Category Archives: High Holidays

Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / the Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

(This is part II of a four-part High Holiday sermon cycle. I encourage you to read part I first: Increase the Love: Ani / the Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1)

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How many of us saw the documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”? One thing that we heard Mr. Rogers say during the film, which has stuck with me, is as follows: “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”

Now, my guess is that some of us in the room actually met Fred Rogers, and I have been assured by people in the know that he was “the real deal” – a genuine person whose off-screen personality matched the one on the show. He was not acting; he was truly a loving person who wanted to improve the lives of all the people he reached, and particularly the children. His primary goal, it seems, was to increase the love in this world.

Yesterday I introduced the topic of love, and the framework of this High Holiday sermon cycle. We learned that love starts with Ani, with the I. We cannot love others until we love ourselves.

Today, we move from the alef (א) of ahavah (אהבה ) to the heh (ה): hamishpahah. The family. Moving outwards from Maimonides’ concentric circles of responsibility, the next stop is the people closest to you, your family.

concentric_circles

Judaism actually mandates that each of us has particular obligations to our family: various ways of honoring our parents and being responsible for our spouses, and of course teaching our children the words of our tradition.

But perhaps the most important thing that we can do for our family members, and particularly our children, is to teach them how to love. But how do we do this?

I would like to make the case that the way we teach our children about love is to give them the space in which to learn. Yes, we have to model. Occasionally, we have to lecture. Sometimes we even have to intervene to keep them safe. But the most essential piece of parenting is ultimately to equip our children to leave us; that is how we demonstrate our love, and children so properly equipped will, in love, prepare their children the same way.

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As some of you have heard me say many times, the essential mitzvah, and here I will translate that word as holy obligation, of Jewish life is learning. It is our ancient custom of relaying our textual tradition from generation to generation that has maintained our people. Who are we without the next generation, and how will the next generation manage without familiarity with what it means to be Jewish, and the value that Judaism brings to your life?

A few years back, a mother was arrested in South Carolina for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a playground alone near her workplace. She was a single mother, a shift manager at a fast-food restaurant, and for some time the girl been entertaining herself with a tablet while her mother worked. When that was stolen, the mother sent the girl, equipped with a cell phone, to a park next door. It was all fine until another mother called the police.

In the summer of 2014, a 9-year-old girl in Arizona shot and killed a gun instructor with an Uzi. Her parents brought her to the shooting range and set her up for a lesson; when she could not handle the recoil from the notoriously difficult-to-handle Israeli-made submachine gun, she shot the teacher in what amounted to a tragic accident.

The first mother served time in jail for letting her daughter play in a busy park. The parents who put an Uzi in their child’s hands? No charges were filed.

On what planet does any of that make sense? What are the messages that these cases signal to our next generation? That playing in a playground is dangerous but that guns are OK? Is this a way to love our children?

I read not too long ago a captivating article in the The Atlantic magazine about a unique playground in Wales. It’s called “The Land,” and it is unlike anything that you would think of when you hear the word “playground.” It is effectively a dirty junkyard: an assemblage of old furniture, used tires, ropes and big pipes and discarded toys and wooden pallets and tools of all sorts. There is a fire pit, a stream running through it, a whole lot of mud, and various types of building materials scattered about. There are adults inside called “playworkers” whose job it is to try to avoid injuries, but they rarely stop the kids from running around, building, jumping, lighting and playing tools and with fire, and doing all sorts of things that most of us would consider “dangerous.” The Land bears no resemblance to the safe, cushioned, clean, colorful (perhaps even sterile) playgrounds that one finds all over America.

The creators of The Land have fashioned a space in which children can develop their creativity in infinite ways – not limited by the presence of hovering parents or the fear of getting hurt. The theory behind it is that children who are given independence, who are allowed the thrill of exploring and taking risks, develop healthier coping skills. They are more self-reliant and work out problems for themselves. They overcome fear. If we view our children as incapable of handling challenges, if we do not trust them to manage some risk, then they will fulfill our greatest fears.

There are a few passages from Jewish text that tell us about raising children. The first is one with which most of us are familiar because it is found in the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:7)

וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ

Veshinantam levanekha.

You shall teach them to your children.

Now the word “them” here appears to refer to the text of the Shema itself, although it may very well imply the entire body of Jewish learning, beginning with the Torah and proceeding on to all the great works of the Jewish bookshelf – the Talmud, the midrashim, the centuries of commentary. This suggestion is reinforced by a statement in Pirqei Avot (5:23):

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים לַמִּקְרָא, בֶּן עֶשֶׂר לַמִּשְׁנָה, בֶּן שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַמִּצְוֹת, בֶּן חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַתַּלְמוּד

[Yehuda ben Teima] used to say: At the age of five, the study of Bible; at ten, the study of Mishnah; at thirteen, responsibility for the mitzvot; at fifteen, the study of Talmud….

And yes, we do aspire to teach our children our holy books. But not just so that they can spit back the story of Creation or the Flood or the midrash about Abraham destroying the idols in his father’s shop. Rather, we learn these stories so, for example, that when we spot “idolatry” in our own world – worship of money and material goods, or a slavish devotion to our electronic devices, or the tendency to place our desires over the needs of others  – we know that we should find the better path.

The Talmud (Qiddushin 29a) tells us that we are obligated to teach our children three things:

האב חייב בבנו למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות וי”א אף להשיטו במים

The father is obligated to circumcise his son, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. And some add, to teach him to swim.

