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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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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 Amazon.com 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.)

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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.)

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Paradigm Shifts, Ancient and Modern – Yitro 5776

I watched a captivating TED talk this week, featuring the futurist author and scholar Juan Enriquez. It was about evolution, and more particularly about how humans are still evolving today. But not only that, but we are in the middle of a particularly rapid period of human evolution. Mr. Enriquez identifies some of the fantastic technological advances of our time, and presents some curious data about the development of the human brain (for example, a doubling in the rate of occurrence of autism in the last decade). He also points out that many of us today take in more information in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime. Nobody is sure where we are headed, but Mr. Enriquez proposes that our children will effectively be a different species than we are: he suggests the term “Homo evolutis,” since we are effectively taking control of our own evolution.

We all know that in the course of our lifetimes, the world has changed dramatically. Remember when you were sitting around and having a conversation, and somebody was trying to remember the name of that band that had a single hit in 1972 and then disappeared, and gee, that was such an awesome song, but what were they called? And if nobody knew, you had nowhere to turn. Maybe you could go to the library and ask a reference librarian, but that would only be on Monday morning, and by then you would have forgotten.

Or maybe you remember a time when you had to have explicit directions written out in advance to get to a new friend’s house, and if you got lost along the way, you had to find a payphone. Or that the only way to get a flight ticket was through a travel agent. And if you heard a rumor about a celebrity, there was no way to check to see whether or not it was true. And so forth.

But today, everything has changed. Our children and grandchildren may never understand why rotary telephones did not play video, that television shows were broadcast at a certain time, and if you missed it, you missed it. They will never live in a world in which their every movement, purchase, activity, meal, and preference is not recorded somewhere and stored for later use. Juan Enriquez foresees a time in which our memories may be downloaded, and perhaps shared with others, raising a whole host of new ethical questions.

Humans have been on this Earth for a relatively short while; out of 4.5 billion years, Homo sapiens sapiens, anatomically modern humans, came into existence a mere 100,000 years ago. It is a well-known exercise to put the history of the planet on a year-long timeline; we appear on Dec. 31st, less than twelve minutes to midnight. The Torah came down to us at about 11:59 and 40 seconds. It is clear that we and our tradition are recent arrivals.

2001: A Space Odyssey

And yet, human existence has taken quantum leaps forward at various points. One of those jumps was identified today in Parashat Yitro. This parashah is the lynchpin in the paradigm shift of the Israelite nation. The central metaphor of the Torah, and hence Judaism, reaches its climax with the episode at Sinai. Redemption from Egypt leads to revelation, i.e. the giving of the Torah. And this is, you might say, the fundamental paradigm shift of the Five Books of Moses.

Our ancestors go from slavery to freedom, celebrate their departure from Egypt, and then receive the basis for law and custom, the foundational document of ancient Israelite religion and thousands of years of Jewish history and culture. That’s the entire basis for Judaism right there. Peoplehood. The land of Israel. Our Jewish bookshelf. Customs. Traditions. Halakhah / Jewish law, Jewish values – all delivered in a scant 40 days and 40 nights on an assuming mountain in the desert.

12 Mt. Sinai & Second Coming Compared - Deity and Humanity
Gebel Musa in the Sinai desert

And of course it did not end there – the law-giving continues for the rest of the Torah, another 40 years, a longer period but no more than a rounding error on the scale of geologic time.

And somehow, three millennia or so later, here we are, still debating the meaning of those ancient words, still trying to relate to our tradition in our time, still recalling the Exodus and Mt. Sinai, still observing the seventh day as holy.

And yet, many of us are wondering, will my children take hold of any of this? Or will Homo evolutis reject Judaism and Jewish tradition entirely? Will our history and culture be left only to those who have isolated themselves from the creeping invasion of modernity?

The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a few weeks back about millennials and politics. He cited a range of statistics which show a large gap between millennials (those born after 1980) and all Americans of previous generations, and not only regarding how they vote.

Brooks describes this demographic as “the self-reliant generation.” They are more inclined to understand society as “loosely networked individualism,” and hence far less likely to join institutions, less trusting of people, government, and organizations, and of course, far less likely to belong to religious groups. Brooks summarizes the millennial character in this way:

The general impression one gets is of a generation that is stressed, energetic, creative, skeptical and in the middle of redefining, and thinning out, the nature of affiliation. Its members have been thrust into a harsher world where it is necessary to be guarded, and sensitive to risk. They want systemic change but there is no compelling form of collective action available. Their only alternative, which is their genius, is to try to fix their lives themselves, through technology and new forms of social interaction, rather than mass movements.

The coming generations will be much less likely to think of themselves as part of a people, a nation, a group of any kind, and in particular will be less inspired by our national story.

So that leads me back to the Decalogue, to the Mt. Sinai moment of contact between humans and God, and indeed to the moment earlier today when we re-created that contact by standing together to hear the words of the Aseret HaDibberot. Many of us grew up in a time when collective involvement in many things, including Judaism, was a powerful motivator. One well-known midrash suggests that all Jews, past, present and future, were at Sinai, that the experience of revelation was therefore not a one-time historical event, but that we all accepted the covenant as a nation.

For thousands of years, that has been a comforting thought. That ancient paradigm shift was inspiring and powerful. Our foundational story of slavery -> freedom -> Torah -> Israel was an essential piece of who we are. The Jewish nation, the Jewish collective, kelal yisrael, was nourished by that idea of resonating together in the echoes of Mt. Sinai.

