Monthly Archives: October 2015

Seeking Ourselves for the Greater Good – Lekh Lekha 5776

Back in Great Neck (you might have heard me use that phrase a few times already in the last two-and-a-half months) I used to teach a workshop for benei mitzvah families, wherein we spoke about (among other things) our understanding of God. And every single time we had the God discussion, I would emphasize that where you are at age thirteen in your understanding of God is probably not where you’ll be at age 18, or 22, or 40, or 65. I actually wish that somebody had told ME that when I was preparing to become bar mitzvah.

But nobody did, so I had to figure this out for myself.

As we move through life, we change. The character and quality of our interpersonal relationships change. Our outlook changes. Some of the things we value as teenagers eventually seem ridiculous, and things that once seemed irrelevant have value. And even when the circumstances of our lives are not dramatically altered, sometimes the internal journey is much more powerful and revealing.

Consider, for example, our relationships with our parents. Mark Twain gave us the following piece of wisdom: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

Our understanding of God and ourselves is central to Parashat Lekh Lekha. How does the parashah open? God tells Avram, (Gen. 12:1)

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

Lekh lekha me-artzekha, umimoladtekha, umibeit avikha, el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.

Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Those two deceptively simple words, lekh lekha, are translated (New JPS) as “Go forth.” But the depth concealed within those three simple syllables is astounding.

First, we know nothing about Avram. Nothing more than his lineage and that (at the end of Parashat Noah last week) his father Terah had once started to emigrate to Canaan, but was sidetracked and remained in Haran. There is nothing that suggests that Avram is the right person to be sent on this journey, or that he is somehow holier or more pious or more intelligent or capable than anybody else.

Second, there is no indication, at least in this verse, that Avram has any clue where he is supposed to go once he has left his family behind; he only knows that God will show him. This is an entirely indeterminate journey.

Third, the imperative “lekh lekha” is grammatically difficult. To translate it literally, it might be saying, “Go unto you.” Given the complexities of translation, particularly from ancient to modern languages, it is nonetheless clear that this phrase speaks volumes.

Yes, it seems that God is telling Avram to leave his ancestral homeland (which would today be located in Iraq) and go somewhere else. But even more so, Avram is also being urged to take not only a physical journey, but a spiritual one as well – to leave the idolatrous landscape of his family, and to start anew in a headspace that only features the one true God. And the drastic nature of his physical journey reflects the challenge of the spiritual journey.

Rashi tells us that the “lekha” suggests, “For your own benefit and for your own advantage.” That is, Avram’s move will be good for him. What follows the opening verse, of course, is a promise that he will sire a great nation, a promise that will ultimately be reiterated to Isaac and Jacob as well.

But we must read this promise as not just a physical benefit, but also a theological benefit. Avram’s journey is to improve himself, to seek the proper way to live, to find his true nature, but it also encompasses his initiation of a monotheistic legacy, which will ultimately impact much of the world.

All the more so, says Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, in his analysis of Lekh Lekha. We are each endowed with our own unique challenges, our natural characteristics, which may include some unsavory aspects, like anger or lust or pride. But we are also given the opportunity to rise to the occasion to fulfill our own particular roles in this world to do good.

Avram’s spiritual journey, then, is the challenge of self-discovery as well as self-improvement. He is ordered to leave his home, his family, to go off to some unknown place far away. But he will surmount this difficulty and thus fulfill his role as the common ancestor of all monotheistic traditions.

And the Slonimer Rebbe takes it even further: Lekh lekha tells us not only that it is Avram’s role to overcome the idolatry of his youth, but that it is the role of every single Jewish person to repair one’s own soul so that we might go on to repair the world. And furthermore, he says, it is not enough merely to learn Torah, to pray, to perform mitzvot / commandments. Rather, he says, when one arrives in heaven, s/he will be asked, “What did you DO in the physical world?” And what Rabbi Berezovsky is telling us is that even the most pious among us, the ones who davened three times a day, every day and never even so much as looked at an un-hekhshered slice of cheese pizza, we will be challenged to demonstrate that we have pursued the iqqar, the principle item of importance. And that iqqar is not ritual acts or Torah study, but rather tiqqun olam, repairing the world. Doing good works with our hands for the benefit of others in need, for the greater good of humanity. That is the essential physical task of life.

OK, that’s great rabbi, but what do I do? How do I know what my role is in this very fractured world?

Well, so I am sorry to say that I cannot tell you that. That is only something that you can determine for yourself. That is what Avram did by leaving his homeland and moving to Canaan.

