יום ראשון 13 מאי 2018
This week’s Torah portion, “Bechukotai,” leaves us with the impression that the Book of Leviticus has two endings. After the story of the blessings and curses, we read the solemn closing verse: “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the Lord made between Him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Leviticus 26:46). This verse is remarkably similar to that which ends the second part of the story, which discusses the laws of values concerning an individual vow to make a donation symbolizing the value of their own life or another’s life: “These are the commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34). A critical reading of the Torah verses naturally suggests that the sources here have been rather clumsily edited. However, a harmonious reading of the entire portion may yield a different conclusion. “Bechukotai” discusses the pleasant or bitter fate of the entire people, and this is consistent with the Book of Leviticus, which lack a real plot and focuses on building society with its laws and institutions. Precisely because of the character of Leviticus, the message that emerges in the final verses of this portion regarding the individual’s decision to devote their life in symbolic and practical terms is particularly powerful. Leviticus presents us time after time with the test that is presented to the people. In its closing verses, it returns the responsibility and the test back to the individual.
Aaron, our teacher and friend whose death we mourn today, was not a pioneer who marched before the camp, creating ex nihilo or blazing a new path. He grew up within Reform Jewish circles, and reached his final post from within the teaching and research rooms of Hebrew Union College. The shoes he entered as the twelfth president of this august institution were large indeed, and the tradition he was asked to carry on his shoulders was heavy and demanding. But just as the vows of value in our Torah portion bring us back to the individual’s actions and decisions, so Aaron managed to give everyone who spoke with him, worked with him, or dreamed with him the sense that he fully understood the personal responsibility he bore, the privilege he had been given to exercise personal influence as a leader and a guide, and the obligation he had accepted to break new ground for the College, for the Reform rabbinate, and for the family of Reform Judaism in North America, Israel, and around the world. By so doing, he put into practice last week’s Torah portion: “And you shall eat old store long kept, and you shall bring forth the old from before the new” (Leviticus 26:10). Without a shadow of condescension, without standing on his honor, in a straightforward and equal exchange, with profound thought and exceptional manners – he always left me, in each subsequent encounter and conversation, with the feeling that he was blessed with the delicate and healthy balance between being one among many and first among equals. No less importantly, just as you always felt in his presence that he was aware of his own value while at the same time remembering the wisdom of Hillel the Elder – “and if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Avot 1:14) – so you also felt that, in the spirit of “Bechukotai” and its message for the offspring of Aharon the Priest, this was a man who was also able to appreciate the person with whom he spoke: their unique contribution to sanctity and their essence as an individual capable of influencing their surroundings for the better.
It is symbolic that we say our farewells to Aaron in the week when we complete our reading of the Law of the Priests. “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah” (Avot 1:12). So Hillel the Elder taught us in the Ethics of the Fathers – and anyone who was fortunate enough to work with Aaron knew that he had learned this lesson well and applied it to his leadership.
Many, if not all, of us have been privileged and will yet be privileged to make sermons, teach Torah, serve as shlichei tzibur, lead communities, and accompany individuals and families during moments of joy and elation as well as at times of sorrow and heartbreak. But only a few of us, a very select handful, will be privileged to ordain students and bring forth a new generation of rabbis; to stand where Moses stood as he ordained Joshua, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava as he ordained Rabbi Meir in the Valley of Shefaram, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Yehuda, or Rabbi Yaacov Berav when he renewed ordination in the Land of Israel. I have sometimes wondered why we, who consistently emphasize the values of equality and cooperation, and who have let go of the traditional status of the Kohanim and the decisive authority of the rabbi, have nevertheless maintained the tradition of ordination by an individual. The reason, I believe, lies in our profound recognition that there are certain types of holiness that can flourish only from a place of intimacy and proximity. In one of our discussions, Aaron told me that those moments when he places his hands on the head of newly-ordained rabbis were among the most important and moving in his life. I am sure that he saw this as a privilege and a pinnacle; I have no doubt that both in his knowledge and in his virtues he was worthy of generating such moments of holiness, when the individual’s mouth, hands, and heart act in the name of the collective and in the name of past generations. I am sure that those among us upon whose heads he placed his hands will carry his memory in a unique and profound manner for many years to come.
When I spoke yesterday with Rabbi Na’ama Kelman, Aaron’s partner in leading this campus, she suggested that it would be proper that I make my remarks today in Hebrew. I was already intending to do so. Among the many remarks offered in his memory, Aaron deserves to have words spoken in the Hebrew language. Aaron was a lover of Zion in all 248 organs of his body; he was a true partner in love of the State of Israel and concern for its future. His personal involvement in the plans to revitalize the Jerusalem campus, including discussion of the smallest details, was evidence for me of his profound sense that while the center of strength and mite of the College lie in North America, this campus, those who inhabit it and its enterprises, are a beating heart that gives life to the entire body. For many years, the fact that the seminary of our Israeli movement was part of the seminary of our big sister in North America reflected our weakness and our need for support. In recent years, this fact has slowly come to manifest our crucial role in maintaining our living covenant with Diaspora Jewry and our capacity to serve as a source of spirit, identity, language, and learning for our brothers and sisters overseas. Aaron was utterly committed to this covenant and was a firm believer in this prophecy: “For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
On the morning of the last ordination – the centennial ordination – we walked with the Torah scrolls to the Western Wall plaza. We experienced Israelis stayed close to our American friends. They held the Torah scrolls, while we walked in front of them and by their sides. I accompanied Aaron, and thereafter whenever we met he would greet me: “Hello my bodyguard.” That was perhaps true for a few moments on that morning, but the truth is that it was he who saw his role as being to guard, protect, nurture, and empower us. He did so while recognizing how challenging our path is in this beautiful and complex land, and how important this path is to the future of the State of Israel, and no less importantly – to the future of Reform Judaism as a whole.
“Say this when you mourn for me,” Bialik wrote. “There was a man – and look, he is no more. He died before his time. The music of his life suddenly stopped. A pity! There was another song in him. Now it is lost forever.”
Many tears have been shed during recent days for this man, for his dreams and his lost songs. I am sure that one of his finest and most important songs would have been devoted to this place, to strengthening its role as a seat of learning and as a magnet for Israelis who dream and act – people of learning, worship, and acts of lovingkindness.
Tractate Shekalim in the Jerusalem Talmud teaches us that we do not make headstones for the righteous – their words are their memory. The headstone that will be established above Aaron’s grave will be placed thousands of miles from here. We can establish a memorial for him by nurturing and strengthening this house, as he dreamed and as he would undoubtedly have done with all of us. “There was a man – and look, he is no more. He died before his time.” But we can and should continue the music of his life.
We mourn for you, our brother Aaron. Your teaching and your vision were truly pleasant to us.
We make a tear in our clothes for you as a scholar, a president, and a friend.
May your memory be a source of inspiration for us all over the coming days and years.