Category Archives: Festivals

The Dead Support the Living – Yizkor / Shavu’ot 5780

You may know that I love to hike, and during this pandemic, I have been spending more time walking outside than I ordinarily do, particularly in the heavily-wooded Frick Park. That’s a good thing – particularly now that the weather is nice. Good for the spirit, good for the body. 

Red-tailed hawk in Frick Park (photo credit: me)

Judy and I were in the park a few weeks ago, and we noticed a couple of tall trees that looked dead, sort of intertwined with each other. And upon looking closer, we saw that the situation was much more interesting: one of the trees, standing upright, was clearly dead – no leaves, no bark in many places, minimal branches still remaining on its tall trunk. But the other tree was leaning over heavily onto the dead one, and it was still alive. It looked as though the live tree had been knocked over in a storm, and the dead tree had somehow “caught” it, and prevented it from falling.

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

We generally think of dead natural things – trees, animals, etc. – as being past their point of usefulness. That is, they are no longer part of the system. But of course that is not true. On the contrary: as you walk around a forest, for example, and you see plenty of dead things on the ground – leaves and tree trunks and occasionally animal carcasses – it is worth remembering that those things are essential parts of the circle of life. They serve as homes to insects, food for fungi, and of course when they break down into nutrients and reenter the soil, they continue to nourish the living plants around them by fertilizing the ground once again.

That is the cycle of life. Life yields death, which yields life again. 

And, in some sense, the same is true for people. Not in physical sense, of course, and not in the sense of death and resurrection, although for sure there are some Jews who believe in that sort of thing. But rather, I would like to propose that the dead nourish and sustain the living, sort of like that dead tree holding up the live one.

How can that be? Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah (Psalm 115:17), we chanted in Hallel earlier today. The dead do not praise God; that is only for the living. Being able to sing words of praise together with our community, that is a sure sign of life.

And yet, those of us who have passed from this world into the next are not only very much here with us, but they support us, the living as well. Let me explain, with an assist from the following midrash:

Moshe Rabbeinu is at the end of his life, and has ascended Har Nevo (Mt. Nebo), as God instructed him to do. God reminds Moshe that, even though he will not enter the Promised Land, he can see it from the mountain.

Moshe appeals to God, saying that it is not fair that he, Moshe Rabbeinu, who took the people out of the Land of Egypt, bringing them forth from slavery, cannot enter the Land of Israel. “I should be the first to cross the Jordan River,” he pleads. “I should lead them into the Land. Why won’t you let me? Why do you not favor me with love, as you favor the rest of Benei Yisrael (the Israelites)?”

“I have favored you with love,” says God. “I gave the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments to the people through you. I gave the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to them through you. That is how I have expressed my love for you.”

“Who, then, will lead the people, if not me?” says Moshe.

“Yehoshua (Joshua) will lead them. It is time for the people to find the courage to travel on without you, Moshe. But you will die knowing that they will never forget you. You will always be an essential part of them. You will be constantly invoked, in song and story, in learning and teaching, in repeating the words of Torah for millennia to come. You will continue to support them after you die, and your words will bring them strength.”

Moshe thinks about this, and then goes back down from Har Nevo to give a final blessing to Benei Yisrael. He climbs the mountain a final time, and, as he is looking out over the Land of Israel, spread out before him to the west across the Jordan River, God kisses his soul, taking his life. 

As a final act of God’s love, God buries Moshe on top of Har Nevo, in a location that has remained secret to this day.

***

How do the dead support the living? In the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu does: through the words that they said; through the actions that they took to sustain us in life; through the inspirations and memories fixed in our hearts and minds, that lead us to seek peace between people and care for those in need and comfort those who grieve. 

We carry them with us, just as we carry with us the Torah that Moshe gave us. When we get to Simhat Torah, the other celebration of Torah, half a year away, we will read, “Torah tzivvah lanu Moshe; morashah qehillat Ya’aqov.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:4) Moses charged us with Torah, as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. Our heritage includes not only Torah, but also the pieces of our ancestors that we contain: their good deeds, their wisdom, their reputations.