But his seeking of himself does not end with his arrival in Canaan; in fact, upon arrival, he almost immediately departs to Egypt. Later we find him moving to and fro in Canaan, digging for wells in Beersheva, journeying to Moriah, what will eventually be called Jerusalem, to climb a mountain that will some day be the spiritual focal point for his offspring, and so forth. His is a lifetime of seeking; he never quite completes the journey.

And so too do we continue to seek. Our journey goes on.

Every week at the conclusion of Shabbat, we recite words from Isaiah (12:3):

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה

Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’aynei hayeshua.

Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.

Those wells are within us. Yes, Avram may have traveled all over the ancient Middle East in seeking himself, in going forth unto himself. We do not necessarily have to do that. (Of course, a trip to Israel that includes a visit to the holy sites of Jerusalem and hikes in the desert and a good soak in Yam HaMelah / the Dead Sea can indeed be revelatory.)

We do not have to seek outside of ourselves; we can find the answers about what our individual or collective roles are within, deep in those internal wells of salvation. But we do have to look. And that takes work – not unlike the physical challenge posed by God to Avram to pick up and leave his homeland and his father’s house. And it also takes time, as we mature and learn ever more about ourselves.

As we attempt to frame our lives with meaning, the key question, then, posed by the Torah and by Jewish tradition, is not our understanding of God, but rather how we understand ourselves.

Most of us will probably not receive a direct commandment from God to pick up and leave home. But we will all face a changed understanding of ourselves and how we relate to God and the world as we age. Many of us, I hope, will reach beyond our comfort zone into those deep wells in search of our true selves, to look for that role that we all might play in repairing the world. You don’t have to move to Israel or enroll full-time in the Jewish Theological Seminary to do so, but you do have to dig. Each of us has that potential; I hope that you will act on it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/24/2015.)

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Torah and Science: Living with Contradiction – Bereshit 5776

My daughter is in third grade. She loves being Jewish, and Judaism is the fabric of her life. Last year, in second grade, she started to express ambivalence about God and the Torah. She had encountered the theological conundrum that many of us face as young adults or even later in life. How can we accept the story of Creation as truth, when scientific inquiry has yielded a vastly different story? How can we accept the Torah as legitimate if it is not verifiably true, according to scientific principles? Doesn’t the whole Judaic enterprise come crashing down if the Torah conflicts with science? (OK, so she didn’t really ask those particular questions, but in any case I was not expecting this for many more years…)

I have arrived at my own response to these questions, and we’ll come back to that in a few minutes. But meanwhile I would like to take you on a wee tour of the first chapters of Bereshit / Genesis.

There are not one, but two Creation stories in Bereshit. The first is the six-days-of-Creation- followed-by-God’s-resting-on-the-seventh-day story. That is all of chapter 1 of Bereshit (begins on p. 2 / 3), plus the first few verses of chapter 2 (p. 6 / 13).

The second story is a different take on Creation, and features “HaAdam” and “HaIshah” (the man and the woman) as the first two human characters. It begins in the second half of 2:4 (p. / 13), and continues for the rest of chapter two (until p. 10 / 17).

These two stories are very different for a number of reasons: the first is ordered, numbered, logical. It constantly reminds us that God admires Creation and labels it “good.” It suggests the tone of an engineer designing a linear, sensible world, in which everything is measured and put in its proper place. The creation of humans, man and woman together, occurs at the end of the process, because we all know that human beings will inevitably foul this orderly, organized world.

The second story, however, is somewhat more chaotic. It presents a different order of things, in which HaAdam, the man, is fashioned from the ground (“adamah”) much earlier in the process, and is almost a partner in Creation. The woman appears later, only after God realizes that the man must be lonely (2:18). The woman, of course, is fashioned from the rib of the man, and for this reason the second story seems to suggest a much more complex relationship not only between HaAdam and God, but also between HaAdam and HaIshah, a complexity that will play itself out in events later in the parashah.

In addition to the content of the story, it is also immediately apparent that the style of writing between the two stories is quite different; the first is almost mechanical, while the second tells a story of the interplay between the three characters (God, man, woman) as the world comes into being. They use different names for God, and draw on a different vocabulary. The second story speaks of emotion; it describes one origin of the human condition.

Torah

The classic medieval commentators, who detected these differences, tried to resolve the two stories by explaining that the second story is merely an elaboration on the first. (Rashi, for example, glosses this difficulty by citing a hermeneutical principle that suggests that the Torah frequently states a general idea, e.g. the creation of people, and follows it with specific details, e.g. that HaAdam helped in naming all the plants.)

But the commentators can only take it so far because their agenda is to resolve problems, to make sure that the Torah seems like a unified document, that everything flows nicely and is not contradictory.