But our children are far more skeptical (and I know this from personal experience) than I ever was as a child. We may in fact be entering a new paradigm, a new phase of the relationship with our tradition.

And, like Juan Enriquez, who wonders aloud whether our subsequent generations will be the same species, I am left with the question, “If our ancient stories do not speak to us as they used to, how are we going to convince our young people of the value of this?”

Now, I’m not into fear. I am not fond of those who promote fear and outsize concern for the future, and I will not engage in that sort of thinking. I do not want to raise the flag of anxiety by screaming, “Oh no! What if my children reject Judaism? What if Judaism disappears?”

Rather, I want us to think of this as a challenge, a healthy opportunity to work harder to engage our descendants, and to think about how we have to change what we do in order to stay relevant. Of course, I have no definite solutions, no concrete answers to the question of, “How do we maintain our tradition?” But I have a few suggestions to help managing this new paradigm from where we stand today:

  1. We must be able to define for ourselves why the Sinai moment, and indeed the whole enterprise of Judaism is valuable to us. And the potential answers cannot include, “I’m Jewish because my parents were,” or “I’m Jewish because I’m not Christian,” or “I’m Jewish to spite Hitler.” Those things may all be true, but they will not speak to millennials.

    Rather, we have to say things like, “I’m Jewish because the teachings of Jewish tradition fill my life with meaning and my head with guidance,” or “I’m Jewish because Judaism keeps me grounded and offers me comfort,” or “I’m Jewish because Jewish texts inspire me to work for the benefit of others.” And so forth.

  2. We have to use the tools of technology to create more access points for those who want to be involved. In my Judaism 101 class, for example, I have a few students who participate by Skype every Thursday evening because they live too far away. There are many more online resources for learning and participating – we have to promote them more. And so forth.
  3. We have to be willing to make hard choices about what we offer as a synagogue. If any of our activities are not reaching a critical mass of people, we have to reconsider what we do. Even as we sally forth into the digital age, people will always need synagogues as gathering places; we just have to find the hooks that will bring more in, and we have to make sure that those programs are connective, resonant, and worthwhile. Business as usual in most synagogues means the business of the last century. We have to constantly re-envision what we do, and that’s hard, but it must be done.

Those are just a few thoughts. The new paradigm will surely contain Judaism; it will be up to us what that Judaism looks like. Let’s have those conversations now, and prepare for the future.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, Jan. 30, 2016.)

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Sermons

Bosons, Kafka, and God – Shemot 5776

I tend to follow with great interest any news that comes out about particle physics, mostly because I am fascinated by things which we cannot see, yet are fundamental to understanding our world. But also, I love the theoretical aspects of math and physics that speak to the great theological questions that continue to pester us, even as we discover ever more about Creation. Subatomic particles always bring me back to God.

There was a piece of news two weeks ago from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider, a 27-km circular particle accelerator 100 meters underground outside of Geneva, was the international research facility that demonstrated the existence of the elusive Higgs boson in 2012. Without getting too technical, the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle whose existence had been predicted more than 50 years ago by a British theoretical physicist named Peter Higgs, but since the theory indicated that it would decay in a ten-sextillionth (10^-22 or 0.0000000000000000000001) of a second, it would be very hard to demonstrate that it exists. However, as a key particle in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, proving its existence was extremely important to scientists in the field. The Large Hadron Collider, at a cost of about $10 billion, was built largely (!) to pursue the mysterious Higgs; finding it would effectively “prove” the Standard Model and thus allow many physicists to sleep comfortably at night.

Large Hadron Collider Makes Comeback After Two-Year Hiatus - Modern ...
The Large Hadron Collider

Scientists were so confident in 2013 that they had witnessed the presence of the Higgs in the data obtained from the LHC that they took the accelerator out of service for two years to do some repair work. It came back on line in 2015, and just a few weeks ago, scientists working at CERN went public with a new discovery: yet another, newly-discovered, as-yet-unnamed and -untheorized mystery particle, perhaps a cousin to the Higgs.

What is captivating about all this to me is that in 2013, everything seemed hunky-dory in the field of physics. Big questions were answered. Great theories were proven. Some have referred to the Higgs boson as “the God particle,” because the idea was that once it was discovered, all questions would be laid to rest.

But that did not happen; not all questions were answered. Apparently, the Standard Model predicts many things about matter, but there are others to which there are no answers. (They are too far beyond the scope of this derashah for me to explain.) But that is what makes it interesting.

Are we getting closer to unlocking all of the secrets that God’s Creation has for us? Or is it possible that each door unlocked will lead to another door, which is still locked, and will require many more years and billions of dollars to unlock?

In my first year at Cornell, I read a short story by Franz Kafka called Before the Law. In it, an unidentified man comes from the country to seek the law, and is met by a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper refuses to let the man through the gate toward the law, but tells him that after the first gate is another gate with another gatekeeper and after that another and another, and each gate is even harder to enter. The man spends his entire life trying to gain access. At the end of his life, as the man is dying, the gatekeeper reveals that the gate was created only for him, and it will now be permanently closed. The man has failed.

When I think of the high-level and extraordinarily expensive research that must be surmounted in order to get answers to truly fundamental questions, I think of Kafka’s series of gates that are nearly inaccessible, and each one is harder to enter. And that, of course, brings me back to God.