And how will we, the living, support those who will someday remember us when we are gone? By being the best people that we can be in life. By drawing on the Jewish values of learning, of compassion, of gratitude, of community-building, of remembrance. By fulfilling the mitzvot, the holy opportunities communicated to us through Moshe Rabbeinu and upheld by generations. By committing ourselves, every day, to making this world a slightly better place.

Three times a day in Jewish life, and sometimes four, we recite the berakhah Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayyeh hameitim.” Praised are You, God, who gives life to the dead. I know that it’s a not-so-coded reference to the Messianic resurrection of the dead that our ancestors yearned for. The Amidah (standing, silent prayer that is a part of every Jewish service) says, God keeps faith even with those who sleep in the dust: umqayyem emunato liysheinei afar, we sing ever-so-joyously. (BTW, that well-known melody, ubiquitous in American synagogues, was written by Cantor Max Wohlberg for a Junior Congregation service in the middle of the 20th century. He later regretted its spread to the entire Jewish world, because it just did not quite fit the meaning of that paragraph.)

But the berakhah is incomplete. It was liturgy that served a particular purpose at one time, and there are some who feel it has outlived its usefulness (the Reform and Reconstructionist movements changed the language; the Conservative movement left the language but tinkered with the translation). 

How it should be read is not only about God giving life to the dead, but also as the dead giving life back to us. Mehayyeh hameitim. We are in a circle of mutual support: God sustains the dead, who sustain us, who praise God. It’s an eternal loop of life. 

I would be remiss not to mention today that we passed an abominable statistic in America this week. The number 100,000 means nothing in relative terms; our per capita death rate in America due to the coronavirus is lower than many nations. 

But in very real terms, it is a staggering number, more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict combined, and all in the space of a couple of months.

I find myself coming back to the words of President Abraham Lincoln, delivered a little to the east of here, after the battle at Gettysburg in 1863:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

We the living, said President Lincoln, continue the work of those who gave their lives to give us life. They sustain us through their devotion. And as we recall not only our parents and grandparents and spouses and siblings and children who are no longer with us, we also recall those who gave up their lives to this disease, and we too resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

The dead give us life. They hold us up like strong, tall tree trunks. And we continue to remember them, to live their words and their deeds and their wisdom. That is the cycle of life, in which we are all bound.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / Second day of Shavu’ot, May 30, 2020.)

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Ephemeral Joy and the Bond of Life – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5780

The end of Pesah is, to me, always quite anti-climactic. We put the Passover dishes away, toss out foodstuffs that we would never consider eating during the rest of the year, and then life sort of shambles on as normal, as if these eight obsessively, gastronomically limited days were a brief lull. This year, of course, the usual lull will linger longer

My attention was recently captivated by an interview I heard on public radio, on the show On Being with Krista Tippett. She spoke with author and poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of English at Indiana University. He said something that struck me for its paradoxical insight: that human joy is intimately tied to the operating principle that we are mortal. Let me just share with you how he put it:

… Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about — that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment… 

The connection between the dying and the joy…  is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] … if you and I know we’re each in the process, [of dying], there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible…

… [J]oy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, everything becomes luminous. And I love that mycelium, forest metaphor, that there’s this thing connecting us. And among [that] is that we have this common experience — many common experiences, but a really foundational one is that we are not here forever.

And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.” So that’s sort of how I think about it.

Tippett:

But joy is — our capacity for joy, despite and through that, the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.

Gay:

Totally… [I]t is joy by which the labor that will make the life that I want, possible. So it is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.

***

These are exceptionally prophetic words, which, like words of Torah, we can only hear and interpret in our current context. The interview was recorded in July of 2019, however, long before COVID-19 was a thing.

Matters of life and death are shared between all of us. I think what Ross Gay is trying to say is that we all carry with us the potential to create joy, to increase happiness in this world, and we also all share the fact that we are going to die. So the potential for joyful living is predicated by the fact that we need it – that in all human relationships there is an implicit shared imperative to foster joy, since our time on Earth is limited.

The first thought that occurred to me as I was listening to this interview was, What a dreadful idea! How can reminding myself of my mortality possibly bring joy?

And then upon second thought, Wait a minute! He’s right. I share that with every other human on the planet. We may speak different languages, have absolutely orthogonal political outlooks, practice different religions, and so forth. But for every single one of us, the clock is ticking. It’s a jumping-off point for every relationship.

