The ACC board just concluded its Spring board meeting in Cincinnati, on the campus of HUC-JIR. We had an opportunity to participate in a wonderful concert at Plum Street Temple to honor Bonia Shur, to experience worship with the students as well as be exposed to some of the other resources there, amid the work of the board. The following are the remarks that I shared with the prayer community Monday morning in the Scheuer chapel, with student, faculty and our board.—Susan Caro, ACC president
It is my pleasure to be here with all of you this morning, to pray together in this sacred space, to have arranged the spring meeting of the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors to take place in these hallowed halls. Of course, for us Cantors, this exact place is not where we studied! But, the connection among the graduates of HUC is unmistakable, and the significance of those relationships I believe is further emphasized in this week’s Torah portion. I will speak more to that in a moment.
First, I want to acknowledge the amazing wisdom and inspiring coaching of our colleague and your instructor, Cantor Yvon Shore. She has been a steadfast leader amongst us her colleagues, so I can say with certainty how I know that she is a blessing to this institution, to the guidance and training of rabbinic students here in Cincinnati. She walks in footsteps laid for her by Cantor Sharon Kohn, who is also here this morning as she continues to serve on the ACC Executive Board. Both of them give great honor to Bonia Shur, who has been a dedicated composer of Jewish music for fifty years. He has contributed a broad wealth of music to our liturgy and sacred repertoire, and has ensured that on this campus of HUC that serious and significant Jewish music has great importance in Jewish life.
As I considered what message it would be that I would want to bring this morning, I kept returning to the importance of our work as klei kodesh, for of course that is ultimately why we are all in this exact moment and place together this morning. Yet, I couldn’t find a way to speak without some consideration of this week’s parsha. Tzav—one of those parshiyot on the list of 'oy, do I have to?' sections of Torah, I feel inspired by the challenge!
We all know that this week's parshah continues to explicate the details of the korbanot, the intricacies of rituals regarding blood, fire, water....Zot Torat ha-Olah...The ‘torah’—the ritual, special conditions.—the content of the powerful instructions we have received. Why these elements? What is it that draws them together, what is their inherent commonality that they are joined together in our most sacred ritual moments?
They are elements which are integral to our lives in many different regards. Interestingly, each of them have meaning in this powerful ceremony here, which I believe is no accident. Each piece - blood, fire, water, even the nature of power itself - are not inherently good or bad materials. They are only as good or as bad as how they are used and experienced. Blood gives life, but only when it is contained in its proper context. Fire can heat and cook, or it can burn and destroy. Water is an element of our bodies, needed to sustain life; we also know of its devastation and destruction. The use of these elements in an ancient daily ritual can still remind us today that what is important in our lives is how we conduct ourselves, the ways that we use our talents and our gifts for good and blessing, rather than causing hurt or harm. This is a critical element of spiritual leadership that is a continued gift from this parsha.
To emphasize this point, our ancient writers continue with a description of the ritual conferring leadership upon the kohanim. We are familiar with the details of the ritual; the piece that struck me most in my current reading was regarding the disposition of the ashes, the deshen.
R. Tzvi Hirsch Hakohen of Riminov is quoted in the collection Itturei Torah as asking, “How shall we understand the word deshen? It is ‘davar shelo nechshav’ - a thing of little substance, something potentially unworthy of our attention.” He then teaches: “The lesson is to lift and raise up everything that seems to you as small, of little value, and place it next to the altar, to make it a holy offering.”
Even the littlest thing that we do has the potential to be repaired and redeemed. Even ashes, which seem to have no spark of holy fire, must still be brought to a pure place. A basic principle of Chasidic teaching is that everything has the potential to be transformed into holiness. According to this ritual in Torah, it is through burning that transformation takes place. As spiritual leaders, we have to imagine that transformation. What is the process of burning that effects the transformation? For us, it must take place in our hearts, in our attitudes, in our orientation to the communities in which we work. We - the clergy leaders today - are the ones who are charged help to facilitate spiritual transformation in those whom we serve.
Sacred leadership, then, is not about being set apart from our people, but about discovering holiness in the most obscure of places and helping to render them as holy. We are taught this week to use the elements of ritual for good, to draw out their inherent goodness, and to attend regularly to the flames of this offering. The work of the priests was itself kodesh kodashim—in and of itself the holiest of holies, in the holiest of places. I urge us to always be mindful that it is our work together, cantors and rabbis, with all those who lead and partipciate in our communities, to keep those fires lit. We note this week that even the ashes—our ‘failures’—perhaps the programs that don’t succeed, the relationships that try our patience, the struggles that tug at our souls—those are not merely tossed out as trash, but rather are treated with care, relegated to a pure place, to a makom tahor, just outside the camp. The need to maintain a perpetual fire on the altar is for us a reminder as leaders today to keep God at the center of our work.
This conferral of leadership is very serious, filled with ritual. Although it was once designated by lineage, today it is given with great consideration to one who is willing to undergo the hard work, study and commitment, to one who will embrace that sacred responsibility. Each of you sitting here is at some point along this spiritual journey of commitment, of hitkorvut, drawing nearer to God and to our people in order to both offer oneself in sacred service and to be the shaliach - the support and inspiration for the community.
May our prayers together today embolden and sustain our spiritis, and may we never cease to experience the blessings of true partnership and collaboration amongst us in these sacred callings.