Kafka, of course, was Jewish, and grew up in a household that knew Judaism; his father was a shohet (kosher butcher). Although he never wrote about Judaism explicitly in his work, this story to me sounds very Jewish. The man strives for entry to the law (i.e. the Torah) for his entire life, but never succeeds; we too strive to live the ideals and mitzvot of Judaism, and we always miss the mark. Part of the drama of the High Holidays is the acknowledgment that each of us has failed in one way or another; each of us is flawed.

kafka statue in this part of town i came upon a unique statue of kafka ...
Statue of Franz Kafka in Prague

But the series of increasingly challenging gates speaks to me of the way that I approach God. God is not provable by any theory or evidence, and that’s OK. God can live comfortably alongside the so-called God particle, the Big Bang, evolution, and so forth, because that is not the way God works. Does knowing where we come from and how subatomic particles behave answer the really important questions, like, “How do I find meaning in my life?” or “How do I make responsible choices in my interpersonal relationships?” No.

Knowing God and understanding the laws of physics are fundamentally different questions. But they are equally challenging in a way that highlights the impossibility of ever arriving at the conclusion. Just as understanding subatomic particles will be an infinite task, so too will our understanding of God.

God is elusive, and sometimes the more we uncover, the more we see that there is even more to know. And yet, we continue to strive for holiness, to seek God wherever Godliness might be found.

Some of us look at those who are deeper and more rigorous in our observance of religious tradition and think, “That guy – he must understand Judaism and God. He’s got it all figured out.” But you’ll have to trust me when I say, it doesn’t quite work that way. We all continue to seek, no matter where we are on the spectrum of Jewish knowledge or traditional practice. And we all return to the same fundamental questions, for which there will never be complete answers. And the whole array of Torah and our tradition remains before us to dig into along our journeys.

And this brings me back to Parashat Shemot, and in particular a passage that has captivated me since childhood. It comes from the episode with the burning bush (Ex. 3:13-14):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָאֱ-לֹהִים, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם, אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ, מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.  יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.

Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” (New JPS)

Call me Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, says God. “I am what I am.” We might expect this from Popeye, but not from God.

What does it mean? What does it tell us about who or what God is, about the nature of the Divine? Is God merely ducking the question, knowing that in 5776 / 2016 we’d still be asking?

The great Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdychiv (Ukraine, 1740-1809) reads this as future tense, “I will be what I will be.”  It is as if God is saying, don’t try to pin me down; you cannot fully understand me, and the same will be true effectively forever.

I suppose what was always the most fascinating thing about this line is the translation itself. When I was in Hebrew school, I was taught that “ehyeh” is future tense – I will be – and therefore goes with R. Levi Yitzhaq.

But actually, Hebrew grammar freaks like me know that although modern Hebrew has a tense structure that accords with European languages (past, present, and future), ancient Hebrew does not actually work that way. The Hebrew of the Torah, if you can believe this, has no tense! It has only moods. Those moods are perfect and imperfect. Perfect refers to actions which have been completed; imperfect refers to things that have not yet been completed. Both of these moods can refer to actions in the past, present, or future; although mood can sometimes suggest tense, tense is not intrinsic to the mood.

Ehyeh” is imperfect. It is an incompleteness, past, present, or future. It might suggest “This is what I am right now, but I will be something different in the future,” or “This is what I will begin to be when we get there.” It could even suggest, “This is what I was being, but I have since changed.”

Ehyeh asher ehyeh” is a layer of incompleteness on top of incompleteness. It says, “Not only have I not completed who I am right now, but even in the future I will not have even begun to be established.” It’s like Churchill’s statement on the Soviet Union: it was (perfect mood, BTW) “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

God is in an imperfect mood. God is not complete. God is still, even today, fashioning God’s self.

This is an imperfect world, and there is much work to do before we achieve perfection of any kind. Maybe it will never arrive, but we first must acknowledge this. That’s the meaning of “Ehyeh.”

Back to the Times story on the exciting, new boson, cousin to the God particle, the Higgs: the reporter who covered this revelation described the discovery of the Higgs as “not the end of physics,” but rather, “the end of the beginning.” This research is in the imperfect mood. Just as physicists will continue to dig deeper to find more answers, and even more unanswered questions, so too will we continue to attempt to enter one gate after another in search of God, in our quest for Torah, in our journey to ourselves. Kafka and the Higgs boson suggest that this search will never be over; our task is to keep looking.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2016.)

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Sermons

We Need Each Other – Vayhi 5776

I mentioned last week that I was in Tzefat on my last day in Israel. After walking meditatively through that city’s famous cemetery and visiting the graves of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the AR”I, Elohi Rabbi Yitzhaq, the godly Rabbi Isaac), creator of Lurianic Kabbalah, and Rabbi Shelomo Halevi Alqabetz, the payyetan / liturgical poet who composed Lekha Dodi, I walked further up the hill into the center of the city.

FROM SPAIN TO SAFED: THE LURIANIC KABBALAH
R. Luria, R. Alqabetz, R. Cordovero

If you’ve been there, you know that Tzefat consists mostly of little alleyways winding around the hill. It’s a maze – all the printed maps are wrong – and it is actually impossible to actually find your way through Tzefat unless you live there. You can really only stumble into the artists’ colony or the central business district.

At one point as I’m wandering, I had a brief encounter that caused me to think deeply about Jewish pluralism. I see a woman coming toward me who looks like a nun in a black habit. As she drew closer, I realized that this was not a nun, but a Jewish woman in a black robe that covered everything except her face. I was face-to-face with one of the very traditional women who have opted for the Jewish version of the Muslim burqa. (Technically, for those of us who are familiar with women’s dress codes in the Muslim world, it was really a chador, a full-length robe open only around the face, favored in Iran and Afghanistan. You can watch an investigative report about these women from Israeli television, in Hebrew, here.)