Death is, as Krista Tippett suggests, the great leveler, and arguably a cause for joy. And particularly when we lose somebody, it is the motivator for remembering to live. That is precisely the reason we mourn, the reason we say the Mourners’ Qaddish, which is not at all about death – to remember to live, to remember that, in our limited time, we must bring joy.

As I was listening to this a few weeks back, I was making breakfast for my family, whole-grain waffles with maple syrup, a joyful Sunday-morning move, and of course I was not thinking about dying. (I miss waffles. Only one more day of Pesah!)

But living, truly living, is in the joy that we bring to others – by preparing and sharing food with them, for example. And by talking. And by hugging. And by being there in times of need. And by being there for the happy times. And sometimes just by being present, or even present from a distance.

Because, when we are gone, we can no longer really create joy.

My teacher, Rabbeinu (“our teacher”) Neil Gillman, in his 1997 work, The Death of Death, points out that it is death that makes us fully human. “Death,” he says,” is not punishment for disobedience, but rather the inevitable result of the full flowering of our humanity.” He cites the Creation story from Bereshit / Genesis of Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden, as launching human-ness in its complete form; Adam and Eve were in some sense required to understand their mortality before they could be considered fully formed. He cites Martin Buber’s interpretation of the Gan Eden story as an act of compassion on humans by God, avoiding subjecting them to “aeons of suffering.” 

But life, thank God, is not merely suffering. It is all-encompassing, and in remembering to live, we also remember to seek pleasure and company and good times and love. And what makes the joy ultimately overpower the suffering is that we know that our time is fleeting.

We all carry with us a certain number of memories of people who are now gone. We all carry with us what made them who they were. And we remember them when we act in their memory, when we carry on with life, when we bring joy to ourselves and others.

Something that I am trying to do during this pandemic is to be positive. Yes, I think you know by now that I am an optimist. But I have been trying to draw on that well of optimism now more than ever. 

Let’s face it – our options for being joyful right now are somewhat limited, particularly if we live alone. And the entirety of the festival of Pesah, the festival of freedom, the festival of spring, the major holiday that kicks off the cycle of the Jewish year, has had a kind of pall over it. We have not been able to visit with family; we have not been able to exchange hugs and share food and stories with many people with whom we would ordinarily do so.

And yet, we also know that this will come to an end, and when it does, I know we will all be truly joyful.

But I think we have also been given a sort of gift by the pandemic, and that is a glimpse of our own mortality, and that reminder that death makes us human. We are all bound together in life – those of us who are still breathing, and those of us whom we remember on days like these. 

Because, as we will say in a few minutes when I recite the El Male Rahamim prayer, utzror bitzror hahayyim et nishmoteihem. May the souls of those whom we recall today be bound up in the tzeror hahayyim, the bond of life. You will also see a variant form of this written as an abbreviation on some Jewish gravestones, in the form of an acronym: תנצב”ה, which stands for “Tehi nishmatah/nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim .” May her/his soul be bound up in the bond of life. 

We are intimately connected, living and dead, through this bond of life. And although the dead do not give us joy, they certainly give us life through that connection, which enables us to go on seeking and giving joy to others.

And qal vahomer,  all the more so in this time of an afflicted world, we remember not only those who gave us life, but also those who died or are dying at the hands of this vicious virus, which does not discriminate with respect to age, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We are reminded that we are all in this together – as Jews, as American citizens, and as human beings, interconnected with all others around the world. 

On this day of Yizkor, of calling to mind those whom we have lost, we must acknowledge our condition: that our lives are ephemeral, and that the joy that we share with others in the brief time that we have been granted is invaluable. We sink or swim not as individuals, but as a community, as a society, as a world.

We are deeply interconnected, mournful and joyful and distant and close all at the same time, all together, bound in that bond of life that makes us human, that calls us back to our shared mortality.

May we all be bound together in that tzeror hahayyim. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, eighth day of Pesah 5780, 4/16/2020.)

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Redemption from (Love-)Sickness – Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah 5780

It’s been at least a month now, maybe even six weeks, since I have shaken anybody’s hand, and that is probably true for just about all of us. (My wife and kids have kept me adequately supplied with hugs, but we don’t generally shake hands with each other around the house.)

I am going to tell you something about myself, something which some of you may have trouble believing, and that is this: I am NOT a people person. I am a classic introvert, one who draws energy from being alone, rather than from socializing with others. I am no fun at parties – I tend to be checking out the bookshelves and the artwork while others are chattering. Yes, I cover that well – an essential part of my work as a rabbi is to be social. To paraphrase Pirqei Avot (3:17), Im ein schmooze, ein Torah. Without schmoozing, there’s no Torah. We, the Jews, are a sociable people, and rabbis are not monks.

But, if you can believe this, it’s hard for me. There are times, particularly at the end of the day, when I just want to crawl into a hole and listen to NPR, or silence.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston. A great place to appreciate silence.

However, I have found the time at home in the last month harder than I anticipated. Something I have learned about myself in recent weeks is that I need to see people, to chat with them, to relate in person. And I am sure that many of us are feeling that need as well right about now.

A little earlier we read some of Shir HaShirim, one of the most curious and intriguing books of the Tanakh. Some of the questions that might arise about Shir HaShirim are:

  1. This is clearly ancient erotic poetry. What’s it doing in the Tanakh?
  2. Where is God?
  3. Why on Earth do we read this on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah?

Addressing the more obvious challenge, which unites the first two questions, Shir HaShirim is understood in the rabbinic mind as being about the relationship between God and Israel as lovers. There is, indeed, romantic and sexual tension found in the contortions of this relationship; from the Sinai moment until today, God is continually being spurned and then sought again by Israel. (The prophet Hosea, who, if you survey all the haftarot of the year, is the most-read of the minor prophets, allegorizes exactly this relationship in his description of his own faithless marriage.) 

The lovers in Shir HaShirim face a kind of disconnect; while they speak of touching one another, they are often distant, missing each other’s overtures, seeking each other. I must say that this describes to some extent my own personal God experience, and maybe yours as well. 

For example:

2:14

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶתּ־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה׃

“O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, Hidden by the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet And your face is comely.”

3:1-2

עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי֙ בַּלֵּיל֔וֹת בִּקַּ֕שְׁתִּי אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love— I sought, but found him not.

אָק֨וּמָה נָּ֜א וַאֲסוֹבְבָ֣ה בָעִ֗יר בַּשְּׁוָקִים֙ וּבָ֣רְחֹב֔וֹת אֲבַקְשָׁ֕ה אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I spend a great deal of time in tefillah / prayer, lavishing praise upon God (which is what the majority of our statutory prayers consist of). Just as the lover in Shir HaShirim describes the object of her desire in rich, hyperbolic prose, so too do we whenever we open the siddur / prayerbook.

And yet, when we seek, we often do not find God. We yearn, we plead, our mouths overflow with litanies of praise. Some Mizrahi (Eastern) traditions chant Shir HaShirim before Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings; that is not our custom, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which draws heavily on imagery from Shir HaShirim: “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” wrote the poet Rabbi Elazar Azikri in the 16th century. My soul is sick from your love, riffing on 2:5.

It is this unquenched desiring for God’s presence, to find our Eternal Lover, that keeps us connected to our tradition, that reminds us of the ongoing potential for redemption. Rambam describes this imperative in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:3: 

And what is the proper love? One shall love the Lord with an exceeding great and very strong love so that one’s soul be tied to the love of the Lord, finding oneself in a constant tremor, as if suffering of lovesickness, … This is what Solomon allegorically said: Ki holat ahavah ani / “For I am love-sick” (Songs 2.5). And, the whole book, Shir HaShirim, is an allegory on this subject.

And it is through this love that we are redeemed. The Exodus story is the foundational moment of the loving relationship between Israel and God. The relationship that is defined in the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai, a climactic moment that effectively consummates the relationship. Integral to this loving relationship is the idea that God will complete the redemption of Israel: having been brought forth from slavery and brought into the covenantal relationship with Torah, the final stage of redemption is bringing the Israelites into the land promised to them, the land of Israel. 

What happened at Sinai was a wee bit more than a handshake. And that love continues to this day. The Exodus story looms large in Jewish thought and ritual because it is the template for future redemption; love and redemption are intimately intertwined.

