Category Archives: Festivals

Remembering and Forgetting – Shemini Atzeret 5780 / Yizkor

As I have aged, I have learned to be somewhat more forgiving of my own brain. When I was younger, it seemed that I remembered everything. Today, I sometimes feel lucky if I remember the most important things: to spend time with my children, to eat lunch during a busy day at work, to tell my wife how much I love her.

How many of us are sometimes frustrated by not being able to remember something? Where you left the keys, as a relatively innocuous example, or something more contentious, like your spouse’s birthday. How many of us wish that our brains worked more like the RAM in a computer – efficient storage that is always available and easy to find? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you never forgot anything?

You may have heard that there are a handful of people in the world who are endowed with a curious condition that enables them to remember everything. That is, you give them a random date on a calendar, from fifteen years ago, and they will tell you what they wore that day, what they ate for lunch and who they bumped into on the street. This condition is known as “hyperthymesia,” and although it does not allow for “total recall,” it does allow a person with the condition to remember virtually everything that relates to them. For example, while a person with the condition might remember what clothes she was wearing on a certain day, she may not be able to recall what her friend was wearing, unless the friend’s outfit was somehow related to her personally. Dozens of cases have been reported in the last 13 years or so, since the condition was formally identified by neurobiologists. The actress Marilu Henner, whom you may recall from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s TV show, Taxi, apparently has this condition.

Imagine for a moment how cool that might be! School would be a breeze; you would never be embarrassed again by not knowing the name of somebody who you met five years ago at a party after a few drinks; you would never misplace your keys ever again. Speaking as a rabbi, I could definitely see how such a condition would make my life and my work so much easier.

And yet, maybe not.

There is a good reason to forget things, and perhaps the reason why, evolutionarily speaking, this feature did not become standard among humans.

Certain things need to be forgotten, and particularly those things that cause us pain and emotional anguish. We need to forget the pain of loss, the grief associated with the death of a parent or sibling or God forbid, a child. We need for ebb of time to dull the sharp memories, the ones that push our sorrow buttons. We need for those memories to be less fresh, so that we can go on about our lives with some semblance of normalcy.

Not to forget entirely, of course. But rather, to lessen the heartache somewhat. For the person who remembers clearly what he or she did on any particular day, a great personal loss must be ever-present. The stabbing pain of feeling like, “How can I possibly live without her?” must be as fresh a decade later as it was at the start of shiv’ah.

Thank God for the hollowing-out of memories that time brings. We learn to live with loss, but of course it takes time. That is the point of shiv’ah, of sheloshim, of yahrzeit – the calendrical framework of Jewish mourning. Seven days of deep pain, pain which prevents us from leaving the house, which can only be slightly soothed by the presence of others in our homes bringing comfort. Then three more weeks of somewhat less grief, when we saunter out of our homes, return to work maybe, but still feel like nothing’s quite right. And then the balance of a year, in which we acknowledge our ongoing grief by limiting our joyous activities.

And thereafter, we set aside just a few days for remembrance, to recite prayers of memory.

Memory is essential to Judaism, and our framework of mourning is known to be one of the best. But even beyond that, we have not one, but two days in the contemporary Jewish calendar called “Yom haZikaron,” the day of remembrance: Rosh Hashanah we all know. Less known to American Jews, but extraordinarily important in Israel is the national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, a day marked by solemn ceremonies around the country, set aside for public grief for those who gave their lives defending the State of Israel. (It is an unfortunate shame that we Americans do not take our own Memorial Day as seriously as Israelis do.)

But even so, our relationship to memory is complicated. Our tradition wants us to remember things that we did not personally experience: the entire holiday scheme of the Jewish year is intimately tied to our history: the Exodus from Egypt; receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai; wandering in the desert; the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem; the Sho’ah. We are, in some sense, striving to constantly relive our ancient, communal memories, to make sure that we do not forget, that we remember to connect our gratitude for what we have today with all of those past events. We have a history that stretches back thousands of years, and we carry it with us wherever we go. That is an essential piece of Judaism.

And yet, even though we set aside one day a year to mourn the desolation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and then the Romans, we do not relive that every day. We understand that communal grief has its day. Even though we remember and mourn the 6 million murdered by the Nazi machine in our own time, we also still acknowledge that there can be joy in our lives. On Shabbat morning, we read from Megillat Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-4):

לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ׃
עֵ֤ת לַהֲרוֹג֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִרְפּ֔וֹא עֵ֥ת לִפְר֖וֹץ וְעֵ֥ת לִבְנֽוֹת׃
עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;…

The words of Qohelet ring across the ages: we cannot dwell in grief forever; neither can we ignore that grief. Rather, there is a time for that.

Qohelet does NOT say, there is a time to remember, and a time to forget. But the Catalogue of Times also reflects back to the opening verses of the book (1:4-5):

דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְאֶ֨ל־מְקוֹמ֔וֹ שׁוֹאֵ֛ף זוֹרֵ֥חַֽ ה֖וּא שָֽׁם׃

One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.

