Monthly Archives: June 2019

Lifting Up God’s Face – Naso 5779

Last Shabbat I mentioned the panel discussion at Rodef Shalom’s annual congregational meeting about the future of synagogues, and one of the items that I identified at this discussion regarding the future of American Judaism is our knowledge of Hebrew. Yes, we live in a time in which readily-available online translations of ancient Jewish text have made the learning of our collected wisdom so much more accessible. That is a good thing; many of you know that we are currently in a kind of renaissance of Jewish learning, aided and abetted by Sefaria and other such platforms.

Nonetheless, there is no question that the Hebrew language, the language of the Jews, is the key to engaging with Jewish life. I learned most of my Hebrew as an adult, and I must say that, even though I learned to “decode” (i.e. read without understanding) when I was quite young, I had no idea what I was missing.

In 1845, at the conference of Reform rabbis in Frankfurt, Germany, a line was drawn in the sand over the Hebrew language. Some Reform rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the “founding father” of Reform, advocated for dispensing with Hebrew in Jewish worship in favor of the vernacular. German, Rabbi Geiger argued, was the “language of the soul,” of philosophy, of civilization; for Geiger, prayer in German struck “a deeper chord.” The Jews of the time did not understand Hebrew, and if the purpose of tefillah / prayer is for our words to connect with our hearts, then tefillah should be in a language we understand.

Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, one of the leading lights of the Positive-Historical School, which ultimately became the Conservative movement, argued that Hebrew is the language of the Jews, the language of the Torah, the language of God. How could we jettison such an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish?

Our sensitivity to language is borne of the historical Jewish need to code-switch. Since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, nearly 2600 years ago, Jews have lived in places where they had to speak another language and manage another culture to get along. The Babylonians imposed the Aramaic language on their entire empire, mostly because they had wiped out the Arameans, and so speaking that language implied no political agenda. And from that time forward, Hebrew became the second language for the Jews, taking a back seat to Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and the Jewish dialects of all of those, some of which survived the centuries to be spoken today as Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Provencal, and so forth. We are experts at translation of language and culture, because we have been doing it for so long.

And hence the interest we have in parsing our ancient texts; we are constantly moving from our second language to our first and back again. Most of you have heard me say that it is the continual wrestling with the Torah and Talmud and midrash and poetry and halakhic works that has continued to sustain us to this day. That is one reason we are still here, because, as Pirqei Avot (5:22) suggests,

בּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ

Ben Bag Bag says, “Turn it over and over, because everything is in it.”

Our ancient words are a lens that help us contextualize our world, to determine what is right, to improve our lives and our communities.

And of course we continue to wrestle.

In that light, we might consider an unusual Hebrew verb, one which has flown by us several times this morning already, and in particular appears, arguably, as what scholars call a leitwort (thematic word) for today’s parashah, Parashat Naso. The verb is the shoresh / root נ-ש-א, from which the very word “naso” is derived. It usually means, “to lift up, elevate.” But its appearances in the Torah are usually idiomatic. Consider the following, the second verse of Naso, and the line from which the name of the parashah derives (Numbers 4:22):

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ בְּנֵ֥י גֵרְשׁ֖וֹן גַּם־הֵ֑ם לְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָ֖ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.

Now the idiom, “Naso et rosh …” might be literally translated as, “Lift up the head of…” But here it means, “count.” That is, take a census.

And then it appears multiple times in the subsequent verses, which one way that we determine a leitwort. In particular, it appears near the end of the parashah in the passage that we generally know as birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

We also use these words to bless our children on Friday evening. (By the way, we sang this at the ELC graduation on Thursday, as we wrapped our 4-year-olds in a sefer Torah, encircling them with the ancient words of our tradition.)

Did you notice the occurrence of our leitwort? It’s the first word of the third verse: yissa. (If you wondered why there is no letter nun there, there is a reason: the nun is assimilated into the sin; that’s why there is a daggesh hazzaq in the sin, suggesting a “doubling” or “gemination” of the letter.)

