My Shlichut (Mission) - Goodbye Sermon, Sinai Synagogue, Leeds
Parashat Chukkat 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
My Shlichut (Mission)
It sounds shockingly definite to utter these words and I say them with considerable melancholy but this will be my last sermon at Sinai. Goodbyes can’t be said without thank you’s and I’m at a loss at how to say thank you to a community that has come to mean so much to me. I remember setting foot in this building in 2011 as a 4th Year Student Rabbi thinking ‘woah, 1970’s décor!’ Soon after, I discovered how warm and close-knit the community was and I loved you even more after being part of the ‘Oy Factor’. Before I knew it, I was the Assistant and (later) Associate Rabbi of Sinai Synagogue, in God’s own County. As I was mulling over in my head how I could do justice to thanking Sinai – both individually and collectively – and the wider Jewish community in Leeds, I thought that I do so by what doing what I love best: teaching Torah.
A first pulpit is the mother of all first rabbinic experiences, a ‘shehecheyanu’ moment never far from your lips. Some of these firsts are exhilarating, others are heart-wrenching. First weddings, circumcisions, funerals but also deathbed visits. Becoming part of the weaving of lives into a new tapestry that grows each year.
Out of all the experiences that have shaped me most as a rabbi (including Board meetings and I will say no more about them!) is the experience and confidence of finding my voice. It is a community’s incredible contribution to their rabbi to aid them in that holy task; to help excavate piece by piece the kind of rabbi I strive to be and the kind of Torah I seek to teach. What Sinai has cemented in me is my deep sense of shlichut.
I don’t use that word lightly and it is a word that comes with specific connotations in the contemporary Jewish landscape. We think of shlichim either as the enthusiastic workers of the Jewish Agency who cultivate the relationship between the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, or perhaps more controversially, the outreach efforts of the Chabad-Lubavitsch movement. Even so, the word shlichut is deeply embedded in our Jewish language. Just think of the ‘shaliach or shlichat tzibbur’, the prayer leader, a word we frequently use.
At its root – shin, lamed, chet – the word means ‘to send’ and a shaliach (or shlichah) is often translated as messenger or emissary: in the plainest understanding, one who brings a message. This translation leaves me lukewarm. After all, is a shaliach nothing more than the Jewish version of Amazon Prime or Deliveroo – a transactional term where Judaism is reduced to something bite-sized and easily digestible? Alternatively, we could also translate shaliach as a representative or a diplomat. This too feels too parve.
In Judaism, one’s shlichut is and should be all-consuming. It’s not a job or a profession. It is a deep, transformative calling that shapes not only the recipients of shlichut but also the shlichah herself. Slhichut is directional, bold, brave, at times confrontational. It is prophetic, gritty, frightening and exhilarating all at once. When I think of shlichut, I think of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, who heard the call to leave his father’s house, the place of his birth, for a destiny that was still an unknown quantity. I think of Jonah who tried to wrest free by sailing to Tarshish rather than ministering to Nineveh, who was as resistant as Abraham was eager, and yet like Abraham was deeply transformed in the process. Only recently did we read Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, ‘send from yourself’, reminiscent of Abraham’s ‘Lech Lecha’, ‘go into yourself’. We witnessed the narrative of the Spies; of bravery and cowardice, of paralyzing despair and audacious hope. Last but not least, the shlichut of Moses and Aaron. The Torah is crystal clear: Moses is sent – and this root word shin-lamed-chet gets repeated again and again and again – on his daunting but foundational mission.
That brings me, controversially perhaps, to my preferred translation of shlichut, even if it isn’t etymologically quite accurate. Consider it a midrashic translation. In our context, I would translate shlichut as ‘mission’. The word ‘mission’ has that focus, intentionality, vision and dynamism that I’m looking for as descriptors for how I feel about my rabbinate, irrespective of whether I have managed to live up to those ideals.
My mission as a rabbi is to bring Torah to those who wish to receive it, either through the privilege and good fortune of their heritage or the dedication and exploration of choice. It is my mission to teach a Torat Chesed, a Torah of gracious compassion that is rooted in ancient truths while adapting to the modern age. I strive for a Judaism that is open; that offers the dignity and comfort of inclusivity and the chutzpah to push boundaries, that is passionate about repairing the world and sincere about transforming the self. In the words of Psalm 146, that ‘does justice for the exploited, feeds the hungry, frees the bound, gives sight to the blind, raises the bowed down, that protects the stranger, orphan and widow.’ My mission is to demonstrate how much Judaism has given to the world and to celebrate all Judaism still could be: a unparalleled global religious civilization spanning continents and millennia. I hope to bring a Judaism of joy and irreverence, of questioning and arguing, of humility and perspective, of devotion and service. A Judaism that will never abdicate that fundamental truth that all human beings are created equally in the Image of God, knowing that from this our redemption flows.
Like Miriam’s well in the desert in Parashat Chukkat, I see Judaism’s mission as quenching people’s thirst for meaning and morality, community and connection, God-wrestling and God-consciousness. Water in our tradition is an oft-used metaphor for God, Torah and sacred living.
From ‘mikveh Yisrael’ and ‘m’kor mayyim chayyim’, ‘the Hope of Israel’ and ‘Fount of Living Waters’ in Jeremiah (17:13) and the sprinkling of ‘mayyim tehorim’, ‘pure waters’ that cleans the soul and transform the heart in Ezekiel (36:25) to the joyful drawing of the ‘ma’anei hayeshua’, ‘wells of salvation’ of Isaiah, a text we recite weekly during Havdalah. Water has the unique property to fulfill both physical and emotional needs, it cleanses the body and sooths the soul. Water is transformative; it is intended to leave you affected. And the absence of water, as the Children of Israel discovered soon upon Miriam’s death and the drying up of her well, is an arresting experience all the same.
‘V’lo hayah mayyim le’edah vayekahelu al Moshe v’al Aharon’ – ‘And the congregation was without water and they gathered against Moses and Aaron.’ (Numbers 20:2). Only one verse earlier, Miriam has died. Only one verse later, and the community falls into despair, accusing Moses of bringing them into the wilderness for certain death. ‘U’mayyim ein lishtot!’ – ‘and there is no water to drink!’ they lament.
Our tradition’s sources bring forth ancient waters and rabbis play only a small part in this great endeavour. A deep calling is not to be confused with arrogance or the absolution of the self. On the contrary: all rabbis, myself included, struggle with our inadequacies but we also trust in grace: of both God and the communities we serve.
It has been my privilege to serve you. I make no apologies for my shlichut, and I too straddle that post-modern line of being at once wholly devoted to it as well as constantly engaging in its critical assessment.
You have been kind, forgiving and dare I say welcoming of me and my passions, pet peeves and idiosyncrasies. My positive, empowering experiences here are too numerous to recount, but each and every one of them has shaped me, strengthened me, challenged me and encouraged me. In return then, in gratitude to you and to God, it is my hope and blessing that you will continue to feel nourished by your Judaism.
We are all on a journey. The difference between the wanderer and the emissary is intention and direction, both encapsulated in the word kavannah. May you be blessed to turn your Jewish wanderings into sacred journeys, however you live your Judaism: secular or religious, cultural or familial, through birth or choice. Charge yourself to live it full of joy and meaning. May all of you at Sinai Synagogue be blessed by a strong sense of shlichut, knowing and trusting that your well will never run dry. May you continue to build up Jewish homes, welcome strangers, repair the world and strengthen the hands and hearts of your rabbis in this very brown and very 1970’s décor (it grows on you over time!)
Thank you for being part of my life and part of my family’s life. Thank you. God bless you all.