05/14/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

'If I Am Here, All Is Here': A Rabbinic Ordination Address

The ordination of a class of rabbis is an act of abounding faith. We gather together, taking the future of our people, taking our covenant with God, firmly in hand. Because we believe in our people and because we believe in our God's covenant, we stand ready to reach with hope toward the future and to ordain a new group of rabbis, in the service of God, Torah, Israel and creation. Ordination offers a moment of exultation, and also a moment of no small trepidation. When we take this awesome power of forging another link in an ancient chain that stretches back to Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Rabbi, some painful questions intrude: Are we really good enough to do this? Are we pure enough? Are we holy enough? Has the Torah sufficiently gone through us to transform us into someone sufficiently righteous to stand before the community as a leader and role model? Won't our shortcomings become immediately apparent, and immediately visible?

I've been with that doubt, and one of the things that any observant Jew will attest to is that whatever you're thinking about, you will find staring back at you from the Torah portion -- sometimes in a helpful way. So it was no surprise to me, last spring, as we were wallowing in yet another reading about priestly ritual and priestly sacrifice -- inspiring to you as it is also to me -- that I came across a relevant and troubling passage: "No one of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect -- a mum -- shall be qualified to offer food to God; no one who has a mum -- a defect -- shall be qualified."

Now, I have been schooled in the historical method, and my first defense against troubling verses in the Torah is to quarantine them securely behind a historical context, so I began my contemplation using that approach. The Kohen/Priest in the Temple is to be a symbol of perfection, and therefore because the ritual is physical, his perfection must also be physical. And that perfection is understood by the biblical mind as shleimut -- as wholeness. Therefore, the Kohen can't be missing any part, because he has to symbolize that wholeness in the presence of God. Indeed, as the Torah goes on to state, "One who has a mum/defect shall not enter behind the curtain, nor come near the altar."

But history doesn't remove the problem here. Are we then saying that you can't draw near to God, you cannot serve on behalf of the community, if you have a mum, a defect? Is there anyone among us who is perfect? Is there anyone here -- or anywhere -- who doesn't, in fact, manifest not one mum but many? Is it possible that only those who are perfect are capable of serving God and of serving each other? Certainly, on a literal level, this has not been true in Jewish life. Our father Jacob limped his way into greatness. Moses spoke what are surely history's greatest speeches with a speech impediment. The Talmud is filled with great figures -- Nahum ish Gamzo, Rav Sheshet and others -- who, with their physical blemishes, perhaps because of them, went on to attain spiritual greatness. And then, theologically, certain it is that God is the only one who is perfect. Can it be, then, that only God can serve?

The Torah raises this question in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). "Is corruption then God's? No, God's children are the ones who are blemished." To which the rabbinic genius turns the verse around: "Even though they are full of blemishes, they are still God's children."

We are, God's children, blemishes, defects, imperfections and all, and we cannot afford to allow our shortcomings to prevent us from offering bold leadership, from taking the responsibility that is ours to do what good we can, to glorify Torah as we might. So I'd like to try to offer you a different percolation of that initial verse in the Bible. I'd like you to consider the fact that the one thing a person cannot ever truly have is a defect. A defect is a lack of something. How can you possibly possess that which you lack? What you have when you have a mum is not a lack -- you have the perception of lacking something. A mum is only possible if you construe yourself as somehow deficient.

A mum, then, is that lack which makes you feel incomplete. It is the part of some imaginary whole that cannot exist but in your mind. I would like to propose to you, then, that wholeness does not mean physical perfection. Indeed, shleimut/wholeness is not perfection of any kind. Shleimut means serving God with all your being, with the entirety of who you are, with leaving no part of yourself outside of the divine service -- "with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might." God doesn't demand of us that we apportion ourselves into little pieces, some parts of which are kosher, some parts of which are acceptable, some parts of which may be public and the rest must be hidden away. It is that hiding which is the mum, and a person with such a mum cannot serve the Holy One, and cannot stand before an imperfect community pretending to be perfect.

One can serve the Eternal only with the wholeness that comes from imperfection. With one's entire being, both positive traits and negative; as Rashi says, "with both your good and bad impulses." You can serve the Lord only if your entire history, your entire life, is brought with you into the divine service. Only if your mind and your heart and your soul are engaged passionately in the works that you do and, as we remind ourselves each Kol Nidrei, so that we can forget for yet another year, only if you bring with you your entire community -- not just the saints but the sinners too.

Perhaps then, the wholeness to which the Torah alludes is the willingness to stand in your entirety -- warts and all, defects and all -- and to offer them to God as a sacred service. Perhaps what the Torah is reminding us, then, is an insistence on a community that includes all of its members -- that makes none of them invisible, that asks none of them to step outside. Perhaps only that community is a community fit to offer sacrifice that God will accept.

We are charged, then, with a simple but awesome task:

Bring your entire being to the service of God and your fellow creatures. Leave no part of yourself outside. Leave no piece of yourself invisible. Be passionate in the service you offer as rabbis. The Talmud reminds us, "God wants the heart." Teach all whom you will serve that they, too, are precious, and that each one of them, because of their imperfections, are truly God's children. Teach them not to postpone encountering Torah, living mitzvot and rejoicing in God's love until the day that they are perfect -- such a day will never come. And besides, the Torah was not given to angels. We are all of us blemished; human wholeness does not come from some elusive perfection, but from the radical act of taking hold of our imperfections and offering even them. "In all your ways, know God."

It is recorded in Massekhet Sukkah that Hillel has the audacity to speak on God's behalf. I am going to take my cue from him and muster the audacity to mistranslate Hillel. God (if not Hillel) would want it that way. "'If I am here,' says God, 'all are here.'" Who knows, but that for God to be truly present, our all must also be truly present.

In all things, we can celebrate that presence, and inspire those whose lives we touch to feel that presence and to share their own.