Now this is very troubling to me – in some ways, it is an affront to all that Judaism stands for, and particularly the egalitarian principles which Conservative Judaism has pioneered. (BTW, Orthodox and Haredi authorities in Israel have railed against the burqa women as well.)

But even while most rabbinic authorities have rejected the so-called “frumka,” some advocate gender-segregated buses, sidewalks, and even supermarkets in their neighborhoods. I am sure that many of us are aware of the battles that have taken place at the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex) over mixed-gender services and women’s services. (And if you have not been there lately, you should know about the Ezrat Yisrael area set aside for egalitarian services below Robinson’s Arch – it’s much nicer than the traditional area of the Kotel – quiet, serene, removed from the chaos and political hubbub nearby.)

But I suppose that the pluralist in me has to acknowledge that even while I disagree with these extreme forms of gender separation, and particularly the radical covering-up-ism taken on by a couple of hundred women in Israel, that these are also among the Jewish paths to God. While I think that there are security issues with anybody walking around in public with their face obscured (as with a true burqa), I suppose that women who choose to cover themselves up to avoid the wanton gazes of men have something of a leg to stand on.

If we are really committed to pluralism, we have to accept a wide range of Jewish behaviors in both directions. I do not judge members of this community who eat treyf or go shopping on Shabbat. I tolerate (well, actually I encourage) a wide range of understanding God. I have become aware that many more Jews are being cremated, which is a true affront to Jewish tradition on multiple levels. I try not to be annoyed when mobile phones ring in shul / synagogue on Shabbat.

We in the middle of the Jewish continuum have an obligation to love and accept all Jews who come our way, regardless of their choices. As a Conservative rabbi, I advocate for kashrut, Shabbat, and traditional Jewish burial, as well as halakhic change to account for a changed contemporary landscape.

On the other hand, however, perhaps pluralism must have its limits. Just as our upstanding, moderate Muslim colleagues repudiate the extremists in their midst, so too must we. We Jews should never tolerate murder or revenge in the name of Judaism. We should never tolerate the perversion of our teachings for radical purposes. (And, on a related note, we should distance ourselves from the behaviors of Jewish extremists caught on video at a recent wedding, celebrating the murder of 18-month-old Palestinian Ali Dawabshe and brandishing knives and guns.)

And really, as contradictory as this sounds, it’s hard for me to get past the feeling that women who cover themselves up so as to obscure their bodies to such an extent may be beyond the pale. The statement that they are making is that men have no control whatsoever. It makes sense to me that in a contemporary context, men should take as much responsibility as women in protecting human dignity and in respecting one another. If either men or women insist that it is only the woman’s duty to fend off inappropriate glances, to me it feels like pre-emptively blaming the victim.

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves here regarding what it means to be a Conservative Jew: like Orthodoxy, we understand halakhah / Jewish law to be valid and binding, but we account for modernity with conservative (i.e. minimal) changes within the halakhic system. We accept men and women as being equal under Jewish law. We accept the historical view of Judaism, understanding our tradition as having unfolded gradually in the context of many places and cultures, rather than having all been given in final form at Sinai. We accept contemporary understandings of the origins of the Torah and of God. These Conservative “changes” flow naturally from our tradition; they are not a break with it.

Many of these ideas are not welcome in some quarters of the Jewish world, and some of the sentiments and principles that emerge from those quarters I find objectionable. But there is still, at least for now, some mutual sense of belonging. We are all still Jews. And as I passed Geveret Burqa there in Tzefat, we shared what you might call a little pluralistic moment – an acknowledgment of the different ways of being Jewish, even if I am disappointed that she would take the Jewish value of tzeni’ut, modesty, to a rather absurd extent.

We concluded the first book of the Torah today, and as Bereshit drew to a close with the patriarch Ya’aqov on his deathbed, each of his sons received some parting words. These fatherly praises and admonitions speak to me of pluralism. For example:

Gen. 49:8 (re: Yehudah)

יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ–יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ

You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;

Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;

Your father’s sons shall bow low to you…

Gen. 49:5-6 (re: Shim’on and Levi)

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים–כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:  כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.

Simeon and Levi are a pair;

Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

Let not my person be included in their council,

Let not my being be counted in their assembly.

For when angry they slay men,

And when pleased they maim oxen.

At this stage, the Israelite nation is really only a family. Jacob is here driving home the point, at the end of his life and effectively the end of the family narrative, that our family has internal strife. Not only do we disagree with each other, we are sometimes openly hostile. Not too dissimilar today – our internecine struggles are effectively ancient.

And yet, despite the harsh words from Ya’aqov, Shim’on and Levi continue to be counted among the Israelites. Ya’aqov does not write them out of his will, or out of the family. I am from the tribe of Levi.

In some ways we still retain that sense of family. The Talmud (BT Shevuot 39a) tells us that:

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh

All of Israel is responsible for one another.

We are all dependent on one another, all connected. We have always thought of ourselves in this way. We even have our own term for our connectedness: kelal Yisrael. Loosely translated, it means, “All of us Israelites.”

We are kind of like a giant cousins’ club. Since the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Zionist movement, some have called this phenomenon “peoplehood.” One of the major results of this sense of peoplehood in modern times is the State of Israel; a more mild form is the pride that American Jews used to take in playing “Spot the Jew”: knowing that the Three Stooges and and Dinah Shore and Kirk Douglas were all Jewish. (Re: Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.)