Some of you have probably heard me speak about my own personal theology, which dwells heavily on finding God in the interstices of our lives, in the cosmic glue which holds us all together, both from the perspective of physics and of human relationships. 

However, in this particular time, I must say that I want to lean into the traditional understanding of God as the one who, having redeemed us in the past, exemplified by the loving redemption story that Pesah commemorates, will redeem us once again. And I am not hoping for a big Redemption (with a capital R) right now, but rather, just the opportunity to spend time with friends and family again, for my kids to be able to go to the playground again, for me to be able to meet with congregants again and shake hands, as I always do. 

We read Shir HaShirim on Pesah as a sign not only of that great Redemption, but also of the little redemptions that we experience every day. Shir HaShirim reminds us that love is that cosmic glue, and that the minor redemptions on which we depend are never too far away, even if we cannot see them, even as we seek God and do not find.

You are loved, not only by God, of course, but also by the others around you. And although we may not feel their touch right now, although we may not be able to physically reach out, we should take some comfort in knowing that, when we are redeemed, that this brief period of separation, of seeking, of yearning, will heighten the experience of being with each other, in each other’s physical presence once again. 

I eagerly await that day, that redemption. Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah, 4/11/2020.)

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One Vulnerable Goat (and Two Zuzim) – Pesah Day 1 5780

When I look at the Pesah seder with my rabbi-glasses on, of course I see all the great opportunities to discuss, all of the ways in which the story is relevant to who we are and how we live today.

But when I look at it from the perspective of one who has been Jewish my whole life, and for 34 of those 50 years NOT as a rabbi or a cantor, I see a totally different thing. I see family dinner, with great food and good company, with people noodging each other around the table as they have always done, silly dad jokes and older siblings who have not seen each other in months falling into their regular patterns. I hear the family stories – the time that I dissed my grandmother’s home-made gefilte fish in favor of Mrs. Adler, the time so-and-so actually drank four cups of wine and was clearly drunk. I hear the music of families singing old seder standards together: Mah Nishtana, Dayyenu

The family sedarim of my youth were not about discussion. We generally read the Maxwell House, and maybe later the KTAV haggadah, in English, one paragraph at a time, and I don’t think we really understood it that well. We did not know, for example, that the five rabbis – Eliezer, Yehoshua, El’azar ben Azariah, Aqiva and Tarfon – were plotting rebellion against the Romans in what would be the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and that the line, “Rabboteinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaharit” / “Our teachers! The time has come to recite the morning Shema,” may have been the code phrase for, “Quick! Hide! Roman soldiers are coming!”

We did not know that the seder is an imitation of the Greek symposium, in which Greek men of leisure would dine and philosophize and dip their food whilst reclining to the left, and then go out partying from house to house in what was known in Greek as “epikomion,” a word that entered Mishnaic Hebrew as “afiqoman.”

We did not understand the fuss made over small textual issues, like interpreting “Kol yemei hayyekha,” (Deut. 16:3; literally, “all the days of your life”) or how ten plagues became 250. We did not know that the standard Four Questions are not the same Four Questions asked in the Mishnah, and we failed to notice that they were really only one question with four elaborations on that question.

We were, however, singers, and so we have always enjoyed singing along together at the end of the service. And we have always enjoyed getting a little crazy with songs toward the end. Fine, so I didn’t know what “Shishah sidrei mishnah” (six are the orders of the Mishnah) exactly meant. I didn’t really know what the Mishnah is until my 30s. But who cares?

One of the songs that we have always sung is Had Gadya. It’s a fun song, and fits neatly into the other seder songs in that it is repetitive, and designed to last a while to extend the evening’s festivities. Anybody who has been to the congregational sedarim that I have led in recent years is familiar with the Moishe Oysher melody:  

וְאָתָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְשָׁחַט לְמַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת, דְּשָׁחַט לְשׁוֹחֵט, דְּשָׁחַט לְתוֹרָא, דְשָׁתָה לְמַיָּא, דְּכָבָה לְנוּרָא, דְשָׂרַף לְחוּטְרָא, דְהִכָּה לְכַלְבָּא, דְנָשַׁךְ לְשׁוּנְרָא, דְאָכְלָה לְגַדְיָא, דְזַבִּין אַבָּא בִּתְרֵי זוּזֵי. חַד גַּדְיָא, חַד גַּדְיָא

Then came the Holy One, blessed be He and slaughtered the angel of death, who slaughtered the shohet (kosher slaughterer) who slaughtered the bull, that drank the water, that extinguished the fire, that burnt the stick, that hit the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, one kid, one kid.