But what does it mean here? Again we’ve come against an idiom. Yissa Adonai panav elekha is translated as something like, “May God bestow favor upon you.” But what it literally means is, “May God lift up God’s face to you.”

OK, so now there is something strange in this idiom. Most of us conceive of God as being above us, or all around us, or perhaps as some indeterminate, de-localized force within nature. And many of us conceive of God as not having a particular face. At the beginning of the Amidah, we refer to God as El Elyon – God on high; by comparison, we are lowly and Earthbound.

But whatever your understanding of God, how is it that God might be lifting up God’s face to us? Should it not be exactly the opposite? Should we not turn our faces up to God, for inspiration, for guidance, for knowledge of right and wrong? The second half of the verse, “May God grant you peace,” seems totally reasonable within our range of understanding God; so too the preceding statements. So what gives?

When we pray or study words of Torah, we lift our faces to God. When we pursue outward actions that better our relations with others, God’s face lifts up to us.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest contemporary figures in Jewish thought and one of the most essential thinkers on the totality of the Jewish bookshelf, taught that the reason the Torah forbids images of God is NOT that God has NO image, but rather that God has just ONE image: that of every living, breathing human being. That is, we humans create the image of God with our lives – by doing mitzvot, by sanctifying time, by highlighting the holiness in all other beings and in all of God’s Creation.

It is when you fashion yourself in the Divine image that “Yissa Adonai panav elekha,” God lifts up God’s face to you.

When we as Jews take our Judaism outside of our homes and synagogues into our work and social lives, God looks up to us.

When we give generously and anonymously to those in need, God looks up to us.

When we act in compassion on behalf of those who are mistreated by governments and other organizations, God looks up to us.

When we support our cousins in Israel with our time and energy, God looks up to us.

When we take seriously the obligation to treat all of the people around us with derekh eretz, with respect, God looks up to us.

And, not insignificantly, when we parse the words of our living texts in our ancient language to inspire us to do these works, God’s face lifts up, and God will grant us peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/15/2019.)

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Memory: The Golden Lacquer of Jewish Life – Second Day Shavuot 5779 / Yizkor

If I were to ask you, what are the primary features of Jewish life, what would you say?

I might argue that the glue that holds all of this together is memory: memory of our personal Jewish journeys, memory of our collective experience, memory of those who came before us. We pay attention to that last one in particular on Yizkor days, but of course our memory is always with us.

I participated in a panel last week at Rodef Shalom Congregation as a part of their annual congregational meeting. Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Jeff Myers of Tree of Life, Cantor Julie Newman of Tiferet, and I discussed the future of synagogues, moderated by Rabbi Danny Schiff. Rabbi Schiff’s first question was, “What is causing the disengagement from synagogues today?” Not a simple question, and of course nobody knows exactly what the answer is. But certainly we have a great challenge before us in making the synagogue “work” the way it has done in the past.

One reason, I think, that it is so much harder today to create the communal Jewish experience in synagogues is that we have become much less reflective as a society. We are so much more in the current moment than ever; the way the news cycle turns over, we hardly process yesterday’s craziness before today’s madness hijacks our attention. And that frantic pace has infected the entire range of our lives. Twitter is not a reflective medium. And I find this deeply troubling.

But Judaism, and synagogues in particular, offer us the reflective framework to reflect, if we only take it. Our tradition, which ideally infuses our lives with holiness, offers a refuge from the cut-and-thrust of life today. And we really need that refuge.

It was with great pleasure that I encountered a recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks that captured a beautiful metaphor for Jewish life. In it, he describes the centuries-old Japanese craft known as Kintsugi bowls. These are ceramic bowls that are hundreds of years old, but what makes them special is not the age or the design of the bowl, but that they have at some point been broken, and then the shards are put back together with the Kintsugi technique, which dates to the 15th century, and uses a combination of gold and lacquer.

