Category Archives: Festivals

Joy and Grief – Eighth Day of Pesah, 5777

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

redwood stump

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

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

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

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

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

מצווה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimhah tamid.

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

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

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

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

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

Aristotle2

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

Hedonistic happiness yielded nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

watcher

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

slavery

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

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

child slavery

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

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

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

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

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

Made in a Free World

Free the Slaves

Anti-Slavery

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

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

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

Hag sameah!

~Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

 

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

 

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

Shemot / Exodus 22:20, 23:9

Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:34

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

 

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Pesah Evangelism

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

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

images.duckduckgo.com

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

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

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

And how might you do that? Very simple:

Ask questions and discuss.

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

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

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

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

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

“Big picture” questions:

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

Details of seder:

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

General Pesah questions:

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

 

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Remaining Human – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5777

One of the major themes I presented during my series of High Holiday sermons is that the point of fulfilling mitzvot, of “doing Jewish,” if you will, is to connect those holy opportunities with our lives, to bring meaning to who we are and how we live today.

Along those lines, what does building and “dwelling” in the sukkah teach us? That life is uncertain. That even after the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, after having been through the process of repairing our relationships with each other and with God, that we are still vulnerable. That although we might be inclined to look around ourselves and say, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. I’ve got another year in front of me. 5777 is looking pretty good,” that we should not forget that things could change. The story is not yet over.

In my mind, I always strongly associate Sukkot with the sights / sounds / smells of fall: trees aflame in color, winds to herald the winter chill, the scent of dead leaves and damp sod. Sukkot is the end of the holiday cycle, and it suggest frailty. Everything comes to an end, chants the latter half of Tishrei. And yet, it’s a joyous time – zeman simhateinu, the season of our joy, as it is called in our liturgy. This is hehag, THE festival.

I recently read an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, in which he reminds us of the need to remember to sanctify life as we sail into the future.

This is not the future of the Jetsons or Star Trek, but rather the future in which artificial intelligence eventually puts everybody out of work. Consider the fact that right here in Pittsburgh, even as we speak, there are driver-less cars prowling the hilly streets for the ride-sharing service Uber. It is only a matter of time before millions of people who drive for a living – cabbies and truckers and bus drivers and railway engineers – will be unnecessary and hence lose their jobs. It will not end there.

https://images.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.borgenmagazine.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2015%2F05%2FBig_Data_Development1.jpg&f=1

Rabbi Sacks points to a trio of futurist authors, who suggest not only that we will soon enough have automated surgeons and teachers and journalists and attorneys, but that the future will belong not to those who can capture our hearts, but those who control our data. “Google, Amazon and Facebook,” he says, “already know us better than we know ourselves. People will eventually turn to them for advice not only on what to buy but on what to be. Humans will have become strings of genomes, little more than super-algorithms.”  Think, The Matrix. The system will only get out of us what it needs based on our numbers.

The antidote to this particularly dire vision is our ongoing commitment to recalling the sanctity of human life. We can never be reduced to numbers if we are reminded of our fundamental humanity.

Although the coming technological change is unprecedented in its scope, there is no question that Judaism has managed such change historically. I spoke on Yom Kippur about Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s choosing Yavneh over Jerusalem, that is, learning Torah over sacrificing animals. RYBZ chose to move forward, to choose Torah – words – over the barbaric practice of offering rams and sheep up to God on a fiery altar. In addition to progressing from the Bronze Age to the Information Age, we have managed expulsions and slaughters, dispersions and forced conversions. We have survived assimilation and secularism. We made it through the disco years and decades of questionable taste.

We know how to handle change.

But the future will require the acknowledgment that no matter how much Big Data knows about us and can convince us to behave this way or that, that we continue to learn and teach, to seek holiness in our relationships with each other, to elevate ourselves through our traditions. The futurists, says Rabbi Sacks, point to a new form of idol-worship for today, and citing a verse from Psalms, he says:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human’s hands.” When technology becomes idolatry it ceases to be life-enhancing and becomes soul-destroying. The moment humans value things, however intelligent, over people, they embark on the road to ruin.

So what does this have to do with Sukkot, Rabbi?