Problem is, it breaks down under close scrutiny!

A better way of understanding these two stories, of which we are capable because we live in the 21st century and not the 11th, is that they do not have to comment on each other. There is no need to resolve them to make sense. Rather, here is one story, and here is another.

Why is this OK? Because we can handle it. We are committed enough to our Judaism to accept that this is just one more contradiction of many: How, for example, can God be all-good and all-powerful if humans suffer needlessly? How could Moses have taken dictation from God about his own death (as we discussed on Simhat Torah, Baba Batra 15a)? How could Haman be a descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites if King Saul and the judge Samuel killed all of them? How can it be that the shofar is permitted on Rosh Hashanah but not on Shabbat? How can it be that the Talmud explicitly permits women to be called to the Torah, but contemporary Orthodoxy still forbids it?*

Anybody who wants you to believe that everything makes sense in Jewish life is trying to sell you a bill of goods. It doesn’t. And we have lived with many of those contradictions for thousands of years, sitting there on the Jewish bookshelf.

Please now recall our guiding principle when discussing the Torah: “What does this mean to us?”

Let’s return now to another contradiction: the Torah tells us a few things about the creation of the world. But those of us who have had a secular education (i.e. just about all of us) know and understand that science tells us a story that cannot possibly be resolved with either story found in the Torah: that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, that it originated in an infinitely dense point that suddenly exploded outwards (the “Big Bang”), that the Earth is hardly the center of the universe, that various forms of life evolved gradually from simple self-replicating proteins to the many complex species that exist today.

“Miller-Urey experiment-en” by GYassineMrabetTalk✉This vector image was created with Inkscape.iThe source code of this SVG is valid. – Own work from Image:MUexperiment.png.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miller-Urey_experiment-en.svg#/media/File:Miller-Urey_experiment-en.svg

Yes, there are people who will tell you that the six-day story of Bereshit chapter 1 is meant to be interpreted such that each day represents a much longer time (an average of two billion years per day!), and that the order in which things were created roughly echoes the way that scientists have envisioned the unfolding of the universe. While this explanation might satisfy some, I cannot accept it – it requires too much force to squeeze the first Genesis story into that scheme. How is it, for example, that there could have been liquid water (1:2) at the beginning if the initial act of Creation (i.e. before vayhi or, “let there be light”) was a cataclysmic explosion? And how could there have been green plants and fruit-bearing trees (vv. 1:11-12) when there were not yet Sun, Moon, and stars (1:14:18)? And then what happens to the second Creation story? No, I am sorry to say that this does not work for me, either.

So what is a scientifically-minded chemical-engineer-turned-cantor-turned-rabbi to do? The only possible answer to these questions is not to try to resolve them. They can occupy two different parts of our brains, and not be troubled by each other. Just like the two Creation stories that disagree with each other are side-by-side in the opening chapters of the Torah, so too can these two perspectives sit side-by-side in our heads.

Because, really, the apparent challenge of the scientific story vs. that of the Torah is a bogus challenge. They do not need to be resolved, because they are, in fact, answering different questions.

There was an article in the New York Times magazine back in April about the language of science vs. religion which spoke to these apparent contradictions. The author, T. M. Luhrmann, pointed to recent scholarly articles that suggest that religious belief and scientific understanding occupy two entirely different areas of our consciousness. We use different words and concepts when discussing faith or science. Religion speaks to “Why?”; science answers “How?” Religion uses the subjective language of belief, but science is about observed laws and principles and measurable evidence.

Ms. Luhrmann cites a story that suggests that the non-intermingling of the two areas is both healthy and common, courtesy of the anthropologist and physician, Dr. Paul Farmer,

…about a woman who had taken her tuberculosis medication and been cured — and who then told Dr. Farmer that she was going to get back at the person who had used sorcery to make her ill. “But if you believe that,” he cried, “why did you take your medicines?” In response to the great doctor she replied, in essence, “Honey, are you incapable of complexity?”

In one realm, that of the rational person living in a time of great technological advancement based on the principles of science, the Big Bang model answers all of the questions surrounding the origin of the universe. It is an answer that makes sense through the lens of academic inquiry.

In another frame of mind, that of the Jewish person of any era who turns to our national Jewish story to help make sense of this world, the stories of Bereshit answer our greater questions.

The Torah and the Big Bang are indeed contradictory, but they can both be understood to be true in some sense. They are different lenses through which we can understand our world. They occupy different places in our consciousness; you might say that the Big Bang belongs to the mind, while Bereshit resides in the heart.