With each rising and setting of the sun, life goes on. Our pain will ease; the peaks and troughs of life will even themselves out. And we continue. We go on. We live with our memories, the painful ones and the joyful ones. We do not forget, but we manage with what is on our plate.

This is the last Yizkor / remembrance service that we will observe in the one year of mourning following the anti-Semitic attack in our neighborhood. There will always be a before and after in Pittsburgh; there will always be a weightiness in our hearts for those whom we lost, and for the sense of security our community lost. That day will be seared in collective memory forever. We will never forget.

I must say that I am somewhat relieved that the actual Yahrzeit (annual day of remembrance which corresponds to the day on the Jewish calendar when a loved one passed away) is a few weeks after the date that the rest of the world will associate with Pittsburgh. When the media people doing follow-up stories leave, when the cameras have moved on, we will muster our grief together and mark the 18th of Heshvan (November 16, 2019) by saying Qaddish as a community – quietly, mournfully, appropriately.

The horror of that day and its aftermath will continue to live with us. But as it recedes in memory, as we learn to grapple with it from a distance, as we remember those whom we lost, we also re-establish our sense of selves: who we are, what we stand for, and why we must continue to lean into our tradition. We re-establish our violated sanctuary as sacred space.

I remember Cecil, who wrote me notes of gratitude which I could not read. I remember Dan, always with a smile, always with a friendly update. And my memories of them drive me forward to proudly wave my lulav and etrog, to recite words of tefillah with my community, to celebrate around the Shabbat table and resonate with our ancient tradition.

I continue to meditate on the words of Qohelet – dor holekh, vedor ba… vezarah hashemesh uva hashamesh – one generation goes, and another comes, the sun rises and the sun sets – and understand that I am neither the first nor the last Jew to feel the pain of hatred, of persecution, of murder. I will not be the last Jew to cry out in anger and frustration, as Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev did in bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I will not be the last Jew to recite Qaddish for martyrs.

But I will certainly do whatever I can to try to make this world a place where more Jews, and more people everywhere, are liberated from painful memories.

As we turn now to Yizkor, the service of remembering, we should be at once grateful that memories recede, and also grateful that we have the framework of our tradition to guide us through dark times and to sanctify our holy moments.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shemini Atzeret, Monday morning, 10/21/2019.)

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Happiness? Or Meaning? (Turn! Turn! Turn!) – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5780

Sukkot is acknowledged throughout Jewish tradition as the happiest festival of the year. We referred to it today in Shaharit / the morning service as “Zeman simhateinu,” the time of our joy. The Torah reading from this morning included the commandment, usmahtem lifnei Adonai, you shall rejoice before God on this holiday.

And what’s the best-known Sukkot song?

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ… וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ׃

Vesamahta behaggekha… vehayyita akh sameah.

You shall rejoice in your festival, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:14-15)

But what does it mean to rejoice? To be happy? And is happiness a goal unto itself, or should we rather seek “meaning”? And what does “meaning” mean, anyway?

When I was a sophomore at Cornell, the folk singer Pete Seeger played on campus. I have always loved folk music, and Seeger’s performances (he was already quite advanced in years then) were special because of the way he incorporated the audience, urging them to sing with him as he accompanied on the banjo.

One of Pete Seeger’s best-known songs goes like this (sing with me):

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die 
A time to plant, a time to reap 
A time to laugh, a time to weep 
A time to kill, a time to heal

Of course, it was popularized by the Byrds. But Seeger wrote the music.

Not the lyrics, however. It is almost a direct quote of the opening verses of Chapter 3 of the King James translation of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew as Qohelet, some of which we read earlier. This particular passage, to which scholars refer as “the Catalogue of Times,” is a reminder that while every event in life occurs in its proper time, we have no control over these times; the “when” is solely in the hands of God. Since they are paired as opposites, one way of reading this is that neither happy times nor sad ones are to be expected. Reality is such that sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sad, and much of the time we are neither.

Qohelet, ostensibly written by an ancient king of that name, is among the more-challenging books of the Tanakh, theologically-speaking. It puts itself forward as a book of philosophy (e.g. 1:14: “I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind.”), but, somewhat like the book of Job, leaves us with a very unsatisfying conclusion. To Qohelet, effectively everything that we pursue – wealth, wisdom, food and drink, labor, and so forth – is vanity and emptiness. Nothing will bring you lasting satisfaction. Qohelet’s conclusion is, therefore, merely to enjoy the things that you have when you have them, fear God and perform the mitzvot. That’s it.

Not very satisfying, right? Perhaps, though, there is an important message here. After all, there must be a reason that we read this book during Sukkot, the most joyous festival of the year. So what’s the reason? One possibility is that Qohelet points to the transience of human life, which is also suggested by the fragile, temporary sukkot in which we are commanded to live for the week. Another is that fall is the season that most suggests mortality, a feature of our lives that the Catalogue of Times clearly invokes.

Here is another thought: in the wake of Yom Kippur, after beating our chests and seeking return and forgiveness and afflicting our souls and so forth, it may be our intent to seek happiness, albeit perhaps from a new perspective. Qohelet is a reminder that happiness is not an end unto itself, but rather ebbs and flows with the randomness of our lives.