But the Jewish world is much more fractured than it used to be. The landmark Pew Research Center study on American Jews from two years ago showed a religious hardening on the right and growing disengagement on the left, with a disappearing middle. I think it might be harder today for us to acknowledge that we are all connected, that our souls are bound together, that we have a shared destiny, common values, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I believe we are indeed still one people. We are all Jews, even if large fractions of the Jewish world do not accept other large fractions. The concept of kelal Yisrael still resonates. And certainly, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in some quarters of the world might serve to remind us all that those who hate us surely do not care about our divergent approaches to halakhah or whether or not we ordain female rabbis or call women to the Torah.

Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall ...
Women of the Wall.

Pluralism means that we should tolerate each other, acknowledge each other. We who proudly call women to the Torah will never agree with those who must walk and ride and shop in single-gender environments. Those of us who support the State of Israel with all our hearts will never understand our fellow Jews who protest its very existence. We do not have to agree, but we have to at least acknowledge each other as fellow members of the tribe. And I think that we are still doing that. We may be a dysfunctional family, but we are still a family.

We have to continue to work together, for the benefit of our extended cousins’ club. I very much hope that we will.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/26/2015.)

Categories
Sermons

Your Next Vacation – Vayyiggash 5776

I experienced a certain amount of relief two and a half weeks ago at a rather unusual time. I was boarding a plane at Newark Liberty Airport. My relief was not, as you might expect, that I had discovered that there was nobody in the seat next to me, or that the plane was equipped with free wifi, or even that the in-flight staff was exceptionally friendly. Rather, it was that this flight to Israel was fully booked. Indeed, it was bursting at the seams: families with young children, religious Jews, secular Jews, a teen group from a non-Orthodox Jewish high school, even some non-Jews. (They are easy to pick out: they’re generally the ones who pay attention when the flight attendants tell them to sit down and fasten their seatbelts or to stop talking on their phones.)

I had been concerned that this would not be the case. I had been worried that there would be not only an empty seat next to me, but lots of them. Flight tickets were relatively inexpensive this year, and I figured that the prices were low because the stabbings had scared away the tourists. But this is not the case. (It may be that the prices have been lower because the price of oil has declined so much. We’re paying significantly less at the pump here, and in Israel the price of gasoline was the equivalent of merely $6/gallon, which is much lower than it’s been for the last decade or so.)

Whatever the reason, this plane was full. Despite the two-month-long wave of terror attacks in Israel, despite the worldwide criticism of Israel in the wake of the Gaza mess two summers ago, despite BDS and their supporters, all of these people were flying to Israel. And that’s a very good thing; although Israel’s high-tech sector has been booming for years, the economy still depends on tourism, and it is a growing sector — it accounts for 7% of the economy, which does not sound like much, but has the additional added value of bringing in lots foreign currency.

I have been on flights to Ben Gurion Airport when the seats were sparsely populated. I was in the north of Israel when Hizbullah’s rockets were falling there in the summer of 2006. I was in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, when the streets of the midrakhov on Ben Yehudah were painfully quiet and nearly every cafe had its own security guard out front who frisked every entering customer.

But that was not the case on this trip. I was happy to see chartered buses crawling throughout the land, piled with tourists from all over the world – in one kibbutz dining hall I noted Christian tour groups from Taiwan, Singapore, and a couple of different American locations. Israelis are not cowering in their homes, forlorn. Life goes on in the Holy Land.

And of course it always does. The Israeli character has been toughened by decades of terrorism; Israelis are accustomed not only to living with it as a given, but also to minimize their fear through rationalization. It’s a self-protective mechanism, of course, but it is also the only real way to continue living. We cannot allow fear, and much less the purveyors of terror to dictate our daily choices. And that is as much true in America as it is in Israel. If we let ourselves be scared by terrorists, they win. That’s why they are called “terrorists.”

And remember that the news media are not our friends in this regard. If it bleeds, it leads, and they are in the business to sell you something. They want Israel to appear dangerous, because we read that stuff. But it’s not. In the two weeks that I was in Israel, there were (if I can rely on the accuracy of Internet searches) four attacks on Israeli civilians, only two of which actually took place within the Green Line; no Israelis died, although roughly 15 were injured. In the United States in that period, the statistics suggest that over 4,000 Americans were shot by guns in the same period, and of those, 420 were homicides. How many of those did we read about in the news? (Based on averages given here.) Yes, terror attacks are disturbing, and they undermine all hope for a peaceful future. However, the picture that some of us have of Israel as being more dangerous than other places is simply not accurate.

***

My intent here today is not to speak about terrorism; it is, rather, to convince you to visit Israel. I moved to Pittsburgh from a community that was very strongly connected to Israel. Many of my congregants in Great Neck had relatives in Israel, or even if they did not, had been to Israel on multiple occasions. True, it is easier and somewhat less expensive to get there from New York, with direct flights plentiful on multiple airlines, but I have been somewhat surprised here in Pittsburgh. In forums where I have inquired about travel to Israel, those who have been there are usually in the minority.

We should change that. Many of us want to support Israel, but do not know how. Here is an excellent way to lend your support to the Jewish state: go there.

And all the more so, we need to go to Israel particularly when the situation is bad. I have witnessed a number of tour groups fall apart because something scary happened on the streets of Jerusalem.

But I have some unpleasant news for all of us: in light of recent events, no place in the West is any more safe than any other. Now, that does not mean that we should be afraid — there is no point in adding terrorist threats to our burgeoning list of contemporary fears. We should of course ensure that law enforcement is doing its job, and be vigilant. But Israel is no longer unique in this regard; we are all in the same boat.