The Torah teaches us values, how to live a meaningful life, why we should care about others. It helps us to answer the question of “Why?” Science is not concerned with meaning – it toils in the “What?” and the “How?”

We need both the “Why?” and the “How?” and the answers that follow them. We need both science and Judaism, so that we can be in balance with ourselves and our world. We need the Big Bang, and we need Bereshit.

Shabbat Shalom!

* See Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23a. The reason given in the Talmud for not calling women to the Torah is “kevod hatzibbur,” “the honor of the community.” However, in a world in which women can be doctors, lawyers, CEOs, professors, and perhaps President of the United States, why would calling a woman to the Torah be shameful to the community? Furthermore, traditional Jews who indulge in the apologetic claim that women are exempt from mitzvot because they are “on a higher spiritual plane” and therefore don’t need them are perhaps unaware that it seems ridiculous that women are on a higher spiritual plane but nonetheless cannot be called to the Torah. Wouldn’t we want those endowed with extra “spirituality” to be the ones who lead us in prayer?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/10/2015.)

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Memory and Compassion – Shemini Atzeret / Yizkor 5776

This is a day of memory, a day when we recall those who shaped us, who gave our lives meaning by their presence and wisdom and love.

We Jews excel at remembering. There is a reason for that: through centuries of exile, persecution, dispersion, displacement, forced conversions, and so on, we had to cling to our history, because often it was all we could take with us.

Memory is what drives the Jewish world. It is what keeps us Jewish. Our past sustains our traditions; our ancient stories have nourished us and comforted us and granted us joy for thousands of years. When we had no homeland, when we had no safe haven, when we were being burned in autos-da-fe or tried for treason or marched into gas chambers, we could always take with us what we held in our hearts, the words of our tradition, our rituals, our ancient stories. We could always take with us our own personal tales of struggle and faith, of our poor yet pious great-grandparents who came from a far-off land to build a new life where they were free to be Jewish.

We are our memories. To borrow from the language of Birkat Shehehiyyanu, which we say upon reaching any milestone, our memories have kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day. And that’s a good thing.

But it may not be enough today. It may not be enough for our children and grandchildren, because the world is changing so dramatically. Our memories are catalogued extensively, yes. Today we are blessed to have huge libraries containing millions of volumes about the Jewish world that was, Jewish studies departments at universities all over the world, Jewish scholars and Jewish artists and Jewish websites and archives and museums.

And we have the greatest set of Jewish resources before us in history, resources that would make Rashi and Rambam green with envy, had they foreseen these things in the 11th and 12th centuries. We have electronic resources, instantly searchable, with which you can find virtually anything on the Jewish bookshelf. We have fantastically footnoted and interpreted translations that make the Tanakh and Talmud and midrashim and halakhic codes instantly accessible. We have databases in which you can easily peruse all the great works of the Jewish bookshelf.

And yet, as we move forward, I see the lights of Jewish memory fading in the eyes of our children, lost in the din of billions of gigabytes of information. As we integrate our devices into everything we do, we run the risk of losing sight of what the important things are.

There are rabbis in this world who rail against the use of computers and smartphones and the evil Internet because they are corrupting influences that draw us away from God and Judaism. I am not one of them (as you may know, my sermons are all accessible online). But I am concerned that our electronic interconnectedness has the effect of de-emphasizing distinctiveness, of flattening everything out so that every piece of information is the same value as every other.

So one irony of today’s Jewish world is that while we have more tools at our fingertips thanks to the Information Age, the noise and distractions with which these tools come make our ancient messages, our holy memories, harder to hear.

How do we cut through the noise to ensure that our tradition of memory is carried on? We have to change the tone.

My inspiration here comes not from Rashi or Rambam, but from a contemporary spiritual leader of tremendous importance: Pope Francis. Francis, who is the first Jesuit pope and the first from the Americas, has been masterful in changing the tone of the Roman Catholic church, something that the church sorely needed. In his tour of the United States that coincided with the Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance (as well as the annual Muslim hajj festivities), the Pope spoke in several venues to re-affirm what has become the trademark of his papacy: to focus less on standard church doctrine and more on the many good things that the church and that religious people of all sorts do all over the world: acts of compassion.

Francis is the Conservative rabbi’s favorite pope. He is a good friend of a Conservative rabbi from Buenos Aires, the rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (the JTS of Latin America), Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he co-authored a book on faith and frequently appeared for public lectures and discussions. Dr. Eve Keller, a good friend and former congregant of mine from Great Neck teaches at Fordham University, a Jesuit school, and she refers to the the Jesuits as the Conservative movement of the Catholic church: dedicated to academic scholarship, progressive, and committed to tradition.