Speaking of ebb and flow, allow me to return for a moment to Cornell University of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Despite a physical chemistry lecture that occasionally made me consider javelin catching as a career, those were great days. The academic ferment of that particular ivory tower provided a rich backdrop for developing strong social bonds and discovering who I was as a person. I had good friends and good times. It makes me think of the well-known song, “Those Were the Days” (Mary Hopkins, 1968, although based on a Russian folk tune).

We tend to speak of the “good old days.” Maybe those were they; there is a time for every purpose under heaven.

But perhaps reality is not so simple; we do tend to see the past through etrog-scented glasses (or something like that). The gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello recorded a philosophically-minded song titled “Ultimate,” which decries the existence of such days. On the contrary, the song suggests that to refer to the “good old days” is in fact an insult to both the present and future:

There were never any good old days,
They are today, they are tomorrow
It’s a stupid thing we say
Cursing tomorrow with sorrow.

Qohelet, I think, would agree with Gogol Bordello. There were no “good old days,” says Qohelet. Ve-ein kol hadash tahat hashamesh. And there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9).

Maybe my university days were the good old days, or maybe these days are just as good, and 5780 will be even better. Only God knows, and about that I’m not even so sure.

One thing, however, is certain: happiness is fleeting, while “meaning” is enduring. Rather than seek happiness, we should seek meaning. That is a message that is difficult for a college student to understand, but it is a message that we can glean from Jewish tradition.

An article in The Atlantic from a few years back cited a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that

asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

This is a fascinating revelation. Perhaps Qohelet’s suggestion to fear God and fulfill the mitzvot is an ancient attempt to steer us away from seeking happiness in favor of meaning. You might make the case that a certain portion of the mitzvot are about giving, not taking: giving your time and yourself over to holy pursuits. It’s not what we reap in this world, to borrow Qohelet’s language, but rather what we sow.

And that may in fact be one message of Sukkot. Why does the Torah command us to live in a shack in the backyard for a week? To remember that it is not our possessions that are important and valuable; that meaning may be sought in the simplest environment. That living in a sturdy, well-appointed home, when compared to a shaky, non-climate-controlled sukkah, might seem more like taking than giving.

The article goes on to say:

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.”

In other words, happiness is in the moment. Those university days were joyful for what they were, but the real satisfaction of living comes from the fullness of life’s experiences: the glorious and the miserable, the bountiful and the meager, the cacaphonous and the silent, and the entire palette of humanity in between. The researchers agree that “What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.”

To everything there is a season, and we all need the carefree periods in our lives in which to pursue the momentary happiness that sustains youth. But we also need, at some point, to reach deeper, to seek out those things which bring us meaning, to give as much as we have taken, and maybe more. The good old days are indeed today and tomorrow.

So it is as much comforting your screaming child in the middle of the night as it is to see her standing under the huppah, as much receiving a wonderful promotion as losing a parent that makes life meaningful and rich. These are the things that make us human, and this is the takeaway from Sukkot.

As we celebrate the transience of life on this joyous festival, we would do well not only to fulfill the mitzvah de’oraita (commandment from the Torah) of being happy in the wake of Yom Kippur, but also to reflect on the discomfort that comes with being removed from your house for a week. Spend some time in the sukkah, with the bugs and the rain and the cool fall breeze. It’s the human thing to do, and will help make these days as good as the good old days.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot, 10/19/2019.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kintsugi bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montreal, May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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We Need More Ritual – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5779

A little more than a week ago, two days before Pesah, Rabbi Amy Bardack, a member of this congregation whom many of you know, walked into my office to sell me some hametz. Now, of course, you know how this works: members of the community sell their hametz to me, usually by filling out a form that declares the sale, and then I in turn sell their hametz, plus my own, plus all the hametz in this building, to somebody who is legally permitted to own it during Pesah, according to halakhah / Jewish law. (As you may know, it is not only forbidden to eat any form of the five species of hametz – wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye – during the eight days of Pesah, but also it is forbidden to own or benefit from it. And, by the way, if you do not sell your hametz or get rid of it all, and you own it during the holiday, then it may never be eaten by a Jewish person, ever.)

So the stakes are pretty high here, particularly for expensive items like single-malt Scotches, etc.

So most people fill out the form and send it in with a donation, and my assistant Audrey collates all the addresses and makes a list for our communications director Anthony.

But Rabbi Bardack did not merely send the form in, along with a donation for ma-ot hittin, providing for the needy in our community before the holiday. She felt she needed to make a complete ritual out of it, so she came to my office and made the exchange the old-fashioned way, face-to-face.

I asked her why it was so important to make the sale in person. She responded that she wanted to do it “right,” and that there was something particularly holy about performing a ritual in the traditional way.

Ritual, said Rabbi Bardack, gives us a moment of purity. No matter what kind of craziness might be going on in our lives, our work, our families, no matter what sort of political insanity is taking place on the national stage, no matter what sort of bloodshed might be taking place in the world, performing a ritual is a brief respite, an opportunity to feel holy, at least for a moment.

