It was an honor to give the ordination speech to the 2018 graduating class of rabbis at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Below is a speech I am very proud of and wanted to share with you. We can learn a lot from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakki as when he stated “ten li Yavneh v’chachamecha.”
Ten li Yavneh v’chachamecha. Give me Yavneh and its scholars. They are among the most significant words uttered in Jewish history.
As the Romans prepared to destroy Jerusalem — a city already embroiled in factionalism, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai requested of the Roman general — ten li Yavneh v’chachamecha. Give me Yavneh and its scholars.
All of you who are being ordained — Max, Daniel, Lori, Abby, Laura, Daniel and Jeff — you know this story. But today, I ask you to see it — not just as the origin story for rabbinic Judaism emerging out of Jerusalem’s ashes. As you stand on the cusp of leading our people, I ask you to step into Yochanan’s shoes. Imagine the chaos and the fear in those final days of the Temple. Imagine what Yochanan faced without 2,000 years of hindsight.
Some condemned him for his request for Yavneh and its scholars. ‘He should have said to [the general], “Let [the Jews] off this time.”’ But the Talmudic sages rush to his defense. They explain that asking for all of Jerusalem would leave him with nothing — so Yochanan asked for something more modest — the backwater town of Yavneh and its scholars.
But in actuality, his ask was not modest at all — in that one breath, he consciously chose to break from the past and fundamentally shift the Jewish future.
Yochanan did this not because he saw the Romans as unwilling to save Jerusalem. He saw Jerusalem as unwilling to save itself. The status quo so shackled the people of Jerusalem that they became passive bystanders to their own destruction.
In that critical moment, another rabbi Rabbi Zecharia chose the status quo. When he refused to offer the Romans’ gift as a sacrifice because of a minor blemish, he knew the consequence. He knew he would escalate tensions with the Roman authorities. But, he believed there is a way we have always done our sacrifices — that was not to altered no matter the circumstance.
In that critical moment, even Yochanan’s own nephew — Abba Sikra chose the status quo of his own little group. As leader of the zealots, he failed to change course from violently fueling rebellion against the Romans. “What can I do? If I say anything to them, they will kill me!” He refused to stand up — not because he believed their terrorism justified but because he didn’t want to go against the grain.
Yochanan found himself in a world yoked by conventional wisdom and moral cowardice. He chose to break out of the familiar and step into the unknown. He chose chutzpah.
Ten li yavneh v’chachamecha.
Give me Yavneh and its scholars.
Imagine how alone Yochanan must have felt in reaching that conclusion. How terrifying it must have been to utter those words — knowing that future generations could lay the destruction of Jerusalem at his feet — putting all his faith in a rag-tag bunch of Jewish scholars in some backwater town — in an idea untested, yet unrealized.
He had moments of doubt, to be sure. On his deathbed, he began to weep. “Two paths are before me, one to Gan Eden and the other to Gehinnom and I do not know upon which I am to be led — shall I not weep?” He could not help but ask himself,”Did I make the right decision?”.
Being a visionary does not eliminate doubt. It actually fuels it. Yochanan knew that he could have gotten it wrong. But as much as he questioned his choice, he understood that the greater risk was in the status quo.
In your rabbinate, you will learn the power that the status quo can hold over our community. You will learn that sometimes, we conflate conventional wisdom with Torah mi’Sinai. You will feel it in a committee meeting when they tell you that’s not how it’s done here. You will feel it in the feedback from a controversial sermon you deliver or article you publish. You will feel it when they tell you all the reasons your new vision won’t work. I certainly felt it in every accusation of naivete and self-hatred for my work in Muslim-Jewish relations.
But I have also witnessed conventional wisdom dissolve in front of me. As we built real resilient relationships between Muslims and Jews, this new reality supplanted the conventional wisdom that relations between Jews and Muslims are inherently toxic. That those who engage with the Other risk poisoning… and…. subsequent isolation from their own community.
I began to understand that the truths that our community tells itself are truths born out of the last 50 years. And they may have been true for the last 50 years… or even longer. But they will not be the truths for the next 50 years.
That realization was profoundly liberating. But that realization is also terrifying. Because it means that nobody actually knows where we’re going. Nobody knows what’s next.
It means that you may in fact be the one with the insight to get us to the next stage of ourselves. That you may find yourself in the same place as Yochanan ben Zakkai — understanding a truth that the rest of the community has not yet embraced. That you just may be called by circumstance and by conscience to be the first to step into a void.
If you’re waiting for someone to grant you permission, you will wait indefinitely before Kafka’s gatekeeper. The gate exists for you and you alone to walk through. You will be tempted to blame others for preventing your passage to the other side. Because they said no. Or criticized you. Or dismissed you. Or challenged you. But ultimately — you, and you alone, choose whether to cross that threshold into the unknown.
Dr. Adler reminds us that our people are called Ivrim for a reason. “Sometimes, I am supposed to be a boundary crosser, an ivri, to go forth as Abraham and Sarah did to a land they did not know.” We walk in the borderlands. There are times when we uphold boundaries. But often, we cross them. We resituate them. We redraw the boundaries. It’s not always clear what action to choose when you walk in the borderlands. But if everytime, the action you choose is to reinforce the boundary, you are not living up to your calling as an ivri.
Our world as ivrim today differs only in degree, not substance from the world of Yochanan ben Zakkai. We too are at a moment of intense factionalism and polarization. We know that the truths of the past will not be the same truths of the future. We know that the institutions that serve our community need to drastically transform or risk death by a drawn-out demise.
It is a truth that Rabbi Aaron Panken understood in his leadership of the College-Institute. Our joy today is pierced with the pain of his absence — the reality that your moment under the chuppah will not have the chatimah of his kiss on your forehead. But you carry his legacy with you into that most sacred moment and into your rabbinate.
Because Rabbi Panken shared Yochanan ben Zakkai’s essence in the way he forged ahead with ideas not yet fully embraced the community as a whole — with his focus on building new programs and an emphasis on entrepreneurship over institutionalism and partnership over territorialism. “Questioning,” he said, “helps make our institutions better. Sometimes incrementally, sometimes exponentially.” He was right. And today, he was going to say to you Da lifnei mi atah omed. Know before whom you stand. And That knowing before whom you stand — implies being willing to take a stand. Be willing to take a stand. He is not here to share those words with you. But you are here to carry his words… and his memory with you.
Your rabbinate will be defined by those moments when you take a stand — when you shrug off the yoke of the status quo, and halt the momentum of conventional wisdom. When you draw upon every ounce of courage and chutzpah to take a stand for a vision others might not yet see.
When you are called by circumstance and by conscience to push us beyond the status quo, I know this for sure — It will be terrifying. It will be hard. You will disappoint people. You will have doubt. It will be lonely. But all of that means you’re doing it right. To be a leader, as I have learned from adaptive leadership, is “to disappoint your own people… at a tolerable pace… for a purpose.”
To be a leader is to disappoint your own people… at a tolerable pace… for a purpose. There is pain and loss in transformation. As a leader — you must not only provide vision for the future, but you must hold people as they mourn the changes from their past because the past cannot be the future… You must carry them with compassion into the unknown alongside you.
It is not enough to serve the Jewish people. We need you to lead us. We need you to trust yourself enough to push through the fear, the hardship, the disappointment, the doubt and the loneliness. We are counting on you to recognize the moment when you are called — by circumstance and by conscience — to stand up and say, Ten li Yavneh v’chachamecha.”
– Rabbi Sarah Bassin