Remarks by Rabbi Brander at the WIHL Graduation Ceremony

Rabbi Brander speaksThe following remarks were delivered in Hebrew by Ohr Torah Stone President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, at the graduation ceremony of Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes, Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis, and Rabbanit Chamutal Shoval from the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) on June 2, 2021 at Midreshet Lindenbaum.

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מַאי ״וְגִילוּ בִּרְעָדָה״? אָמַר רַב אַדָּא בַּר מַתְנָא אָמַר רַבָּה: בִּמְקוֹם גִּילָה שָׁם תְּהֵא רְעָדָה.

What is the meaning of “rejoice with trembling”? Rav Adda bar Mattana said that Rabba said:
One may not experience unbridled joy; even where there is rejoicing, there should be trembling.

The Gemara in Tractate Berachot states that even in times of great joy, there can simultaneously be trepidation.

That is exactly how I feel tonight. On the one hand, tremendous joy. I think of the first Talmud class that was delivered to women at Stern college in 1977 and the fact that before us we have three women who have engaged in Torah learning on the highest level and have significant halakhic stature.

It is nothing less than amazing. What we celebrate here tonight is a continuation of the shiur that was given by the Rav 44 years agoץ

The commitment by the faculty – Rabbanit Devorah Evron, Rav Shmuel Klistner, Rav Shuki Reich, Rav Baruch Gigi, Rav Ohad Tharlev, and Rav Aviad Sanders -has brought us to this point.

Of course, we must acknowledge the families, spouses and children of our graduates who have given up so much. Your wives, your mothers – our fellows have made our beit midrash their second home (and before bechinot, perhaps even their first home).

We are also privileged to have with us here tonight Rav Shlomo Riskin – whose vision planted the seed for this initiative.

To the graduates: I urge you to realize that more important that any particular שך or טז that you studied, any particular sugya in Shas or halakha that you mastered, any particularשו”ת  you have internalized, your diploma continues to be meaningful if your limud haTorah endures.

כי הם חיינו ואורך ימנו ובהם נהגה יומם ולילה

For the Torah is our life and the length of our days, and we shall contemplate it by day and by night

As it has been for the past half decade, you must continue your limud haTorah for the rest of your life. That is what gives you stature and your degree its value and integrity.

Yet our goal must not just be צמאה לך נפשי ( Psalm 63:2, “my soul thirsts for You”). For that would be a form of spiritual narcissism.

We are not just technicians of halakha, we are also shapers of society’s future. We need to teach and interact with all Jews… those formally engaged and those who are not yet formally engaged, introducing and discussing with all the value of Torah and Jewish living.

Chana, Shira and Chamutal; you really have the capacity to change the Jewish world.

There is a Gemara in Berachot about Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s final days:

וּכְשֶׁחָלָה רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי נִכְנְסוּ תַּלְמִידָיו לְבַקְּרוֹ. כֵּיוָן שֶׁרָאָה אוֹתָם הִתְחִיל לִבְכּוֹת. אָמְרוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידָיו: ״נֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַמּוּד הַיְּמִינִי, פַּטִּישׁ הֶחָזָק״, מִפְּנֵי מָה אַתָּה בּוֹכֶה?

When Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai fell ill his students entered to visit him. When he saw them, he began to cry. His students said to him: Lamp of Israel, the right pillar, the mighty hammer, the man whose life’s work is the foundation of the future of the Jewish people, for what reason are you crying? With a life as complete as yours, what is upsetting you?

אָמַר לָהֶם: אִילּוּ לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ בָּשָׂר וָדָם הָיוּ מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתִי, שֶׁהַיּוֹם כָּאן וּמָחָר בַּקֶּבֶר, שֶׁאִם כּוֹעֵס עָלַי אֵין כַּעֲסוֹ כַּעַס עוֹלָם, וְאִם אוֹסְרֵנִי — אֵין אִיסּוּרוֹ אִיסּוּר עוֹלָם, וְאִם מְמִיתֵנִי — אֵין מִיתָתוֹ מִיתַת עוֹלָם, וַאֲנִי יָכוֹל לְפַיְּיסוֹ בִּדְבָרִים וּלְשַׁחֲדוֹ בְּמָמוֹן, אַף עַל פִּי כֵן הָיִיתִי בּוֹכֶה, וְעַכְשָׁיו שֶׁמּוֹלִיכִים אוֹתִי לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁהוּא חַי וְקַיָּים לְעוֹלָם וּלְעוֹלְמֵי עוֹלָמִים, שֶׁאִם כּוֹעֵס עָלַי — כַּעֲסוֹ כַּעַס עוֹלָם, וְאִם אוֹסְרֵנִי — אִיסּוּרוֹ אִיסּוּר עוֹלָם, וְאִם מְמִיתֵנִי — מִיתָתוֹ מִיתַת עוֹלָם, וְאֵינִי יָכוֹל לְפַיְּיסוֹ בִּדְבָרִים וְלֹא לְשַׁחֲדוֹ בְּמָמוֹן. וְלֹא עוֹד, אֶלָּא שֶׁיֵּשׁ לְפָנַי שְׁנֵי דְרָכִים, אַחַת שֶׁל גַּן עֵדֶן וְאַחַת שֶׁל גֵּיהִנָּם, וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ בְּאֵיזוֹ מוֹלִיכִים אוֹתִי, וְלֹא אֶבְכֶּה?!

