Monthly Archives: March 2019

Not Just Checking the Box – Tzav 5779

One of the most fundamental concepts in Jewish life is that of Torah lishmah, learning the words of our tradition merely for the sake of learning. Consider the following from Pirqei Avot (6:1):

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ

Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake; He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of the Omnipresent,” “one who loves humankind,” “delighter of the Omnipresent,” “delighter of [all] creatures.” He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgment, and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop. He is modest and long-tempered, and forgives insult to him; And it enlarges him and raises him above all [that God] made.

Torah lishmah is the key to perfecting ourselves. All of the fundamental human traits that we desire—humility, lovingkindness, reverence, uprightness, faith, compassion, gratitude, modesty, forgiveness and so forth—flow from learning, from analyzing, from interpreting the words of our tradition.

I recall reading some time ago that the difference between the Western approach to education and that of the East is that while in the East education is understood to be the way to improve yourself, in the West we use education as a means to acquire skills that help us manipulate the world to our own personal benefit. The difference is one of focus: internal vs. external. Torah lishmah, like the Eastern tradition, is primarily an internal activity. It leads us to be better people.

***

The university admissions fraud scandal, revealed two weeks ago is, unfortunately, not too surprising. In an educational system that is already clearly skewed in favor of those who grow up with means, does it surprise anybody that people who can afford to pay half a million dollars to guarantee their kid admission to Yale will do so, even through illegal channels.

But in many ways, it is symptomatic one of the greatest challenges that our society faces. We are all striving to push, to achieve, to do, that we rarely take time to consider our values. We take for granted that we must push harder, but we sometimes cannot see the humanity around us: the loved ones who need us most, the neighbors, and indeed neighborhoods in distress, the ways in which our personal choices might undermine the common good.

We are so obsessed with quantifiable achievement—grades, test scores, numbers of hours spent in extra-curriculars—that we enable a framework in which our children spend more and more time in activities that will make their university applications stand out from the crowd, that will give them the edge. We are so in love with brands – Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. – that we encourage our teens to check more boxes, to “diversify,” to extra-curricular themselves to the point of exhaustion.  

What do we want our children to be? Do we want them to be overstretched automatons? Do we want them to be successful money-making machines? Or do we want them to focus on the non-quantifiables?

In my experience, when asked, parents tend to say things like, “I want my child to be a good person, to make good choices, to know right from wrong, to be respectful, to be happy.” Nobody ever says, at least not in front of a rabbi, “I want my child to live in a fancy neighborhood and drive an expensive car.”

So how did we get here? Are we all just fooling ourselves?

Greed, avarice, egotism, selfishness. These are the traits that have enabled the bad actors who produced this scandal. And who is responsible for this? We are. We all are. Because no matter what we might tell ourselves, our children seem to think that the key to happiness in life is getting into a well-known university. Because they are all running themselves ragged chasing after that fantasy. And where do they get that idea? From us. Adults.

Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s Youth Director, tells me that our teens are all over-scheduled. Taken in isolation, each one of the following activities are important and laudable:  They take SAT classes, do sports, go to JLine, various school clubs, sing with HaZamir, and of course they are staying up every night until midnight or later doing their homework for all of their AP classes.

They are all deeply invested in these things. However, with the expectation, according to author William Deresiewicz in his book, Excellent Sheep, that every college applicant has 7-10 extra-curriculars, might it be possible that these kids hardly have time to be kids? As parents, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we are giving our children the tools necessary to build the character traits that will make them benei Adam, human beings?

How can you appreciate what you have learned if you have no time to do so? How can you improve yourself, building on the values your education endows you with, if you are too busy checking all the boxes? How can you acquire depth, recognize historical patterns that continue to play out today, acknowledge the poetic vulnerability of the human soul if you do not have time in which to reflect?

Entirely coincidentally, the Making Caring Common Project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education issued a report this week about how parental messaging regarding the focus on college admissions is actually damaging to teens.

The report notes that

…an intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out serious attention to ethical character both in a large majority of high schools and a large number of families. Many parents—particularly, middle- and upper-income parents—seeking coveted spots for their children in elite colleges are failing to focus on what really matters in this process. In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.

Furthermore, the process

…corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity in a college application.

The point we have reached is a destructive one. The literature shows that rates of anxiety and depression have been rising for some time.