Not a song that you might ordinarily think about too deeply – it’s not too different in spirit and structure from, “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” 

But what is Had Gadya about? On the old Moishe Oysher LP, The Moishe Oysher Seder, the narrator says, “If you listen closely to the words, this song tells the entire story of the Jewish people.” Although I must say that that does not quite make sense. If we consider ourselves, the Jews, to be the goat, then we were long ago consumed before the Qadosh Barukh Hu came along to redeem us. 

I would rather approach it from a perspective that Dr. Erica Brown brings in her commentary to her book, Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada. She says the following:

We get the last laugh. We still survive to sing about our vulnerability…

Had Gadya is essentially about leaning into our vulnerability. We are the goat, the meek kid purchased for a mere two zuzim – just a few meager coins. We are the most vulnerable character in the whole scheme. Jewish history is filled with stories in which we barely survived: we escaped slavery in Egypt; we returned after the Babylonian Exile; we escaped death at the hands of the Persian Empire; we lost Jerusalem and the Temple to the Romans, and then the Bar Kokhba Revolt was crushed a half-century later; etc., etc. And all of that was two-to-three millennia ago. A whole lot more happened since. (And, by the way, what better way to remind us of our fundamental vulnerability than a world-wide pandemic?)

 Dr. Brown goes on:

What starts the entire song moving is the two zuzim used to purchase the goat, referring to the two tablets given to us at Sinai. Because we were claimed and “purchased” for this covenant, God ultimately intervenes to make sure that we are protected and redeemed… The song asks us not to fear the repetition of our hardest hours in history because God breaks the cycle of violence and we endure.

The Qadosh Barukh Hu wins. God wins. And hence we win. But we do not win by aspiring to be the butcher or the ox, but by being the vulnerable goat, the one that came from the two zuzim / tablets. Our value is that of Torah, that of covenant. Our strength is not the might of the fire or the water, but in the quiet confidence that comes from sticking to our tradition and knowing that, whatever happens, God is on our side.

Yes, yes. I know that this does not quite fit into the theological framework of Kaplan’s God as the power that makes for salvation, or Buber’s Unconditional, the kinds of contemporary theological constructs that I prefer. On the contrary, this is more of a traditional, activist God, the one that we appeal to in our tefillah, the one who is Magen Avraham (the shield of Abraham) and Poked Sarah (who remembers Sarah), who is somekh nofelim (lifting up the fallen) and rofeh holim (healing the sick). Now is an especially good time to focus on that last one – the world needs a good doctor right now.

But hey – now is the time that I need an activist God, one that will protect us and help us all come through this. And we will come through this.

Dr. Brown adds the following:

We see ourselves as fragile in this world… We ask to stay small and humble and for our humility to be the hallmark of our identity, along with the two zuzim, the laws, that keep us holy.

One of the things that distinguishes the Jewish origin story from that of many others is that we see our nationhood, Am Yisrael, as having been forged in slavery. It is the passage from slavery to freedom that enabled us to receive the Torah (there are those two zuzim again!) on Mt. Sinai, and to be a party to that berit, that covenant with God. Our strength, our protection essentially comes from that vulnerable place, that “meitzar” / narrow place that we sing about in Hallel that we associate with Egypt, Mitzrayim. We remember that we are the kid, the baby goat, and that stirs us to be resolute about the future. Redemption is coming.

And not only that, as a part of that covenant, it is up to us to bring on that redemption. So here is a discussion you can have tonight, and you do not have to wait until you sing Had Gadya at the end, ‘cause it might be too late by then and folks might already have checked out. 

Here’s the question: 

How does knowing that we came from slavery, from the place of ultimate vulnerability, lead us to be better people? How does it make us better citizens, better parents and partners and siblings and neighbors and co-workers? Discuss. 

