Elevating Ourselves Through Jewish Mindfulness – Ki Tissa 5776

Some of you may have read in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine about how mindfulness meditation produces some positive health outcomes. In fact, the research group that produced the study (which originally appeared in the journal Biological Psychiatry), is based at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the authors is our member, Jennifer L. Ferris-Glick.

The study showed that individuals engaged in mindfulness meditation, after three days, exhibited

more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.

Now that’s good news for those who meditate, but it also might be good for those of us who are invested in Judaism and Jewish life. I’m going to propose the following, arguably un-scientific, and yet potentially transformative way to understand Jewish prayer (although Jen told me on Friday that there is data to back this up):

If performed properly, the daily practice of tefillah can indeed be a tool for mindfulness.

PrioTime: Mindfulness – focused awareness in the present moment

For the last seven months, I have been thinking about how we can elevate our tefillah / prayer experience here at Beth Shalom.

There has been a certain amount of discussion lately about our weekday minyanim (daily services, morning and evening) mostly because attaining a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jews, has occasionally been challenging. This has been particularly true in the evening, when our minhah service has begun as early as 4:35 PM on weekdays, since we have customarily held this service around sunset time. As you can surely imagine, rounding up a minyan at that time is challenging when most of us are still at work.

However, in some sense, the timing of minyan is merely a red herring. It’s an answer to the wrong question. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Parashat Ki Tissa, which we read today, told the story of the molten calf (Ex. 32:1-6; while some of us have traditionally referred to it as the “Golden Calf,” the Torah itself calls it the egel massekhah, literally, “molten calf”).

What is fascinating to me about the calf story is not the aspect of idol-worship, but rather the need for our ancestors to have a tangible, visible God. It’s a strong need. And let’s face it – for the people who had left idolatrous Egypt just a few weeks earlier, it made a lot of sense. But it was the wrong approach for the new order, the order of Torah, which the Israelites were about to receive. It was not the right kind of worship.

And of course, what makes the molten calf that much more disturbing is that it is sandwiched in-between four parashiyyot (weekly Torah readings) about the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary designed for proper worship of God by the Israelites in the desert. There is an understanding in our sources that the mishkan was necessary because of that need for a physical center of worship.

Today, Judaism does not offer that kind of tangible theology, the kind represented by the mishkan. Our connection to God is through actions and words. And yet, we do have a physical requirement for Jewish prayer – that need for minyan, for ten adult Jews (from the Hebrew root m-n-’ – to count). As many of you know, certain prayers may not be recited without a minyan: all forms of the Qaddish, including the Mourner’s Qaddish, the Barekhu, the Qedushah section of the Amidah. And, of course, we do not read the Torah without a minyan.

For some of us, one very important reason for holding weekday services morning and evening is so those who are in mourning or observing a yahrzeit (annual commemoration of the passing of an immediate relative) may recite the Mourner’s Qaddish. Without a minyan, we do not say Qaddish, and that seems unfair to those who are recalling their loved ones.

It is not too difficult to understand why, then, that for some of us, the reason for supporting the daily minyan is to enable those who are grieving to say Kaddish.

But I’m going to say something right now that might seem scandalous. Hold on to your kippah:

Coming to minyan so that others may say Qaddish, while noble, is not an ideal which we should emphasize.

If it gets people here, that’s fine, and if it helps those minyan-goers understand and appreciate the value of daily tefillah, that’s even better. But if supporting the Kaddish-sayers becomes the only impetus to maintain a daily minyan, then as far as I am concerned, we should just pack it all up right now. Because in any case it will only be a matter of time before all of those for whom this is a motivator are gone. And then we will be left with nothing.

We have to reach higher than that.

On Thursday, I heard Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL (The Center for Learning and Leadership) speak at Rodef Shalom about engaging the “nones” (i.e. the growing number of people who claim no religion). He effectively said that synagogues and churches are like Barnes & Noble in an world – bricks-and-mortar institutions clinging to a model that will soon be obsolete. The type of prayer, and well the whole synagogue model that was familiar to our parents and grandparents, and the motivations to belong and participate, do not speak to the Millennial generation.

Rabbi Kula’s suggestion was not to despair, however. Rather, he reminded us that while the traditional music business has lost to Spotify, and that print newspapers are crumbling in the face of online content, people are still devouring news and music. He pointed to the success of Soulcycle, a fitness chain that presents spin classes in a “spiritual” environment. Plenty of people who would never set foot in a traditional church or synagogue are spinning away to candlelight and soulful music. Here’s a quote from their website:

SoulCycle doesn’t just change bodies, it changes lives. With inspirational instructors, candlelight, epic spaces, and rocking music, riders can let loose, clear their heads and empower themselves with strength that lasts beyond the studio walls.