So what is the antidote to all of this?

Among the strategies that the report suggests are,

  • “Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways”;
  • “Advocate for elevating ethical character”; and
  • “Model and encourage gratitude.”

Hmm. Where might one learn these things?

Pulling back the lens, considering our teens and all the rest of us, what we need is not the checking of boxes and the micro-management of our packaged identities. What we need instead is meaning. Connection. Highlighting the holy moments. And we have a framework for that: it’s called Judaism.

Yes, Shabbat. Yes, holidays. Yes, highlighting the holy moments through lifecycle events such as bar mitzvah. Yes, tefillah / prayer that is self-reflective. All of those things are valuable.

But all the moreso, real learning. Studying the words of our tradition. Torah lishmah. Torah for its own sake. Because that is how we improve ourselves; that is how we internalize the true value of tzedaqah / charitable acts of righteousness, gratitude, empathy, humility, and so forth.

Talmud: Berakhot 35b

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יהודה ברבי אלעאי: בא וראה שלא כדורות הראשונים דורות האחרונים, דורות הראשונים עשו תורתן קבע ומלאכתן עראי – זו וזו נתקיימה בידן, דורות האחרונים שעשו מלאכתן קבע ותורתן עראי – זו וזו לא נתקיימה בידן

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi El’ai: Come and see that the latter generations are not like the earlier generations. The earlier generations made their Torah study a regular activity and their work occasional, and these were both successful for them. However, the latter generations who made their work regular and their Torah occasional, neither work nor study was successful for them.

We need to make sure that Torah lishmah is an essential feature of our lives. We need to focus more on the soul, on improving our internal character.

Here at Beth Shalom, particularly through Derekh, offer all those tools, for adults, for teens, for everybody. We are offering Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake in many ways, through programs and discussions that take place not only on Shabbat, but all week long.

Come take advantage of them. You will improve yourself and your life, and the more that we do so the greater chance we have of building a better world, one that reflects all of the values that we say we hold dear. And just maybe we will together help teach our children to be benei Adam, human beings.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/23/2019.

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Remember, and Do Not Forget – Shabbat Zakhor, 5779

In my former life, when I was working as an engineer in Houston, I was reviewing a piping diagram with a fellow engineer with whom I was collaborating. She was from Venezuela. At one point, she turned to me and, point blank, asked, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes.” She said, “You know the Jews killed Jesus, right?” I said, “Well, according to what I heard, the Catholic church absolved the Jews of guilt for that in 1965 with the Second Vatican Council.” She replied, “Yes, I know about that. But my father told me the truth. That’s the truth.”

I took my piping diagrams back to my cubicle, more than a little stunned.

****

The Shabbat before Purim is always referred to as “Shabbat Zakhor,” because we read a special portion from a second sefer Torah from the end of Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 25:17-19), a reminder of the cruel ambush by the Amalekites while the Israelites are in the desert, and our consequent obligation to remember the enemies of Israel by (paradoxically) blotting out that memory. Commentators have pointed to the fact that there is a dual mitzvah / commandment here: to remember (Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amaleq / Remember what Amaleq did to you at the beginning of verse 17) and also not to forget (Lo tishkaḥ, at the end of verse 19).

So we remember and we do not forget. Two separate holy opportunities: positive and negative.

I must say that remembering and not forgetting our enemies has been pretty easy for the past several months, and all the more so for the last week, when anti-Semitism led the news cycle for the better part of the week. Ladies and gentlemen, I have said this before: We are living in a time in which anti-Semitic activity is clearly on the rise, and statistics collected by the ADL and others suggest that this is a global phenomenon.

And what is extraordinarily troubling today is that anti-Semitic ideas are coming at us from different directions. While we traditionally associate Jew hatred with the extreme political right (think Nazism, white supremacism, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin and so forth), we are seeing today expressions of anti-Semitic ideas from the political left as well.

Now just to get one thing out of the way, criticism of the State of Israel and the government of the State of Israel or its policies are not necessarily anti-Semitic. Israelis criticize their own leaders and government all the time; Diaspora Jews probably less so, but anybody who has lived in Israel knows that the Jewish State, like every other sovereign nation, is far from perfect. While we who are Zionists, and I am proud to call myself a Zionist, are inclined to advocate for Israel from afar, such advocacy does not preclude the occasional rebuke. Governments consist of actual people, who are decidedly not infallible.

