In what has to be a fairly unusual juxtaposition, I happen to have both a son and a son-in-law who are scheduled to be ordained as rabbis by the Jewish Theological Seminary this coming spring. My daughter-in-law was ordained by the Seminary not quite two years ago, and these impending new ordinations are creating a family that, as my son glibly offered, is “so stocked with clergy that it’s crazy.” In our wildest dreams, my wife and I never imagined that this would come to pass, but we are of course proud, and gratified by the obvious fact that our children found the lives we have led to be worthy of emulation.
One of the rites of passage of the senior year of Rabbinical School at JTS is called the Senior Sermon, when the perspective graduate addresses the congregation of the Seminary Synagogue and shows that he/she has learned how to conceive of, construct, and deliver a quality presentation on the weekly Torah portion.
Back in my day, thirty years ago, this sermon took place on Shabbat morning only, in the presence of a great many of the senior Seminary faculty who regularly frequented the Seminary synagogue. It was, to say the least, more than a little intimidating to stand in front of those great teachers and “play rabbi,” simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
Actually, my senior sermon took place on this very Shabbat, when we read the portion of Vayishlach in Genesis. Thirty years later, I think I can still recite large portions of that sermon out loud, owing to the amount of time I spent practicing it.
Today, the process has loosened up a bit, with most students opting to deliver this special sermon on a weekday afternoon as part of the Minchah service. It makes it much easier for family members to attend, and more of the student body tends to be in the building also.
So there I was, with my wife, children and children-in-law, sitting like ducks in a row in the Seminary Synagogue to hear our son’s Senior Sermon. Friends from our community had come, which was so touching for us and for him, and of course his in-laws were there too, along with our other in-laws who had come in to be a part of the experience. It was a great family event, and needless to say, we all “shepped the requisite nachas.”
But I can’t help but sense that what my wife and I were feeling- probably me a bit more than her- was deeper, and more profound.
Of course we shared the pride in our son’s accomplishment, and I don’t think I would have been surprised if a heavenly choir had descended and burst into a chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset.” It was the quintessence of that kind of a moment, an unavoidable announcement of a changing of the guard.
I’m not quite ready yet to exit the stage of my own rabbinate, but still, our son’s ordination was a clear signal that a new generation was rising to do what new generations do- tell the older one to move over and let them do it their way, and maybe better. It’s a story as old as time itself, and the very inevitability of its unfolding is as meaningful as it is inevitable.
But side by side with this understandable sentiment was a religious insight about the transmission of Torah, and the raising of a new generation of teachers to facilitate it. Those of us who do this work professionally don’t often allow ourselves the luxury of taking a step back from our work to contemplate its significance.
My son’s Senior Sermon provided me with exactly such a moment. Sitting in that room, hearing his voice- so similar to mine!- teaching and preaching the tradition that has been such an integral part of my life, watching his twenty-month-old daughter comfortably make her way around the synagogue… it was an extraordinarily special moment.
I’ve been searching for the right word to describe it, and only now do I realize that the word I was looking for was so obvious. It was a sacred moment. I felt an almost palpable sense of kedushah- of holiness- as I listened to my son teach his own Torah, in his own words.
I can only wish that feeling on all of you who are reading this. Those kinds of moments are few and far between in this life, and when they happen- they are to be treasured.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation