Dedication of the Sulam Center at Nazareth College, 1 May 2017
Post date: May 1, 2017 6:58:53 PM
Welcome, Bruchim Haba’im, Ahlen w’sehlen. Esteemed members of the Nazareth Community, as well as our distinguished guests from the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths, and all of you present here today, welcome.
Before, anything else, it is important we thank the many people who worked and dedicated precious limited resources in order to create this space. President Braveman, Dr. Nowack, Jamie Fazio and the Center for Spirituality, Dr. Shafiq and the Hickey Center, Mohamad Ahamad who is leading our Muslim Student Association, and many others, including those involved with design, construction, and facilities. Thank you.
I am personally thankful to my Creator for bringing me to Nazareth College and letting me be a part of this place that nurtures both cooperation and critical thinking.
Our ancestors sacrificed animals in worship to God. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?
Continuing with the idea of animal sacrifices, there is a belief of sorts in Judaism, about the Messianic times, the world to come. In this utopian future, none of the animal sacrifices will be required save one.
There are many types of offerings, for sure: the guilt offering, wave offering, sin offering, the peace offering - in the future, only one offering will continue to be required, and that is, the Thanksgiving offering, zevach todah.
It is a testament to how important gratitude was to our ancestors.
Gratitude is so important, they realized, that even after the world has achieved Nirvana, we risk ruining it if we don’t express gratitude for it daily. In fact, I would propose that universal gratitude for our place and time in creation, whatever it may be, good and not good, our appreciation for that is a prerequisite for achieving Messianic utopia.
True gratitude is not just saying thank you for your gift, but using the gifts you have to their fullest.
In the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses, saying,
וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם.
“Build for me a sanctuary, that my presence will be in their midst.”
The act of creating a space dedicated for worship is, in and of itself, an act that invites us to be holy. It asks of us to be a reflection of our highest aspirations.
Note that God does not say, build me a sanctuary and I will dwell in it. That would be silly. Remember Robin Williams as the genie explaining his fate in Aladin? “Infinite power. Itty bitty living space.”
No, instead God says, “When you make space for Me, I will be a part of your lives.”
What’s in a name?
The hopes and aspirations of a parent.
The Sulam Center is today’s name. Perhaps we will find another name tomorrow. But more important than the name are our hopes and aspirations.
In Hebrew, the word sulam is one of those odd words that appears only once in the entirety of the Jewish Bible, but is thought to derive from ancient Akkadian, the language spoken in one of the earliest empires, Akkad.
In Islam, the sulam was considered by some scholars to have helped the Prophet in his journey of the Mir’aj.
In modern Arabic, the cognate “silma” means stair or staircase, but is used colloquially to mean a gathering. (Chelibelek…)
In the Book of Genesis, it is the ladder in “Jacob’s Ladder”.
In all uses of the word, it is a connector. It enables people both to rise up and come down to earth, so to speak.
And this is where our hopes and aspirations lie.
I could cite statistics that show hate crime is up. If I wanted, I could repeat statistics that show anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim violence rising in America, especially on college campuses.
They don't impress me.
Let me explain. Of course I care for the victims of baseless hatred and violence. Of course I care that justice should be served. Of course, I want to make the world we bequeath to our progeny, more accepting and more peaceful than than the one we inherited.
What I don’t care about is listening to statistics that are meant to engender outrage without finding ways to challenge that outrage into good.
I have little patience for documenting our failures in coexistence, unless they lead to improved ways to coexist.
Of course there are failures. Endeavor has no meaning without its attendant failure.
But too much of our news these days, I find, contains mere statistics without an honest discussion of why.
It is only by hypothesizing and proving - or disproving - the “why” that we can learn and grow. This is going up the ladder.
The God I believe in gave us an imperfect world to live in, and the agency to improve it.
I believe we can and must strive to make new history. For what is God’s greatest gift to us, if not the ability to choose, the ability to try something not tried before, and critically, the freedom to make mistakes and the wisdom to fix those mistakes.
We live in a strange time. Our ability to communicate with most of the world is unparalleled, and yet, we are more silo’ed than ever, creating communities of like minded people and eschewing those whom we deem to have inferior ideas.
This is a problem. We are talking in echo chambers, hearing the ideas of a few leaders parroted repeatedly, with regular people often unable or unwilling to seriously entertain positions that contradict their views, resorting to name calling and the multi-billion dollar business of outrage media.
Now, more than ever, we need what this room represents - a place to expect the best of ourselves, and a place to recognize the best in others.
The Sulam goes in both directions. Only half the time are we going to heaven.
Going down is just important.
While we aspire to greatness, our reality is here on earth. Friends can disagree. Situations sometimes lead to conflict. Reality is messy business.
Just the fact that the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar, whereas the Jewish calendar is a hybrid of lunar and solar virtually ensures there will be conflicts.
I look forward to the times we find that a Friday evening service and “Gom’aa” conflict; or that Id il Adha overlaps with Yom Kippur. I look forward to learning differences between Hallal and Kashrut. These are the bases of discussions that forward each of us to better understandings of one another. In Hebrew, we have the phrase machloket b’shaym shamayim - arguments in the name of heaven.
Not just for discussion and debate, I also look forward to breaking the fast on an evening in Ramadan with our brothers and sisters.
I look forward to sharing the Passover Seder with my Muslim cousins.
Mostly, I look forward to the inquiry, discussion, and debate that will naturally emerge from fertile, thoughtful, and inquisitive minds. May they all be “Machloket B’Shaym Shamayim” - arguments made in the spirit of improving the world.
When we make space for our loftiest aspirations, they can take root and grow.
This Sulam Center represents the loftiest aspiration that we can pursue, to sanctify God’s name through acts that create and strengthen community.
I pray that this Sulam Center, this holy space, lives up to its name, for many years and many generations of Nazareth students, faculty, and staff to come.
Let us all say thank you by using this space to achieve the loftiest of aspirations, to make peace among ourselves, the children of God.
-Samuel Asher, 5 Iyyar 5777, 1 May 2017