Creating a Makom Torah
Rabbi Sarah Shulman, a recently ordained Rabbi, was one of our first staff members. This summer, she is the Director of Camp Ramah in Northern California for their inaugural summer. We are so proud to have had Sarah as one of our founding staff members, and of the great work she will continue doing at Ramah Galim. This is the speech she gave at her ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.
Makom Torah, an Ordination Speech by Rabbi Sarah Schulman
Thank you all for sharing this priceless moment with my classmates and I in this place of Torah, for helping us to reach it, and for sustaining us so we could reap from it. A special thanks to those who have traveled from out of town to celebrate with us and the Jewish community tonight. On a personal note: Laura and Gary, Ramah leaders, TRZ community, close friends and family – you are up here with me.
Classmates, hevre, this is a moment to cherish and a moment where our past meets our future. Ten years ago I was on a much different path and so were you. Like many of you, I have found myself reflecting in the last few weeks as I prepare for ordination and for the next chapter in my life as a rabbi on what I would say to myself of 10 years ago. What blessings and truths do I carry with me today that I would offer to her and other young people in her generation as guidance?
In response, I offer a letter I have written to each of our former selves, to the younger men and woman who were driven to succeed, who had all the tools to succeed, but were without the companionship, grounding, perspective, or Torah to find genuine success. We had knowledge, we had passion, and yet many of us also had profound loneliness or aimlessness, whether we then recognized it or not.
I direct this letter to each of our former selves AND to each and every person in this tent regardless of age or background because there is a younger person within each of us and within each of our families who is a little lost or alone. We all have questions; we all have doubts; we all at times need the compass of Torah.
Dear younger Danny, younger Mathew, younger Jeremy, younger Nolan, younger Josh, younger Jeremy, younger Becca, younger Adir, and younger Sarah,
Stick with it, honey. You’re going to right this course. Believe us, we know because we have lived it. You’ve come into adulthood striving to find your way, striving to be successful in the footsteps of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Larry Paige because these innovators are the heroes of our time. Yet the narrative about success that you have internalized as truth about an individual’s search for a brilliant idea to save the world is not the only path out there to success or happiness or meaning.
Indeed, we have grown up with a narrative emphasized by the success of Google and Facebook and a few dozen other start-ups that inspires us to seek powerful ideas and with them, powerful positions. But we need to know that this narrative of success misrepresents reality for the vast majority of us on this planet. This is a fairytale about one person cultivating the brilliant idea that changes the world.
Each of you will indeed birth important ideas – as teachers, founders of new camps, communities, movies and podcasts, and as creative human beings. But nevertheless something critical is missing from this narrative. What is missing from this story (and from our ideal of success) is other people.
I’d like to offer an alternative narrative, and with it a path out of a present stuckness. Because although you have spent the first decades of your life chasing ideas, it hasn’t been enough, has it? Though knowledge has gotten you far, it has not helped you answer your big questions about life. It has not helped reveal a sense of purpose or quelled loneliness. And it won’t be enough in 10 years time either to navigate hate crimes, violence in Israel, ISIS attacks, or the trials and tribulations of illness. It’s time for a new operative paradigm in life.
Thankfully, Jewish tradition offers a vital counter-narrative to the uber-idea-man fairytale, one articulated in Mishnah Avot chapter 4 (and in your future ordination program in 10 years): Rabbi Nehorai teaches:
הֱוֵי גוֹלֶה לִמְקוֹם תּוֹרָה וְאַל תֹּאמַר שֶׁהִיא תָבוֹא אַחֲרֶיךָ, שֶׁחֲבֵרֶיךָ יְקַיְּמוּהָ בְיָדֶךָ. וְאֶל בִּינָתְךָ אַל תִּשָּׁעֵן.
Uproot yourself to live in a place of Torah, and do not say that it will come to you. For your hevre will make it stick with you. So do not rely on your own understanding.
This text offers a different road to success. It invites us to leave – as did Abraham and Sarah, the Israelites from Egypt, and the Jews of Rabbi Nehorai’s generation following the destruction of the Temple – what is familiar behind, to actively embrace change in our circumstances, our surroundings, and in ourselves. Go find a makom Torah, a deeply rewarding place to learn and a space for relationships. According to 16th century Rabbi Almosnino, this means a place where the atmosphere, surroundings, and community are pervaded by Torah. It’s not just a place; its other people. It’s time for each of us to consider where we need to go and who we need to seek out to gather the wisdom to collectively serve the world.
