Category Archives: Festivals

May (S/He) Remember – 8th Day Pesah 5778 / Yizkor

In last week’s New York Times, there was a column by Nicholas Kristof about clergy in America (“The Rise of God’s Spokeswomen,” Sunday Review, April 1, 2018), and how clergy of most denominations are increasingly female.

We in the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1985, and as their numbers have grown, the idea of a female rabbi has become more widespread and more acceptable. I have female colleagues who are in large congregations, who are the senior spiritual leaders of their flocks, and who are as respected and as effective in their positions as men. And that is a good thing.

Kristof says something that I found particularly moving: that our changing attitudes to spiritual leadership, that our increasing openness to women in the role of rabbi or minister or priest will ultimately transform our theology. He cites Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary (just across the street, by the way, from my rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), who suggests that women will ultimately dominate religious leadership in America, and that this will reshape our understanding of the role of God in our lives, moving from “stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”

The student body at Union is now nearly 60% female; at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 63% of rabbis ordained since 1998 have been women. About one-fifth of all Conservative rabbis are women, and that percentage grows a bit each year; this spring’s ordination class is 16 women and 12 men, or 57% female. The membership of the Cantors Assembly, the professional organization that consists primarily of cantors serving in Conservative synagogues, is 35% female.

Women Rabbis Lean In

Conservative rabbis

With so many more women joining the ranks of clergy, our relationships with the various faith traditions, at least in the progressive movements, will naturally change. And so too will our theology.

Still, the sense of “maleness” in Jewish tradition is ever-present, and hard to miss. Consider the special service that we will perform in a few minutes, the proper name for which is “hazkarat neshamot,” the “remembering of souls.” But almost everybody in the Ashkenazi world refers to it as Yizkor (accent on the “yiz,” since both Yiddish and English tend to accent the penultimate syllable in most words; the original Hebrew, properly pronounced, accents the “kor”). “Yizkor” is the first word in the memorial prayers that we recite during that part of the service; these prayers are recited only four times per year: on Yom Kippur, on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesah, and the second day of Shavuot.

What does “yizkor” mean? Literally, “May He remember,” and since it is followed by the word Elohim (one of the common terms for God), it should be understood as, “May God remember,” as in, May God remember my mother, my father, my sister, etc. Now, in English, the translation is non-gender specific. But in Hebrew, the word yizkor is totally, unapologetically masculine. There is actually nothing we can do about it – there is no gender-neutral third person conjugation in Hebrew. It’s either yizkor or tizkor, may She remember, and with that latter term there is the same challenge. So, while we might avoid the issue by referring to the service by its proper name, Hazkarat Neshamot, we can’t really do much about the memorial prayer itself.

There is a midrash that I truly love about the creation of humans as described in Bereshit / Genesis on the sixth day of Creation. It’s about the verse, Genesis 1:27:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

The midrash interprets the verse to indicate two stages of the fashioning of human beings. The first adam, the first human creature, has two sides, a male side and a female side. Because the Hebrew in the first half of the verse has a singular direct object (“vayivra et ha-adam… bara oto,” “God created man… He created him”), it is clear that God created only one creature at first. Furthermore, one may also extrapolate that, since the text tells us twice that this being is fashioned in the image of God, that God also has two sides, a female and a male.

adam and eve

Adam and Eve, by Tsugouharu Fujita

The second part of the verse, “zakhar uneqevah bara otam,” “male and female He created them,” has a plural direct object, so the midrash’s perspective is that God took this two-sided figure and split it into two distinct beings, a female human and a male human. Both are therefore equally in the image of God. Both are God-like, and God is neither male nor female but actually both.

I must concede that when I think and speak about God, I am trying not to envision a specific image. On the contrary, my personal understanding is much more along the lines of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s view of God as kind of force within the natural world, a process that works through and around us, and such a force has no gender, no body, no clear “actions” as described in the Torah and midrash. But I know that if you scratch two Jews, you’ll get at least three different theologies. And, of course our text and liturgy is saturated with images of God as a distinct character, and in particular, a distinctly male character: Avinu malkeinu, Avinu shebashamayim, God sitting on a heavenly throne, God creating the world, God dictating to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and so forth. And all that language is unquestionably masculine.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share a personal anecdote, one that might help illustrate a different model for understanding God.

A few of you know that I lost my first cousin, Anne Lerner, last week. She was 50 years old, and taught in a middle school for “inner-city” kids in Hartford. She died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and we were all shocked and raw, particularly in the context of Passover, to be burying her at such a young age. Anne was never married; she did not have children of her own. But she was so loved by all her students, current and former, that there were about 300 people at her funeral. The school where she taught actually closed on Monday so that teachers and students could attend, and the school actually brought the students in buses to the synagogue in Manchester, CT where the funeral was held.

I am telling you this not to share with you my grief over the loss of my cousin, but rather because in discussing the arc of my cousin’s life with my family members in preparation for delivering a eulogy, I came to understand that she saw her students as her children. She was to them like a nurturing mother, leading and guiding and nudging where possible, making sure they were taken care of, making sure that their needs were met, that if they were not receiving love and support at home, then at least they would get it at school.

Anne loved those students. She loved them dearly. And they loved her right back.

Teaching is holy work, and although my cousin would not have thought of herself as holy, she was in some sense modeling for all of us a way that we might understand God: our teacher, our guide, our provider, our nurturer, the one who makes it possible for us to love. God need not be “Our Father, Our King,” but rather, “The One who loves us and gives us the ability to love.”

That is a theology that appeals to me, and arguably an understanding that is made even more reasonable as the clergy becomes more female.

