Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz, 7th of July 2013
How does one fit a journey of twenty years of dreaming, ten years of preparing and five years of studying at rabbinical school into a 600-word Ordination Address? Through the Talmudic way, of course, by telling a story. Or reading out a snippet of a very old letter.
“26th of June, 1823, Sweetheart! Dearest darling! …With great help [from God], I was able to preach this past Sunday on Hosea 11:9, ‘for I am God, and not a man.’ Because my colleagues... preached before me, I had a small audience by comparison and when it came to collecting the offertory, I was the least among my brethren… May it make me humble before God and man!”
This was a letter from my great-great-grandfather, Petrus Hugenholtz, to his beloved wife, Christina. Born in 1766, he is one of my paternal ancestors and a link in a long chain of Protestant ministers from my family, a theological dynasty. This family tradition was started when the first Hugenholtz was ordained to the ministry in 1718, perpetuating a 250 year-old tradition, which I am proud to reclaim and continue today. By sermonising on the divinity, rather than the humanity, of God in the book of Hosea, my great-great-grandfather laid the foundation for my own journey into both Judaism and the rabbinate. I’d like to think that they were almost Jews. All I am doing here is finishing the job!
We are all on a journey: my beloved classmates, my esteemed teachers, my dearest family and friends. Journeys loom large in our tradition, starting with Avraham Avinu who was told to leave his homeland to heed a strange calling. But journeys cannot take place without a sense of direction and a calibrated compass pointing towards our deepest values. Nor can journeys be completed without wind in our sails or the anchor that keeps us grounded: the invaluable human relationships that push us on.
My sense of direction is rooted in history: that of my family, my personal narrative and my Jewish community. As Bob Marley sang, ‘we know where we’re going, we know where we’re from.’ This deep sense of knowing – cognitively and existentially – is what provides us with focus. At the same time, my loved ones blew the wind in my sails for journeys are never made in isolation.
The Talmud in Tractate Ketubot 63a tells the story of how the learned and pious Rabbi Akiva came to his position. It was to the credit of his wife, Rachel, who sent him to study at the Beit Midrash for twenty four years. It was her humility, love and vision that drove him on.
When Rabbi Akiva returned with 24,000 disciples, he knelt before his long-suffering wife and kissed her feet, uttering, ‘sheli v’shelachem, shelah hu’ – ‘what is mine and what is yours, is hers.’
My beloved husband, too, made many sacrifices for me to be able to complete today’s journey. We spent a total of four years apart. He believed in me as we navigated this journey with our shared compass. Like my great-great-grandfather Petrus Hugenholtz, I wrote my husband many a letter throughout rabbinical school. And like him, I will say: ‘sweatheart, dearest darling – what is mine, is yours’.
How can I fit such a journey and my feelings of gratitude in such a small space? ‘Kosi revayah’ - my cup overflows (Ps. 23:5). May I remain humble before God and people as I follow the path of my ancestors and serve my community, trusting that, in the same words of Hosea, ‘the Holy One is among us and that we shall walk after Him’ (Hosea 11:9-10). In the words of Rabbi Leo Baeck: ‘our God waits for us.’ Ken yehi ratzon.