Morton O. Schapiro will be inaugurated as the sixteenth president of Northwestern University on Friday. I wrote this note to him this morning.

This weekend we will celebrate the holiday of Shemini Atzeret – Simchat Torah. And in that time we will experience one of the great moments of the Jewish people, when we conclude the reading of the Torah and immediately begin reading it again.

Moses concludes the Torah with a blessing, from which the final Torah portion of the annual reading is drawn:

“V’zot habracha asher berach Moshe ish ha-Elohim lifnei moto,” “This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel before his death.” (Deut. 33:1)

It is appropriate that Moses’s final words to Israel are a blessing, as God’s original charge to Abraham–and by extension the Jewish people–is itself to be a blessing:

“And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go, go from your homeland, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and bless you, and make your name great. V’heyei bracha: And you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

Humanity itself is blessed as part of creation (Gen. 1:28). But in the bookends of Abraham and Moses, the experience of the Jewish people is particularly framed by the notion of bracha, blessing.

The words v’heyei bracha are ambiguous, and thus provide fertile ground for interpretation and commentary. The great medieval commentator Rashi understands them to mean that God has now given the power of blessing into the hands of human beings: we may choose whom and what to bless. The 13th-century commentator Ramban reads the words differently: “You will be the blessing through whom people make a blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Abraham.’ Or [we can understand the words to mean] that they, the people of the world, will be blessed because of you.”

Professor Schapiro, as you assume this important position of leadership, I want to invoke all three of these interpretations. Following Rashi, we can understand that with your office comes great power and responsibility: Your choices about where you show your blessing, where and with whom you spend your time, energies, and resources, will shape the lives of the members of this community. We pray that you will show wisdom with this power, and that you will use it for a blessing.

Per Ramban’s first interpretation, there are only fourteen others who have held this office (one was president twice). Their names have left an indelible mark on the university. Names like Hinman, Noyes, and Foster; Harris, Miller, Weber and Bienen. We pray that your Torah, your wisdom and teaching, will become a source of blessing that leaves a lasting legacy in your name.

And following Ramban’s final interpetation, we remember that your leadership at Northwestern will affect not only the members of this community, but indeed the entire world: through the students whose lives we shape; through the new discoveries and insights we find; through the good this institution does in the world. We pray that through your guidance, vision, and courage, Northwestern will be a source of blessing for all the people of the earth.

Your inauguration takes place on a Friday afternoon, as the sun is about to set and Shabbat and the holiday are about to enter. This is a special time for Jews, a time of particular blessing, when parents traditionally bless their children with the Priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. In closing we offer you this blessing, in the prayer that you will be a blessing for us all:

“May God, the source of life, the source of mystery, bless you and keep you.
“May the light of God’s face shine upon you and make you glow with grace.
“May God’s face turn toward you, and give you peace.”

Shabbat shalom, chag sameach, and in the words of Moses to Joshua, Chazak v’amatz: Be strong and courageous, and lead us all to be a blessing.

Josh

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Last week the newly-elected president of Northwestern University, Dr. Morton O. Schapiro, was on campus for a visit. Morty is a first-rate scholar and, more important, a mensch. I have a good feeling that he will bring some significant new ideas to the university.

When he took the stage, I was struck by the fact that while the audience clapped, they (we) did not stand. Perhaps it’s just the yeshiva student in me, but I have been disciplined such that when the head of your institution walks in the room, you stand up. There’s a great West Wing episode about this. Watch:

This quarter I’m taking a course on ritual theory, and today we were discussing academic gatherings of this sort and analyzing them as rituals. And I found myself asking, Why did no one stand up? There was frankly a lack of ritual in the introduction of the new president. He didn’t give a prepared address (though is impromptu comments were very good). There was no music or ceremony. And Morty is a simple guy–he goes by Morty, for crying out loud–so I’d imagine he’d say he wouldn’t want any ceremony.

But I think we forget something important about the power of ritual, the necessity for ritual, in moments like this. Ritual has been defined all kinds of ways, but one thing we know about it is that in creating ritual space, we create meaningful space. We create space and time in which we can be intentional, when we can act out our aspirations and sense of purpose. In moments of ritual, we bind together community in a sense of common mission.

That sense has been lacking at Northwestern for a long time, as it has at many other universities. (Though it’s only lacking on the official level. All the major events and activities that claim students’ attention outside the classroom at NU–Greek life, Theater, Dance Marathon–are steeped in ritual.) If we are going to rebuild a sense of community, I believe we have to begin by reclaiming ritual. And here’s a simple way to start: When the president of the university walks in the room, stand up.