But when critics of Israel cross a line is when they veer off into classical anti-Semitism. I am not going to rehash everything we have read in the news, but it’s essential to understand that when an American elected official references “the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” to most Jews this is like fingernails on a chalkboard. The suggestion is that American Jews have a dual loyalty, that we are not truly committed to our nation, that we are somehow pulling nefarious strings behind the scenes to support our interests, that we are duplicitous.

Nobody bats an eyelash when lobbyists for Panamanian or Saudi interests walk the halls of Congress. Nobody accuses Irish-Americans of dual loyalty when they parade on St. Patrick’s Day. OK, so a lot of people are concerned about Russian meddling right now, but nobody is suggesting that Americans of Russian descent (of which you might say that I am one, BTW) are advocating for allegiance to Mother Russia. Didn’t we learn our lesson after the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? Why the Jews?

(There is a classic tale of the Klan rally, where the Grand Wizard is rallying his troops, and he says, “Who is responsible for all of our problems?” And the crowd yells back, “The Jews!” So one old man in the crowd adds, “And the bicycle riders!” The Grand Wizard turns to the man and says, puzzled, “Why the bicycle riders?” And the man responds with, “Why the Jews?”)

The roots of anti-Semitism precede Christianity, but it is the early church fathers, and in particular John Chrysostom in the 4th century, who amplify negative stereotypes about the Jews. Seeking to distance early Christians from their Jewish roots and Jewish worship, Chrysostom delivered a series of homilies to the church of Antioch called “Adversos Judaeos,” literally, “Against the Jews.” Among the things he stated were that the synagogue was a den of scoundrels and a temple of demons, a refuge for thieves, a cavern of devils and a criminal assembly for the assassins of Jesus.

From the Visigothic kingdom in the Iberian peninsula, which laid down anti-Jewish laws in the 6th century, through the centuries of the dhimmi status imposed in Muslim lands, until the Nazi horror of the 20th century, Jews have been subject to a range of ugly stereotypes, in certain times and places yielding pogroms, expulsions, forced conversions, forced conscriptions, and of course all-out genocide. The ideas sown by religious leaders, political leaders, demagogues, and even scholars have caused our people immeasurable pain, suffering, and mourning. Even as we have joined the family of nations in the 20th century, we continue to nurse our historical wounds.

And so it is no great surprise that, when any public figure indulges in even the most roundabout way in negative stereotypes about Jews, we all get a little upset. To address the complex mess that is the failed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is not anti-Semitic. To accuse Israel of “genocide” or “apartheid” is. To disagree politically with PM Netanyahu’s choice to incorporate an extremist party (Otzma Yehudit) as his running partner is not anti-Semitic. To suggest ominously that AIPAC, in advocating for American support of Israel, is mandating “allegiance” to a foreign power, is.

When I think of anti-Semitism, I am reminded of an image that is prominently displayed at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, in the historical narrative section leading up to the Shoah, the Holocaust. It is a Nazi propaganda image:

Du sollst die volker der erde fressen. You shall eat the peoples of the Earth.

Note the symbols in the Jewish parasite’s eyes: a dollar sign, and a hammer-and-sickle. The capitalists and the communists. The left and the right.

Let’s face it, folks: there is no question that anti-Jewish sentiment will always be there, and it will manifest itself on the political right, the left, and the center. The demonic Jew of John Chrysostom will, for some, loom behind Wall Street, and for others he will be ferrying people northward across the Rio Grande.

Anti-Jewish stereotypes will be spewed by religious and anti-religious folks, young and old, Southern and Northern, black and white and Asian and Latino, gay and straight. It will spill off of your computer screen. It will exert itself angrily during marches; it will be discussed calmly on talk shows, and it may (God forbid) cause disenfranchised men to walk into synagogues with assault rifles.

And it will never go away. What can we do?

Shabbat Zakhor, this Shabbat of remembrance, is exactly the right time to invoke the following:

  1. Despite being history’s perpetual victims, we are still here.
  2. Anti-Semitism will never go away, but neither will we; this is the covenant made with our patriarchs and matriarchs that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  
  3. Remember Amaleq, and do not forget.

