Read Rabbi Rick Jacobs' D'var Torah to NFTY Convention 2019

Inside Leadership

Read Rabbi Rick Jacobs' D'var Torah to NFTY Convention 2019

Rabbi Rick Jacobs poses with three smiling teens in NFTY Convention badges

This d'var Torah for Parashat T'tzaveh was presented to NFTY Convention 2019 on Saturday, February 16, 2019. Video of the address will be made available online this week.

Shabbat Shalom, NFTY! There has never, ever, in the history of the Jewish people, been a Shabbat morning service just like this one. 

NFTYites, once again you are blazing a trail of spirituality, community, purpose, and holiness. Too often, in religious life we get stuck in that trap of, “We've always done it this way.” For 80 years, NFTY has been and remains our Reform Movement's most consistent spiritual innovators. You have never been and are not today content with the spiritual status quo. NFTY, I ask you, please: Never, ever stop reinventing what it means to live serious, deep, Jewish lives of purpose and courage and depth. You inspire us!

In the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat T’tzaveh, we learn that those who shape ritual are called chachmei leiv, wise people. The people who do the work of shaping this incredible thing that we experience today and have throughout the centuries, we call those people chachmei leiv, those who were wise of heart, artisans of the spirit. Those of you who are leading us today, you are modern-day chachmei leiv, and we are so grateful that you are helping to reinvent Jewish life

Years ago, when I came home from the URJ summer camp in northern California, I was fired up with the power and the passion of prayer outside. I showed up at my temple the next Friday night, and I must have looked really unhappy during the service because my rabbi found me and asked, “What's the matter?”

I told him I didn't really relate to the service. In fact, I didn't hold back. I said, “You know, I hate to say it, but the service was boring. It felt soulless, and it was endless.”

Rather than being bent out of shape – and I could have understood if he had been! – he had an idea. He said, “Why don't you and your friends from NFTY lead services this coming Friday night?”

I said, “Are we free to do anything we want?” He said, “You're free to do whatever you want on this bimah.”

Back then, I was a drummer in a band of four Reform Jewish teens with lots of hair. (I didn't actually have long hair. I had big hair. My hair just kind of went out.) Together, we rewrote all new music, wrote new liturgy, put black lights and strobe lights around our sanctuary, and proceeded to make the whole sanctuary shake, rattle, and roll.

By the time we got to “Adon Olam,” there were only three people left in the sanctuary besides my NFTY buddies – the rabbi and my mom and dad. We might have been spiritual artisans of a newly reinvented Judaism, but not many people in my home congregation found it inspiring.

I learned a lesson that night that I’ve never forgotten: Leading change can sometimes be challenging.

NFTY, you’ve been constant champions of change, especially during this last year, a year filled with pain, loss, and so many injustices and challenges. Never content to stand by, you’ve rolled up your sleeves and taken to the streets, courageously speaking truth to power. You continue to inspire us and point the way.

On the last Shabbat in October, I spent the day on Kibbutz Tzuba, just outside of Jerusalem, with our teens at URJ Heller High. During the discussion, one of those students asked me, “Rabbi Jacobs, have you ever personally experienced anti-Semitism?”

I answered, “Not really” – but then I realized it might be a more urgent question for the Heller High teens, so I asked: “How many of you – not reading about it, not seeing it in a newscast, but how many of you yourselves – have experienced anti-Semitism?” Two-thirds of those hands went up. I was stunned.

That was just eight hours before the massacre of Shabbat morning worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

A few weeks later, there was another mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, CA (and also, right around that same time, the wildfires). Of course, a year ago in Parkland, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the unthinkable happened again. Truly, we have been through hell this past year.

With all this trauma, no one would have blamed any of you if you'd simply said, “We're going to take a break from the intensity of this moment.” But NFTY, you did not do that. You led us ritually today, and you lead us in social justice every day.

Our sages were worried that this week’s Torah portion could mislead us into thinking that religious leadership was only about what we do in prayer: what we wear, what words we say, what melodies we sing. They took the name of this parashah and understood it as an acronym. (What is an acronym? You take something like NFTY, and each letter stands for a word. So, in the case of NFTY, it's “North American Federation of Temple Youth.”)

When it comes to T’tzaveh, they took the Torah portion’s name to mean, “Taksheev, Tzakat, V’Toshia, Hadal: “Listen to the painful cry of the poor.” It teaches us that being spiritual is also about being impatient with injustice. It is about taking action to lessen someone else's pain and isolation.

Sometimes we lobby to change laws. Sometimes we have to stand up together against the hate.

Two years ago in Quebec City in Canada, a group of Muslims were gathered in their mosque praying when a gunman came into the mosque and opened fire, killing six members of the congregation. In response, a few days later, when the Muslim community was gathering for prayer – understandably very nervous about their safety – the Reform Jewish community was inspired to create a ring of peace around the mosque. Why? They wanted to encircle the mosque in love, solidarity, and protection.

What they did can instruct us, as well. If you attack one faith community, you attack all of us. On that Shabbat after Pittsburgh, how many of you were part of an interfaith gathering of standing together against the hate? Put your hand up if you gathered with your communities because you saw and felt – and the communities around you saw and felt – that we need to stand together.

Well, in Toronto, the week after the Pittsburgh massacre, the Muslim community initiated rings of peace around the synagogues. They said, "We want to stand in love and protection and solidarity around our Jewish brothers and sisters who are praying inside, very nervous.” That's what it means, friends, to be people of faith. That's what it means to be a religious leader - not to sequester ourselves in quiet places and study. Sometimes it means having such backbone that we are willing to step out into this very dangerous and sometimes overwhelming world and stand up.

NFTY, that's the work you do. Leading change, social change or any other kind, can be challenging – but it's holy work. And it's our work from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, from camp to congregation, from D.C. to Detroit. From Wilmington to Warwick, leading change can be hard, NFTYites, I know that. And you know that.

Most changes are hard, but some are especially hard. Our decision regarding URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y., was and remains one of those really hard changes, but done for an important reason. It was based on our commitment to you to expands our teen leadership and our Movement by doing things differently with your leadership, your creativity, your insights, and your experience. We hope to nurture more teen leaders across this large and growing Movement, NFTY and we need your help. We need you to keep leading boldly.

Your leadership inspired us today, and we need your leadership tomorrow, as well. Keep questioning, innovating, and pushing our Jewish community to live its most profound teachings all the time, everywhere.

In the opening of Parashat T’tzaveh, the Torah teaches us that we are to wear special garments. Why? For l’chavod u’l’tifaret, splendor and glory. The Torah asks, “What is the difference between these two things?” Rabbi Meir Leibush Weisser, also known as the Malbim, understands kavod as the honor one receives for the gifts they are born with, those innate talents God has given each of us, while tiferet is the glory they receive for the results of their own efforts and spiritual creativity.

NFTY, never question the divine gifts you possess, that animate each of your leadership roles in NFTY and in our Movement and with our people across the globe.

We will never stop loving and appreciating the way you lead us – today, tomorrow, and every day.

Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 850 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

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