Thursday, 11 Jan 2024

Written by Eleanor Davis

What is the most common phrase in Parashat Va-eira?  The true answer is probably something like “And God spoke to Moses,” but among the less generic phrases, one strong contender might be surprising.  Each time a miracle or plague occurs, we hear a this: “vaya’asu khein hachartumim b’lateihem, they did the same with their spells” (Exodus 7:11, 7:22, 8:3, 8:14).  The magician-priests’ training is powerful: they can replicate the wondrous miracles that God performs via Moses and Aaron.  Their powers are limited, however, because that is all they can do: they replicate what has already been done, which in this case just increases the plagues rather than improving the situation for anyone.  If it seems obvious that this is not what we would wish our clergy today to offer, then the question should be equally clear: how do we train our rabbis and cantors to be more than skilled ritual conjurors?

One answer is in what took place this week in rural Oxfordshire: a truly unique gathering of student rabbis and cantors from HUC-JIR (the American Reform Movement’s seminary) and from Leo Baeck College, supported by the Tisch/Star fellowship and LBC.  Essentially our mission was to think together on how we will change the world – no small ambition!  Over just four days, we took time out from exam preparation to build a temporary community, in which to think about things far beyond the grammatical analysis of Hebrew verbs or how to lead a ‘correct’ service.  We deepened our understanding of each other, personally and nationally; we stepped out of our comfort zones to think from perspectives beyond our own; we discussed how to build a rich and meaning-filled Judaism for the times and places in which we live, here in 21st-Century diaspora.

No dramatic miracles were performed, yet a sense of Divine presence lingered throughout our time together, in moments from very British puns about ‘pastoral’ care by the sheep flocking to greet our arrival (credit to Student Rabbi Shulamit Morris-Evans), to the creative blessings before and after meals.  Some of that divinity was given literal voice in the prayer-leading of Cantors Zoe Jacobs and Sarah Grabiner, whose skill drew from us song more beautiful than we knew we could create; the moment when one setting of Nishmat led into another with the guitar giving way to unaccompanied voices in harmony was a beautiful metaphor for the project.

With an inspirational faculty led by Rabbi Larry Hoffman and our own Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen, surrounded by colleagues who make my heart soar with hope for the future of Jewish life in the UK and America and beyond, the refrain repeating in my head was Moses’s repeated phrase from Va-eira: “I get tongue-tied – how should Pharaoh listen to me?” (Exodus 6:12, 30).  Among all these passionate and articulate people, fizzing with ideas and energy, who am I to try to be part of this project?  Yet if we are to build a Judaism of all the adjectives so close to our hearts – vibrant, inclusive, enriching, innovative, and more – then we need people of all varieties; we need the people who always intended to follow this path and the people who think that becoming a rabbi or cantor is something for ‘better’ people than them, or who feel that they don’t really belong.

However inspiring the gathering, a one-off during rabbinic/cantorial school can only last a person so long.  If we want clergy who can inspire, who bring fresh vision and a contagious love of Judaism, perhaps we should ask ourselves where the similar ongoing opportunities might be for existing rabbis and cantors?   Without regular time to breathe, to recharge and reconnect, there is a risk that even the best-intentioned person will eventually become a little like Pharaoh, of whom we hear repeatedly in Parashat Va-eira that his heart “becomes hardened so that he cannot heed the Israelites” (Exodus 7:13, 7:22, 8:15, 9:12).  What would it change in our reading of the Exodus story if we saw Pharaoh as a leader driven to rigidity after too many years of running on empty?  What would it change in our communities if we saw the time our leaders spend thinking, connecting, even dreaming, as a foundationally important part of their work?

Perhaps this is where communities can set a good example for clergy, because finding time for things beyond the essentials of earning a living is a challenge many of us face.  Each person who takes time to participate, from synagogue life to Movement biennial getaways and beyond, gives themself the chance to experience the emotional enrichment, the intellectual challenge, and the deepened relationships that result from time spent on these ‘non-essential’ activities.  May we all find opportunities to pause long enough to refresh our vision for the joy of the Judaism we could create together.

Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.