Heartland (Installation Sermon, Tazria-Metzora, 2018)

From left to right: Rabbi Henry Karp, Emeritus Rabbi Quad Cities, Rabbi Jeffrey Lipschultz, Rabbi Rock TriCity Jewish Center, Rabbi Dr. Jackie Tabick, Convenor of the European Reform Beit Din, Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz, Rabbi Agudas Achim Congregation and Rabbi Jeffrey Portman, Emeritus Rabbi Agudas Achim
Installation Sermon Agudas Achim (Parashat Tazria-Metzora)

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Heartland

Now that I live in the United States of America, and in the Midwest, to be specific, a lot of things have started to make sense.

Perhaps my most enduring observation now that I live in the American heartland is the size of this country. When my husband and I drive to Wisconsin for a short Spring break vacation, we were kvetching that in the time it took for us to cross state lines, we would have crossed three national borders in Europe.

America’s size is a shaper of destinies. It indelibly affects perceptions, behavior and relationships. It influences how identities are constructed and boundaries are negotiated. It intimately affects our personal journeys of wandering and rootedness. Being in the heartland of the United States has affected me too: the expansiveness of the corn fields, the friendliness of towns and villages that historically faced the harsh elements together and the self-definitions of our plucky Jewish communities including our non-Jewish friends, family and spouses who are an inextricable part of us.

There is something essential about contemplating the boundary: that liminal space of change, transition and innovation.

The place that sometimes can be a narrow place where we can feel anxious: anxious about navigating our Jewish identity in a non-Jewish majority culture. Anxious about the demographic challenges and affiliation rates of our community. Ultimately, we have the power to reframe: will the builder refuse the stone or make it the corner stone? Are we tempted to build up walls or are we called to open doors? Do we see the boundary as the periphery or as the cutting edge? Can we believe in the sacred osmosis of the Jewish message?
I have been privileged to serve as your rabbi in the heartland of Iowa for nine months and it has been meaningful and empowering to see my American rabbinate gestate. This community and the Iowa City community we are part of has inevitably charmed me with grit and grace and I couldn’t be more grateful for the many kindnesses you have shown me. It’s been an honor to be so graciously invited into your stories and lives. Another gift you have given me is to hone my sense of self and my mission as your rabbi. You Americans are very good at that: at being mission-driven, spiritually entrepreneurial and transmuting obstacles into opportunities. ‘Min ha’meitzar karati Yah, anani be’merchav Yah’, the Psalmist sings, ‘from the narrows, I have called upon Yah, and Yah answered me in expansiveness’ (Psalm 118:5). If anything, being in the fertile heartland has taught me lessons of growth, of opportunity, of moving from scarcity into embracing abundance.
When we chose the date of this Installation Weekend, our considerations were certainly not the Weekly Torah Portion – otherwise we certainly would not have selected Tazria-Metzora, the bane of B’nei Mitzvah students and nemesis of rabbis. Yet, we can always find Torah within the Torah, no matter how arcane. Hence, I would invite us to focus on the ideas behind Tazria-Metzora which speak to our experience of liminality: of being ‘mi’chutz lamachaneh’, ‘outside of the camp’. In a difficult passage discussing skin lesions that are part of tza’arat (leprosy being a poor translation), the Torah advises the priest to isolate the afflicted from the Israelite community: ‘…his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover his upper lip; and he shall call out ‘tame, tame’ - ‘impure, impure!’…Being impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp’ – ‘badad yeshev michutz lamachaneh moshavo’. (Lev. 13:45-46). Both the Talmud and Rashi try to mitigate the harshness of the verse by offering alternative explanations. According to Tractate Mo’ed Katan 5a, the afflicted loudly announces his impurity in order to solicit prayers of healing and compassion. According to Rashi, the practice of covering part of the face is is done ‘ke’avel’, like a mourner. How can the Torah sensitize us to the plight of the isolated? Perhaps that isolation – the act of being pushed beyond the boundary – is like a brush with death: that the true affliction is emotional pain caused by exclusion.
Perhaps we learn that healthy boundaries should never feed moral hysteria and exclusivism. The ‘tzarua’, the afflicted, teaches us what it is like to perilously balance between in-and-out, and speaks to our need for sacred osmosis: drawing people in, nourishing those on the outside and inviting them to be part of an inclusive community. Of meeting people where they are at and allowing people to name their pain and loneliness and to bless and heal them, as the Priesthood of yore would, ‘be’ahavah’, with love.
Who are in our ‘machaneh’, (camp) and who are out? I believe this is one of the most pressing questions of our Jewish community and of the rabbinate. The heartland can help us find an answer, where the periphery is the edge, where we celebrate building an open Jewish home with radiant windows and welcoming doors. This is my mission: to be a rabbi in the expansiveness and abundance of the modern era, to be a rabbi to all who wish me to be their rabbi: Jew and Gentile alike. To share Torah with all who wish to drink from its fount. To be a voice for the integrity of the tradition, to articulate in favor of its authenticity and support its innovation and creativity.

I would like to end my sermon with a snippet from my parting sermon which I delivered when I left my previous congregation in the United Kingdom that I had joyfully served for four years.

I look back with great love, fondness and gratitude on the time I trained and worked in England and I am deeply indebted to the British Jewish community for training, ordaining, employing and shaping me; for the friendships and connections that last to this day. We rabbis are not just wanderers – there is no accident to our journey – we are explorers and emissaries. These gifts accompany me into the heartland, and I stand by these words:

“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.”

Thank you, Agudas Achim, for welcoming our family into your ‘machaneh’. Thank you for giving me your heart for encouraging me in my sacred service of you as your new rabbi and spiritual leadership. To continue in the spirit of the Psalmist: ‘zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nishmecha bo’ – ‘this is the day that the Eternal has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.’

At this moment, I feel only profound joy and rich abundance.

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