This is why this festival is so essential. Actually, let me expand to the entire month of Tishrei. Rabbi Sacks wrote about the essential concern of Rosh Hashanah as being the creation of humans in the image of God. It is this Godliness, with which our humanity is imbued, that leads us to seek forgiveness from each other during the first half of the month of Tishrei, and to celebrate with each other, even as we are reminded of our essential vulnerability, in the second half.

Sukkot is tactile. It’s not a heady holiday like Yom Kippur. It involves building, and marching around with greenery, and slapping willow branches against the ground with all your might in climactic ecstasy with the conclusion of this festival (join us tomorrow morning for Hoshana Rabbah if you want to find out what THAT’s all about). And then we conclude with singing and dancing with the Torah in joyous abandon. This is a physical journey much more so than an emotional one.

One of the pleasures of Sukkot is sukkah-hopping – going to friends’ sukkot to hang around, to schmooze, to eat, to spend quality time with each other. A good friend of mine, a former congregant in New York, is convinced that Sukkot is the secret weapon in the Jewish arsenal of re-engaging disaffected American Jews. He has a grand scheme to put free, easy-to-build sukkot in the hands of people who would otherwise not buy one, with the only condition that they use it during the holiday. This festival brings people together, he reasons. It is joyous and fun and builds community and connection. If more Jews participated in the mitzvah of leshev basukkah, he figures, then we have a better shot at rebuilding our connection to Judaism.

He has asked to remain anonymous, but he donated four such sukkot to this community this year, and so there were four more families celebrating in their own sukkot in Pittsburgh in 5777. Maybe next year we’ll get even a few more.

The Slonimer Rebbe taught that Yom Kippur appeals to the middah (attribute) of yir’ah, of fear of God, but the middah for Sukkot is ahavah, love. The two balance each other out, and so the month of Tishrei includes equal measures of yir’ah and ahavah. But let’s face it: in simply counting the number of people in the room, far more Jews are motivated by yir’ah to show up on Yom Kippur. Couldn’t we use a little more ahavah in Jewish life?

Our goal as Jews is to avoid living in the dystopian future of The Matrix; we cannot become subjects to our technology. We have to continue to be human, to live in the here and now, to worship only the God of Abraham and Sarah. Ritual binds us to reality, and qal vahomer, all the more so on Sukkot, when the rituals are all so physical.  These holy opportunities are all the ways that we maintain our connections to the physicality of Creation, to God, and to each other. This is how we maintain our humanity, the sacredness of life in all of its loving, fearful, vulnerable glory.

So while the future may be filled with robots and data, and may be more and more dehumanizing, the antidote might be found by peering through the sekhakh (the greenery on the roof of the sukkah) in order to see the stars, while we dine and socialize in those frail booths, and feel the ahavah, the love of this holiday. Hag sameah!
~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/21/2016.)

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A Brief Thought for the End of the Holiday Season

The Hebrew month of Tishrei is not dissimilar to a roller-coaster ride: a slow, exhausting chug uphill through the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah / Ten Days of Return bracketed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; joyful descent through the festivities of Sukkot; a loop through Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and the dramatic finish of Simhat Torah. With each hakafah, each march around the synagogue carrying lulav and etrog or the sefer Torah, we savor the skill and precision with which our tradition helps us cling to our lives as we are in the balance, as we acknowledge our own vulnerability. And then we return safely to the ground, ready for a year of promise and love and new challenges.

roller coaster

As we prepare to start the cycle of Torah once again, we do not pause; we never stop reading the Torah. When we conclude on Tuesday morning the final verses of Devarim / Deuteronomy, the very next aliyah (Torah reading) will open with the grand, mystical “bet” of Bereshit / Genesis, that beginning of beginnings. The Hebrew letter bet is closed on three sides, suggesting that one can only move forward from the opening, deeper into the text of the Torah, deeper into our lives. We cannot go back. 5776 is gone. From this point, there is only progress as we sally forth into 5777 and our next chapter. Shabbat shalom, hag sameah, and shanah tovah!

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The Memory Machine – Second Day Shavuot, 5776

Remembrance of those who have passed from this world is a universal human desire; we all feel the need to recall our family members and friends who are no longer with us.