We all have the opportunity to push aside everything else for a moment of qedushah, of holiness. In fact, we have that opportunity multiple times every day. One tradition suggests that we should say 100 berakhot / blessings every day; you can almost fulfill that merely by reciting shaharit, minhah, and ma’ariv (the three regular daily services in Jewish life). But even if you cannot pray that much, you have opportunities to raise your HQ (holiness quotient) all day long: every time you eat something, for example, you can say a berakhah that will elevate your sandwich or snack food from the mundane to the divine. (The Talmud, in Berakhot 35a, tells us that eating food without saying a berakhah is something akin to theft.) Or every time you smell a fragrant plant or flower or tree. Or see a rainbow or a beautiful mountain. Or hear good news, or bad news. There are many such opportunities for holiness – they need not be relegated to Shabbat morning in the pews.

Ritual gives us a moment of purity. We cannot control so many aspects of our lives. But we can be momentarily holy.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, recently opined that we need ritual. He describes playing a game called, “There should be a ritual for…”

There should be a ritual for when a felon has finished his sentence and is welcomed back whole into the community. There should be a ritual for when a family moves onto a street and the whole block throws a barbecue of welcome and membership. There should be a ritual for the kids in modern blended families, when they move in and join their lives together. There should be a ritual for when you move out of your house and everybody shares memories from the different rooms there.

He points to various religious rituals to make his case. Brooks, who is Jewish, also notes that the majority of rituals in Judaism involve a physical action: putting on tefillin, lighting candles, and so forth. And they help frame our days, our lives, with the sense of connection – to God, to community, to family, to others around us who also need that connection.

So great is our hunger for rituals that when we come upon one of the few remaining ones — weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras — we tend to overload them and turn them into expensive bloated versions of themselves.

Between these lavish exceptions, daily life goes unstructured, a passing flow of moments. This means we don’t do transitions well. Rituals often mark doorway moments, when we pass from one stage of life to another. They acknowledge that these passages are not just external changes but involve internal transformation.

Our society has become so informal, he suggests, that we have let old rituals go and not replaced them with new ones. We are therefore running a kind of “ritual deficit,” wherein we need to mark the holy moments of our lives, but we do not have the tools or even the framework in which to do so.

And that brings us back to today. Yes, this is the eighth day of Pesah, a holiday marked with a plethora of associated rituals: the cleaning, the hunt for hametz and the burning thereof, the aforementioned sale, the siyyum (learning a tractate of Talmud in order to celebrate and not fast on the day before), the seder and everything associated with it (lots of discrete sub-rituals there), services with special melodies for the festival, the recitation of Tal, and so forth. Loads of rituals. In fact, I am often surprised by the staying power of Pesah rituals. We had 80 or so people show up for the siyyum eight days ago, far more members of our community than are aware of, say, the 10th of Tevet or the 17th of Tammuz, other minor fast days. We know from our own survey data that virtually all the members of Beth Shalom attend a Pesah seder. This is a holiday that continues to draw us into ritual like no other.

And then there’s Yizkor, more properly referred to as Hazkarat Neshamot, the ritual of remembering the souls of those whom we have lost. This is, in fact, our first such public remembering since the 18th of Heshvan, just over six months ago. This is a ritual that is so deeply connected to who we are as Jews.

There is something very important here – not only the value of ritual in general, but in particular, the way that we grieve for those whom we have lost. We do death well. Memorials, remembrance. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around grieving for a lost loved one.

And, let’s face it: this is not the way our society is moving. Everything that happens in the world today is so viscerally current. It’s what scrolls by on our phone from one moment to the next. By the time one piece of news has hit the media, we barely have time to process it before we are on to the next item. We went in the last week or so from lamenting the burning of Notre Dame to mourning the murder of over 300 Catholic Sri Lankans.

But we take time to remember those whom we have lost. We have seven days (shiv’ah) surrounded by friends and family during the deepest days of grief; we have thirty days (sheloshim); we have a full year of mourning for parents. And then we have yahrzeit, an annual commemoration. And four times a year we have Hazkarat Neshamot (Yizkor). So many opportunities to remember. So much time in which to live with our grief, to recall those who gave us life, to hear their words echoing in our heads, to remember what they gave us, how they made us who we are.

David Brooks draws a fine point on it:

People can understand their lives’ meaning only if they step out of their immediate moment and see what came before them and what they will leave behind when they are gone.

It is through remembering those whom we lost that we draw out the meaning of our own lives. Why am I here, if not to live out and teach the values that my parents gave me? Why am I here, if not to strive to leave this world in a better state than it was when I entered it? Why am I here, if not to seek those moments of holiness, of purity, through ritual?

We need ritual. We need memory. We need meaning to fill out the whys of our lives.

Shabbat shalom, and hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning and the eighth day of Pesah, 4/27/2019.)

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In Every Generation: The Return of Anti-Semitism – Pesah Day 1, 5779

It was indeed tragic to watch Notre Dame de Paris on fire last week, to ache for the loss of a building so deeply connected to the history of Paris and Europe, to lament the destruction of antiquities and works of art. But the burning of Notre Dame is, I am sorry to report, a fitting metaphor for our current moment, when religious engagement is on the decline in the West, and the order of the Old World continues to slip away.

