Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Ballet, the Symphony, and the Siddur – Vayyiqra 5776

By some strange series of coincidences, Judy and I managed to attend both the ballet and the symphony last weekend. (This is one of the greatest advantages to Pittsburgh over New York, BTW – while NYC may have far more options for cultural offerings, here it is cheaper and easier to see world-class performers. Just one more reason why Pittsburgh is truly awesome.)

Upon leaving Heinz Hall, Judy made the observation to me that at times, listening to a symphony orchestra live is similar to the experience of sitting in synagogue services and letting the sounds of tefillah wash over you and put you in a meditative zone.  It is a distinctly “low-tech” experience, where you seemingly do nothing more than sit.  But, psychically, spiritually, so much is happening in this state.

While I must say that usually I am a little more engaged in the recitation of words of tefillah rather than letting it “wash over me,” I certainly appreciate where she is coming from. The synagogue experience, in some ways, is the culmination of two thousand years, and arguably three thousand years of development. It is a highly-refined, carefully-constructed piece of spiritual canvas upon which the words of liturgy have been painted. Love it or hate it (not all of us are shul-goers), the synagogue experience, that is, davening / sitting in the pews is certainly the most well-known image of observant Jewish practice.

And, like the symphony and the ballet, it functions on a few different levels. On the one hand, all can enter and participate (by merely being in the audience and listening or watching or following along in the siddur / prayerbook). On the other, to truly appreciate what is being created and referenced and invoked in its vast complexity, requires much more knowledge and effort.

2011 PittsburghSymphonyOrchestra Fisheye.jpeg

Pittsburgh Symphony. ZsadlerTemplate:MichaelSahaida,photographer

And in some sense, the origin of Jewish prayer is drawn from the parashah that we read this morning, Parashat Vayyiqra, which details the basic types of sacrifices offered on an ongoing basis in the Temple. The sacrificial system, as practiced in the mishkan (portable altar) and later the First and Second Temples, was the earliest form of Israelite worship, and arguably the ancestor of tefillah / prayer. Rambam (aka Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1205 Spain, Morocco, and Egypt) tells us that the ultimate goal of animal sacrifice was to bring us to the better mode of worship, that is, tefillah, the prayers of our hearts, minds, and lips.

So, while I am happy (as a vegetarian and a lover of animals) that we have not offered animal sacrifices since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE (thanks, Rome!), I must concede that the very holy acts in which we have been engaged this morning are originally derived from Parashat Vayyiqra and the sacrificial rites of ancient Israelite tradition.

Back to the ballet and the symphony. Consider the following: the siddur / prayerbook that you hold in front of you is a pastiche of texts, poems, instructions, customs, and choreography that span Jewish history. The oldest parts are ancient writings that may be 3000 years old; these are drawn from the TaNaKH, the Hebrew Bible: the Shema, the Psalms of Pesuqei Dezimra, Veshamru, etc.  And then there is a whole range of composed prayers from the rabbinic period, in the first couple of centuries of the Common Era. Not counting the brand-new material like the Prayers for the Country and the State of Israel, the youngest parts are only about 500 years old, poems like Lekha Dodi.

The range of piyyutim, liturgical poems (the Hebrew word piyyut is a borrowing from the Greek poietes, poet) spans over a thousand years; the payyetanim, clever wordsmiths from the Middle Ages, wrote thousands of these special additions to the siddur. In certain periods of Jewish history, congregations looked forward to hearing newly-composed piyyutim presented by the hazzan (cantor) every Shabbat.

The structure of every Jewish service, like a symphony or a ballet, has multiple movements. Every service has a specific formula, and they are all built around two things: Shema and Amidah. The Shema (along with the berakhot / blessing structures around it) we say morning and night, as instructed in the first paragraph. The Amidah, the silent, standing prayer, replaced the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Together, the Shema and Amidah may be thought of as the central movements of the symphony, sometimes accompanied by special extra pieces that appear from time to time: reading the Torah, the joyous Psalms of Hallel, and so forth.

Choreography: Tefillah is a kind of dance! We step forward, away from our everyday selves and into the heavenly court when we begin the Amidah; we step back at the end to return. We bow at certain times. We elevate ourselves like angels during Qedushah, our feet held tightly together like the heavenly beings described by Ezekiel in his vision of the chariot (Ezekiel, chapter 1). We shuckle – sway to put our whole body behind our words. We stand, we sit, we cover our eyes, we march around with the Torah.