Two decades ago, when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I recall reading a statement about memory that has stuck with me.  It appeared in the campus newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, in the middle of a tongue-in-cheek article about something that I can’t remember.  But the statement that struck me read as follows:

“[So-and-so] is still trying to cope with the realization that he is a function of every person he has ever met and every book he has ever read.”

I remember thinking, hey, that’s me too.  I am also a function of every person I’ve ever met and every book I’ve ever read.  And here, the word “function” is used in its mathematical sense.  Perhaps some of you recall from junior high school algebra:

f(x)

or the diagram of the function machine:

function can be visualized as a "machine" that takes an input x and ...

A function is a box that performs some kind of action on data that is entered, such that what comes out is modified in a particular way.  So if f(x) is x-squared, then if I put in 2, the function turns it into 4.  If I put in 3, it becomes 9.  And so forth.

To say that we are functions of our life experience is a vast oversimplification, of course.  Our own function machines would have to be very, very complicated.  But on some level, this is not far off.  We are shaped by our experiences, from the moment we emerge from the womb, through schooling and relationships and work and success and failure and loss and happiness and sadness.

Perhaps a better way of understanding ourselves, then, is that we are  memory machines — sacks full of memory — that not only process our experiences through those memories, but also allow us to dig into our past, to re-examine, to think of the beautiful moments as well as the awkward ones that we wish had never happened. What we carry with us is invaluable; it is in fact who we are.

And it is really hard to wrap our brains around that.  We often measure people by the superficial stuff: how they appear, what car they drive, where they go to synagogue, when they go to synagogue, and so forth.

But what really makes us who we are is our own, personal, individual sack of memory. And in particular on a day like today, when we reflect back on how our lives were touched by those whom we remember.

The proper name from Yizkor, by the way, is Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of souls. What we do on this day is to attempt to bring up those shards of memory of those who have left us: who they were, what they stood for, what they taught us.

Perhaps this endeavor serves as a reminder on an ongoing basis of our obligation to treat others well, to remember that every interaction that we have with other people is logged in somebody’s memory.  And not only that, but also that many little actions can add up to a tidal wave of memories, memories that cross over from individuals to peoples.  Memory shapes not only individuals, but also cultures, politics, and nations.

I’m going to share with you a few examples from my own memory machine, memories that have shaped me as a contemporary Jew, as an American, and as a rabbi.

When I was in cantorial school, and before I had a cantorial position that required me to be at the same synagogue every Shabbat and holiday, I used to do a lot of “shul-hopping.”  That is, I would walk to different synagogue in Manhattan to listen to different hazzanim, to hear them practice their art.  One year on Shemini Atzeret, I walked to Fifth Avenue Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on the East Side, to hear Cantor Joseph Malovany.  Unfortunately, he was not there that day, and his substitute was unremarkable.  But I was treated to something else that day: the author Elie Wiesel was there, sitting quietly in the front row on the rabbi’s side.  I did something that day that I was not accustomed to doing at the time: I stayed in the sanctuary for Yizkor, mostly so I could watch Elie Wiesel as he stood up to recite his own personal Yizkor prayers, recalling, I imagined, all of the things that he had recounted in his books: the loss of his family, his Romanian village, the loss of his faith upon arrival in Auschwitz.  He stood with his eyes closed, gently rocking side to side, his head cast slightly upward.  Where is he?  I wondered.  Where is he right now?

A different story: The summer of my seventeenth year I visited Israel for the first time.  I spent eight weeks there on an academic program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where we learned Jewish history from ancient times until present day, and visited relevant sites all over Israel to put it in context.  It was amazing — much of what I learned that summer I have carried with me and used again and again.

Of course, when you have 40 seventeen-year-olds living together in a dorm for eight weeks, you learn a whole lot about the complexity of human relationships as well.  One thing that I remember from that summer was learning about how mean one Jew can be to another for the sake of one interpretation of Judaism.  One weekend, we had some free time in Jerusalem, and one of my female friends was caught inadvertently among a mob of Haredim (so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews, although I prefer not to use that misleading term) who were protesting the opening of certain cinemas on Shabbat.  She was wearing something that someone in that crowd deemed inappropriate, and so he spat upon her.  She was, as you can imagine, more than taken aback; the Jews among whom she had grown up and lived with and traveled around Israel with did not behave that way.

