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St. John's 'Homecoming'

This morning I had the honor of addressing the Upper School chapel during a service organized by the students of the Jewish Affinity Group, on the themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Below is a transcript of my remarks.

Good morning. Thank you to the Jewish Affinity Group and Mrs. Weissenstein, as well as Rev. Mulligan, for inviting me to speak today.

I sat in these pews once a week for 13 years. This is my first time back in this room since 19 years ago, when I graduated with the class of 1999.

I know that’s a long time because last month was my last chance to attend the Young Alumni Happy Hour. I was thinking of going – one last hurrah – but then I forgot about it. My first senior moment.

God, on the other hand, does not forget. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is also known as the Day of Remembrance. This name and many of the prayers of these holy days symbolize that God remembers all of creation, recounts our deeds, judges our lives. Yom Kippur ended on Saturday evening, closing the period of 10 Days of Awe, a time set apart for reflection, spiritual assessment and renewal.

In preparation for this morning’s chapel service, I’ve been reflecting on my years at St. John’s and how they shaped the person I am today, and the rabbi I became. (On a side note, as far as I know I am the third St. John’s alum to become a rabbi, after Barry Block and Leon Dow. Next year there will be a fourth, Salem Pearce, who will hold a unique position in history as the first woman St. John’s alum, and the first who wasn’t born Jewish, to be ordained as a rabbi.)

My Jewish development and, therefore, my rabbinate, was shaped profoundly by this place where I spent 13 school-years of my life. Though I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time, being a Jewish student here helped turn me into a teacher of Torah. In lower school, I was the kid who missed class in the fall for the High Holy Days and brought in books about Chanukah in December. I was one of the Jewish kids in the choirs – Chorale and Kantorei – who went caroling at the VA hospital at Christmas time. It gave me an opportunity to do a mitzvah (a commanded act) known in Judaism as Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick. (To this day, I still know the bass parts to dozens of Christmas carols. I did not include that detail on my rabbinic school application.) In Upper School, I was part of the Chapel Guild. During one chapel service, I played a Beethoven piano sonata, inviting everyone to explore that listening moment as a different kind of prayer experience. It was here that I started to flex my spiritual muscles.

St. John’s also nourished my intellectual growth. 12th-grade Philosophy with Tony Sirignano (may his memory be a blessing) showed me how exhilarating and rewarding it could be to ask big questions about truth and morality and existence. In 9th-grade English with Theo Coonrod we used a textbook called The Bible As/In Literature, and later on I would study Robert Alter, the great bible scholar and translator, who urged reading the Bible as literature and saw that, in his words, as “not a demotion, but an elevation.” Teaching the Bible to adults is one of my favorite parts of being a rabbi. When we take it seriously as literature, there is no end to what it can teach us about being human. That’s why we call an entire discipline the “humanities.”

In college, I dove into the deep end of religion and Jewish studies. I studied modern Jewish theologians and biblical scholars for the first time, gifted thinkers who questioned tradition while revering it – or better yet, who revered tradition by questioning it. As one of my mentors said many years later, “The question mark is the most Jewish symbol.” I got hooked on a tradition of questioning.

I worked in Washington DC for two years after college, at the intersection of religion and politics. I staffed my denomination’s national headquarters for policy advocacy, known as the Religious Action Center. We brought our understanding of the bible’s prophetic tradition to bear on the social and political issues of the day. There I worked under two mentors who became my “rabbi-scholar-activist” role models. One was a legal expert in church-state separation and a fierce advocate for justice. The other had a PhD in Medieval Judaism and Christianity and was a national leader in promoting interfaith understanding. Under their leadership, I decided to apply to rabbinic school.

* * *

There is more to my story (and there are more guides along my journey, some of whom are sitting in these pews right now). This morning, I want to end not with my biography, but with a lesson I’ve learned, after 5 years of seminary and 7 years of leading a congregation. I share this in the spirit of the new year.