So that should give us all the more reason to go to Israel: you are actually safer there! Why? Because Israelis have been trained, effectively from birth, to watch for and report suspicious activity. Because everywhere you go, there are security personnel of various types. When was the last time your car was checked on the way into a mall parking lot? It happens all the time in Israel.

Given that, I want to enumerate for you just a few reasons why you should plan your next vacation in Israel, whether you have been there or not:

  • Support the Israeli economy. Israel is not cheap, it’s true. But when you travel there, you have access to a whole spiritual dimension that you may not find in other locations..
  • Get in touch with your heritage. The streets of Israel are filled with Jewish history and life. By walking those streets, by meeting your cousins, by visiting the ancient locations from where our history emerged, you will connect with our national story in a way that is simply impossible anywhere else.
  • Israel competes with any other vacation destination in the world for relaxation opportunities. Beaches? Oh, yeah. Museums? Some of the best in the world. Scuba diving? Eilat is gorgeous year-round. Fine dining? Some of it is even kosher! And the cafes are awesome. Hiking? There are incredible vistas and amazing trails all over.  Israel has been described as a half dressed lady: lusciously robed in green landscape to the north, with the Hermon mountain seasonally snow-capped, and naked to the South with the mesmerizing Negev desert and the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea.
  • Learn. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, the best place to understand Israel and the complexity and precariousness of her position in the Middle East is to visit. We Americans like to weigh in on Israeli politics and military strategy, but the most honest way to approach this is to actually be there and soak up the environment. Nothing is ever black-and-white, and being on the ground and talking with the people who actually face the challenges of the region on a daily basis can be extraordinarily revealing.
rakevel 2
Haifa.

And there are many more reasons to visit, not the least of which are the falafel, the shawarma, and the hummus.

When I returned to Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning, I had a funny sensation: the feeling that Pittsburgh is home. I have lived in many places: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, New York, and of course Israel. “Home” is a difficult concept for many of us today, as people are more mobile than they have ever been.

Today in Parashat Vayyiggash, we realize that Yosef has really become a naturalized Egyptian. When he finally breaks down and asks his brothers about home, he does not seem nostalgic for the land of his birth; he inquires only about his father’s health. He does not say, “I’m coming back with you to our home, and my servants will send with us enough food for a decade.” He does not even engage small talk about the state of things back at the Israelite ranch. Rather, he invites his family to come down with him to Egypt, to create the first diaspora community, and to set in motion the series of events that will lead to slavery and then freedom and return to Israel.

Home, for Yosef, is Egypt.

Our home is here, it is true. We are loyal Americans, committed to all of the principles that this country upholds, and grateful for the freedom from oppression which it has provided for our parents and grandparents, and for this same freedom and opportunity which, we hope, it will continue to offer those who come from afar.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book of Bereshit / Genesis, which we will read next week, Yosef will request from his family that when they leave Egypt and return to Israel, they should bring his bones with them to be re-interred in the land promised to his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Yosef understands that his real home is there.

And today, living here “be-sof ma’arav,” at the end of the West, as the great poet Yehuda haLevi put it in 12th-century Spain, we are still undeniably connected to that small strip of heart-breakingly beautiful, holy earth halfway around the world.

So go there. Soon.

And let me add by way of conclusion that in the handful of parlor meetings that we have held since I started here, many of you have mentioned that we should host a congregational trip to Israel. So let’s do that. Let’s put together a task force and make it happen next year. That would be a wonderful thing. If you want to make it happen, come talk to me.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/19/2015.)

Categories
Festivals Kavvanot

Bringing Light: The Message of Hanukkah

I’m writing from just about as far north in Israel as one can be, in the mountainous hamlet of Neve Ativ, just west and slightly downhill from the lofty Druze city of Majdal Shams, perched high on the Hermon mountain shared by Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It’s the upper limit of the Golan Heights, and my son and I were able to look down tonight into the Hulah Valley below, framed by the lights of Kiryat Shemonah. There is actually no wifi in our cabin (I know… Can you believe it?), so if you’re reading this I have already returned to a more central locale.

Hanukkah is, as you might imagine, a happy time in Israel. Sufganiyyot (jelly doughnuts) are everywhere; schools are closed, and there are performances throughout the country. And, of course, there are lights and lightings all over – I was in a franchise of a well-known coffee-and-sandwich chain around sunset time last night, when the manager announced over the intercom, “OK, everybody, time to light the candles!” I had been nursing a kafe hafukh (literally, upside-down coffee, it’s the common Israeli term for cappucino), and there were only 3 or 4 other patrons. But the waitstaff, all clearly secular Jews, found kippot, produced a hanukkiyyah with two candles (plus the shammash) and motioned for everybody to gather around the bar. And then, despite the fact that I was desperately trying to mind my own business, they volunteered me to lead us in the berakhot. So I sang for a bunch of strangers who hummed along – they had no idea that they had picked out the only Conservative rabbi/cantor in Israel – and we had a joyous moment of Jewish holiday bonding.hanukkiyyah

More so in Israel than in America, Hanukkah carries a message: that of bringing light where there is darkness. In my own childhood, Hanukkah was the Jewish answer to Christmas – we lit lights proudly and placed them in the window to demonstrate that we were different. We played dreydl games  and ate latkes and sang silly songs about the joy of the holiday and ate chocolate coins (the best ones were always those made by the Israeli chocolate manufacturer Elite). But the message was always of (a) the miracle of the oil and (b) the Maccabean victory, neither of which really resonated so much.