While there are some in the church want to hear the pope speak against abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and the hot-button issues of our time, Pope Francis uses every opportunity to remind the world that there are poor, needy people everywhere who lack the essentials for a decent life. He has placed the concept of mercy front-and-center. While he has not changed significantly the church’s position on anything, he has changed the tone, changed the discourse.

When he spoke before the joint session of the United States Congress on September 24th, he quoted the principle that appears in the Christian scriptures (Matthew 7:12) and is known widely as the Golden Rule, but we in the Jewish world know it as the sage Hillel’s advice to a potential convert as the summation of the Torah. The pope said the following:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…

Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.

This was a reminder, in the most public forum that the pope had during his visit, that the social and political flashpoints that divide us are not, as we say in Hebrew, the ‘iqqar, the central principle of the church, or of any religious tradition, including ours. Rather, the essential message is, to use Hillel’s phrasing (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a): “Do not do unto others what is hateful unto you; all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”

Ultimately, we will be judged not on our devotion to halakhic minutiae or the dogmatic details of religious belief, but on how we have treated others. Have we made compassion the default option? Have we allowed only the holiest words to emerge from our mouths? Have we really worked to change this world for the better, to improve the lot of the poor, of the disenfranchised?

In the book co-written by Rabbi Abraham Skorka and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the rabbi cites a midrash about the Tower of Babel. The Torah tells us one story of God’s objection to the tower. But the midrash suggests that the real reason that God foiled the builders’ plans is that they were more concerned about bricks falling out, and thus slowing down the work, than if a worker were to fall and be killed.

The big picture was lost in the focus on the small details. The sanctity of life, the holiness of our relationships became obscured by the noise of the construction site, the business at hand.

What is our big picture? Is it Jewish law? Is it the performance of mitzvot / commandments? Is it the lifelong commitment to Jewish learning? Is it ritual, services, holidays, waving the lulav/etrog, sitting in the sukkah, etc.?

Those things are all important; they are the behaviors that define us as Jews, and have maintained our distinctiveness and our relationship to God. But the central message to which all of these Jewish activities should lead, the one that we must recall on this day of memory, is compassion.

Each of us has the potential to play a special, sacred role in this very fractured world: to do good works for others, for the sake of those who have come before us.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, alav hashalom, became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at age 3. He grew up on a farm near Boston with a foster family, Jewish farmers who were decent people. He did not finish high school. But he was a good person who always took care of the people around him. He operated a candy store during the Depression, but lost it because he gave free stuff away to anybody who came in and asked. I never heard him say a negative word about anybody, except about the people who once sold him some stock that ultimately tanked. My mother tells me that he complimented his wife, my grandmother, on her cooking, no matter how badly dinner was burned. When I think of this sweet, sweet man, I remember how essential it is to be kind and gracious to everybody, to give all people, strangers or loved ones, a fair shake in life.

The memory of our ancestors, of the people they were, of the good things they did, of the hard work that enabled them to survive and us to thrive, should inspire us to continue to do good works in this world, to practice acts of passion and compassion.

That is the essential message, the one that Pope Francis and I hope will rise above the din of all the chaos in our lives, the one that previous generations gave us and that we will pass on to those who come after us.

As we turn now to recall those who endowed us, the living, with the ability to effect positive change in this world, we should not forget that remembrance is not a momentary prayer. It is a daily choice. Let our prayerful moments today translate into good works for others tomorrow.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shemini Atzeret, Monday morning, 10/5/2015.) 

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Opening the Doors – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5776

Over the last year, the Forward newspaper ran a series of articles by Abigail Pogrebin about Jewish holidays entitled, “18 Holidays: One Wondering Jew.” Ms. Pogrebin committed to observing traditionally the full year of holidays, from Rosh Hashanah through Tish’ah Be’Av. Although she is Jewish, she had never done so, and she supplemented her observance by speaking with a number of rabbis and Jewish leaders and scholars of all sorts. It was a very thoughtful project, and a pleasure to read.

I must confess that I read her attempts to get to the bottom of Jewish holiday observance with a certain smugness – after all, this is the life that I lead, and these are the thoughts that I had as I took upon myself later in life to be a traditionally-observant Jew. I’ve had these conversations with myself and others. I’ve struggled with the line between appreciating the holidays and feeling overwhelmed by them (particularly in the month of Tishrei, which is stacked with many festive days). Even though I grew up in an observant home, my awareness and observance of the halakhic details of these days is much higher than it was in childhood – we barely knew of the existence of Shavuot, for example, and Tish’ah Be’Av, as far as I knew, only happened at Jewish summer camp.