This lesson begins with a story that took place in these storied cloisters around 25 years ago, in the 6th-grade science classroom. And it involves toothpicks and glue. Our teacher explained the assignment: In groups of three, build as strong a bridge as possible using only toothpicks and glue. The bridge that supports the most weight gets an A on the project. The teacher divided us into groups and we set to work planning our design. We built two bases of meticulously layered toothpicks on two cardboard foundations. Then we extended two lines of overlapping toothpicks between the bases, across the span. A tight layer of side-by-side toothpicks filled the space between the support beams and satisfied the teacher’s lone requirement for the project: Each bridge must be passable by toy car or else be disqualified. We used just enough glue to secure the structure without blemishing the design. With our bridge complete, we looked around to assess the competition. We had finished first, by far, and we tried not to gloat. Our friends at the next table were floundering. Their bridge, if you could call it that, was a chaotic mess — like it says in Genesis (1:2), tohu va-vohu / “unformed and void.” It wasn’t clear if it was the product of failed execution or if they simply had no vision at all. It began to dawn on them that they were not going to finish in time, so they asked for our help. I’m not sure why we agreed; maybe we pitied them. As we set to work on their bridge, any semblance of a plan devolved into one frantic goal: Smother the damn thing with glue. Every joint, every seam, every millimeter of every toothpick. We lathered, we slathered, we poured, we smeared. If the bridge looked questionable before, now we had removed all doubt — it looked sloppy, malformed, derelict. Technically, a toy car could fit on it, but no sane driver would attempt such a crossing. Satisfied that we had given our best effort, my group washed our hands of residual glue and of responsibility for our friends’ doomed project. Time was up and the weight testing begin. One at a time, the teacher placed each group’s bridge across a gap between two tables and rested a pencil across each structure. He suspended small weights from a string tied to the pencil. For each bridge, he added weights an ounce at a time, until the structure failed. Bridge after mediocre bridge buckled. When our turn came, the teacher placed the weighted pencil across the middle of our bridge. It rested on a seam in our toothpick support beam. A seam we had failed to reinforce. A small crack formed in my confidence. The teacher started adding weights. One, two…it held fast. Three, four…like a rock. Five, six… As the teacher released the last weight, our bridge ruptured decisively at the seam. Though disappointed, we took solace in having defeated the rest of our class — except for one group. Our friends with the ugly bridge were the last to go. The teacher placed their train-wreck of a bridge in position and set the weighted pencil in place. He added a weight, and the bridge gave slightly. Two, three…it gave a little more. Four, five, six…a pattern emerged. With each additional weight, the bridge reacted with a gentle shrug. The crack in my confidence spread. The weight that had snapped my bridge barely registered any strain on theirs. The bridge sagged but did not snap. This unsightly mess of toothpicks and glue had won! And with our help!

* * *

There’s an ancient rabbinic text that I never fully understood until I read it in light of my bridge failure. The Talmud teaches: “be flexible like a reed, not unbending like a cedar tree” (BT Ta’anit 20b).

We tend to glorify the cedar and dismiss the reed. The cedar is thick and imposing; the reed is slender and flimsy and lives in the mud. My bridge team only had eyes for the toothpicks. They were the backbone, we thought, the foundation. Glue was an afterthought. It dries clear and disappears. We lost that challenge — our bridge gave out — because we valued the wrong thing. A cedar tree seems mighty until a strong wind shatters its trunk. A reed seems weak until you notice it weathers the same storm that splintered the cedar. The reed bends without breaking. Like the winning bridge. The difference is the glue. Reeds grow in beds, vast networks connected under damp soil or water. Their roots are surprisingly strong because they are linked. They survive punishing winds because they bend instead of breaking. We could learn a lot from them. The beginning of a new year – on the Jewish calendar, or on the school calendar – is a good time for reflection. Are we valuing the right things? Are we living like the cedar, unbending and unforgiving – or like the reed, strong enough in our foundations and our community to bend without breaking?

One of my heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (z’’l), a leading rabbi of 20th-century America, once wrote: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” Clever is like the cedar, seeming strong until it fails spectacularly. Kind is like the reed, unassuming but surprisingly powerful. Clever may get you into a good school; kind will get you into a good life. Throughout the High Holy Day services, Jews pray to be written into the Book of Life for a good year. This is my prayer for all of us today: May we be inscribed for a year of valuing kindness over cleverness, a year of cultivating the quiet strength to bend without breaking.

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