Do not forget”: we should always be vigilant, because, as with Haman, the villain in the Esther story, as with Nebuchadnezzar, as with Titus, and Ferdinand and Isabella, and the Crusaders and the Czars and the Nazis and Ayatollah Khomeini we really never know when the zeitgeist will turn against the Jews again. We must not forget the past.

Remember Amaleq”: this is an imperative to continue to parse the words of those who speak in coded and not-so-coded language to foment hatred against us. We are the masters of interpretation: we must be aware of the potential violence and suffering that words can cause. We cannot dismiss anti-Semitism, right or left. We cannot excuse those with whom we align ourselves. We have to call them out. We may never wipe out the sentiment, but we can certainly make known that all the political, social, or cultural privilege in the world did not save the 11 who perished on the 18th of Ḥeshvan (Oct. 27th), or the 6 million of World War II.

On this day, when the world mourns for the 50 people of faith who perished in New Zealand, and the many more who were injured, we have to remember that words matter, that our history teaches us to be wary of those who indulge in stereotypes and play on fears. Our lives, and the lives of many around the world, depend on it.

Zakhor, velo tishkaḥ. Remember, and do not forget.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/16/2019.)

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The Shabbat Blueprint, or How to Improve Your Life in 5 Easy Steps – Vayaqhel 5779

This past Shabbat (March 1-2, 2019) was the National Day of Unplugging, an annual program run by the Sabbath Manifesto to promote Shabbat observance not just for Jews, but for everybody. Because you know what, folks? We need Shabbat, and in honor of NDU, I offered a basic template for improving your life by raising your Shabbat bar:

Be grateful that I am not going stand before you today to talk about all of the crazy that’s going on in the world right now. In fact, I’m going to ask you to try to put those things out of your head. Because you deserve that. You deserve a break. Leave those things for tomorrow.

Because Shabbat is special. And it is valuable. And it frames our lives with meaning. But it’s also woefully under appreciated in this 24/7, instant gratification world.

(And, of course, it’s mentioned right up front in Parashat Vayaqhel, which we read today!)

The Conservative movement is filled with many ironies. One of them is that we expect our adherents to live a Jewish life, and we offer tools for them to do so, but most of us do not rise to that challenge in the way that Judaism expects us to. And let’s face it: the bar is pretty high.

Based on our own Beth Shalom survey data, only about one-quarter of us keep kashrut inside and outside the home (an additional 34% keep kashrut at home only). And about 60% light Shabbat candles regularly. Four out of five of us fast for all of Yom Kippur, but according to the Federation study only about 44% of Conservative-identified Jews in Pittsburgh ever attend a Shabbat meal. Less than half.

And even among our most committed synagogue-goers, I am often puzzled by the amount of surreptitious smartphone use that goes on in the synagogue on Shabbat; I am surprised by the lack of interest in Friday evening services which, with the exception of our monthly Hod veHadar instrumental service, only barely make a minyan every week. I am confounded by the members of our community that attend events on Shabbat, some sponsored by Jewish organizations, that are clearly not Shabbat-friendly.  

Now, there are many reasons why we make the choices that we do, from family to theology to convenience and availability, and I usually say that guilt is not part of my religion. But advocating for Jewish tradition is, and so every now and then it is my responsibility as a rabbi to stand up for what is right Jewishly, what is good for all of us in our holy, ancient framework.

But I am also cognizant of how challenging it is to live as an observant Jew in contemporary America. I had a congregant at a previous congregation who was extraordinarily dedicated to our tradition: she was a loyal attendee not only at Shabbat services but also during the week, she was involved in synagogue governance and committed to learning and promoting Jewish observance. But once she told me that she was trying not to use her smartphone on Mondays, because she needed a break from feeling constantly connected.

I was incredulous. “Why not Shabbat?” I said.

She countered with something along the lines of, “It’s complicated,” alluding to weekend family activities and suggested, in a particularly Rosenzweigisch moment, that she was not yet ready for embracing traditional Shabbat observance entirely.

It’s complicated. I know – it’s not easy to take it all on, particularly if you did not grow up with it. My family was an every-Shabbat-morning Shabbat family, but we lived 20 miles away from our Conservative synagogue. So we drove, in accordance with the 1950 Conservative teshuvah that permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat, despite the actual combustion that is going on in the engine, the kindling of fire being explicitly, Torah-itically prohibited in Parashat Vayaqhel.