Kintsugi bowl

The resulting bowl has exquisite gold veins running through it, making an otherwise-ordinary bowl unique. Every one is different; every pattern is special. As Brooks puts it,

There’s a dimension of depth to them. You sense the original life they had, the rupture and then the way they were so beautifully healed. And of course they stand as a metaphor for the people, families and societies we all know who have endured their own ruptures and come back beautiful, vulnerable and whole in their broken places.

What fascinates me about this concept is that it is very Jewish:

  • On a personal level, what is broken can be made whole again (cf. Yom Kippur). In fact, the Jewish holiday cycle reinforces over and over the idea that we are all individually broken, and that we can always seek and achieve wholeness once again.
  • From the perspective of the Jewish nation, it is our brokenness that has enabled us to continue as a people (cf. Tish’ah Be’Av). Destruction and rebuilding are an essential piece of Jewish history; our nation is conceived in emerging from slavery; the Second Temple follows the destruction of the First; the yearning for rebuilding has spurred us onward since the destruction of the Second Temple; establishment of the State of Israel followed the Sho’ah, and so forth.
  • Memory is the golden lacquer of Jewish life. What makes us unique and special is our personal and collective memories, our having been broken through loss and suffering, and then repairing ourselves with the reinforcement of remembrance.

We are not the people who shy away from brokenness. On the contrary, Judaism highlights the fragility of human life. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during the central Untaneh Toqef prayer of the Musaf service, we are reminded in a stream of Tanakhic and midrashic references of our frailty and our capacity to be healed once again:

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר
וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה
וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ
וְכַחֲלום יָעוּף

Our origin is dust, and our end is dust.
With one’s soul a person brings bread
[Jewish text compares humanity to] a broken vase
Dried-up grass and a withering bud
A passing shadow and a fading cloud
Blowing wind and blossoming dust
And like a dream that floats away.

As we recite these words on High Holidays, we acknowledge that we are as much a product of our cracks as we are our whole pieces, that the essence of life is being broken and repaired; that our brokenness makes us stronger, more beautiful, more resilient.

Leonard Cohen (zikhrono livrakhah / may his memory be for a blessing) sang, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Montreal, May 2019

It has been speculated that Cohen was referencing here the concept, from Rabbi Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic formulation, of the shevirat hakelim, the breaking of the vessels. It’s a complicated tale, but in brief, when God created the world, said Rabbi Luria in 16th-century Tzefat, the primordial vessels (kelim) were unable to contain the light poured into them, and they shattered, casting sparks of light into the universe. Creation of the world necessitated the breaking of these vessels. The world begins with an act of brokenness, and those Divine sparks that are still out there for us to uncover are there due to that breakage.

The cracks within each of us are there for good reason – they help us see the Divine, the kedushah / holiness in ourselves and the kedushah in others.

Like the Kintsugi bowls, our lives, our personalities, are enhanced by the fracturing and repairing. We are made more beautiful by our unique flaws, and the Godly light that shines through each of us, reflected by the golden glue of memory, helps us illuminate each other and the world.

And all the more so, on a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those who came before us, we recall that those who gave us life did so not that we should be perfect, not that we should be without flaw, but quite the opposite. Our parents, our spouses, our siblings, all those whom we remember today, their imperfections were what made them who they were, made them holy. And so too did they see the cracks in us that make us all individually, uniquely human and yet infused with Divine light.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have often remarked that we, the Jews, do death and mourning very well. Yizkor, yahrzeits, plaques, shiv’ah, sheloshim, qaddish, etc.. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around the grief that comes with loss. We have the communal framework that enables us to support each other in times of great pain. We are awesome at reflection and remembrance.

But even more so, it is the memory of losing those whom we love most that makes us who we are. That memory is what holds the shards of our souls together, that stitches us back up, scarred from the experience, but ultimately making us stronger, more nuanced, more human, more able to perceive and reflect the holy sparks all around us.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot 5779, 6/10/2019.)

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