Have that discussion right after the so-called “Four Questions.” Extra points if you can point to lines in the haggadah that support your argument, but of course the entirety of the Jewish bookshelf is also available to you if you need help. Good luck!

Hag Sameah!

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Thursday morning, April 9, 2020.)

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What Makes Pesah Work? – Shabbat HaGadol, 5780

A few years back, in the week before Pesah, I was somewhat surprised to see an ad on my Facebook scroll for a Passover seder at a nearby Italian restaurant. This was not a kosher restaurant, and clearly all the more so during Pesah. So OK, there are Jews in this world for whom kashrut, for Pesah or otherwise, is not so high on the list of priorities. But the thing that got me was the line, “A Very Reformed Seder Service (20 min.).”

Now, leaving aside the term “reformed,” which many Reform Jews read as a slur – reform is an ongoing process, not something that was done in the past – the enticement that the ad seemed to be presenting was that this seder experience would be long on food and short on ritual, discussion, or singing. 

Now, it’s curious that Facebook thought I would be interested in this seder (perhaps the algorithm has since improved). But all the more so, it’s curious that some people would be so inclined as to minimize the best part of Pesah, that is, the story, and (I presume) toss out many of the essential, traditional food items in favor of a pasta dinner? Particularly because, being the second-most-observed ritual of the Jewish year, the seder formula clearly works.

Prior to this year, statistics have shown that about three-quarters of American Jews come to a seder. What will happen this year is probably a dramatic decline in the number of seder attendees, because my assumption is that the majority of us go to somebody else’s seder, and in our current circumstances, we cannot do that. (That is the primary reason, BTW, that I am live-streaming the second-night seder from my home.)

But what makes the seder so popular? Is it the food? Is it the story? The songs? The gathering of family? The short answer is, yes to all.

This will not be the first time that I have mentioned Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis sociologist who chronicled American Jewry in the middle of the 20th century, suggested that American Jews are most likely to maintain Jewish rituals that:

  1. May be redefined in modern terms
  2. Do not demand social isolation (i.e. requirements that separate the Jew from the wider society; yes, I know that sounds curious in the present moment!)
  3. Offers a Jewish alternative to a non-Jewish holiday (e.g. Easter, Christmas; this was something that was brought to my attention by one of our teens at a USY “Lunch & Learn” I facilitated last week, so it’s still valid)
  4. Centers on the child
  5. Is infrequent (e.g. annual, rather than weekly or daily)

Sklare pointed to the Pesah seder and the lighting of Hanukkah candles as being the best examples of such rituals in his book, America’s Jews, published in 1971. And really, little has changed in the last four decades: Pesah may still resonate because it pushes all those buttons. And Dr. Sklare’s thinking seems to still be on the money, half a century later. In this time of decreasing Jewish engagement, particularly outside of Orthodoxy, Pesah is a model that still works.

Away from the cold, academic glare, however, something else is true: Pesah works because we make it work. Perhaps in accord with Sklare’s first observation, that a ritual is likely to be observed if it may be redefined to suit contemporary issues, the message of Pesah continues to resonate with us. Slavery is still an unfortunate reality of today’s world (go to slaveryfootprint.org for more information on that); poverty and oppression may be found just about wherever we look. Those members of our people who fought for civil rights in the 1960s read the haggadah in that context, and there are those who read it today with the various ongoing struggles for equality – for women, for gays and lesbians, for non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel – in mind.

But I think there is more to the story.

In the central portion of the seder, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt (the item identified as Maggid, “telling”), there is a classical midrashic exposition of a passage from the Torah. The passage is the one that begins, “Arami oved avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5-8). You are probably familiar with it. The Torah presents these verses as the proto-liturgical  monologue that the Israelites would recite when bringing their first fruits to the kohen, the priest, on Shavuot, and it encapsulates the story of Jacob and his family going down into Egypt, where they became a great nation, and then were enslaved, and God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, etc., etc.  

Within the midrash is the following comment on four words from Deut. 26:5:

וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְצֻיָּנִין שָׁם

Vayhi sham legoi gadol. Melamed shehayu Yisrael metzuyanim sham.

They became a great nation. It teaches that the Israelites were distinguished there [in Egypt].