Any of you who have ever discussed theology with me, in a class or my learners’ service or one-on-one, knows that I am all for re-thinking how we understand God, because the traditional images do not work well for me. And some of you may also know that I draw heavily from my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (zekher tzaddiq livrakhah / may his righteous memory be for a blessing) in this matter, whose bottom line was that we have to seek the understanding of God that works for us as individuals. (BTW, if you are interested in learning more about this, come to my session at the Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot on Saturday night, May 19th at the JCC. I will be discussing Rabbi Gillman’s legacy and why connecting to theology is so essential.)

What works for me is to see the entire palette of humanity as reflecting the image of God: God is male and female, black and white and everything in-between. And God is also none of these things.

As we embrace more women in the clergy, we will surely welcome a broader understanding of the Divine, a more balanced sense of God that incorporates both paternal and maternal aspects.

While I am almost certain that we will always continue to refer to hazkarat neshamot as “Yizkor,” may He remember, I think it would be a good thing to, when we recall our loved ones who are no longer with us, to remember that they were as much subject to God’s nurturing love as to God’s justice.

May that God, the one that reflects the balance of humanity, remember all of those whom we recall today. May our God-given ability to love inspire us, in their memories, to spread more love in this world.

anne lerner

My cousin, Anne Lerner z”l

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning / 8th day Pesah, 4/7/2018.)

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Make It Meaningful! A Passover Charge – First Day Pesah 5778

Ritual. The very word, in English, at least, suggests something that is done the same way with regularity. Your morning coffee, for example. Or shaharit, the morning service.

Some of us find meaning in sameness, in holding on to the framework that shapes our lives. Think of Tevye’s words in the classic Broadway musical: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” Some of us are satisfied with synagogue services that are as they always were. Some of us are satisfied with the institutions of the Jewish world – the synagogues, the Federation, the JCC, etc., doing what they have always done. Some of us are satisfied with knowing that what goes on at Beth Shalom will continue to go on at Beth Shalom forever.

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Some of us in the Jewish world are satisfied with the idea that this is the way we have always done it, and it always will be done this way. That there is no need to change anything.

But not everybody is satisfied. Not everybody agrees with the idea that Jewish ritual should not change. In fact, what makes us the Conservative movement is that, at least historically, we have maintained the vast majority of our tradition while allowing for some conservative, i.e. minimal and gradual change. And, of course, ritual has always changed. What we do today as Jews looks quite different from what our ancestors were doing in Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, or in 9th-century Baghdad, or 12th-century Spain, or 16th-century Tzfat, and so forth.

You may not believe this, but there really is no Hebrew word for ritual, at least the way we use it in English. Yes, if you ask an Israeli, s/he will tell you that the word is minhag, custom, or perhaps pulhan (or even a Hebraized version of the English, ריטואל, ritu’al). But this is actually a borrowed word from Aramaic, from the Talmud and ancient targumim (Aramaic translations of the Tanakh / Hebrew Bible), using a shoresh / root not found in Hebrew; the word is effectively a synonym for the Hebrew avodah, in its ancient meaning of service to God.

But the concept of ritual, which in our language unites the sacred and the mundane, does not exist in Hebrew.

What is the source of meaning in ritual? Is it the safety or comfort of doing something the same way every time? Is it knowing that my ancestors have done it this way for a long time? Is it that the performance of the ritual itself is meaningful? Is it, as may often be the case with a Pesah seder (the evening discussion and festive meal held on the first two nights of Passover), that it is the ancillary stuff that is most meaningful: the gathering of family, the comedic uncle who takes a sip from Eliyahu’s cup when nobody is looking, the time that so-and-so was clearly drunk from four cups of Manischewitz, etc.

Let me propose something: we make our rituals meaningful. We frame our lives in holiness. Do you want to be moved? Then reach higher in seeking and making meaning.

Yes, I know that’s not easy.

My father has told me that when he was a child, his grandfather (alav hashalom / may peace be upon him) would lead the family seder. He would sit at the head of the table, mumble through the haggadah (the book used as a guide for conducting the seder), and pause here and there to instruct everybody to do something: dip the karpas / green vegetable; spill ten drops of wine; eat some maror / bitter herbs, etc. Nobody had any idea what was going on, and then they ate.

Was that meaningful? Maybe in some ways – it still satisfied what you might call the implicit meaning of the seder: a family gathering, a traditional meal marked with ritual, the seder symbols on display, reminding us of our past and the meaning of freedom. But perhaps the explicit meaning – the text and the questions and the discussion and the soul-searching – was absent.

But for many of us today, the implicit is not enough.

A moment of gentle, internal criticism: I mentioned two weeks ago that the Federation’s 2017 Community Study said that only 22% of self-identified Conservative Jews have found their “spiritual needs met, very much.” That number is, in my mind, embarrassingly low. Much lower than Orthodoxy, and even lower than Reform. Why is that, ladies and gentlemen? Is it that your rabbi is uninspiring? Is it that your synagogue is not spiritually-inclined? Is it our rituals?

Well, if that’s the case, let’s change it! Let’s find the meaning together. Help me out.

How do we make it meaningful? In my mind, the best way to make it meaningful is to talk about it. We do an awful lot of “davening” here at Beth Shalom – and I use the Yiddish/English term deliberately, because I am not confident that what we do is really tefillah, in the spiritual sense of the word. (Tefillah / lehitpallel means “self-judgment.”)

You see, true tefillah requires understanding. It requires stepping away from your tough exterior to expose the mushy stuff underneath. It requires that the words that you say have something underneath them – that they are being spoken from the heart (Pirqei Avot 2:18):

רבי שמעון אומר, הוי זהיר בקריאת שמע ובתפילה; וכשאתה מתפלל, אל תעש תפילתך קבע–אלא תחנונים לפני המקום ברוך הוא, שנאמר “כי חנון ורחום, הוא” (יואל ב,יג).