Her conclusion to the series appeared a few weeks ago, and what I found to be most fascinating about it were her responses to a question which, she claimed, she has been asked over and over: “Did it change you?”

Did this year of six fast days, thirteen yamim tovim / festival days, nine hol hamo’ed / intermediate non-yom-tov festival days, twelve or so minor-holiday days, forty-nine days of counting the Omer, eleven Rosh Hodesh / new month days, three weeks of summer grieving for the destruction of the Temple, and a whopping fifty Shabbatot improve her life? Did these observances grant her more awareness, make her feel more grateful?

Here are her answers to that question:

Yes, because the mindfulness it incited — an unexpected wakefulness — made me look harder at every priority, every relationship, time itself.

No, because I still get restless in long services.

Yes, because I now see the point of rituals I used to think were pointless.

No, because I still don’t see the point of many rituals.

In short, it was a mixed bag. Ms. Pogrebin expresses relief for having survived (!), and states candidly for the record that she will never do it again. She also confesses that she was not able to fully carry out some Shabbat and Yom Tov principles – she did not succeed in turning off her phone, for example (something to which I very much look forward on holidays) – and in some cases used her journalistic distance to avoid immersing herself entirely in the experience of some holidays.But she also clearly states that there is significant value in our tradition, that some things which had never been clear were now sensible and rewarding.

Her project points to a particular set of challenges that Judaism poses for the contemporary person, challenges that must be addressed, moving forward:

  1. Why do we do all the things that we do?
  2. What is the value in performing these rituals and customs?
  3. Who has time for all these holidays?
  4. And, if I have successfully come up with the justification, the time, and the inclination to dig deeper into Jewish life, where do I start?

These are questions that we must answer as a community. If we don’t, we have no future.

Here is a brief story about tradition, which you may have heard before: Mrs. Goldberg is preparing a brisket for Rosh Hashanah. Her young daughter is watching, and she notices that before she puts it in the oven, she cuts off both ends of the brisket, what looks like perfectly good meat, and she throws them away.

“Why do you do that, Ima?” asks young Hannale.

“That’s the way my mother did it,” reports Mrs. Goldberg. “Let’s ask her.”

They call the grandmother and ask. “That’s the way my mother did it,” says Bubbe. “Let’s ask her.”

They call the great-grandmother and ask the same question. “Why did you cut off the ends of the brisket?” She answers, “Because my pan was too small.”

(BTW, this is such a well-known story with so many variants that it has its own snopes.com entry!)

***

As Abigail Pogrebin states, most of us do not observe the holidays the way that she did over the past year. And most of us do not know why we do what we do. But many of us grew up in homes in which certain things were done, but we were not sure why. But we did them because, well, that’s just the way we do things.

We like preserving things. There is a general principle in rabbinic Judaism: Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu. Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.

But times, as we know, have changed. Nothing may be taken for granted any more. The transmission of the brisket recipe, let alone many more essential Jewish rituals, have been left behind. The cycle of expecting our children to make the same choices that we have has broken down in the ocean of infinite choice set before each of us. At the last United Synagogue convention, two years ago, Rabbi Ed Feinstein described America as “choice on steroids.” Given that, we will have to rebuild our notions of what it means to be Jewish.

Ms. Pogrebin describes the value of observing the holidays traditionally as follows:

Something intensifies. Like when my eye doctor gives me option “1 or 2” when he sets my eyeglass prescription, I suddenly saw option 2. The Jewish schedule heightened the stakes somehow -— reminding me repeatedly how precarious life is; how impatient our tradition is with complacency; how obligated we are to aid those with less; how lucky we are to have so much food, so much history, so much family.

I was honestly, maybe saccharinely, moved by mundanity itself — and its simplest joys — more than ever before. The small stuff got sweeter — in my normal, non-religious life: The way my daughter and son talk to each other when they don’t know I can hear them. The way something tastes after a fast. The sight of a delivery guy loaded with bags on his bicycle. My baby sitter’s loss of her brother in Trinidad. The ease of having my college friends at one table. I marked more. Paid attention. Lingered longer.

And yet, her conclusions suggest that the bar is too high. She sees the value in following the cycle of holidays, and yet she is unable to fulfill all the expectations. She is open to it, but still will not jump in. If not her, then who?

You might make the case that the holiday season is about being open:

  • Open to tradition
  • Open to God
  • Open to community
  • Open to forgiveness; but mostly
  • Open to others

Sukkot, of all holidays, suggests these things the most. On these days, we invite others into our tents; it is about celebration tinged with the lingering sense of repentance and forgiveness. It is about looking back over the holiday cycle and forward into the coming year. Openness. Wistfulness. Frailty. Joy.