But Israelis seem to get it right. The songs sung by children on this holiday invoke the theme of light. It suggests to my adult ear the classically-understood role of the Jews in the world: to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is our obligation in this world to bring light where there is darkness, that is, to reach out to those in need, to seek peace and pursue it, to protect God’s Creation zealously, to live the values taught by our ancestors, to apply the principles of Talmud Torah, of Jewish learning to illuminate this otherwise unenlightened world, to counter the forces of chaos, terror, and hatred with love, equality, and reason.

That is the message of Hanukkah. That is the light we bring. חג אורים שמח! Hag urim sameah! A joyous and enlightening festival of lights to you and yours.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Categories
Kavvanot

The Dreamers Among Us – Vayyeshev 5776

“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one”

Embedded in John Lennon’s idealistic song is a little dig at dreamers: the line suggests that to call somebody a dreamer is a put-down. Those who pursue dreams, who chase after a seemingly impossible vision, are unrealistic. They are fools.

Bereshit / Genesis features several dreams: a few are Jacob’s, a few more are courtesy of his son Joseph, and still more belong to Joseph’s jailed companions. These dreams all move the narrative forward, and in the case of Joseph, his own dreams (and his boasting thereof) cause such aggravation that his brothers plot to kill him, resulting in a tale so sublime that it found its way to the Broadway stage.

As the brothers are conspiring against Joseph, they declare (Gen. 37:19), “Hinneh ba’al ha-halomot halazeh ba.” “Here comes that dreamer!” You can hear in the Hebrew how they are almost spitting these words out with rage. “Venihyeh ma yihyu halomotav!” “We’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

Rashi tells us that the latter statement is a challenge: We’ll see whose dreams come true, yours or ours! If they had succeeded in killing Joseph, of course, his dreams would not have come true. (Spoiler alert: the brothers’ attempts to foil Joseph fail; the latter’s dreams are eventually fulfilled.)

But in general, dreaming is neither solely fantasy nor reality. In an extended passage in Massekhet Berakhot (55a), the Talmud sees dreams as containing both some reality and some meaninglessness. “Neither a good dream nor a bad dream is wholly fulfilled,” says Rav Hisda. And so too for us today: we all dream, and we often look to our dreams for fulfillment.

Of course, there are dreams and there are “dreams.” We often speak in clichéd terms of “hopes and dreams,” although really those are only our conscious hopes. The “dreamer” put-down in Lennon’s Imagine refers to one whose hopes are unrealistic: those who picture an end to all war, a comprehensive solution to world hunger and poverty, universal access to clean water and decent education, and so forth.  

But I would posit that those are the people among us, the “dreamers,” who ultimately move us forward as a society. They are the optimists, and I count myself among them. When it comes to the future, I would rather not succumb to the fear and hopelessness in which many trade; I prefer to keep dreaming.

I prefer to dream that tomorrow will be better than today; that terrorists will lay down their knives and suicide vests, that we learn to manage our natural resources so that we preserve God’s Creation, that racism and anti-Semitism and hatred of all kinds will disappear from our world, that no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will need to seek refuge from warring factions in Syria. And so forth.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. But if we cease to dream, if we manage only the symptoms and not the causes, if we are so distracted by cat videos and media circuses that we fail to confront the most pressing challenges of our time, then I am certain that nothing will change for the better. And those of us who look toward the better world of the future will lead us there.

Speedily, in our day. Even as Rav Hisda’s tempered words of caution continue to resonate, we cannot give up those dreams. Joseph’s dreams came true; let us hope that ours will too.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(A version of this devar Torah appeared in the Dec. 4, 2015 edition of The Jewish Chronicle.)

Categories
Sermons

Building the Future with an Eye to the Past – Toledot 5776

For three days this week, I am in Chicago to participate in the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which is boldly titled, “Shape the Center.” Dave Horvitz (our president) is already there, and Ed Frim will be there as well. I have heard that the attendance will exceed that of the centennial convention two years ago, with over 1200 attendees from all over North America.

Logo Shape the Center: USCJ Convention 2015

This is, of course, a time of great anxiety for the Conservative movement: declining numbers, an aging population, financial and spiritual challenges.

And yet, in my mind, this is also a time of great optimism. The core of the movement is excited to act, to re-envision what we do, to create new modes of engagement and learning. Maybe we’re a wee bit late – why were we not re-thinking and re-envisioning two decades ago? Nonetheless, the great renovation project of the Conservative movement is underway, and the USCJ convention is ground zero for this groundswell of activity.

Why the optimism? Because there will always be a need for the center in contemporary Jewish life. Because although we have lost numbers, those whom we have retained are more committed. Because there will always be a demand for a Jewish environment which is at once traditional and and yet sensitive to contemporary sensibilities. Because, as my colleague, Rabbi Joshua Rabin, put it in a recent opinion piece that appeared in the Forward,

The fact that the Pew Study showed that Conservatives Jews are by far the most engaged non-Orthodox population in every measurable category, including Israel activism, ritual practice, synagogue attendance and investment in Jewish education, is proof that Conservative Judaism is not only a critical Jewish voice, but an effective one, too.

But among the greatest challenges that we face as a movement, and all the more so in our 140-character world, is that it is difficult to describe who we are. What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew? I am a lifelong Conservative Jew, and I could not really adequately articulate that until I was a student at JTS.

