also of the heart. It is a kind of knowing that can never be reduced to a single ideology, a single phrase, a single definition. It is not true that there is wisdom to be had; there are wisdoms to be embraced. And there is no one song that is the entire song of the world; rather, the world's symphony encompasses many songs, each with their own rhythm and notes.
May your eyelids look straight before you;
May your eyes shine with the light of the Torah,
your face be radiant, like the brightness of the firmament.
It is our job to attend to what is coming, to be open to the future, not with negativity, but with robust optimism. We are the heirs of the Prophets and the Sages of Israel. We have the capacity to meet the challenges of our time as did our mothers and fathers before us. We stand as their progeny today. And the Torah should make our eyes light up. We should shine with the capacity to learn, to teach, and to practice a tradition that has ennobled lives and sanctified communities and repaired the world throughout the millennia.
But my favorite line in that triad is the last: "Your face should be as radiant as the brightness of the firmament." Whose face was it the shone with light in the Torah? Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher. We are commanded, like Moses, to be radiant. And whose vision was it that caused Moses' face to shine? It was nothing less than seeing God's presence. The ancient rabbis are here telling us that if you look at the firmament as though you are seeing God, then your face will also shine. There is no place in the world that is not permeated with wonder, mystery, marvel and magic. If we discipline ourselves to see the divine sparkling through everywhere we look and everyone we meet, then we function as Moses and Miriam in our own age. And then our faces will also radiate with that light that is captured in Torah.
May your lips utter wisdom,
and your kidneys rejoice in righteousness.
May your steps run to hear the words of the Ancient of Days.
(In case you are wondering about the biological seat of our passion for justice -- according to ancient opinion, it's our kidneys!)
Use the gift of speech to advance wisdom in the world. If it is not wise, we have no business saying it. We each reflect God's image, and the gift of speech ought to be used to comfort and to embrace, to include, to rectify and to uplift. May your lips utter wisdom. May your innermost parts rejoice in righteousness, so that there is no injustice in our presence that we do not rise up to resist, so that we become a force for human decency in all of the relationships that we make possible.
And last of all, may your steps run to hear the words of the Ancient of Days.
It never fails that I open up a sefer (a book) and it feels to me like redemption is a paragraph away; like I am on the brink of uncovering a new world. My blessing for you, my blessing for us, is that we should never walk to hear the words of the Ancient of Days -- but run. Our running should be the expression of delight, expectancy and exaltation. I remember when my children were young and they would hear the sounds of their Abba's footsteps returning home. I would delight to hear the pitter-patter of little feet running to the door because their Abba was coming. Now they are teenagers, and I have a dog that runs to the door -- at least someone still does!
I invite us all to remain before our Father in Heaven, as a child in our enthusiasm, our wholeheartedness, and our devotion; to know that our cosmic Mother loves us with a vast and a deep love, and that we are always welcome at home, always embraced. I urge that our paths of return should be one of joyous running, because Abba is home, because Ema is just around the corner, waiting for our Torah, our teaching and our light.