History. Like the ballet and the symphony, each movement of tefillah / prayer has a story behind it. The Amidah, for example, is rooted in Talmudic literature, and, as I said earlier, is understood to replace the daily sacrifices about which we read earlier.

In the weekday Amidah, the original eighteen berakhot (benedictions) recited three times daily were standardized by Shim’on HaPaquli in the Beit Midrash of Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh during the first century CE (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 17b).

And there are stories behind the choreography and the customs. Why do we recite silently the line after the opening line of the Shema (“Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le’olam va’ed”)? Not only because it’s not in the Torah (unlike the rest of the three paragraphs of the Shema), but also because a midrash tells us that when God gave these words to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, the heavenly court of angels (yes, more angels!) responded with these words. So we add them, but only in an undertone to prevent breaking up the words of the Torah.

History, culture, our stories have all shaped the siddur.

And yet, the siddur is a work that is still in flux. Really, everything in the category of Talmud Torah, learning the words of Jewish tradition and passing them down from generation to generation, is a work in progress. While the text of the Torah does not change, the way that we read it and understand it certainly does.

Likewise, the symphony and the ballet have changed:

  • instruments have changed
  • tuning has changed
  • audience taste has changed
  • training of dancers has changed
  • interpretations have changed

And so forth.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

And we, the Jews, have changed as well. So too have our modes of prayer. And yet there is a kernel of continuity which will always make our services uniquely Jewish: the Hebrew language, the structures of berakhot, the basic “dance” moves, the silent moments, etc.

The symphony will continue. We will always dance through the choreography of services, to create that sacred space through reciting our ancient (and not-as-ancient) words from movement to movement. Whether you let it wash over you like a member of the audience or you are first violin or a principal ballerina, leading the whole endeavor, the pieces fit together in a harmonic, choreographed expression of what it means to resonate with Jewish history, culture, and tradition.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/19/2016.)

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Time to Unplug – Vayaqhel 5776

This past Shabbat (March 4-5) was the annual National Day of Unplugging, a program coordinated by Reboot, a Jewish organization which “affirms the value of Jewish traditions and creates new ways for people to make them their own.” Thousands of people all over the world, Jews and others, pledged to “unplug” for this Shabbat, for the reasons identified on the event’s website:

We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones… chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of “silence” that our earphones create…

The National Day of Unplugging… is an outgrowth of The Sabbath Manifesto, an adaption of our ancestors’ ritual of carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones.

I love this. Of course, I and my family unplug every Shabbat, and we understand and appreciate the value in doing so. In fact, I must say that I look forward to my 25 hours of being present – my attention is not threatened by digital intrusions; my mind and my body are in the same place at the same time for all of Shabbat. It’s a whole day of mindfulness.

Although the National Day of Unplugging takes place on the first Shabbat in March, it is serendipitous that on this Shabbat we read Parashat Vayaqhel. Vayaqhel is notable not only for detailing the construction of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary used to perform sacrifices by the Israelites in the desert), but also because it opens with a re-statement about the importance of Shabbat. In fact, the very first word, vayaqhel, which is related to the word qehillah, congregation, suggest that Moshe “convokes” the whole Israelite community to make this announcement about Shabbat.

Some commentators point out that the unusual use of this term here is not a coincidence.

Rabbinic tradition suggests that this reminder to keep Shabbat was given to the people on the day after Yom Kippur. It is a time when the Israelites are seeking healing and teshuvah / repentance following the great transgression of the molten calf. These two things, Shabbat and the mishkan, that sanctuary and holy gathering place, were the primary vehicles for healing after they indulged in idolatry.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Noah Hayyim Berezovsky, writes in his commentary Netivot Shalom that this healing in the wake of the molten calf is essential to understanding the role of Shabbat in our lives. We come at Shabbat from two different directions, he says, the direction of “zakhor” and of “shamor,” referencing the two imperatives that appear in the two different versions of the Decalogue, Ex. 20:8 (zakhor = “remember the Sabbath” and Deut. 5:12 (shamor = “keep the Sabbath”).

Kabbalat Shabbat Services

(A midrash tells us that these words differ in the two tellings of the Decalogue because although God said one thing, it was heard at the same moment as both zakhor and shamor. Hence the line in the Friday evening liturgical poem Lekha Dodi: Shamor vezakhor bedibbur ehad – God said “shamor” and “zakhor” in one utterance.)