Rabbi Shim’on says: Be careful when you say the Shema and Amidah, and when you pray, do not make your prayer rote recitation, but rather pleas for mercy before God, as it says (Joel 2:13), “For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers.”

An awful lot of words of tefillah go by at this synagogue (and many others), and I just can’t believe that they are all saturated with pleas for mercy before God. Much of it is merely mumbling. Granted, that mumbling is part of the tradition. (One of my cantorial school professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Boaz Tarsi, had an academic jargon term for the buzz of synagogue prayer: “heterophonic chant mumbling.”) But it seems to me a whole lot more like qeva (rote recitation) than kavvanah (intention).

So here is the good news: the seder is actually a low-hanging fruit with respect to finding meaning in Jewish practice. Why? Because (א) there are lots of great haggadot out there that have good translations and commentary for a whole range of interests and levels; (ב) because it’s not shul / synagogue, and you can take your time and your creativity to personalize and discuss your seder. Most of us spend far more time on the food preparation than we do on the discussion part. But the Maggid section (in which we tell the story) is often left unloved – hurried through without dwelling on what it all means. What does it mean to be free? Where are the slaves in this world, and what are our obligations to them? What are the questions that the story of the Exodus raises for us today? How does our contemporary relationship with the Torah fit in?

800px-Maxwell_House_1933_Haggadah_cover

In fact, we find in multiple places in the traditional haggadah what seem to be direct commands to make the seder meaningful. One such place is the following (a direct quote from Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו. כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים. שנאמר (שמות יג, ח) והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר. בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים.

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim

In every generation one must see oneself as having come forth from Egypt, as it is written (Exodus 13:8): “You shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”

Each year at the seder, and arguably every day of our lives, our tradition requires us to see ourselves as having personally gone from slavery to freedom. For many of us who remember the events of the 20th century, that meant recalling the Sho’ah / Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, and the intimate connection between these two events. Or those of our people who left the Soviet Union. Or those who left Iran in the context of the Iranian Revolution.

What sort of meaning will our children and grandchildren derive from these rituals? What is the meaning that we are making today? Will it be triumph over rising anti-Semitism? Will it be an end to the scourges of drugs, mass shootings, and demagoguery? Will it be a solution to rising tides, melting polar ice caps, and flooded cities?

A ritual is never simply a ritual, unconnected to who we are and how we live. A ritual is never entirely meaningless. But sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, implicit or explicit. Sometimes we have to think about it and talk about it. Sometimes we need our rituals to help us hold on for dear life.

I hope that most of us will be attending a second seder tonight. If you did a straightforward, “let’s just hurry through this and get to dinner” seder last night, maybe tonight is the night to go deep. Take your time. Have some more karpas if you’re hungry, and spend some more time talking. That’s the ritual we need. Make it meaningful.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Pesah, 3/31/2018.)

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Ani Ma’amin / I Believe – Shemini Atzeret 5778

We are in difficult times. Wildfires. Hurricanes. A horrific mass shooting. A president who thrives on insults and can’t distinguish between Nazis and “fine people.”

I’m going to talk today about faith, about commitment to our spiritual tradition, in the context of challenging times. Ani Ma’amin. I believe.

Belief is a funny thing. My sense is that we don’t believe in too much today, do we? We like our distance, our cool, reserved, “let’s wait and see” stance.

How many of us believe so strongly in something that we can actually put ourselves into it bodily? How many of us fully invest ourselves in a cause, for example, that we’re actually out in the streets, marching? How many of us feel so strongly about our tradition that we commit to the actions of the tradition, rather than merely checking the “High Holiday” or “Yizkor” box?

There is really no greater figure on the Jewish bookshelf than Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, aka Rambam. He lived in the 12th century, primarily in Egypt, and wrote two major works: the Mishneh Torah, and the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed. These two works come at Judaism from two different perspectives. The Moreh Nevukhim is written for the skeptic, the one who has not yet bought into the idea of Judaism. It’s written to try to initiate the uninitiated; it presents the meaning of our rituals and customs and texts with an eye to inspiring connection. It is written in Judeo-Arabic, the language of the Jews of Egypt of the 12th century.

Spain - Cordoba - statue of the Jewish scholar Maimonides ...

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

The Mishneh Torah, on the other hand, is a halakhic guide. Its title means, literally, the second Torah, boldly titled to almost suggest that if you read this book, you would not need to read the original Torah. It’s for the already-convinced, the committed Jew who wants to know how to do Judaism properly. It’s for the one who throws his or her whole body and heart and mind into it. It’s written in beautiful, crisp medieval Hebrew, easily understandable to those who have studied our essential tongue.

Sitting next to each other on the shelf, what might this suggest about the Jews that Rambam knew in 12th-century Cairo? Certainly, the Mishneh Torah suggests that there were some Jews who were committed to halakhah and wanted to know more, wanted to know from a master interpreter of our tradition what exactly makes a sukkah kosher, or what Psalms to recite for Hallel. But the Moreh Nevukhim, The Guide for the Perplexed, suggests that there were many that were not yet ready to believe, not yet ready to commit.

Having just completed the odyssey of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays, I must say that I find it extraordinarily ironic that one of the best-known piyyutim (liturgical poems) of those days is “Vekhol Ma’aminim.” It includes a litany of statements about God that “all [of us] believe.” And yet, I know that in the sanctuary on those days, there are many who do not believe – do not buy into fundamental traditional understandings of our tradition, of Jewish theology, of the halakhic system, of mitzvot, and so forth. Many of us do not believe, even some of us who are singing along.