But the problem with driving to shul is that, driving home from synagogue after services, it was hard not to stop at the video store to rent videos for the weekend (remember video stores?). And it was also hard not to stop at the sandwich shop and get some subs. And in winter in Western Massachusetts, when there was a good amount of snow on the ground and great skiing a 15-minute drive away, it was really hard not to put the skis on the rack and head off to the mountain for a few good runs. We did all of those things.

And yet, here I am, standing before you, exhorting you not to do them because it’s theoretically good for you. What gives?

I need you to trust me on this: Shabbat makes my life better; my family and my community benefit tremendously from turning off certain things for 25 hours every week, and doing certain other things that heighten enjoyment and qedushah / holiness. We need that break – physical, mental, spiritual. We need the moment of recharge. We need to reconnect in a traditional, simpler way.

So, I’m hearing some of you think, “That’s great, Rabbi.  Count me in. But where do I start?” I’m glad you asked, because that is indeed the challenging part. Taking Shabbat on whole-hog (you should pardon the expression) is not so easy.

But I am going to offer you today a blueprint for raising the bar:

  1. Meals
  2. Family time
  3. Avoid commerce.
  4. Turn off the devices.
  5. Kindle lights before and after, setting off the full 25 hours from the rest of the week.
  1. Meals. In particular, have Shabbat dinner. And I don’t mean go to a restaurant. Make Friday night a holy, home-cooked meal night. Or, if life is too crazy, order in and support one of our kosher food purveyors. There is nothing quite like it. It’s something I discuss with every single couple I marry: have Shabbat dinner together. Set that precedent for your family. Your schedules may be crazy all week; you may not have time to see each other. But if you set aside Friday night dinner time as holy time, that regular practice will pay off for the rest of your life.

    The next level, of course, is to have a Shabbat lunch. Yes, it’s a little more laid back. But still valuable. Actually, my wife prefers lunch:  She’s not as tired and having family and guests pass the time on Shabbat afternoons is much of what Shabbat is all about.

  2. Family time. Spend time together, at home or with another family nearby, not out and about, not going shopping or to amusement parks or even museums, but just hanging around in an unstructured way. Take Saturday afternoon to lounge around and enjoy each other’s company. Play board games. Read the newspaper. Be old school – low tech, low stress, high interpersonal engagement.

  3. Avoid commerce. While I know that it is our civic duty as individuals to keep the economy movin’ and shakin’, the local unemployment rate will not skyrocket if you keep your wallet in a drawer on Shabbat. It’s a wonderful opportunity to just be – not to acquire or trade or take part in commerce of any kind. It’s actually quite liberating.

  4. Turn off the devices. I could have easily put this first on the list, but I must concede that, if we are trying a soft entry here, this has to be number four, mostly because we all think of our smartphones as a part of our body today. Some people feel disconnected or anxious without it. If that describes you, you might want to try this in small chunks, i.e. maybe just Friday night from sundown until the following morning, and then some of Saturday as well.

    But trust me: this may be difficult, but it is also extraordinarily rewarding.

  5. Demarcating the full 25 hours. Perhaps when you have reached this level, you might consider what is really the easiest of all, but which requires the greatest commitment: lighting candles 18 minutes before sundown (that’s the published candle-lighting time you’ll find on Jewish calendars; you have an 18-minute margin if you need it), and performing havdalah (“separation”) when it’s dark. If you have succeeded in all of the above, this is the way that you know you have made it: demarcating the full 25 hours with lights before and after.

Five easy steps to improving your life.

Now, of course I know that I am preaching to the choir. You who are here in this room right now are the most likely to be doing many of these things. But I also know that we all have the potential to stretch ourselves, and doing so will surely heighten the experience for all of us. But may I ask you to be my ambassadors?  Would you engage those you love in a conversation about this? Check out the link to the Sabbath Manifesto website. Send someone that link and start a conversation. Since you are reading this on my blog, you can easily share it, and/or leave comments below. A little more dialogue doesn’t hurt.

The Talmud tells us (BT Shabbat 118b) that if all Jews were to observe two Shabbatot fully according to halakhah, we would all be immediately redeemed. While I don’t expect this to happen soon, we can certainly aim higher. Rather, I prefer Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s take: Shabbat is a palace in time, but we must build that palace.

We all need a little more Shabbat. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/2/2019.)

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