The question is not, therefore, “What time will people come to minyan?” But rather, “How will we make tefillah relevant to the next generation?”

I cannot yet say that I know the answer to this question. In the meantime, however, I do know that we need to re-orient ourselves as to why we support daily prayer. Here are some better reasons to support the minyan. We pray on a daily basis:

  • to acknowledge our brokenness, our vulnerability;
  • to seek healing for ourselves and others;
  • to seek awareness;
  • to find the place in ourselves that understands the holiness and complexity in human relationships;
  • to judge ourselves (that is the literal meaning of lehitpallel, commonly translated as “to pray”);
  • and ultimately, to change the world through transforming ourselves.

התפילה: גוף ונשמה

Consider the following requests made during the weekday Amidah (traditionally known as the Shemoneh Esreh, meaning “eighteen,” even though there are nineteen berakhot therein):

  • Re’eh na ve-onyenu. Acknowledge our suffering.
  • Refaenu Adonai venerafeh. Heal us, God, and we will be healed.
  • Velamalshinim al tehi tiqvah. To our enemies, let there be no hope. (Our enemies are not necessarily the physical enemies of the ancient world. They are within us. Help us to conquer our enemies, the enemies of envy, anger, hatred, desire, greed, gluttony, hedonism, etc.)

And consider the humble undertones of tahanun, supplication, wherein we ask for forgiveness, privately, with our heads resting in the crook of our arms.

The quiet, peaceful, meditative nature of these daily tefillot gives us space for contemplation, something that this all-too-noisy world often lacks. It is a time to consider and re-consider, to examine ourselves and our world. And if we are mindful in the context of tefillah, as our tradition teaches, then it can truly become a sacred practice that will offer far more spiritual nourishment than any health club or online commercial portal could conceive.

And if that is not enough, another essential reason in my mind to support the minyan here at Beth Shalom is that we are the only egalitarian minyan in Squirrel Hill that takes place morning and evening, every day of the year – the only such service where women and men count as equals. That is tremendously valuable, and a fundamental statement of who we are as a community. And particularly on this day, when we celebrate the elevation of women in our community as shelihot tzibbur, liturgical emissaries of our community, we hold aloft that principle of equality as a beacon.

Let’s elevate ourselves and each other through Jewish mindfulness: daily tefillah. Come to minyan, and find yourself.



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/27/2016.)


The Mishkan and the Tablet – Terumah 5776

Why do we read the entire Torah? Why don’t we just read the parts that apply to us? There are, after all, vast swaths of the Torah that seem as though they do not.

OK, well, for one thing, the ancient rabbis understood that we are commanded to do so. And, BTW, not just once through each year, but actually three times, according to a passage in the Talmud, Massekhet Berakhot 8a – Shenayim miqra ve-ehad targum. Read it in Hebrew twice, and then once in translation. (Even Numbers 32:3, which is just a listing of place names.)

Description Hebrew Sefer Torah scroll.JPG

Here’s the irony – when Rav Huna made that statement in the name of his teacher Rabbi Ammi, he was living in the third century CE, at least 200 years after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and aproximately 1400 years after the period of the mishkan, the Tabernacle used while the Israelites were wandering in the desert. That portable, sacrificial worship center was described in excruciating, monotonous detail in today’s parashah. And yet, if the traditional chronology is to be believed, it was in use for perhaps 300 years, until King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Even in the Middle Ages, when commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, an additional millennium removed from its existence, are still trying to muddle their way through the varieties of fancy cloth, wood, skins of animals that they surely could not have found in the desert, precious metals and stones that were featured in the mishkan’s construction.

And here we are today, in a 140-character world. Aren’t the chapters on the mishkan (mostly repeated again in a few weeks when the Israelites will actually build it) a frightful waste of time? The average teenager could easily send and receive over 150 text messages in the time it takes to read all of the details related to Moses by God. Surely by now the total length of time just spent READING this mass of detail by various Jewish congregations over the last two millennia far exceeds the actual period of usefulness of the mishkan itself.

So why on earth do we read it? And what can we possibly glean from it?

I’m going to come to the answer in a sort of roundabout way, so hold onto those questions for a moment.