That was a memory that I am sure that she carries with her to this day, and so do I by proxy (even though I was not there when it happened).

Ladies and gentlemen, as a people we came through the Shoah together, laden with horrible memories, with martyrdom an essential feature of the modern Jewish psyche.  We established a Jewish state in our historical homeland.  We have empowered women to participate fully in Jewish life and mitzvot.  Many of us in this room remember all of these things personally, because you were there.  Our memories have shaped us as a people. And they will continue to help us move forward as a people into the bold, inchoate Jewish future.

Many of you have been to parlor meetings with me over the past year, and you know that part of the process is to tell a story about a Jewish memory, a meaningful Jewish experience. My goal in asking you to do so is not so that the others in the room might simply say, “Now that’s nice.” Rather, it is to (a) remind us of the power of memory, (b) create a sense of community through shared stories, and (c) try to connect who we are and how we live today as Jews with our past experiences. We fire up those memory machines to connect them with each other, and then with Congregation Beth Shalom.

On this second day of Shavuot, this day of remembering, it is upon us to look back not only on the people that have created deep personal memories for us, our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our friends, but also those among our people who have created salient cultural memories for us as Jews, and the community that we have inherited.

Memory makes us collectively stronger as individuals and as a qehillah. Turn on those memory machines; now is the time to actively remember.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 6/13/2016.)

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Filed under Festivals, Sermons, Yizkor

Who Are We? – Pesah 5776

Pesah is about identity in a way that no other holiday is. It is the festival that tells us who we are, and that is the essential Jewish question of our time.

Not too long ago, there were very specific cultural and tribal definitions of what defines a Jew. We knew who we were, the non-Jews knew who we were, and there were very clear lines. There was no liminality, no ambiguity around the borders of the tribe.

All of that began to change with Jewish emancipation. From the time that Napoleon first granted French Jews the rights and privileges of French citizenship in 1789, the gradual inclusion of Jews into the wider, non-Jewish society has yielded the situation in which we find ourselves today. Now there are all kinds of Jews in the mix: black, white, Asian, openly gay, straight, transgender, secular, not-so-secular, of course, but also all sorts of combinations that are the product of interfaith relationships. The Jewish world is no longer demarcated by simple, clear lines.

Add into this melange our changing concept of personal identity in 21st-century America. The idea of “Who are we?” in the wider culture is far more fluid than it has ever been. One need not look too far beyond the very-current struggles over who can relieve themselves in a public bathroom to understand this. Are we who we were at birth? Or can we become something else entirely?

Fortunately, for Jews, we have some common themes of identity, and some of the most important aspects of Jewish identity are invoked in the Pesah seder. For one thing, some of our most fundamental, personal Jewish memories involve the seder table – a home ritual that brings friends and family together.

It’s worth noting that, after the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the seder is the second-most observed ritual of the Jewish year: about 70% of American Jews (according to the Pew study of 2013) show up for a seder. That’s a pretty impressive number, especially since only 22% of us have kosher homes and 13% avoid spending money on Shabbat. It is therefore a very strong identity-building ritual, even if it’s just dinner with matzah. Think of your own seminal sedarim: how you may recall your silly uncle’s embarrassingly-loud, horribly off-tune singing, or that time your teenage cousin actually drank four full cups of wine, or checking to see if the wine in Eliyahu’s cup had actually gone down when you opened the door. Think of the lessons learned, how proud you may have felt being invited to engage in serious discussion of tough questions with grown-ups, the sense of community engendered by making your first seder on your own for your friends when you couldn’t get back home, the feeling of togetherness created by having all the people you love together, and so forth. Even the implicit messages — who are we? We are the people that gather to eat traditional foods and to discuss their history.

Passover 1946 - the Seder Table at the Elinoff home, with Joel's great-grandparents, grandparents, and extended family.

Pesah in Pittsburgh, 1946.