Gargoyles of Notre Dame

It is notable to me that we are living in a time in which many Jewish people feel kinship with our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist neighbors, our partners in faith; consider the interfaith cooperation that has happened here in Pittsburgh in the wake of the 18th of Heshvan (the Hebrew date of Oct. 27th, 2018) – the local Muslim community fundraising, the churches that have reached out to us, the huge interfaith vigil, the members of our community that stepped forward to offer comfort to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh after the Christchurch shooting, and so forth.

That has certainly not always been true. Religious differences, as we know, have historically yielded enmity and outright hatred between people of different faiths; blood libel accusations, wherein Jews in medieval Europe were falsely accused of killing Christian children to use their blood for making matzah, often emerged around this time of year.

One theory about why we actually open the door “for Elijah” during the seder is that it is an attempt to show the non-Jewish neighbors that we are not doing anything nefarious. Nowadays, we might think of the open door as, rather, a metaphor for seeking opportunities to collaborate with our neighbors for the common good. Consider the program 2 for Seder, created by the daughter-in-law of Joyce Fienberg, z”l, an opportunity to share the Pesah ritual with people who have never been before.

***

I attended a meeting last week in New York that I need to tell you about. The meeting was convened by the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, at the office of the American Jewish Committee in New York.

The purpose of the meeting was for people knowledgeable about anti-Semitism in America to share information about it with a very special guest, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, who is the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Dr. Shaheed, a diplomat from the Maldives whose last big project was documenting human rights abuses in Iran, is preparing a report on worldwide anti-Semitism to be delivered to the United Nations General Assembly next fall.

Seated around the table were a bunch of bold-faced names from the Jewish world who are experts on anti-Semitism. Among them were Mark Potok, formerly of the Southern Poverty Law Center and a well-known authority on hate groups, Ira Forman, US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in the Obama administration,  Oren Segal, director of the the ADL’s Center on Extremism, Deputy Inspector Mark Molinari, head of the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit, Steven Bayme, Director of Contemporary Jewish Life at AJC, Brian Levin, Director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University, San Bernardino, and others. Now I am clearly not an expert on the subject like all of these folks, but Dr. Shaheed had specifically requested hearing from the Pittsburgh Jewish community, so Jeff Finkelstein (CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) and I were also seated around the table.

Among the things I learned were the following:

  • Our nation has seen annual increases in hate crimes for the last five years.
  • Hate crimes against Jews are vastly over-represented; 13% of all hate crimes are anti-Semitic. In NYC they are the majority of hate crimes.
  • The biggest single day for hate crimes in America in recent years was Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Election Day.
  • White supremacists have turned their focus to fighting the “white genocide,” which is, according to their understanding, engineered by Jews.
  • There is, in particular, a spike in online anti-Semitism. White supremacists gather in the darkest corners of the web to foment horrible ideas about Jews. It is worth noting that the Pittsburgh shooter and the Christchurch, NZ shooter were motivated by more or less the same types of online hatred, even if the latter did not go into a synagogue.
  • Anti-Semitism is now evident on the left and the right of the political spectrum, and although we tend to think of these two varieties as coming from different places, they now share memes and other material about the evil of the Jews.

I was asked to speak about how anti-Semitism has affected us in Pittsburgh, and I reported the following:

Five months after October 27th, many of us have returned to what looks outwardly like normalcy.  Even so, I have congregants who are still grieving, whose children are traumatized. I am told that it is difficult to get appointments with local therapists. The recent mosque attacks in New Zealand brought some of the pain back to the surface for many of us in Pittsburgh.

Brad Orsini, the Director of Jewish Community Security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, has informed me that there has been a marked increase in anti-Semitic activity since October 2018 – more graffiti, more threatening phone-calls, leaflets, etc. He is called to respond to new threats almost every day. There are now four white supremacist organizations operating in Pittsburgh, whereas prior to Oct. 27th, there were only two.

Every Jewish building now has expensive armed guards, and is spending money we don’t have on making ourselves harder targets – metal detectors, silvered windows, electronic doors, and so forth. At least one synagogue in my neighborhood is opting to arm congregants with proper training. We cannot manage hatred, but we can at least try to prevent it from entering our communal spaces.

And beneath the surface, while we continue to grieve for those whom we lost in October, we are now all more anxious, more circumspect.”

Toward the end of the day, all of us in the room were challenged to state whether or not there might be some good news in all of this. Rabbi Noam Marans brought us back to interfaith cooperation: religious groups and individuals today are far more willing to cooperate with one another, and we see evidence that civil society is largely united against those who hate.

Certainly, in the wake of the 18th of Heshvan here in Pittsburgh, we all felt a very strong sense of neighborliness infuse the already-pretty-neighborly feel of our city. On Monday, two days after, I was visiting a congregant in the hospital, and after parking my car, an African-American woman saw me on the street, asked “Are you Jewish?” and when I said yes, offered to give me a hug, which I gladly took.