Whenever we say the word “amen,” we are saying, I am in a state of faith with you. I believe.

But tefillah, prayer, is not a portrait of what is; it is a vision of what could be. So it’s certainly possible to be in a state of faith that tefillah helps us along the path to building that vision. And that’s certainly where I am.

I believe in the power of Judaism to change your life. I believe in the richness of wisdom that is found in our ancient texts. I believe in the holy spark that may be found in all people, and in all of God’s creation. I believe in the power of that force that flows around and through us that we refer to as the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, to change us and to change the world.

Maybe that makes me an outlier. But it puts me in good company.

A few years back, Elie Wiesel was featured at a performance at the 92nd St. Y in New York. He told a story about how his mother, who came from a well-known family of Vizhnitzer Hasidim, brought him on one Shabbat in 1943 to the court of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. Elie was 15, and although rumors had reached his home town, Sighet, Romania, about what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Poland, nobody knew for certain.

Elie Wiesel: 1928-2016

Also there on that Shabbat was a nephew of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, a young man who had been in Nazi-occupied Poland, but managed to find his way back Vizhnitz, in the Ukraine. The Hasidim there that Shabbat pressed him for information, but he would not say a thing. He simply could not tell them what he had likely seen: the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen, SS mobile killing squads, rail transports to death camps in cattle cars, and so on. On all these things, the young man was silent. Instead, he only sang. He sang the words of Ani Ma’amin, Maimonides’ fundamental statement of faith in the coming of the mashiah. But embedded in the words, and in the melody, was the message that they needed to maintain faith despite the coming cataclysm:

(You can hear the recording of Elie Wiesel singing this song by clicking here.)

אני מאמין
באמונה שלמה
בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה
עם כל זה אחכה לו
בכל יום שיבוא

Ani ma-amin
Be-emunah shelemah
Bevi-at hamashiah
Ve-af al pi sheyitmahmeah
Im kol zeh ahakeh lo
B
ekhol yom sheyavo

I believe
With perfect faith
In the coming of the mashiah (the anointed one)
And although he tarries
Nonetheless, I wait for him
Every day, that he may come

What did the Jews of Vizhnitz and Elie Wiesel learn that Shabbat? That whatever unspeakable horrors lay in front of them, they would survive. That whatever fate was awaiting them at the hands of their oppressors, that some of them would make it to the other side. That there would be Jews at some future time, Jews who would be on this Earth to greet the arriving mashiah. That even though there are dark times ahead, that they would eventually pass.

There is always hope for the future. Our tradition teaches us to be patient, and to look past the current darkness to the better days ahead. Ani ma’amin. I believe.

To be sure, Elie Wiesel lost his faith; he chronicles that moment in his first book, Night, his account of the Shoah, when he arrives at Auschwitz and is hustled out of the cattle car, and an SS officer points to the flames coming from the crematorium and screams, Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those flames? (Yes, we did see the flames.) Over there-that’s where you’re going to be taken. That’s your grave, over there.And in that moment, reports Wiesel, he loses his faith. A God that could have allowed such a thing did not deserve his reverence. His faith, he says, was consumed in those flames.

At some point, later in life, he found Judaism again. But anybody who survived the camps had to struggle with belief. I had a congregant back on Long Island who, late in life, authored an account of her own Shoah story. It was particularly striking to me that, in the book, she conceded that, while she raised a family in Jewish tradition, and her children and grandchildren were believers, she could not find the same belief within herself.

And yet, it is that belief that enabled some to survive. It is that sense of “Ani ma-amin,” I believe, that has given our people hope for millennia, through destruction and exile and Crusades and Inquisition and expulsion and genocide.

I believe that we are here today because of our belief.

Because we will be here forever, if we all just reach a little deeper, if we all just put a little more of ourselves into learning our tradition, into acting on our tradition, in keeping the holy opportunities, the mitzvot of our tradition in front of us. If we let go of some of that cool reserve, if we put ourselves bodily into our rituals and customs bodily, if we pray with fervor, if we reach higher to keep the mitzvot, if we yearn to reach past the perplexity to seek answers, to act on that belief, we will survive whatever challenges we face.

Ani ma-amin. I believe. And I’ll wait, and continue to daven every day, until we get to the other side.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shemini Atzeret, Thursday, 10/12/2017.)

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Beautiful Equations – Shavu’ot, 5777

Close your eyes. Think for a moment about somebody you love. Think about what makes them special, what brings you pleasure when you are in their presence, what makes them unique, what you have learned from them, the good times you have shared.

It is always difficult to encapsulate why you love somebody in a few sentences or thoughts. It is the very nature of relationships that they can seldom be relegated to finite descriptors. We are much more likely to rely on our feelings, which are hard to put into words.

If you could describe the essential features of a lover, a companion, a spouse, a friend, a child, a sibling, a parent, what words would you use?

Comfort / Safety / Security / Shared experiences / Memories / Partnership / Simplicity / Warmth / Mutuality / Ezer kenegdo (sometimes translated as “helpmeet”; Gen. 2:18)

***

Many of you know that, as a recovering engineer, I am always looking for metaphors that come from science to help us understand ourselves and our various relationships, including our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God). So when I spot such metaphors or stories in articles or podcasts, I make note of them.

One such piece appeared in a recent article in the New York Times, which struck me as particularly fascinating. It was about how some people find mathematical equations aesthetically beautiful.