According to the Slonimer Rebbe, zakhor, remember the Sabbath, speaks of the things that we do to make Shabbat, emphasizing how we bring light and qedushah / holiness into the world through our actions – luxurious family meals, gathering with our qehillah at synagogue and at friends’ homes, prayer that reflects the grandeur of the day, singing joyously, reflecting on our lives, being in the moment.

Shamor, keep the Sabbath, meanwhile, speaks of the things we are forbidden to do, the forms of melakhah / “work” from which we abstain on Shabbat. In order not to work, to avoid melakhah, you must plan ahead and prepare so that you can be free to enjoy the 25 hours of peace, rest, and all the positive aspects of Shabbat. Abstaining from melakhah keeps in check our everyday desires and impulses to manipulate the world.

The two-sided imperative of zakhor/remember and shamor/keep the Shabbat is therefore as much about our lofty, cerebral ideals, as it is the earthly concerns. To do Shabbat right, we must be invested properly in both realms.

So although the Shabbat commandment is just a few lines at the beginning, and the rest of the parashah is dedicated to the mishkan, the importance of the former greatly outweighs the latter. Shabbat is where it’s at – particularly when you consider the fact that the mishkan (and the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem) have been out of the picture for 2000 years, but Shabbat comes around every seven days. Shabbat is a sign to us for all times – Ot hi le’olam (Ex. 31:17, which we read in Parashat Ki Tissa last week, and which we say multiple times when we chant Veshamru). It will forever be our sanctuary.

We just have to take advantage of that sanctuary. We have to pause. We have to unplug. We need to refresh. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat “a palace in time.” The doors to the palace are open every weekend – we only need to walk right in. We have no need for a fancy altar; we have the Shabbat. Forever.

And yet, as the electronic gears of the Information Age continue to spin faster and faster, as we grow more connected to the devices that make our lives and society go, we need the peace that the observance of Shabbat offers even more.

How many of us find that we are constantly tied to work? That we never have a respite from the constant barrage of stuff, digital or otherwise, coming at us? How many of us dream of the possibility of stepping off the hamster wheel for a few moments? And yet, ironically, we feel all out of sorts when we are disconnected?

Shabbat is an opportunity. For 25 hours every week, we can turn it all off, and live comfortably and happily in the moment with family and friends, untroubled by text messages and WhatsApp and Instagram and what-have-you. It’s a time to be exactly where you are, soaking up the light and the qedushah. It is an opportunity to be unburdened of all of our earthly concerns, a moment of stillness, a time to scan ourselves for where we are holding tension, to inventory our heads to let go of the never-ending to-do list, and to focus on the higher things, to aspire to the Divine, to consider what really matters. It is a retreat from the minutiae of the week.  Shabbat is our sanctuary.

To enter that sanctuary, all you have to do is make this day special. And what really makes my Shabbat feel holy is that disconnection from the digital infrastructure and connection to everything that is right in front of me.

Yes, there are the 39 categories of melakhah, those traditionally forbidden types of “work.” For the record, it is definitely not clear that the use of electronic devices fits into any of those categories, and we will surely talk about that another day.

But even if using your smartphone does not belong in any category of melakhah, there is a greater principle at work here, and that takes us back to zakhor and shamor.

To make this day holy, set apart from the rest of the week, we have to leave aside those things that are “inyanei hol,” mundane matters: bills, scheduling weekday activities, packing for a trip, reading shopping circulars and so forth are all things which take our minds out of Shabbat. In that same category, I think, are most things that you might read or do online. They take us out of the here and now. They cause us to travel outside of the eruv in our heads.

And let’s face it: this requires a certain amount of focus. It requires a commitment to look past those mundane things/ inyanei hol, to get to the really important stuff: spending time with family and friends, enjoying the here and now, learning some words from our tradition.

And hence the National Day of Unplugging. On their website, you can order a mini “sleeping bag” for your phone, and an app that shuts it down for Shabbat. The idea is to get people to try it. Just once.

... YOUR SABBATH MANIFESTO CELL PHONE SLEEPING BAG « Sabbath Manifesto

And so can you. You don’t have to wait for next March to unplug. Choose a Shabbat to try it out. I’m here to talk you through it if you need guidance. I can even hook you up with other families in our midst who do unplug regularly so that you have the support of your qehillah in real time and space.

You can choose to sanctify your life, improve your relationships, lighten your mood and generally feel less stressed by setting aside those 25 hours every seven days.

Try it. Because we need it.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/5/2016.)

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