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We have to open more doors, so that more Jews will enter, so that more will find the same benefits that Abigail Pogrebin discovered: the heightened joys, the greater appreciation, the increased awareness of the need to see beyond one’s own nose. There is a real, tangible value to being invested in Jewish life.

There were a lot of people here on the first two days of Sukkot. Many of us in this community understand Sukkot; we understand how the holidays frame our lives with joy and gratitude, love and appreciation, structure and comfort in difficult times and so forth. We know and appreciate the spiral of our lives as we move upward in time, bolstered by the holy moments of the Jewish year as they come around for each successive mahzor, cycle.

And yet, most of American Jewry does not know very much Hebrew; most of us do not keep kashrut / the dietary boundaries; most of us do not keep Shabbat or festivals in any traditional way; most of us are not marrying fellow Jews.

These are realities of today’s Jewish world. How are all of those non-engaged Jews ever going to drink from the wells of Jewish tradition, to appreciate its value?

We cannot pretend that people who are not committed to living a halakhic lifestyle are simply going to show up at 7:30 on Wednesday morning and start davening Pesuqei Dezimrah. We have to invite them in through other doors. We have to start small. If we want to widen our circle, if we want more people to join us, we have to lead them to an entry point and encourage them to stick at least a toe in. Otherwise, we’re merely cutting the ends off of the brisket for no apparent reason.

We’ll be talking more about this as the year goes on, in various forums.

But meanwhile, for those of us who are here, who have those happy holiday memories, who have those strong bonds with Judaism and Jewish life that keep pulling us in, let’s continue to revel in the power of the holiday cycle. Let’s continue to let those holy moments change us, to inspire us to learn and re-evaluate, and to draw on that inspiration to welcome others in.

We have to create memories for others, and create relationships with those who are not here.

We need these days. The Jewish world needs these days. Open up those doors.

Mo’adim lesimhah, haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/3/2015.)

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Living Inside the Box – Sukkot 5776

A few years back, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic became the first American journalist to interview Fidel Castro in a long time.  At one point, Goldberg asked El Comandante if his battle with cancer had changed his opinion on the existence of God.  I suppose that Goldberg was thinking of the old maxim, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and supposing that even a hardened communist might begin to think about greater spiritual things in the context of serious illness. Castro replied, “Sorry, I’m still a dialectical materialist.”

In a radio interview about his talk with Castro, Goldberg assured listeners that if Castro were doing a standup routine for a Marxist audience, that would be simply hysterical.  Frankly, I’m not sure that I get it, as I must admit that I am not up on my communist jargon.

However, the story reminded me of something that I always used to tell the students in my Bar/Bat Mitzvah Workshop (back in Great Neck) when we arrived to the unit on theology: what you believe now may not apply next year, or in ten years, or in 50.  Our understanding of God, our interaction with the Divine changes as we change.  So you always have to stay open to new ideas, new evidence, and new theological approaches.

An ideologue like Castro may never depart his atheistic moorings.  But those of us who occasionally step into a house of worship, however we feel about it, will surely develop in our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu.  And that development can go many different directions, as long as we remain open.

That brings me to Sukkot.  The primary goal of this festival, I am sure, is to challenge our theology, to make us revisit our understanding of and relationship with God, and I am going to give you four pieces of evidence to support this claim, four themes of Sukkot:  Joy, service to God, the well, and the rituals of Sukkot.

1. Joy.  Simhah.  It is the most joyous festival of the year (Deut. 16:15: Vehayita akh sameah – you shall be overwhelmingly joyful), and the only one that will be celebrated after the mashiah comes, at least according to one tradition.

It is at times of great emotion that we are most open to theology, and look for deeper meanings. The cold, rational exterior of the everyday routine keeps us focused on the business of going about life: work, family, shopping, paying bills, and so forth.  During these times, God seldom penetrates our consciousness.

But at times of great joy, like holidays, weddings, benei mitzvah, beritot milah, and so forth, when family gathers to celebrate, we are likely to reflect on what we are thankful for, and the source of good things.  Likewise, at sad times, surrounding illness, death, or other types of loss, we tend to look to God or tradition for answers.

As such, Sukkot seems like a perfect time for spiritual reflection – gratitude for what we have, anticipation for the future, relief for having sought teshuvah / repentance on Yom Kippur.

2. Service to God.  This was the time of the heaviest sacrifice schedule in the Temple.  Far more than any other holiday, there were a total of 98 lambs and 70 bulls offered on the altar over the course of the seven days of the festival.  All of this sacrifice was surely thanksgiving for the harvest, the most joyous time of the year in any agrarian society.  But it also suggests that the spiritual pathways to God are especially open on this festival, that God is most receptive to us, and we to God.