My father is one of those people. He has a doctorate in mathematics, and he has always found all things related to math quite captivating. When he was in elementary school, he would deliberately misbehave, because the teacher would “punish” him by giving him math problems. But the joke was on her, because my father enjoyed doing these problems. Today, my dad will talk your ear off about Fibonacci numbers, or why integration is never taught well, or how much fun he had trying to solve a mathematical puzzle. He’s been retired for a decade or so, but has recently taken to tutoring students over the internet. He gets paid for it, but I’m pretty sure he’s not doing it for the money.

So I understand people who like math. I’m kind of in that category myself, and of all the holidays of the Jewish year, Shavu’ot is the mathematician’s holiday. Its date is set by counting off  forty-nine, that is, seven-squared days from the first day of Pesah. Its very name, meaning, “weeks,” is derived from this. It’s a holiday on which we read about Aseret HaDibberot, the “Ten Commandments” (although really there are 13 or 14, depending on how you count), and we also read and meditate on Ezekiel’s vision of a four-sided chariot that descends from heaven. In fact, the very name “Shavu’ot,” meaning weeks, is derived from the Hebrew word for seven, sheva.

This article in the Times referenced a recent study that compared the relative beauty of mathematical equations. The researchers did this by hooking up a bunch of mathematicians to fMRI scanners, and watching their medial orbitofrontal cortices “light up” when they saw certain equations. This area of the brain, right behind the eyes, shows a lot of activity when people respond positively to aesthetic experiences, like music or art.

So they were able to measure which equations the mathematicians found most beautiful. And the one that they loved the most was Euler’s Identity:

eulers identity

Now, I must confess, that is one staggeringly beautiful equation. It’s just so darned cool: e (Euler’s number, the base of the natural logarithm) is an irrational number equal to approximately 2.71828; π, the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference, is also irrational. The other number, i, is the strangest of them all: it is an imaginary number that corresponds to the mathematically impossible solution of the square root of -1.

(My wife Judy reads all my sermons, and at this point she started inserting lots of question marks and exclamation points. So I’m going to apologize right now if you did not understand any of that – I don’t have the time to explain all of those things, and it’s not really that important. But very cool, nonetheless.)

And yet, somehow, when you throw all three of these mystical, seemingly unrelated numbers together, they magically resolve themselves to simplicity. Euler’s identity seems completely counter-intuitive, and yet it yields the most fascinating statement of math: that there is always an elegant solution. That’s one reason my father always cited for his love of math: that if you have done it right, there will always be an answer.

You might say that people are sort of like equations: we take in information about the world, mix it up within ourselves, and give back. We relate to others through variables and constants and operators. Right?

Or maybe not. OK, so people are not really like equations. We are much more complex. We rarely accept simple solutions. We have many more inputs and outputs, variables and constants. Most of the time we are difficult to understand. Our word problems are never so easily or elegantly solved. Our lives are not airtight, removed from all the other environmental factors around us. There is not always an answer; in fact, one of the most beautiful and agonizing aspects of humanity is that most of the time the answers evade us.

But sometimes, in the context of some relationships, the simplicity of our love for one another is striking. Sometimes we appreciate the others around us in a way that is absolutely indescribable, that cannot be put into words. I suspect that if you’d take a human subject, hook them up to the fMRI and paraded in front of them images of various people in their lives, their medial orbitofrontal cortices would “light up.”

As a regular part of my work as a rabbi, I sit with people all the time to discuss their relationships. It happens in the context of preparing for a wedding, when I ask the couples to talk about what makes their relationship successful. Or when I meet with a family in advance of a bar/bat mitzvah, when I ask the other members of the family to speak about the nascent 13-year-old. Or when I meet with the family who has just lost a loved one, in preparation for a funeral.

I am often struck by how difficult it is for us to talk about our closest relations, the people with whom we share the deepest, most complex bonds. How do you capture the richness of give-and-take between siblings? How do you acknowledge the massive burden of unpaid gratitude we owe to our parents?

And yet, we all know and intuitively understand, without trying to label it with words or ideas, the very deep connection we have with those whom we love, just as those mathematicians unwittingly revealed their appreciation of those gorgeous, elegant equations.

The great early-20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber is perhaps best known for his essential work of modern theology, I and Thou. His message in that short, yet powerful, text is that our relationship with God is the most unconditional relationship we have. We cannot put any conditions on God, says Buber, and God puts no conditions on us. All human relationships are subject to the complexities of expectations met and missed, of the ideal vs. the imperfect reality.

And yet, at the core of every relationship is that fundamental sense of connection – not a logical one, not a checklist of “these are the things I love about you,” but a taste of the Unconditional. That’s where the Godliness seeps into each of our relationships. That’s where the holiness lies.

On this day when we actively remember those whom we have loved who have left this world, I think it is easier to rely on that unconditional, deeply emotional bond that we share with them. We feel that love for them in a way that is beyond logical. And particularly after the equations of our lives have ceased to function, after they have exhausted all the data, what remains is a kind of snapshot of their lives that lives forever inside of us, a shortcut that represents the many ways we knew them, the rich roster of experiences that we shared.

As we turn now to recall those whom we have lost, I ask you to remember how they taught you, how they raised you, how they gave you wisdom and love and companionship and everything else that they gave. And I ask you to recall the deeper things that made your relationship special, the indescribable ways that you loved them, the moments when you just took a look at that person and subconsciously acknowledged their inner beauty.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, 2nd day of Shavuot, June 1, 2017.)

