Rabbi Anthony’s Ordination Address

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Anthony Lazarus Magrill 08th Jul 2022

A story is told about the Rebbe Reb Shmelke, when he was appointed to his first pulpit in the city of Nikolsburg. This was a big job, as he would be the chief Rabbi of Moravia, and the community elders informed Reb Shmelke on his first day that the community had an important and long standing custom. Each new Rabbi in Nikolsburg would choose one mitzvah, or one especially favoured piece of Torah, to write in a big ledger book at the back of the building. So the story goes, it took Reb Shmelke three months, and much communal angst and harassment, before he eventually decided that he couldn’t do better than just to write out the ten commandments.  

I sympathize with Shmelke. It is hard to set out a single stall for a job so varied as the Rabbinate. That said, presented with such a ledger book, I know what I would write 

וַיִּקְרָא יי אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-הָאָדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, אַיֶּכָּה 

God, the Eternal, called lovingly to the Human. God said to him, ‘Ayeka? Where are you?’ 

The Eternal, whom we call the Revealer of Secrets, does not ask where we are, or even how we are, as we might ask the question to a friend. For God is nothing if not That which knows us better than we know ourselves.   

Rather, when the All-knowing One asks this question – where are you – it calls to mind, for me, a certain rainy night in Norwich, in February 2005. The score at Carrow Road was delicately balanced: Norwich City 2 – 2 Manchester City. Chef, and Norwich City Chair, Delia Smith storms the pitch and calls out to the home fans:  

A message to the best football supporters in the world, we need a twelfth man here, where are you? Where are you? Let’s be ‘avin you! 

We stand as if in the wreckage of Eden; aware that the world is not all that it might be, knowing that there is work which only we can do. And the Divine question that rings out, is Ayeka. The Eternal cries out to the humans: We need a twelfth man out here. Like Chef Delia, HaKadosh Baruch knows just where we are – and asks only why we cannot show up.  

Heidegger wrote that ‘mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell.’ One thing he means by this, I think, is that in a world of escalating confusion and difficulty, hearing the challenging call, ‘Where are you?’ – we are all to tempted to accept existential homelessness, responding, ‘I don’t know.’ 

By contrast, the philosopher Simone Weil wrote: 

‘To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.’ 

And also: 

‘Human beings have roots by virtue of their real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape particular treasures of the past and particular expectations for the future.’ 

If we knew where we had come from, might we be better placed to know where we were? And if we knew where we were, might we not know better where to go next? I believe in Jewish communities which face the world in which we find ourselves with honesty and moral integrity; whilst facing our complex Jewish tradition in something like a quest for authenticity. Indeed, I believe in Jewish communities where moral integrity and Jewish authenticity are flip-sides of a single coin. And I believe that in those communities we can find our rootedness.

Judaism could be our dwelling place, that when we hear the call – Ayeka – we can answer not, ‘I don’t know;’ but rather, ‘Hinenu– here we stand,’ ready to come on as 12th man; and ready to set to work. In such communities, we find roots and commitment; and this is what Judaism can be. Grounding, in the story of our origin, a derekh to where we have to be.  

That I can stand here, committing my personal and professional life to making that Judaism compelling and available, is the greatest privilege.  I want to thank those who have especially brought me here, and I hope I can deserve and pay forward what has been given to me. Thank you. 

Rabbi Anthony Lazarus is the new rabbi for Mosaic Masorti.

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