As Jews, we sanctify time; I mentioned this on Yom Kippur.  The spiritual pathways that were open to our ancestors at this time must still be available, because even though we do not sacrifice animals like they did, we still sanctify this festival with prayer and rituals and joyous celebration. This is a week of abundant holiness.

3. The well.  At the end of the first day of Sukkot, the biggest party of the Israelite year was thrown.  It was called Simhat Beit Hashoevah, the celebration of drawing water from a certain well in Jerusalem, and is identified the Mishnah, Tractate Sukkah, where it says (5:1) that anybody who has not witnessed this ceremony has never seen true simhah, true rejoicing in his whole life.

This custom is long gone, of course, perhaps because we do not know where that well is, or what the purpose of the ceremony was.  But learning about it conjures up some kind of magical, mystical image of unabandoned celebration of a holy, essential act.  There are synagogues and other Jewish communities who have revived a form of this party today, generally by hosting musical events.

When I was in rabbinical school at JTS, I had a philosophy class on the newer modes of spirituality, and how they differ from the traditional Western concept of “religion.”  We discussed two major types of seekers today, the mountain climbers and the well-diggers.  Mountain climbers look outside for spiritual nourishment; they climb up to see what they can see.  Well-diggers look inside; they mine themselves for enlightenment.  In our canon, Moshe was a mountain-climber; Avraham was a well-digger. If Shavuot is the festival of mountain climbers, then Sukkot is the holiday for well-diggers.

Perhaps the celebration of the well suggests something particularly deep (ha ha!) about the nature of this festival.  At the same time that we receive great pleasure from the harvest, which is about material success, we are also celebrating having emerged from Yom Kippur cleansed of sin and rejuvenated, and we therefore must remember to also mine our own personal depths for the non-material elements of God’s favor.

The well ceremony is thus a kind of metaphor for our own internal wrangling with God.

4. Rituals.  Sukkot today is laden with curious rituals, some of which seem to be drawn from non-Israelite customs – waving four species around, living in temporary dwellings, beating willow branches against the ground, parading around asking to be saved.

Let’s check out the Torah’s reasoning for living in sukkot during this week (Lev. 23:42-43):

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

You shall live in sukkot (temporary structures) seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.

The commentators suggest that it is incumbent upon all of us to live in the Sukkah as much as possible, and that the Torah specifies “citizens” to make clear that it is for rich and poor alike, that nobody should feel like doing so is beneath them.

We “live” in the Sukkah to bring us back to the wilderness for just a moment.  And, as we all know, the wilderness is the place for visions of God: the burning bush, receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, Jacob’s angelic dreams, Ezekiel’s chariot and valley of dry bones, and so on. The Sukkah is a place to be open to communication from God.

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The commentator Rashbam says that this is precisely the time of the year, when the harvest has been gathered and we’re feeling flush, that we should vacate our homes and property to live in a simple hut.  Even though most of us are not farmers, the sukkah still reminds us that it is not through our own hands that we have obtained all of our material goods.

* * *

I have a colleague who posted a story on Ravnet (the email list for Conservative rabbis) about how he was approached after services on Rosh Hashanah by a congregant who told him that the services were not “spiritual.”  The rabbi fretted over this for a while, as I would do, and then discussed the matter with his wife, as I would also do.

The rabbi’s wife said, in essence, relax.  There are no spiritual services, only spiritual people.  A true partnership in congregational Judaism is when the clergy opens the door, and the laity walks through.  We can only meet you halfway; you must seek God as well.

And sometimes you need to shake up your surroundings a bit to, reconsider, rethink, and be inspired, to get our of your material house and into your spiritual hut.  You could call this concept, somewhat ironically, “living inside the box.”

Just about everyone except Fidel Castro has the potential for theological growth.  So leave your comfort zone for Sukkot.  Here is a multi-pronged approach to theological openness for the coming week:

  • Spend some time in a sukkah, and keep yourself open to new inspiration
  • Eat there with your family and friends, or alone – and take a moment to think about the blessing of food and nourishment.  Perhaps discuss what it took for the food to reach your table.
  • Read in the sukkah.  Take your favorite anthology of poetry or a book of Jewish short stories or a siddur.
  • Meditate on the themes of joy, service to God, and the spiritual well.
  • Sit alone in the sukkah and close your eyes and just “be.”

In this season of heightened spiritual energy you might get lucky and discover an open well that you had not noticed before.

Hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

First Day of Sukkot, 5776

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