So the bad news regarding this is that, going back to where we started, religion and faithful living have a diminishing audience and therefore much-reduced influence in our society. So while at one time, anti-Semitism flowed to some extent from people of faith, today its primary purveyors are not religious. As you have heard me say before, the fastest growing religion in America is “None.” Rabbi Marans pointed out that 23% of Americans are now people without any religion, so no matter how much interfaith cooperation there is, we are not going to reach them.

Others around the table pointed to various types of initiatives that seek to help skinheads and Klansmen and other disenfranchised haters to see the humanity in the objects of their hatred, and to lift them up out of the swamp of racism and anti-Semitism. But while these groups have had a few successes, these are tiny compared to the challenge of entrenched fear and loathing digging ever deeper online.

So while there is not a lot of good news, perhaps the only thing we can lean into is Jewish tradition. Anti-Semitism is not new; we have always lived with this. Two items, in particular, from the traditional Pesah haggadah text, might be helpful to recall:

  1. The haggadah reminds us that,
    אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ
    “In every generation, there are those who rise up to destroy us.”
    While for some decades now, many of us believed that this ancient fear was passé, we can no longer think that way. We must be more vigilant than we have been in recent decades.
  2. Later in the haggadah, we read,
    בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
    We are continually obligated to see ourselves as having personally come forth from slavery, and to act on that vision to eliminate oppression from this world. In light of our new reality, this year we will very much see ourselves as being allied with people of faith around the world who are targeted for their religion, and we will act in solidarity with them. No Jew will feel the freedom to worship in safety when people of faith around the world feel that they too are bound by the shackles of fear.

We have to support initiatives that bring people together to breed harmony and compassion for the other. We may not be able to reach everybody we need to reach, but more love and connection will yield a bulwark against hatred.

As we gather once again tonight around the seder table, perhaps you might ask your family members and friends what they have done to gain allies, to raise the bar of cooperation, to ensure that those of us who love our neighbors win out over the forces of those who hate.

There is a custom from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz (Ropczyce, Poland, 1760-1827) that Elijah’s cup, the fifth cup on the table representing our desire for future redemption, be filled with wine from the cups of all the participants around the table. The suggestion is that we all have to play a role in bringing about that redemption; now is the time for us all to work together, even with those who are not at our seder table, to box out the forces of hate.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning and the first day of Pesah, 4/20/2019.)

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A Great Discussion For Your Seder Table: Let’s Think About Redemption Differently – Shabbat HaGadol 5779

Pesah is the festival of redemption. Yetzi’at mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt is the archetype, the redemption that defines all future redemptions. In our tefillah, our Jewish liturgy, we invoke yetzi’at mitzrayim not only on Pesah, but year-round, every day. The haftarah (prophetic reading) for Shabbat HaGadol draws a fine point on it (Malachi 3:23):

הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם ה’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the LORD.

This penultimate line, which is then repeated as the last line (so that we don’t end on an unpleasant note), is not only the source of the name of Shabbat HaGadol, but also a reference to redemption, some future redemption. Eliyahu HaNavi is the herald of redemption – that’s why we often reference Eliyahu at liminal moments: havdalah, berit millah, Pesah.

But what are we hoping for, really? “Redemption” could mean many different things. In the ancient rabbinic mind, it meant restoring the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish rule in Israel, united under a Davidic throne, i.e. mashiah. (By the way, that word means “anointed,” as does the Greek word christos, which comes to us in English as “christ.”) For some, it also meant resurrection of the dead, which we still find enshrined in the second paragraph of the Amidah, the standing, silent prayer that is one of the essential building blocks of every Jewish prayer service.

In other words, some of our ancestors yearned for a throwback to the good ol’ days under King David, when all the Jews were in one place at home and the Temple was functioning.

But perhaps the seder, and in particular the “traditional” text of the haggadah (the book that we read from on the first two nights of Pesah), which developed over centuries of exile and dispersion, were trying to emphasize a different, more immediate kind of redemption? Perhaps the great redemption, symbolized by the Exodus from Egypt, seemed simply too big, too unbelievable to be able to wrap our brains around, and so the rabbis conceived of something else

While Jews have focused for millennia on national redemption, perhaps that the haggadah is trying to tell us is that our focus should be on what you might call “personal redemption.”

So how might we see this reflected in the seder? Consider the following: before we tell the story of yetzi’at mitzrayim, during the “Maggid” (i.e. story-telling) section of the haggadah, what do we say (in Aramaic, BTW, so that we can all understand it, at least theoretically)

הגדה של פסח, מגיד, הא לחמא עניא ג׳
הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

Pesah Haggadah, Magid, Ha Lahma Anya 3
This is the bread of poverty that our
ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat, anyone who is in need should come and partake of the Pesah sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.

