When the fumata bianca, white smoke, goes out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel it announces that the convening of the College of Cardinals has made their selection. The people looking on in the Vatican cheer at the election of a new Pope. Seeing that I am not Catholic I could only imagine my elation at that moment, before this past Sunday.
This past Sunday I had the pleasure of going to the installation of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as the new head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,my Alma mater. Rav Asher is going to be a wonderful replacement for Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of YCT. It was a wonderful event that brought out an amazing group of people. While there was some sadness that there was no one there from Yeshiva University or other factions to the right, there was an amazing showing from leadership on the left. This was emblemized by the roundtable discussion featuring Rabbi David Ellenson, Dr. Arnold Eisen , Rabbi Arthur Green, and Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson before the formal installation. It was uplifting seeing so many luminaries from all over the Jewish world join a very young Orthodox Seminary in welcoming in their new leader. It was a singular moment in celebrating the unity of the Jewish people.
At some moment in there I got scared thinking that we had indeed sent out the fumata bianca, but maybe there was no out there cheering us on. Maybe everyone who cares about the unity of the Jewish people were already there in that room. Still wading through the aftermath of the Pew Study, I could not help but fear for our sustainability. While I loved so many people in that room, I could not help but fear that we might be alone in our joy? What does the future look like?
I was thinking about this when reading Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn about the beginning of Avraham’s journey. We read,
God said to Avram, “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
And with these words Monotheism is off and running. It seems that so much happened in this short directive. What awakened in Avram the awareness of God? What ever it was it seems significant in that it changed the course of history?
In the Midrash Rabbi Isaac compares Avram’s thinking to that of a man who was traveling (Genesis Rabbah 39:1). While going from place to place he sees a building in flames. The man wonders whether it was possible that the building could lack a person to look after it. At that moment, the owner of the building appeared and said that he owned the building. This is similarly to Avram questioning whether it is conceivable that the world could exist without a Guide to look after it. At that moment, God told Avram that God is the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe. This is what the Torah records in the words ” Lech Lecha- Go for yourself”
This metaphor is deep. Avram could have spent his life looking back over his shoulder to Haran. Instead he is out there engaging the world around him. Recognizing the world that he is coming into he seeks an explanation of order. God responds to that openness, empathy, and curiosity by telling him to move into the future- ” Lech Lecha- Go for yourself”. And on another level it is interesting to realize that we all want to be discovered and recognized, even God.
Like Avram, YCT could spend its days looking over its right and left shoulders and waiting to be recognized. Instead I think we need to be out there doing the holy work of engaging the world around us. The values of openness, empathy, and curiosity have become the hallmark of YCT. Rav Asher is a master of lovingly disagreeing with the other parts of our family. We need to stay uncompromising in keeping the vision of the unity of the Jewish people as our guiding light. And we need to be out there helping other people follow Avram’s example.