*    *    *    *

Time. Accounting for time features so heavily in all the choices we make. And I take issue with the Rolling Stones on this: time is NOT on my side. Instead I’ll go with the Steve Miller Band: Time keeps on slippin’ into the future. And we all seem to have less and less of it.

Let’s face it – Judaism takes time. (Takes money too, but time is, I think, more valuable for most of us.)

And, more to the point, learning to be Jewish takes time. A lot of time. It takes more than 4-6 hours per week, which is generally what we provide our children with. And it takes even more time after the bar/t mitzvah.

My primary goal as a rabbi is to teach Jews about Judaism, and to help shape our congregation around the ongoing learning of our Jewish bookshelf. This task is made far more difficult by some of the parameters of today’s world. Yes, we are all short on time. But even more than that, we are all impatiently waiting for the next text message, the next email, the next 4G-LTE intrusion.

I am beginning to be concerned that the Information Age is, in fact, leading us into a new, tech-savvy Dark Age.

We are living in a great age of misinformation. We have so much more data at our fingertips than we did just 20 years ago. And yet we know, or perhaps are willing to learn, far less. Everything is moving so fast today that depth and intellectual rigor is falling by the wayside.

A few years ago at Temple Israel of Great Neck, we received a visit from Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue (the umbrella organization for all the wings of the Conservative movement). He spoke about developing a new model for the institutions of Conservative Judaism, but during the course of his remarks, he pointed out that this is the age of the handheld digital device, and one challenging feature of of these devices is that they allow us to hear and see only the things that we want to hear and see.

The iPod (remember that?), and all the devices that followed it, changed fundamentally the way we relate to information. Unlike the good ‘ol LP, the black vinyl that some of us are still nostalgic for, where you had to get a whole bunch of unremarkable songs along with your favorites, the iPod gave its owner complete control to edit those out, or not even purchase them to begin with.

These devices – tablets, smartphones, and so forth – are tools that keep us in touch, yes, and put all sorts of information at our fingertips. But they also elevate one’s personal choice and taste over all other considerations. Hence the “i” in “iPod” and “iPhone.” And we’ll be seeing a great many more i’s as we move forward. The larger phenomenon at work here is that we are moving into an age in which nobody feels that they have to listen to anything that they do not want to hear.

Here is an example:

Also a few years ago, at UC Irvine, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, noted historian Michael Oren, was invited to give a lecture. A large group, perhaps 50, anti-Israel activists interrupted him, with one student at a time standing up and shouting anti-Israel slogans. As each of these students stood up, they were escorted out by the campus police as their friends cheered.

The president of the university, after the first of these outbursts, reminded the protesters that they were violating school policy, and emphasized that there would be an open Q&A session at the end of Ambassador Oren’s remarks, and that this would be the appropriate forum for challenging him. They continued, not allowing Mr. Oren to speak, until the large group left en masse. 11 people were arrested.

The way that dialogue happens, the way that we solve big problems, is by listening to the one with whom you do not agree. Silencing the discussion, in my mind, produces exactly the opposite effect.

I am certain that we could all think of countless examples of ways in which we do not listen to each other today; one need not look too far past our fractured political system to see that compromise is a lost art.

We are all listening exactly to what we want to hear, and not to each other, or the other side. And that does not bode well, for democracy, public discourse, the State of Israel, or Judaism in general.

And to return to where we started, if we do not have time to listen to all of the words of the Torah, we have as Jews a slim chance of surviving the forces of modernity. And I fear just as much for the rest of America.

So back to why on earth do we read the whole Torah – I’m going to give you the words of Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th-century Iberian commentator and noble:

Do not think that the commandments about the mishkan, which do not apply to us here in the exile, or the laws that are valid only in the land of Israel, or the laws of priestly purity, have no value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Gen. 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.

Reading the entire Torah seems, at best, quaint, or perhaps outmoded. But that is, in fact, why we do it. One of the messages of the Torah is that, in the words of the curiously-named Ben Bag-Bag from Pirqei Avot, we turn it over and turn it over, because everything may be found in it. We have to keep looking, not merely hitting the repeat button on those passages that we want to hear. And so we read the details of the mishkan, and the sacrifices, and the barbaric ritual for testing a woman accused of being unfaithful, alongside the commandments to treat one another with respect, and to be just in your business dealings, and to keep the Shabbat. And we need to dedicate enough time to this task to earn our reward in this lifetime and the next.

We have to read the whole Torah. We have to listen to and parse all of its words, even the ones that we do not like, or do not want to hear.



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/13/2016.)