If you do, you’ll be grateful to find many places of Torah in schools, synagogues, the beit midrash, camp, and in the arms of spouses and partners, friends and children from Los Angeles to Jerusalem that offer an essential sense of learning, connection, and solidarity.
In the precious makom Torah that is housed within American Jewish University you’ll find other people who will change your life. For your journey is not over by discovering a place of learning, rather it is your future classmates and teachers who complete this new paradigm. According to Rabbi Nehorai, it is your hevre, or the colleagues, friends, family, and mentors around you who support your growth and guide you to find meaning and purpose in your work in this world. “Do not rely on your own understanding” because change is not about one person coming up with an idea that changes the world; rather real change is and has always been about changing the nature of our relationships in this world. Who is wise, Ben Zoma asked? Our tradition answers: The one who learns from every other person. You have already learned so much from your families and teachers up until this point. And now what your new hevre will give you is the training to become an inspiration and a companion who also others find and create m’komot Torah in our communities. I cannot even describe to you how much you will benefit from the teaching and spiritual guidance of your future rabbis, mentors, family, and friends within the walls of rabbinical school and beyond its borders. They will show you that the act of Torah is not complete without the love of others.
You may be wondering, what is the cost of not switching to this alternative narrative? The Talmud in Shabbat 147b tells us about Rabbi Eleazar ben Arak, who went off on his own to the waters of Diomsith, determined to pursue his learning and ideas without others. What was the result? It was neither success nor satisfaction. Rather he lost his Torah, he lost a grip on his learning. It wasn’t until his colleagues assembled to pray for him that his learning and equilibrium returned to him. This is how the second half of Rabbi Nehorai’s teaching is a commentary on the first. It’s not enough to find a place of Torah, but you must share it with others and let others share it with you, or you may end up in dark, lonely waters.
The rabbi you’ll each strive to be, and frankly, the rabbis that the Jewish community will most need, are not just idea generators but community generators; not just people of Torah but democratizers of Torah; not just priests or prophets but teachers, and all different kinds of teachers. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us: Moses himself could have been called many things. But what did they call him? They did not call him “Moses the liberator,” “the lawgiver,” “the prophet,” or “the hero.” Though he was all those things. Jewish tradition called him none of those things. When Jewish people wanted to give him the highest honor they called him, “Moses our teacher.” To be a teacher in Judaism is the highest honor” for to be a teacher is to lovingly connect Torah with other people, giving and receiving. Nolan and Becca, Jeremy and Josh, Adir and Danny, Mathew, Jeremy, and Sarah: be patient because one day you will have the opportunity to teach from the deepest place within you and use that place to guide and inspire a future generation of young searching souls. One day you will look back on your former self and feel proud of every step you took and every hand you held along the way to get from the narrow bridge to the bimah.
Your older and wiser, but humble Rabbi selves
[Turning to the whole tent]
On the one hand this is a message to the younger version of our nine new rabbis tonight, but really it is for each one of us. For at times we are all lost or fearful, at times we are all caught up in a narrow image of success for ourselves or for our children that neither serves us or them. The affirmation of Jewish life is that we never have to take this journey alone. The promise land is a place for a whole people. In it there are no prizes or plaques, no pats on the back or six figure pay checks but there are arms to hold you and teachers to guide you and the laughter flows like milk and honey. It is no coincidence that one of the names of God is Hamakom, “the place” – for we find God in our lives in those holy places where we sit across from another and listen.
So I invite each of us to consider, what is your makom Torah, what is the place of learning and the people of learning that you need right now in your life? And what is stopping you from seeking them out tomorrow?
I bless each of us with the courage to let go of going it alone and to instead seek out the people and places in our lives that inspire us to collect, to personalize, and to share our own precious Torah with others. May we all find a place of learning that inspires and challenges us, and through it may we join one another to build and bridge communities; break down boundaries and borders; actualize shared ideas and heal one another.