He said to them: I cry in fear of heavenly judgment, as the judgment of the heavenly court is unlike the judgment of man. If they were leading me before a flesh and blood king whose life is temporal, who is here today and dead in the grave tomorrow; if he is angry with me, his anger is not eternal and, consequently, his punishment is not eternal; if he incarcerates me, his incarceration is not an eternal incarceration, as I might maintain my hope that I would ultimately be freed. If he kills me, his killing is not for eternity, as there is life after any death that he might decree. Moreover, I am able to appease him with words and even bribe him with money, and even so I would cry when standing before royal judgment. Now that they are leading me before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who lives and endures forever and all time; if He is angry with me, His anger is eternal; if He incarcerates me, His incarceration is an eternal incarceration; and if He kills me, His killing is for eternity. I am unable to appease Him with words and bribe him with money. Moreover, but I have two paths before me, one of the Garden of Eden and one of Gehenna, and I do not know on which they are leading me; and will I not cry?

The Gemara ends with the following:

בִּשְׁעַת פְּטִירָתוֹ, אָמַר לָהֶם: פַּנּוּ כֵּלִים מִפְּנֵי הַטּוּמְאָה, וְהָכִינוּ כִּסֵּא לְחִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה שֶׁבָּא.

At the time of his death, immediately beforehand, he said to them: Remove the vessels from the house and take them outside due to the ritual impurity that will be imparted by my corpse, which they would otherwise contract. And prepare a chair for Hezekiah, the King of Judea, who is coming from the upper world to accompany me.

Why was Hizkiyahu, King of Judah, coming to escort Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai to either Olam Haba or Gehenom?

Why davka Hizkiyahu?

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai made the decision to allow for the physical destruction of Jerusalem in order to guarantee the spiritual future of the Jewish people: תן לי יבנה וחכמיה – Give me Yavneh and the Rabbinic sages.

He made the decision to give up on Jerusalem to protect a larger interest –Jewish life and Torat Hashem.

Many objected to Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s decision.

Hizkiyahu also made choices not always favorable to all. He tried to bribe the King of Assyria not to invade Jerusalem, and when that did not work, he prepared for the siege of Ashur; sacrificing certain cities in Judea, redirecting the Gihon water source so that the Assryian army would not have access to  fresh water, reinforcing the walls around Jerusalem to protect the city and causing the destruction of the homes of the poor that were on the outskirts of the city.

In fact, Yeshayahu and later the Talmud Bavli, criticizes Hizkiyahu for some of these initiatives. Yet he performed them because he wished to do everything in his power to guarantee the future of his people.

Like Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, he was successful – but made unprecedented decisions.

States Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai to his students – like Hizkiyahu, I made decisions with the best of intentions. But I am unsure if they were correct. When I die, Hizkiyahu will be there to escort me to Heaven or to Gehonom, for I am not sure how the Heavenly Court will react to our decisions.

I would be dishonest with you if I didn’t share the trepidation that I feel at this moment. The רעדה (trepidation) is not born from concern of hidden agendas by the women of this program – neither the current students nor the alumnae. On the contrary, I am impressed by their complete commitment to Torat Yisrael, their loyalty to all aspects of halakha, and their true desire to make a difference in Israeli society and world Jewry, all within the halakhic system.

My concern is that as we promote change and do so within the framework of the mesorah, will we be fragmenting our community and causing internal strife?

There is a difference between leading and walking alone. We need to be leading, not walking alone.

אֶלָּא שֶׁיֵּשׁ לְפָנַי שְׁנֵי דְרָכִים, אַחַת שֶׁל גַּן עֵדֶן וְאַחַת שֶׁל גֵּיהִנָּם, וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ בְּאֵיזוֹ מוֹלִיכִים אוֹתִי

but I have two paths before me, one of the Garden of Eden and one of Gehenna, and I do not know on which they are leading me; and will I not cry?

We are doing this for all the right reasons, but it is nonetheless a sea change in the history of our people. We must try to maintain achdut and humility while at the same time convening all the resources possible in our pedagogic arsenal and in community support to move this forward.

Together we must pursue a path of advancement that is within the rubric of our mesorah, enabling us to ensure that women continue to play significant Torah leadership roles.

So, on this joyous night, I say to all our students but in particular to our graduates – our Talmidot Chachamim – our courageous women Rabbanit Hannah, Rabbanit Shira, and Rabbanit Chanutal, mazal tov. You have accomplished something momentous and unprecedented within the Torah community.

We will continue to walk with you and do whatever we can to be supportive; we will continue to be proud of your accomplishments and bless God for having such amazing students, now partners in moving the Jewish story forward.

Mazal Tov!

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