 

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Joy and Grief – Eighth Day of Pesah, 5777

As I was preparing for the first few days of Pesah, I happened upon a thought-provoking piece of commentary in the Rabbinical Assembly haggadah, Feast of Freedom. It was a quote from the venerable Hertz humash (Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text English Translation and Commentary, edited by Dr. J H Hertz, 2nd ed., p. 397) about what set the Israelites apart from the Egyptians. The source of our ancestors’ faith was the Tree of Life (Etz Hayyim), while the Egyptians emphasized the cult of death:

When we compare the Egyptian attitude towards death with that of the Torah, we see in the latter what appears to be a deliberate aim to wean the Israelites from Egyptian superstition. On the one hand, there is not a word concerning reward and punishment in the Hereafter; on the other hand, there is rigorous proscription of all magic and sorcery, of sacrificing to the dead, as well as every form of alleged intercourse with the world of spirits. Israel’s faith is a religion of life, not of death; a religion that declares man’s [sic] humanity to man as the most acceptable form of adoration of the One God.

The Torah sets up the expectation that we should dwell on life, not on death; that what counts is not what comes next, but what happens here on Earth. We do not, as the ancient Egyptians did, bury people with all their material possessions in array around them. On the contrary, we expect that we will take nothing with us when we leave this life.

And, unlike certain parts of Christianity, our goal is not to behave well in this world so that we may enjoy the next. Our goal is to live a good life right now because that is good for ourselves and good for those around us to do so.

Of course, Judaism has its own framework for mourning. Consider these things: many Jews who are not so rigorous with respect to many of the daily aspects of Jewish practice (kashrut / dietary laws, Shabbat, Talmud Torah / studying the texts of our tradition, etc.) are suddenly very traditional in the context of death and bereavement. People who do not show up for Sukkot or Shavuot will come to say the Mourner’s Qaddish on a Tuesday evening for yahrzeit. As may be obvious today, the Yizkor service still draws a crowd. (I’m told that there was a time in New York’s Garment District when there were back-to-back Yizkor services all day long on the last Yom Tov / festival day, so people in the neighborhood could pop in and then go right back to work.)

But of course there is a reason for it. Grief requires a framework. It’s a powerful motivator to reach out: to tradition, to ritual, to customs that our ancestors have practiced for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

And yet, one might make the case that the larger framework of this day is still that Tree of Life: we read the Torah today, we recited words of gratitude and praise and acknowledgment of the holiness of this day, and all of that is about life, not death or mourning.

redwood stump

Here is a relevant question for this day, for this moment:

Today is a Yom Tov, literally, a “good day.” It is a festival celebrating a joyous moment in our national story. And yet it is also a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, who have departed from this world. Is this a day to rejoice, or to grieve? Can we be happy today? Can we recall with sadness those who have left this world?

As Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, our Director of Youth Tefillah, is fond of saying, it’s a “both-and.” We are joyful, and we grieve. And, of course, our entire reality incorporates happy and sad moments, and everything else on the spectrum of human emotion. Sometimes these emotions bump right up against each other. That’s how life goes.

Even within the context of bereavement, we remember our departed loved ones with both sadness AND joy. We miss the good moments AND the painful moments that we shared. (I always remind families that humorous stories about the deceased are completely appropriate at a funeral; the laughter helps us to work through our grief.)

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, the founder of the Bratzlaver hasidic movement, is somewhat famous for emphasizing the joy in life. If you have been in Israel lately, and you happened to be in a public place where an outrageously-decorated van with huge speakers on top suddenly pulled up, and a bunch of guys in tye-dye shirts and peyes (sidecurls) jumped out and started dancing around to the music, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Those are the Bratzlavers. One of Rabbi Nahman’s most famous quotes is:

מצווה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimhah tamid.

It is a great mitzvah to be joyful all the time.

Now of course, that’s ridiculous. Nobody can be always happy. You cannot even force yourself to do so. Even though the Mishnah advises us (Pirqei Avot 1:15) to greet everybody with “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance, we occasionally have to smile with gritted teeth.

There was a fascinating article in the New Yorker last summer about happiness. It was about the Aristotelian theory of happiness and how research into the human genome suggests that this approach to happiness is more effective than hedonism, that is, pursuing physical pleasure for its own sake.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, [Aristotle] described the idea of eudaemonic happiness, which said, essentially, that happiness was not merely a feeling, or a golden promise, but a practice. ‘It’s living in a way that fulfills our purpose,’ [said] Helen Morales, a classicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara…

The researchers determined that the expression of some genes was affected by our moods, and specifically that misery and loneliness were likely to yield negative health effects. So they tested for the expression of these genes in people who pursued either hedonistic or eudaemonic happiness, and found that only Aristotle’s way was the true way to stave off the expression of the undesirable genes.

Aristotle2

The study indicated that people high in eudaemonic happiness were more likely to show the opposite gene profile of those suffering from social isolation: inflammation was down, while antiviral response was up.

Hedonistic happiness yielded nothing.

So how do we achieve that eudaemonic happiness? What is the magic formula to living a healthy life?

For Aristotle, it required a combination of rationality and arete—a kind of virtue, although that concept has since been polluted by Christian moralizing. “It did mean goodness, but it was also about pursuing excellence,” Morales told [the author]. “For Usain Bolt, some of the training it takes to be a great athlete is not pleasurable, but fulfilling your purpose as a great runner brings happiness.” Fredrickson, meanwhile, believes that a key facet of eudaemonia is connection. “It refers to those aspects of well-being that transcend immediate self-gratification and connect people to something larger,” she said.

In other words, connection, community, and qedushah / holiness, the magic formula that the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life offers us. Eudaemonic happiness comes from living within the framework of our tradition, which emphasizes life over death, of meaningful joy derived from the holy opportunities offered here at Beth Shalom in the context of Jewish practice and wisdom.