And all the more so for those of us who spend some time at the seder discussing the themes of the holiday. If you dwell at length on the text of the traditional haggadah, then you have most likely encountered the most relevant statement about what it means to be Jewish. It’s quoted straight out of the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5):

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

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim, shene-emar: “Vehigadta levinkha bayom hahu lemor, ba’avur zeh asa Adonai li betzeti miMitzrayim.”

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

When I was growing up, we used to read through the haggadah in English, full-speed ahead, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 sheqels. So I never really paid much attention to this line until I was in my 30s.

But this is in fact the whole reason that we gather and tell the story on the first night of Pesah : to make it personal. To put ourselves into the story. To walk a mile in the shoes of our ancestors, to connect with their struggles. To re-live the formation of the Israelite nation, conceived in slavery and delivered at Mt. Sinai. We went down into Egypt as a family and emerged as a people, as Am Yisrael. And as much as we celebrate our freedom on Pesah, we also celebrate our identity as members of the tribe that left Egypt together and received the Torah together.

And so it is our duty to reinforce that message at the seder, not only to dine as free people in the style of the Greek symposium, reclining and dipping and telling weighty stories, but also to connect ourselves with slavery, and to tell our children about it.

And how do we do that? How do we teach our children, who are mostly, thankfully, being raised sheltered from even the strife and hardships that our grandparents knew, what it’s like to be a slave? While we are reclining in our safe, comfortable homes, in an environment in which food is always plentiful, where debts are mostly politely confined to paperwork, where manual labor is generally an option, how do we continue the generational transmission of understanding oppression?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Ask those gathered to discuss what we are “slaves” to (job, mortgage, alarm clock, etc.). Are we really “free?”
  2. If you have any Shoah survivors at the table, ask them if they were ever slaves, and perhaps to describe their experiences.
  3. Find some information in advance about slaves in the world today. Estimates vary, but there are many millions. Consider our economic habits and how they may keep people enslaved in distant lands (see, for example, slaveryfootprint.org). Consider what that means in the context of our heritage.
  4. Consider another essential line in the haggadah, the preamble to the Maggid (storytelling) section of the seder: Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Discuss how our understanding of / history of slavery require us to act in this world?
  5. Consider that the Torah invokes our having been slaves many times, and uses that statement of our history to justify our not mistreating strangers, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Talk about how that obligation affects our relationships with others.

Your creativity at the seder should not go only into the food! On the contrary! The more that you put into making your first nights of Pesah engaging, informative, and reflective, helping those around the table enter into our tradition, the greater chance that they will carry on that tradition, creating new memories and new opportunities for our collective spiritual growth.

Why have Jews always been at the forefront of issues of social justice? Why did Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many other Jews, march with Dr. Martin Luther King? Why was the American Federation of Labor founded by Samuel Gompers, a member of our tribe? Why did so many American Jews advocate to help free our Soviet cousins in the 1980s? Why did the Zionist movement ultimately succeed in building a Jewish state? Why did Sigmund Freud seek to liberate the unconscious mind? Why did Jonas Salk work to rid the world of polio?

Because of the identity formed around the seder table, where we see ourselves as slaves and learn about the imperative to help all those who are suffering from persecution and oppression of all forms to gain their freedom. That is who we are, regardless of all of the other ways in which we differ.

And the very foundation upon which this identity has been forged, the one thing that we all have in common, is the Torah. Yes, we interpret it differently. Yes, we disagree over its meaning. But that is simply the way that Jews have always related to our tradition, and it is, in fact, ours. The Pesah tale, the story of our nation’s departure from Egypt, is the seminal moment of identity formation, and it connects directly to Shavuot, seven weeks later, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. That is the cornerstone of what it means to be Jewish, and perhaps that is why we keep coming back to the seder table every year.

So when you gather with your family and friends tonight, look around the table at the young people there, and ask yourself, “Have I engaged them? Have they learned something? Have I helped them fashion their identities? Have I enhanced that multi-generational connection?

That is what Pesah is all about. Not necessarily the food, not the karpas, not even the Pesah-Matzah-Maror or the four retellings of the story. It’s about identity. It’s about who we are.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First Day of Pesah 5776, 4/23/16.) 

 

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Filed under Festivals, Sermons