“I knew in an instant that everything would be alright” (Naval recruit, Ludovic Kennedy, after hearing a broadcast by Winston Churchill, in the midst of a crisis a thousand times worse than our own).
It was the opening days of World War II. In a “lightning-like” Blitzkrieg, Hitler’s army had swept across Belgium, overrun France, and trapped the British forces on the beaches of Dunkirk. Miraculously, the British were largely rescued by a veritable armada of naval vessels, private yachts, and tiny fishing boats; but British joy was tempered by the realization that it would be equally possible for a German armada to go the other way — a Dunkirk in reverse, as it were.
At the Prime Minister’s 10 Downing Street address, in Buckingham Palace itself, and in every British city, town and village, nerves were frayed, fears were rising, spirits were low. Then came the speech that Kennedy remembered with such clarity.
“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight on the seas and the oceans…. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
A private secretary to Churchill, John Martin, got to the heart of the matter when he described Churchill’s leadership genius as the ability to convince people that they were “protagonists on a vaster scene and champions of a high and invincible cause.”
This, dear ordinees, is what we have been preparing you for all these years of Bible, Talmud, history, theology, liturgy and nusach: the certainty that we human beings are protagonists on a vaster scene and champions of a high and invincible cause.
You might think that here, in America, where your ordination is taking place, people must already know that. But we don’t: we haven’t known it for some time now. The official national rhetoric has mired us in just the opposite supposition: that the only thing of consequence is our own national interests, not any principles at all; and within those interests, it is increasingly the interests of the rich and powerful that have mattered, no one else’s. Even as I write these words, one-fifth of America’s children may not have enough to eat, and a senate majority is refusing to expand long-term food-stamp relief.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Emma Lazarus, for an America that she personified as “The Mother of Exiles.” There’s a “high and invincible cause” for you – imaged right out of Jewish tradition. America as Shechinah! The Great Seal of the United States portrays the providential eye of the divine, with the hope that America will be a “a new order for the ages” (Novus Ordo Seclorum), our undertakings earning the favor of God (Annuit Coeptis). How much will the mothering presence of God smile upon an America that won’t feed her children?
And here we are today, in a blitzkrieg of disease, bunkered down in the four walls of our respective homefronts, dependent on our own armada of “required workers” and volunteers – hospital staffs, police, firefighters, ambulance drivers, lettuce pickers, proxy shoppers, and more. They are indeed saving us: a new and American Dunkirk is under way. We all know, however, that the war isn’t over; we may be in this for a longer run than we care to imagine. So we wait to hear not just that we will survive (we pretty much know we will) but that the fight is worth it because in the end, we are “protagonists on a vaster scene, champions of a high and invincible cause.”
And we wait in vain: because our dominant governmental voices do not even know how to frame sentences about a higher cause, a nobler vision, an America of kindness, gentleness, and elemental human decency.
Who, then, will remind us of all that now? Who, if not you? You graduate this week with the most ethereal of degrees, something called “ordination.” You sport no degree in medicine, law, or accounting; you have no elected office. You might think that you are powerless. But precisely there, you are wrong. You have the enormous power of moral suasion. You are exactly what we need right now, because you are the keeper and transmitter of the “high and invincible cause” that we inherit just by being human.
You will very shortly discover that your work as cantor or rabbi is far more onerous than what you are used to as a student: you must be pastor, priest, and prophet, all rolled up into one. A pastor to care for the well-being of those you serve; a priest to invoke God’s presence at every marriage, birth and death, at public worship, and at study of Torah; a prophet to speak the truths of Judaism’s moral certainties — and in between it all, you will manage the office, wade through daily to-do lists, and negotiate the politics that are inevitable in human affairs.
You will be tempted to think that success can be defined as honorably clearing your desk of such responsibilities, but if you do, you will wear yourself out even as you wear yourself down, because each new day brings just another set of tasks, and eventually you will wonder whether it is all worth the effort. You too need to remember that you are “protagonists on a vaster scene, champions of a high and invincible cause.” And in so remembering, you have to remind us – not just “us” the people you serve; but “us” the body politic, that has forgotten that there is any “vaster scene” or “high and invincible cause” altogether.
Remember, therefore, how much we need your regular reminders of the higher scheme of things. There will be times when everyday banalities completely fill your days; when bureaucratic interests harden your institutional arteries; when the official rhetoric of injustice and untruth starts sounding acceptable; when affairs of business and of state, important as they are, eclipse affairs of the human soul. In all such cases, you are the keeper of the sacred, the source of inspiration that will save us. When we are mired in the muck of hopelessness, lift our eyes to the sky; in the perennial affairs of the moment, remind us of the momentous.
Every step of your journey to become rabbis and cantors has been in service to the inherent nobility of human life; the decency that marks us at our best; the high and invincible cause of goodness and holiness, love and compassion, justice and truth. May these certainties sustain you — that you may sustain us.
 Quotes Kennedy and Martin are from Eric Larson, The Splendid and the Vile
You remain my teacher and inspiration even miles and years away from the NY Campus. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom
Thank you Brian. I greatly value remaining in touch with you.
Brilliantly said! I would only add that this time requires not only high-minded rhetoric and deep spirituality; it also requires our rabbis to courageously model action that will bring the politics of the US and Israel back to reflecting our highest ideals.
Yes, it requires all of that. I gracefully acknowledge your addendum.
Larry, your clear thought-filled words resonate in multiples of ways even for those of us who are non-graduates. There is much to be gained as we view this world around us for a new start and vision without negating the lessons of Judaism. Here’s to a good balancing act. Thank you!
Thank you Marilyn. I spoke in honor of the ordinates but the lesson is indeed more generally applicable.