Shemot 5780: Installation of Rabbi Alexis Berk, Temple Solel, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California
What does it mean to be called to spiritual leadership?
You might suppose that we rabbis and cantors would have this question all figured out.
You’d be wrong.
Twenty years ago this June, when Alexis and I presented ourselves for rabbinical ordination in Cincinnati, Ohio—she, just two minutes before me, “Berk” before “Blake”… and “Buchdahl” would have been next, had she come to the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College, like she was supposed to, instead of running off to New York to become a cantor AND a rabbi, the show-off—twenty years ago, Alexis and Angela and I probably thought we had it all figured out, too, what it means to be called to spiritual leadership.
We love Judaism; we love learning and teaching Torah, leading and participating in prayer, Jewish music and culture, holidays and rituals. We love Shabbat. We love public speaking even when you do not love that we love public speaking. We love the Jewish people—quirks and all. We love the non-Jewish people who find their way into our synagogues and homes. We love a good Talmudic debate. We love questions more than we crave answers. Alexis especially – Rabbi Berk loves questions. You should ask her about that, sometime.
But, you know, time goes by, and all the reasons that impel a person to choose this path, to choose, willingly, to lead a congregation, to put up with the long hours and more than a few kvetches (one of those aforementioned quirks of the Jewish people), begin to grow hazy. You get consumed in the day-to-day. You realize that it’s not all holy moments, the weddings and B’nei Mitzvah, the solemn rites of passage, the sacred encounters at hospital bedsides, or by the grave, to give comfort in moments of need. It’s also board meetings and budgets, the mom who can’t abide her kid’s Bar Mitzvah date; it’s Rosh Ha-Shanah falling on your birthday and Shavuot on your anniversary and a Bat Mitzvah on your kid’s dance recital, and, well….
Well, the flame that used to burn bright and clear as a noonday sun, begins to flicker, maybe even fade. And that’s when you really need to pay attention and figure out what it means to be called to spiritual leadership—again and again—so that, twenty years into your rabbinate or cantorate, thirty years, forty, maybe even more, you can still hear the call.
And so it is that Rabbi Alexis Berk has been called to Temple Solel, called to serve as your spiritual leader. Yes, there was a process—a thorough process. To your rabbinic search committee, let me say: Excellent, excellent choice.
And yes, there’s the allure of the location; arriving here in the middle of January makes me question the sanity of living in New York altogether. And yes, there’s the fact that Temple Solel is a special congregation; I know you’ve already figured this out, but Rabbi Berk is the kind of spiritual leader who could have gone anywhere—including Anywhere, San Diego—but she’s here because you are here. And yes, there’s a contract, with a salary, and benefits—but, let’s face it, you don’t become a rabbi or cantor for the money (not even Angela, who’s both a rabbi and a cantor. Well, maybe Angela). No, there still has to be a calling—you still have to see the flame.
And that does take us to this week’s Torah portion—of course.
It’s Parashat Shemot—the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus—that we read this week, the story of Moses’s own calling to spiritual leadership. And who better to answer our question, who better to consult on the meaning of the call than the one we call Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, Our Rabbi?
וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה׃
וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָֹ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה׃
וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃
Moses was out shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. He drove the sheep out into the wilderness, until he came up on the Mountain of God, at Horeb [also called Sinai]. A messenger of Adonai appeared unto him in flames of fire from within the bush; he looked, and, what do you know? The bush was burning with fire but the bush was not consumed. Moses said to himself, “I should turn aside to see this wondrous sight—why is the bush not burning up? When Adonai observed that he had turned aside to look, God called out unto him from within the bush, saying, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses answered Hineni, here I am. And God said, “Come no closer; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.
Pretty much everything you need to know about what it means to be called to spiritual leadership appears within this passage. Let me highlight three, each of which is embodied by the person we now call Rabbeinu, our Rabbi, Alexis Berk, who has been called to lead this holy congregation.
First—the passage is overpopulated with one Hebrew verb, the word Ro’eh. When spelled with an Aleph in the middle of the word, Ro’eh means to see. First, Moses sees the messenger of God speaking out of the middle of the bush. Then, Moses sees that the bush is burning but not consumed. Then Moses determines to turn aside and see more closely the phenomenon he describes as a “wondrous sight,” using the same root word. Then God sees that Moses has turned aside to see. All in all, that’s six iterations of the word “to see” in the space of four verses, not to mention the pun at the top of the passage, when Moses is out shepherding, in Hebrew, the homonym Ro’eh, but spelled with an Ayin instead of an Aleph.
Shepherding a flock does require a good deal of seeing, after all. One must look carefully after all one’s members—and be willing to journey out into the wilderness after the ones that go astray. The rabbi has to look deeply and gently at each person in order to understand his and her uniqueness, his and her innermost humanity.
The Rabbi is, indeed, expected to be a seer, of sorts. Not a prophet, to be sure, but a person possessed of vision and clarity of insight. We invite such leaders into our congregations not to preserve the status quo but to move us forward. We trust such leaders to see, or, better, to envision, our destinations even when we cannot see what lies on the horizon.
And the Rabbi is expected to be a good overseer too, one who can guide and inspire not only her congregation but also her clergy colleagues and staff, to help bring that vision to reality.
In all these ways and more, you have called upon a great seer to lead Temple Solel. Rabbi Berk possesses vision—both clear-sightedness and farsightedness, an ability to discern and articulate destiny and purpose. She knows how to move her community forward, as her last decade of exemplary leadership of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans will attest. She is observant. I don’t mean Jewishly observant, although in all the ways that count, she’s that too, in her deeply, authentically, beautifully Reform Jewishly observant way. I mean, even more, that she observes keenly. She sees the needs and feelings of others. She is observant of her surroundings, observant of herself—that is to say, profoundly self-aware.