Jewish life gives us purpose; it is a practice that inherently brings us happiness and health. The joy comes from that framework, from pursuing connection, community, and qedushah / holiness.

Recalling those who gave us life, who brought us smiles and loved us and supported us and taught us and nourished us, that can be a joyous thing when it is part of our eudaemonic practice. Yes, it’s solemn. Yes, it’s a weighty matter. But it is, nonetheless, joyful.

Meaning. Purpose. That’s what ultimately makes us happy, and enables us to contend with grief. And that meaning must depend on our embracing today, to find meaning in our everyday interactions, to frame them in holiness, to seek out the opportunities to improve our relationships with others and with the world.

So yes, even as we recall those whom we have lost, we derive meaning and hence happiness in doing so. This is healthy and leads to better outcomes for all of us.

So yes, today is in fact a joyful day, one on which we allow ourselves space to grieve as well. It’s a “both-and.”

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, end of Pesah, 4/18/2017.)

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Slavery Is Not an Ancient Abstraction – First Day of Pesah 5777

There is a certain amount of debate in the pages of Jewish commentary about a verse that appeared in today’s Torah reading, Shemot / Exodus 12:42:

לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה’, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה’, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם

That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages. (JPS)

I have also seen “leil shimmurim” translated as, “a night of watchfulness,” playing on the apparent connection to the simple form of the verb, lishmor, to guard or keep.*

The debate in interpretation is regarding the watchfulness. Who is being watchful? Is it, as Ibn Ezra suggests, that God was watching/guarding the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the 14th of Nisan, when the Angel of Death swept through, to see them depart safely? Or is it, as Ramban states, that the Israelites are to be watchful on this night when we commemorate our departure from Egypt, as we did last night?

watcher

The Etz Hayim commentary (p. 389), by the way, splits the difference: it is a night of vigil both for God and for us. Regardless, Pesah is unquestionably meant to be a holiday of awareness. Awareness of ourselves, of God, of our freedom, of spring. Pesah is about paying attention, about guarding, about being ready to act.

*****

I remember leading a seder at my home a few years back, and leading a discussion (yes, I lead discussions at home as well with my family – I am, after all, their rabbi. They pretend to listen and occasionally participate as well). We were talking about the passage that I think is the most essential line in the entire haggadah (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt.

It is a direct quote from the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5), and the imperative to me seems clear: the whole point of Pesah is not to speak about the journey from slavery to freedom in the abstract, but rather to understand it as our current reality. We are all former slaves. We have all earned our freedom, with God’s help. And we must actively recall that redemption every day of our lives.

So there we were, talking about the import of this statement, when it suddenly occurred to me that we had, sitting at the table with us, a person who had actually been a slave. So I asked, has anybody here ever been a slave? And my father-in-law, Judy’s father, who spent seven months in a labor camp in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex, said yes. And that very moment was so powerful that no more questions were required. He had lived that very journey. He had survived the Exodus.

I mention this because slavery is not something that is only in the past. It has always existed, and still exists today. In fact, estimates vary widely, but despite the fact that it is illegal in every country in the world, there are between 20 million and 36 million slaves on this planet. That’s somewhere between the population of New York State and California. About three-quarters of them are located in India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. India alone has about 14 million slaves, around one percent of the population of that country, and more than the number of people living in Pennsylvania.

slavery

There are different types of slaves, among them bonded labor, where people take loans under the condition that they work off the debt, but are never successful in doing so; sexual slavery, including forced prostitution and the like; and child labor, which is the predominant category in India.

Now, you may make the case that challenging circumstances (war, economic hardship, and so forth) create slaves, and that is surely true. But this is what is more troubling is this: however slaves came to be enslaved, we keep them enslaved. Many of the products that we buy – food, clothing, electronics – have slaves involved somewhere along the production line. Just as the Nazis used my father-in-law and perhaps millions of others to keep their balance sheet in the black, so too do the economic engines of today’s global marketplace. You can read all about it on the Internet – simply type “contemporary slavery” into your favorite search engine. And it’s not just products, of course. The US State Department estimates that about 50,000 people, mostly women and girls, are trafficked into the United States each year to be forced into prostitution.

child slavery

So when we discuss slavery as free people around the seder table, we should be aware that it is not an ancient abstraction. Slavery is very real, and still an ongoing scourge. It is even in our midst. And hence we need to be watchful. We need to pay attention to where our money goes, who it benefits, and who it punishes.

OK, Rabbi, thanks for the bad news. Now what can we do?

First, be aware. On this holiday of awareness, when we decrease our joy by removing drops of wine from our cups while mentioning the ten plagues, when we only recite a partial Hallel to account for the suffering of the Egyptians, when we stay up late at the ready, when we make it a point to teach our children about freedom, we need to remind ourselves that there are oppressed people in horrible circumstances in the world, even as we recline as free people at the seder table. And we should know  how our spending habits affect the lives of others.

Second, act. The Torah exhorts us over and over to recall that we are slaves, and to behave accordingly. I recently counted these instances; there are at least ten times in the Torah (there may be more) where it says a variation on the following, “Do not oppress the stranger/poor/slave among you, because you were slaves in Egypt.”** And add to that the Torah’s imperative, also recurring in many places and forms, to care actively for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your midst. We’ll read one such example in tomorrow’s Torah reading (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22 – identifies the mitzvot / commandments of Pe’ah / leaving the corners of your fields un-harvested, and Leqet / leaving gleanings for the poor). Our tradition requires us to act. And action can take the following forms:

  1. Donate to organizations that work to free slaves, end human trafficking, and work for human rights all over the world. Here are a few: (I can’t make any claim as to whether or not these are good charities)

Made in a Free World

Free the Slaves

Anti-Slavery

It may be just a drop in the bucket, but every life that is reclaimed from slavery brings our own redemption one step closer. Think of it as a mitzvah in the category of piqquah nefesh, saving a life, which takes precedence over all other mitzvot.