Why do we open with this? To focus our attention not only on the ancient, national redemption from slavery in Egypt, but also on redemption that might be achieved in our day. The goal is to remind us, right up front, that there are people in need all around us, and it is up to us to reach out to them – not necessarily in that moment, but tomorrow, next week, next month, and thereafter.
Consider the following from the 20th-c Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, from one of his best-known poems, תיירים / Tourists:

אמרתי בלבי: הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

What is the ge’ulah / redemption that Amichai is reflecting? Is it the throwback to the good ol’ days? Is it even national statehood? No. Rather, it’s an understanding not of the value or fantasy associated with ancient stones, but our current reality of relating to each other as people. Not national mythology, but personal relationships. The tourist that understands that the value of the living person and society is greater than the archaeological wonders has achieved personal redemption.

Consider the following midrash:

ויקרא רבה ט׳:ג׳
מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי יַנַּאי שֶׁהָיָה מְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְרָאָה אָדָם אֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה מְשֻׁפַּע בְּיוֹתֵר, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַשְׁגַּח רַבִּי מִתְקַבְּלָא גַבָּן, אֲמַר לוֹ אִין, הִכְנִיסוֹ לְבֵיתוֹ הֶאֱכִילוֹ וְהִשְׁקָהוּ, בְּדָקוֹ בְּמִקְרָא וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּמִשְׁנָה וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּאַגָּדָה וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּתַלְמוּד וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ סַב בְּרִיךְ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ יְבָרֵךְ יַנַּאי בְּבֵיתֵיהּ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִית בָּךְ אֲמַר מַה דַּאֲנָא אֲמַר לָךְ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִין, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֱמֹר אָכוֹל כַּלְבָּא פִּיסְתְּיָא דְּיַנַּאי, קָם תַּפְסֵיהּ אֲמַר לֵיהּ יְרוּתָתִי גַבָּךְ דְּאַתְּ מוֹנֵעַ לִי, אֲמַר לֵיהּ וּמַה יַרְתּוּתָךְ גַבִּי, אֲמַר לֵיהּ חַד זְמַן הֲוֵינָא עָבַר קַמֵּי בֵּית סִפְרָא, וּשְׁמָעִית קָלְהוֹן דְּמֵנִיקַיָא אָמְרִין (דברים לג, ד): תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ משֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַנַּאי אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן אֶלָּא קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

Vayiqra Rabbah 9:3

Rabbi Yannai was once walking along the road, and saw a man who was extremely well dressed. Rabbi Yannai said to him: Would you like to come over to my house? The man replied: Yes. Rabbi Yannai brought him into his home, and gave him food and drink. As they were eating and drinking together, he examined him in his knowledge of Bible, and found out that he had none; examined his knowledge of Mishnah, and he had none; his knowledge of aggadah (midrash), and he had none; his knowledge of Talmud and he had none. Rabbi Yannai then told him: Wash and recite birkat hamazon. Said the guest: Let Yannai recite birkat hamazon in his own home. Seeing that he could not even recite a berakhah, Yannai told him: Can you at least repeat what I say? Said he: Yes. Said Rabbi Yannai: repeat the following: ‘A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread.’ Offended, the man stood up, and grabbed Rabbi Yannai by the coat! He then said: My inheritance is with you, and you are withholding it from me! Said Rabbi Yannai with puzzlement: What legacy of yours is there with me? He replied: Once I passed by a school, and I heard the voices of the little children saying: ‘Moses gave us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.’ They did not say ‘the inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,’ but the ‘congregation of Jacob.’

The midrash is trying to teach us that Torah is not reserved for the few who know and understand it, but rather for all, and that the way that we act on our textual heritage is by reaching out to everybody, not to the select few whom we like.

While we continue to emphasize redemption in many of our rituals, including the seder, redemption can come in different forms and quantities. Rather than think of the great ge’ulah as an echo of yetzi’at Mitzraim, perhaps we can re-orient ourselves to consider that personal redemption will come when we all recognize the humanity in the other, when we reach out in meaningful ways to the people around us. That Torah is for all, and it teaches us to be in relation with all.

Perhaps that is what Pesah comes to teach us.

חג שמח! Happy Pesah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/13/2019.)

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We Need More Nuance – Shabbat HaHodesh 5779

I recently read an article in Harper’s Magazine about the slow death of the long-form book review. It was a lengthy lament on the decline not merely of book reviews, but also an appreciation of nuance overall in our current media environment. The author, Christian Lorentzen, a former book reviewer for New York magazine, opined that even respectable media outlets have focused on covering books in a way that suits today’s climate: shorter bits, recommended lists, author Q&As, thumbs-up-thumbs-down-type coverage. In one passage, acknowledging that the reality is that even the New York Times Book Review is ultimately in search of more clicks, the author drew a fine point on it

… For certain types of journalism the quest for traffic is incompatible with, if not antithetical to, the task at hand. Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it…, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”

Lorentzen takes us all to task. Book coverage, like virtually everything else, has been reduced to black and white. It’s either awesome or horrible, enthusiastically recommended or panned. We either “like” it (with a thumb icon) or we don’t. Not much room in that thumb for nuance, for accepting some good points with some weaknesses. The subtlety that should mark any great work of literature is lost, because such subtlety is virtually invisible in an online environment in which EVERYBODY IS SHOUTING in capital letters.