The Rabbinical Assembly’s “Feast of Freedom” haggadah (which I use in my home) elaborates on this as follows:

[The Israelites] became unique… through their observance of mitzvot. They were never suspected of unchastity or slander; they did not change their names and they did not change their language.

What makes us a great nation, ladies and gentlemen, is just as true today: we have our own heritage, our own traditions, our own laws. We also have our own language, the Hebrew language, which underwent a tremendously successful revival in the last century as a modern tongue. We also continue to keep our own Hebrew names, which we continue to use, for example, when we call our daughters to the Torah for bat mitzvah, and when our sons stand under the huppah, and at various other points in the Jewish life cycle.

This is our Jewish framework. But in addition to this, wherever we have lived, we have also taken on some of the aspects of the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) society, although for the most part we were never entirely assimilated to the point where we lost our tradition. Indeed, you might make the case that it is in fact Judaism’s flexibility that has enabled us to maintain our distinctiveness while living among non-Jews, to be both Jewish and something else. 

Rashi, living in 11th-century France, spoke French and followed some French customs (he was a wine merchant, and historians suggest that he also wore a beret, smoked Gauloises, and exuded ennui). 

Rashi

Maimonides, in 12th-century Egypt, was a court physician to the sultan in Cairo, who treated Jews and non-Jews. 

Moses Mendelssohn, widely considered the first modern Jew, joined the elite salons of 18th-century Berlin while continuing to practice his faith. 

Theodore Herzl, in the late 19th century, was a secular Hungarian Jewish journalist, and yet he arguably launched the most successful modern ideological product of Judaism, that is, Zionism. 

Throughout our history, although we kept Hebrew and our names and the Torah, we have navigated the wider culture and adapted to new environments and new host societies. And we have incorporated some things from the non-Jews around us as well: foods, including ritual foods, vary tremendously within our communities. And music and spoken languages and a whole range of minhagim, of customs, differ greatly depending on where your ancestors landed.

Yet there are certain commonalities of Jewish life that have continued for two thousand years or more – just one example: leather tefillin were found at Qumran, the site where the Essene sect lived at the northern end of the Dead Sea 2,000 years ago. But in every generation, each of us has seen ourselves come forth from slavery to freedom in our own context. We have never lived in a vacuum; we have continually scoured our tradition for contemporary relevance, searching for how the great works of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us. Etz hayyim hi lemahazikim ba. The Torah is our Tree of Life, and in holding on to it we have upheld our nationhood even as we have clothed it in new styles and fabrics.

Had we been rigidly committed to one particular mode of living, Judaism could have died many times over: when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. Or when the Romans laid waste to the Second Temple in 70 CE. Or after the great yeshivot around Baghdad closed up shop in the 11th century CE. Or after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. Or after the Shoah / Holocaust.

So here is a suggestion. When you sit down to your seder on Wednesday evening, do what Jews have always done: make it yours! Make it relevant! Don’t just do what you’ve always done. That is NOT how Jews do it!

Here are some examples:

When the Four Questions come up, don’t just limit yourself to those traditional four. Ask more questions!

When telling the story of Pesah, don’t simply read what’s in the good ol’ Maxwell House haggadah. Have somebody summarize it in their own words. Get up from the table and act it out! Assign parts!  Have everybody improvise parts of the story! If you have time, prepare some costume items: a staff for Moses, a crown for Pharaoh, a megaphone for God (maybe there is an app for that?), etc.

Plague masks

Have discussion questions prepared: What are you a slave to? What are the things that you are grateful for? What are the things that make your life bitter? In what ways do you feel free?  Why is spring the best time of year? What hametz-laden item do you miss the most during these eight days and why?

These ideas work for families, for children, for sullen teens, for adults, everybody!

Ladies and gentlemen, what makes Pesah work is you! Your creativity, your enthusiasm, your joy. It’s not just about the kids, as Sklare suggested. It’s about you, living here in 21st-century America. 

So go ahead, set the text of the haggadah to the music of Lil Nas X, or to the music of Hamilton, or whatever. Make it yours. Make it relevant. That is how we will maintain our Jewishness and the eternal appeal of our rituals. Hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/4/2020.)

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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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