The Rabbis observe in the Midrash—those volumes of commentary and story-making on the Torah—that it was Moses’s own observance—his own capacity to stop and look and take note, and really see what was going on with that bush—that prompted God to call him to leadership in the first place. How long does it take to stare at a burning bush before one notices that it’s not burning up? the Rabbis asked. How many of us would run in the other direction, go back to chasing that wayward sheep, call the fire department—anything but stay right there, in that place, in that moment, until the ordinary sight revealed itself to be extraordinary? Let us then celebrate the vision and insight and deep seeing that you have brought to the leadership of your congregation.
And, while we’re at it, let us resolve to be patient and observant, too, as we invite Alexis to take the time she needs to get to know Solel—to see us, really, truly, and deeply, even as we take the time to see her in all her dimensionality before we think we have her all figured out. Because, and I speak from experience, she’s a person of many, many layers.
Which takes us to the second feature of the call to spiritual leadership that we might observe in a close reading of our passage.
“Take off your sandals,” God instructs, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” After seeing, the next step is to take off one’s shoes. And that is, well, let’s just name it, a bit weird. And, possibly, depending on where those shoes have been, even a bit stinky.
Is God inviting Moses to a yoga class, or a Japanese restaurant, or a walk on the beach? Alexis likes all of those things, and the abundance of all three in San Diego is surely appealing to her, but there has to be more to this whole “take off your sandals” thing.
Watch closely how Rabbi Berk conducts herself and you will begin to understand its meaning. For the call to spiritual leadership requires that the rabbi does not elevate herself above her people. The shoes have to come off in order to see eye-to-eye. Yes, yes, before you pipe up—I know that Rabbi Berk does not actually need to make herself shorter in order to see you. It’s a metaphor—a sign of humility. Alexis knows before whom she stands. She will never elevate herself above you. She will never pretend to know more than you when she doesn’t. And when she does know more than you, as when she’s teaching (and she is such a gifted teacher), she will never make you feel stupid or inadequate. She will always make it clear how much your questions, your presence as a learner, your own insights into the text or the tradition matter, how much they add to her own understanding.
And, as much as she knows that she has come to serve you, and not the other way around, her shoes are also always off when it comes to her service of God, above all, above all else. Rabbi Berk gets that, wherever we walk, it is always holy ground—that there is no experience, no place, no encounter, devoid of the possibility of holiness, of spiritual elevation.
Which takes us to the third and final element about the call to spiritual leadership—the part that comes after this passage, when Moses goes back down the mountain.
Perhaps you have heard about one Mrs. Lenore Berkowitz, who at the age of 80 resolved to go see the guru. Her friends all thought she was crazy! Go all the way across the world, to Tibet, to see the guru, who sat all day on a high mountain in the lotus position, eyes serenely closed in contemplative silence? What could the guru offer that she couldn’t find in shul? Nevertheless she booked her flight and packed her bag and left. As the sherpa guided her frail steps up the mountain, they warned her that every pilgrim would have only three words to speak to the guru before he would dispense his wisdom. Up the steep trail she trekked until finally she stood before the guru. “Remember, just three words,” said the sherpa. Mrs. Berkowitz nodded. Leaning close to the guru she said:
“Sheldon, come home!”
We should all be suspicious any so-called guru who never comes down off the mountain. The call to spiritual leadership always sends us back to the people. The people who are at the foot of the mountain. You have called this rabbi and her beautiful family, Bob, Ari, and Seth—back home—to the place she has always belonged.
And not just because Alexis has been in a lifelong love affair with Southern California.
More than any rabbi I have ever met, Alexis believes that her calling has brought her into a binding covenant with the people. We met in our first year of rabbinical school, twenty-five years ago, when she sat next to me in Ulpan, which is Hebrew school for grownups. In know what you’re thinking—Berk before Blake—but this was before she was Berk, back when she was Alexis Gerber, like the baby food, only less mushy. Over twenty five years, your Rabbi has demonstrated time and again to me and Kelly her wisdom, compassion, good nature, humor, and the kind of friendship that endures through thick and thin.
She moved me to change my own position on officiation at interfaith weddings, explaining, simply and profoundly, that a rabbi belongs with his or her people in all the moments of their lives, in all their choices, and can help any couple, any family, affirm its covenant with the Jewish tradition, especially when others might abandon them.
When it comes to pursuing a more just and equitable society, Rabbi Berk will walk among her people. When teaching, she will learn alongside you. When leading prayer, she prays with you. When preaching, she speaks not from the lofty perch but from the lived experience of our shared human journey—from the awareness that we are all stumbling through this wilderness together, this wilderness called life. If she says something from the bimah that stirs your curiosity, or discomfort, or tears, or rage, or a laugh—and she will—please, do yourself a favor, and make an appointment to see her. I promise you, it’ll be one of the best conversations you’ll ever have.
And there will be tea.
The word for flame in the Jewish tradition is lahav. The word also turns up inside the Hebrew word Hitlahavut, meaning “enthusiasm” (or enzusiazm as our Ulpan teacher Chanah Shafir would have said).
We wish you and your new rabbi hitlahavut in your shared calling. May the flame of inspiration, compassion, justice, joy, and learning burn brightly within her and within the collective heart of this congregation. To echo a favorite prayer from our Siddur:
“Help us to see wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: ‘How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!’”