And so too throughout society. On every issue, we are all polarized. You either agree or disagree. End of story. The middle won’t hold, because it doesn’t attract enough online traffic.

Who has time for nuance? I can’t help but view the world through my professional Jewish lens. And I see a parallel between long form book reviews and (get this!) Conservative Judaism.  Our greatest challenge, being in the middle of Jewish life, is that we cannot be described in a soundbite. An unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement, in the middle of the 20th century, came from Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Great Neck on Long Island for 55 years, from 1947 until 2002. His slogan, “Tradition and Change,” used to resonate throughout the movement. We stand for halakhah, Jewish law, (i.e. tradition) and yet we exercise our right as modern Jews to interpret halakhah (that is, to make some change) to adapt to the framework of contemporary life.

A classic example is that, in 1950, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, in an effort to encourage Shabbat observance when more and more American Jews were moving to the suburbs, passed a teshuvah, a rabbinic opinion, that said that if you do not live within walking distance of a synagogue, it is better that you should drive to be with your qehillah, your community on Shabbat than not to go at all, even though driving a car with an internal combustion engine is clearly prohibited according to halakhah.

The challenge to the Conservative movement is putting forward a nuanced vision of Judaism while living in a dramatically non-nuanced world. The idea of “Tradition and Change” works well on the Jewish bookshelf, but it hardly gets people very excited about our heritage.

We the Jews are masters of nuance. Rabbinic literature is filled with examples of the subtle parsing of words and concepts. One such example that came across my desk this week, courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, the director of Derekh, relates in particular to the language of the haggadah.

One passage which you really should discuss around your seder table, is a direct quote from the Mishnah of Pesahim, the book of the Mishnah dedicated to all aspects of Passover (10:5). You might miss it if you’re only focused on singing the Four Questions and Dayyenu, and for sure if you’re skipping right to dinner

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג), וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם

… In every generation a person must see him/herself as though s/he [personally] had gone out of Egypt, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).

This is the call to arms of the seder. It is the line that is most important because it connects our history to who we are and how we live today

What does it say? Each of us must see ourselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. How might that guide our actions? If we are truly internalizing that notion, then it should mean that we should let that vision of ourselves guide us in eliminating oppression from our world.

But hold on a minute. Rabbi Markiz pointed me to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides / Rambam, his 12th century halakhic work that gives a thorough snapshot of living Jewishly. And while Rambam sometimes quotes the Talmud directly, here he changes the words somewhat (MT, Hilkhot Hametz uMatzah 7:6)

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ יָצָא עַתָּה מִשִּׁעְבּוּד מִצְרַיִם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ו כג) “וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם” וְגוֹ’. וְעַל דָּבָר זֶה צִוָּה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בַּתּוֹרָה “וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ” כְּלוֹמַר כְּאִלּוּ אַתָּה בְּעַצְמְךָ הָיִיתָ עֶבֶד וְיָצָאתָ לְחֵרוּת וְנִפְדֵּיתָ

In every generation a person must show her/himself that s/he personally had come forth from Egyptian subjugation, as it is stated, “God freed us from there…” (Deut. 6:23). And regarding this, the Holy Blessed One commanded in the Torah, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” (Deut. 5:15, 15:15, 24:22), that is to say, as if you yourself had been a slave, and you came forth into freedom, and you were redeemed.

So here is the nuance:

  1. Rambam changes the imperative from “see oneself” (lir’ot) to “show oneself” (lehar’ot). The second form is causative (hif’il). Don’t just picture yourself as a former slave, says Rambam. Rather, show yourself. Do something that will bring this understanding home, will make it personal. Go from passive to active.

  2. Rambam also changes the proof-text. Instead of the verse quoted in the Mishnah, about what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt, he cites an explicit statement of what God did, i.e. freed us from Egypt’s clutches, and then backs it up with an oft-repeated line in the Torah about remembering that we were slaves. The impression with which we are left is stronger. Don’t think of freedom merely as a gift from God for which we should be grateful. Rather, remember that you were a slave, and now you’re free, and you have to act on that.

You can feel free to use Rambam’s words in your seder if you’d like. In fact, I encourage you to print them out and compare them back-to-back one night. But you can’t stop there – the point of the seder is not merely intellectual discussion. It is, rather, a call to action.

Show yourself what it means to be free. Contribute your time to help others – by working in a homeless shelter, or joining a group that is working to prevent gun violence, or reaching out to the local Muslim community, or the local African-American community, to work toward better inter-faith and inter-racial relations, or many other such activities, or speaking up when your own government separates migrant families at our southern border. Don’t just picture yourself as a slave; show yourself what it means to be free. Prove to yourself that your freedom moves you to act on the behalf of those deprived of it.

It is a subtle textual emendation by Maimonides. But it could make a huge difference in this world. We cannot afford NOT to parse the nuance. We cannot reduce ourselves to the Like/Dislike sickness that has afflicted our society. We the Jews have a proud tradition of textual interpretation based on subtlety; let’s put it to work as we show ourselves and others that we understand the value of nuance.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/6/2019.)

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