  1. Consider buying “fair trade” products when possible. This is not necessarily a cure-all, but may have an impact, particularly if many of us do it. The most visible fair trade products of late are coffee and chocolate, but certification labels are now appearing on textiles and other products. Look for them. We have the potential to change the world merely by altering slightly our spending patterns.
  2. You may want to consider submitting a suggestion to the companies that supply the goods that keep us fed, clothed, and digitally connected. Some of the websites listed above allow you to do this directly from the website.

Our obligations in this season go beyond recalling the Exodus. Pesah is a festival of freedom for the entire world, but it is also a journey of awareness. Be watchful; be aware, but don’t forget that ours is a tradition of action.

Hag sameah!

~Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First day of Pesah 5777, Tuesday morning, 4/11/2017.)

 

* Back in cantorial school, they taught us a melody, a “mi-sinai” tune (not actually from Mt. Sinai, but so old that it might as well be) for the series of piyyutim that begin with “leil shimmurim,” recited on the first two nights of Pesah, inserted into ma’ariv service. I’ve never actually used that melody in a synagogue, and the piyyutim do not appear in our siddur, but they are still bouncing around in my head.

 

** The ones I found, using a concordance, were:

Shemot / Exodus 22:20, 23:9

Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:34

Devarim / Deuteronomy 5:15, 10:19, 15:15, 16:12, 23:8, 24:18, 24:22

 

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Pesah Evangelism

Without question, Pesah is the most important holiday of the Jewish year. It eclipses Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It outstrips Purim and Hanukkah by a great distance. Shavuot? Sukkot? Fahgeddaboutit. Pesah is where it’s at. Let me tell you why.

Pesah is the only holiday where you have a chance to guarantee a Jewish future. That’s how high the stakes are. Pesah is the most spiritually sustainable holiday of the year. It’s the festival that incorporates the greatest creativity and personal engagement. It’s also the time that we have the most people around the table. It’s an opportunity of epic proportions.

images.duckduckgo.com

And it’s up to us not to let this opportunity pass by.

Somewhere between 70-80% of American Jews still show up for the seder. Most of them are not affiliated with Jewish communities or institutions. Many of them do not feel that Judaism infuses their lives, or has any real value from which they can draw. Many are bringing partners and children who have not yet joined the Jewish people.

And that’s where you come in. You can be a Pesah evangelist. (You should pardon the association.)

And how might you do that? Very simple:

Ask questions and discuss.

Sure, you should sing, drink four cups of wine, make a Hillel sandwich, spill wine from your cup when you remember the plagues, etc.

But the real way to be a Pesah evangelist is to get away from the printed seder to one that includes asking more questions than the standard four: questions of who we are and why this all matters to us. The Talmud (Pesahim 115b) tells us that matzah is the kind of bread that elicits conversation:

אמר שמואל (דברים טז, ג) לחם עוני (כתיב) לחם שעונין עליו דברים

Shemuel said: It is written (Deuteronomy 16:3) “lehem oni” (literally, “the bread of poverty”): [this can be understood as] the bread over which one answers many matters.

Here is a list of possible discussion questions (some have simple answers, but can be used to spark further conversation). Use them at your seder table:

“Big picture” questions:

  • What does it mean to be a slave, literally and/or figuratively?
  • In what way are we slaves today (i.e. to the clock, to work, to societal expectations, to money, etc.)?
  • Envision not being a slave to these things.  What would that feel like?  What is the downside?Why is it important to have a celebration of freedom?
  • What is the meaning of freedom, and what responsibilities does freedom carry with it?
  • Who or what is your Pharaoh?
  • To what are we slaves today, and how are we free?
  • Would it have been easier to have remained slaves in Egypt?
  • What is your favorite Jewish holiday and why?  Why or why not Pesah?
  • The Pesah story is the precursor to the giving of the Torah.  What is our relationship today to the Torah and its mitzvot?
  • Fill in the blanks:  Had God _______ but not _______, would it have been enough?

Details of seder:

  • Why do we “recline” while we eat/drink?
  • Why do we dip some things into other things?
  • Why do we eat eggs, and why is there one on the seder plate but it is never mentioned?
  • Why do we tell the same story year after year?
  • Why have a seder at all?
  • What is the significance of each of the items on the seder plate, and in particular the shankbone, the matzah and the bitter herbs? (this discussion fulfills one of the obligations detailed in the Mishnah)
  • Why are there all these funny songs at the end?
  • Why do we eat the afikoman as dessert?

General Pesah questions:

  • What are the prohibited foods of Pesah?
  • If the Conservative movement allows us to eat kitniyot (legumes, etc.), is that enough of a reason to dispense with a 700-year-old custom for Ashkenazi Jews?
  • Doesn’t it seem strange that Sefaradim can traditionally eat some things on Pesah that Ashkenazim do not?  And yet we are all Jews. Discuss!
  • Which days of Pesah are Yom Tov (i.e. festival days on which many of the celebratory Shabbat guidelines apply) and why?
  • What’s the deal with the Omer?  When do we start counting and why?  When does it conclude?
  • How is Pesah connected to the next festival, Shavuot?

If you need more resources to draw on, a whole bunch of them may be found here, courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America:

http://www.jtsa.edu/passover-resources

Don’t let this opportunity go. The seder is a wonderful way to reconnect with Judaism, for everybody around the table. Good luck! Happy evangelizing! And hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

 

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