Climb Every Mountain
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Some commentators read Moses’s ascent up the mountain in the context of the broader story of Moses’s development as a leader. Moses, we know, for all his strengths was not such a great delegator. Just a few weeks ago we read of the management intervention by Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, who counseled Moses that he needed to empower those around him. The journey ahead was intended to be a marathon, not a sprint, and Moses spent too much of his time in the weeds. By this reading, not only was his time away necessary in order for him to turn his sights to the bigger picture – the job he was actually hired to do – but a hoped-for outcome of his absence would be an improved workflow upon his return. Moses would return with a lighter touch, his team would be more empowered, resulting in Moses having an even lighter touch – a virtuous cycle whose ultimate beneficiary would be the very community he was charged to lead.
Probably the most obvious reason why Moses ascended the mountain was to take a break. To lead a people is a fulltime job and then some. Moses was neither a superman nor a saint. Our tradition is very clear that Moses was a man of flesh and blood. In the wake of his standoff with Pharaoh, the ten plagues, the crossing of the sea, and his standing in the breach between God and Israel, there was undoubtedly a bit of wear and tear. Time spent with his people was time spent away from his family. In a comment that was probably as much about himself as about Moses, the nineteenth-century rabbi known as the Hafetz Hayyim explains that so overwhelming was the blocking and tackling of his daily leadership obligations, that Moses risked losing his ability to probe deeply into matters of wisdom and, more significantly, his own needs. Why did Moses ascend that mountain? The most simple reason: he needed a break!
I can imagine many reasons why Moses went up the mountain that day. The effect it would have on him, the effect it would have on those around him – his family and his community. Over the past few months, as news of my sabbatical has spread, a number of congregants have shared with me stories of their “garden leaves,” mid-career moments of professional hiatus. The classes they have enrolled in, the trips they have taken, the weight they have lost, the weight they have gained, and most of all, the batteries they have recharged as they prepared to return in full vigor. I too have plans to sleep more, exercise more, take full advantage of our amazing city, take up a few hobbies, and most of all, spend more time with my family.
In my heart of hearts, I do believe that I have the best job in the Jewish world and maybe the entire world. A vital and growing congregation, a loving and supportive lay leadership, and colleagues whom I treasure. My father once blessed me and my brothers with the prayer that in our professional lives we should be good at what we do, do good in what we do, and be able to put bread on the table for our families. This has been my blessing these past ten years and it is a blessing that I hope to enjoy for many, many years to come. But when it comes to taking a bit of a break, to speak plainly and honestly, I am ready. I am ready to disappear for a while and I am ready to come back stronger than ever. That is, after all, where the word sabbatical comes from – an extended rest with an eye to a rejuvenated resumption upon return.
And yet, with all that said, I want you to know that the reason for my sabbatical is not because I need a break, and not because of a building project around the corner, and not because of a desperate need to enroll in an art history class at the Met. In rabbi years, I am still pretty young; my best professional years lie ahead of me, I am just getting started. The reason I am taking a sabbatical is for one and the same reason that Moses went up the mountain, and that reason is . . . Torah. At risk of stating the obvious, it was during those forty days and forty nights that Moses received the Torah, God’s most precious possession, the written and oral traditions that would be handed down from generation to generation. It was for the sake of Torah that we were freed from Egypt; not just to be liberated willy-nilly, but to leverage the freedoms and opportunity of our lives towards attaching ourselves to a higher text and purpose. Neither I nor any rabbinical student goes to rabbinical school in order to build a building, manage staff, or raise money. I went to rabbinical school because I loved to study Torah and I wanted to be a teacher of Torah: The Bible, the Midrash, the Talmud, medieval philosophy, modern Hebrew literature, law, poetry, and prayer – all of it. To immerse oneself in the sacred texts of our people, to be in dialogue with the sages of every age, and to ask the all-important question of how those texts can be taught anew and inform the age in which we live – that is the passion, that is the secret sauce that makes a rabbi a rabbi.
The Midrash goes to great lengths to explain the depths of Moses’s study during his time on Mount Sinai. Day and night he studied: the written Torah, the oral Torah, even the doctrines that would only be revealed to a future scholar. In one of the most famous stories told of Moses’s time away, God mystically transports Moses into the future classroom of Rabbi Akiva, whose teaching, though initially unintelligible to Moses, would ultimately comfort him as he came to understand that it was an extension of the teaching begun on Mount Sinai. I too hope to study the received tradition, and, like Moses in Akiva’s academy, my intention is to be prospective in my efforts. I would like to research and recommend and write a vision for American Jewry moving forward, reflecting the needs not of the last twenty years of my rabbinate but of the next twenty years; a Judaism that will speak not to the generation of our grandparents but to the generation of our grandchildren. Park Avenue Synagogue has always prided itself on leading the critical conversations facing American Jewry. I hope that my time away will afford me the opportunity to draft a roadmap for our community and by extension, American Jewry, into the future.
Moses used his time away to study Torah because it was for this purpose that Israel was freed from Egypt. Moses studied Torah because he understood that Torah represented the lifeline not just to our people’s past but also to our future. But the Midrash goes on to explain that the primary reason Moses studied Torah was that he sought to be an example for his people, that they too might occupy themselves with Torah. Two weeks from now I will embark on a rabbinic intensive to build upon my text skills; every week I intend to meet with a Hebrew teacher to build up my fluency. Am I doing it because I want to? Of course I am! But I am also doing it because talking the talk is not enough. If being a lifelong learner is indeed a core value of our community, then it is a value that needs to be lived by everyone from the children in the ECC to members of our board, every educator on staff, and the senior rabbi of this institution. I have not, these past few years, studied Torah in a way that represents the high ideals of our people. I hope the months ahead afford me the opportunity to do so and to return in the summer with a regimen that I can maintain into the decades ahead. And yes, I hope that by recommitting myself to Jewish learning, that very act will inspire you to ask of yourselves how you are learning and growing as a Jew. Nothing would make me happier if, upon my return, I will share with you and you will share with me what we have read, studied, and learned in the intervening months.
The close reader knows that Moses ascended Mount Sinai not once, not twice, but three times. First at the burning bush, second a few weeks ago in parashat Yitro with the first set of commandments, and finally in this week’s Torah reading. Each time, he experienced the gift of God’s presence; each time he affirmed his attachment to God’s charge. Me, I suppose my first ascent was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, whose seal is actually the burning bush. It was at JTS that I immersed myself in intensive Jewish study for the first time since my school days. Then came my time at the University of Chicago, which, despite being the place where fun goes to die, granted me a doctoral degree in Jewish studies and an unquenchable thirst for inquiry that continues unabated to this day. And now, ten years later, I am ready to climb that mountain again. The Midrash explains that when Moses descended to his people that third time, having completed his writing, he wiped the ink of his pen on his forehead and had a smile on his face of such intensity that his entire countenance radiated, thus causing the people to shine with a radiant glow as well. If that is the outcome of these months ahead, if I can come back to you this summer with a manuscript in hand, ink on my forehead and a smile on my face, then you know what? I’ll take it.
May God bless every member of this community in the months to come. May we all, upon my return, be more learned of our tradition and bear smiles on our faces, and in the years ahead, may we climb many more mountains together.