We have no effective soundbite. Maybe that’s not a bad thing – an ancient religious tradition, after all, cannot be reduced to a few glossy phrases.

But here is the irony: What I think really makes us the Conservative movement is history. History is on our side, and the future is shaped by the past.

We understand that Judaism and Jewish practice has always been influenced by the culture and time in which it existed. We understand that the Oral Law, the rabbinic interpretation documented in the Talmud and later literature, is more malleable than principles enshrined in the Torah, that it actually encourages argument and multiple acceptable positions. We understand the motivations of the human hand in our sacred scriptures, revealed through academic study. We understand that halakhah / Jewish law and Jewish rituals have changed continuously over the last two millennia.

History is our friend, and the future depends on our understanding of history.

Our understanding of the Torah is also intimately tied to our history. I am something of a  grammar buff, and I have always been drawn to Torah commentaries that address the eccentricities of our historical language, Hebrew.

Several years back, around this time of year, the Philologos column in the Forward took up the question of foreign words adopted into Modern Hebrew.  There are many such words, since the corpus of Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew from which Modern Hebrew draws is lacking in many terms required by modern life.  Some of these adopted words are more “Hebraized” than others:

Lesabsed,” for example, means “to subsidize.”

Ektzentri” means “eccentric.”

Pluralizm” means (I know this is hard to believe) “pluralism.”

Philologos points to, among others, the Hebrew word “historiya,” which means, of course, history.  “Historiya” is a Greek word which arrived in English via Latin as “history,” and is derived from the Greek term for learning.

Now, if I were you, I would be wondering, “Given that Rabbi Adelson just told us about the importance of history in Jewish tradition, why did Hebrew need to borrow a Greek term for history? Is there no original Hebrew word?”

I’m so glad you asked! It does seem surprising that the language of the Torah, and for that matter, all of rabbinic literature does not include such a word.

And yet, as Philologos points out, the correct form of “historiya” when used in construct with another noun (construct: like birkat ha-mazon, the blessing of food, or qeri’at ha-Torah, the reading of the Torah) is not “historiyat ha-yehudim” for example.  Rather, the first word of the construct changes entirely, replaced with “toledot.”  As in, Ve-elleh toledot yitzhaq (Gen. 25:19), which were the opening words of our parashah this morning.  The JPS translation renders this as, “This is the story of Isaac.”  To modern Israeli ears, these words sound more like, “This is the history of Isaac.”

The word “toledot” seems to be a form of the shoresh (root) “yod-lamed-daled,” child, and from which all forms of begetting and begotten are derived (e.g. yeled, laledet, velad, holid, moledet, molad).  It seems to mean history, but literally, it means, these are the generations of Isaac.  When used, however, it is not merely about who begat whom – it is also used to introduce important details of the lives of Biblical characters.  The same word, by the way, introduces the second Creation story in Genesis as well (Gen. 2:4 – Elleh toledot hashamayim veha-aretz), the one that includes the intrigue of Adam and Eve in Gan Eden – not generations, but history.

As Jews, we constantly, actively relive our history.  From week to week, as we observe the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays that tell the story of one ancient happening after another, we are invoking our history.

Medeba map of Jerusalem
The Medeba Map of Jerusalem

We are here today because God rested on Shabbat, and our ancestors have always done so.  We built our Sukkot seven weeks ago because our ancestors wandered through the desert.  In a few weeks, we will kindle the Hanukkah lights to commemorate the Hasmonean military victory over the Hellenized Syrians in middle of the 2nd century, BCE.  And so on.

So while you can make the case (as some scholars do) that “historiya” is a modern idea, you cannot deny that the Jews have always been committed to retelling the past – celebrating the victories, and recalling the low points to avoid them in the future.

History is central to who we are.  And all the more so as Conservative Jews.  The Conservative movement was originally called “the positive-historical school,” referring to a group of Central European Jewish scholars of the mid-19th century who were positive toward Jewish tradition and law, but also historically-inclined.  That is, they saw Judaism as a developing tradition and studied it in the historical and cultural context of the wider cultures in which it has existed, and were likewise committed to halakhah, Jewish law, in its own historical arc.

We like to think historically. Whenever I teach rabbinic literature, and many of you know this already, I have a timeline nearby to put everything in context.

It is only through the historical lens that we can truly understand who we are and where we are going – from the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and a whole range of dates and places and kings and rabbis and interpreters and wars and exiles and migrations.  And so forth.

And here we are today, still trying to find our paths through Judaism.  Here is where our long view becomes even more important.  We are living in a time in which historical memory is painfully short.  Who has to remember anything anymore, when everything you could ever possibly need to know is a few swift keystrokes away?

We as Jews know and understand history, and as the wider world drifts into an ahistorical stew of digital present, we must continue to take the long view, to continue to seek our future in the context of the past.

I spoke last week about the mandate to teach our teens the history of the State of Israel. But really, the task is much greater than that. Isaac’s story, toledot yitzhaq, is our history, and so is everything that follows, right up to the events of last week. We have to keep referring back to that timeline, and all of the characters and places and events on it, to maintain a vital Jewish center here in North America. We have to continue to teach the value of Shabbat, to live the value of hesed, acts of lovingkindness, to resonate with the traditional words of the siddur, even as we find ways to balance these practices with contemporary society and where our people are today. And we can do this without compromising our essential ideals.

And that’s why I am in Chicago for a few days. David and Ed and I will bring back material to share with everybody, so that we can continue to re-fashion the Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement that will ignite the passions of our grandchildren.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/14/2015.)