So in addition to seeing a child through berit millah and marriage, the parent must teach a child Torah, how to earn a livelihood, and to swim. Rashi quite logically explains this third item by remarking that if one is traveling by boat and falls in, it could save one’s life.

But the wider message here is much more interesting. The first two items suggest that the goal is to make a person who not only can support him/herself and has familiarity with Jewish tradition, but also is well-rounded, can draw on Jewish values in making decisions, who will not merely follow the crowd but will think for him/herself.

But what does it mean to teach your child to swim? It means holding on to the child at first, and then gradually letting go, until she or he can manage in the water alone. This is, of course, a challenge to both the parent and the child.

A long time ago, at one of my first cantorial pulpits, a congregant of mine told me the following: Parenting is about learning to let go. We cannot always be there for our children. We teach them our values, we fill them with useful information, and then we leave them alone. We cannot always be there to hover over them in case they fall or make a mistake.

Not long before he died, the actor Leonard Nimoy gave an extensive interview to the National Yiddish Book Center. Mr. Nimoy, of course, was perhaps most famous for playing the hyper-logical character Spock on Star Trek, but he spoke in the interview about growing up in a Yiddish-speaking environment in Boston. He mentions one of his favorite songs, a song that, like so many Yiddish songs, gets me right here.

It’s called Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym. It’s about a little boy who sees a deserted tree, bent and unprotected in a winter storm, and wants to become a bird to fly to the tree to comfort it with song. The mother bird, who wants to protect her nestling from freezing to death, insists that he put on a coat, a scarf, galoshes, long underwear, and a fur hat. So he does, and then the boy discovers that he cannot fly because he has been smothered by his mother’s overbearing “love” (transliteration from Mir Trogn A Gezang, a treasury of Yiddish songs).

Oyfn veg shteyt a boym
Shteyt er ayngeboygn
Ale feygl funem boym
Zaynen zikh tsefloygn

Dray keyn mayrev, dray keyn mizrekh
Un der resht – keyn dorem
Un dem boym gelozt aleyn
Hefker far dem shturem

Zog ikh tsu der mamen – her
Zolst mir nor nit shtern
Vel ikh mame, eyns un tsvey
Bald a foygl vern

Ikh vel zitsn oyfn boym
Un vel im farvign
Ibern vinter mit a treyst
Mit a sheynem nign

Yam tari tari tari…

The song concludes with, “Sadly, I gaze into my mother’s eyes, knowing that it was her love that kept me from soaring like a bird.”

Reflecting on his own experience, Mr. Nimoy recalled that his parents did not want him to become an actor; they did not trust him to make the right choices for himself. Of course, we know how it worked out.

We have to be careful, ladies and gentlemen, not to let our love stifle our children. Teach them to swim; don’t be there with the lifejacket, the noodle, the pole and the canoe. We have to give them independence. That is what raising the next generation is all about. Love is not meant to protect our children from the cold; it is rather meant to arm them to face the world bravely, to make their own choices; to pick themselves up when they fail.

How many of us, as parents, have heard ourselves say, “I’d like to give my child what I did not have”? Perhaps what we should say instead is, “I want to give them what I did have.”

What did you have? What did your parents give you? What did they allow you to do that most parents would never do today?

Your parents may not have been able to give you a Lexus or a Caribbean vacation or the fanciest new smartphone. But what did they give you? Was it love? Was it decent, but not fancy, home-cooked food? Was it their time? Was it an emphasis on the importance of family? Was it a love of reading, or of helping the neighbor in need, or of singing or building things in the garage or digging in the garden or playing in the great outdoors?

Was it punishment when you misbehaved? Was it shame?

Was it Judaism? Did they bring you to the synagogue, on the High Holidays? On Shabbat? Was it a love of the Divine, of things unseen?

Was it a sense of purpose, of belonging? Was it the drive to succeed?

Not too long ago, New York Magazine published an article by Lisa Miller about the ethics of parenting, which documented some of the ways in which contemporary parents might bend the rules a bit to give their children an edge. The author, perhaps rationalizing her own misdeeds, likened parenting to war, and pointed to a whole range of misbehaviors that she knew her friends and fellow warriors to be guilty of: lying on school applications, pulling strings of all sorts to get them into this program or that, paying $20K for test-prep, getting them unnecessary prescriptions to drugs that help with concentration, and so forth. She cites the apocryphal story of the woman who, with her husband’s permission, slept with an Ivy League admissions officer to get her son into a select university.

Ms. Miller asks the essential questions:

“But how are children supposed to learn honesty and fairness when the parents are yelling at the coach to give Johnny more playing time? Or wrangling behind the scenes to get Susie into a particular day care? Put another way: By advantaging kids at every turn, are parents, in fact, laming them? Are they raising children they may not ultimately want as colleagues, neighbors, or friends?”

She points to research data that suggest that cheating is commonplace and accepted and in some cases believed to be required; one such study showed that 95% of high school juniors and seniors confess to have cheated in the past year.

But does she chide the guilty? No. In fact, she excuses herself and all of us by saying, “It’s tough out there.”

But that is exactly the point. It’s tough, for children and adults, and by shielding our children from the challenges and risks of life, we do them a great disservice. In Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Mr. Tough identifies the qualities that actually lead to accomplishment. It is not performing well on tests or being surrounded by children of privilege that equip children to succeed. Rather, it is conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity, and perseverance that yield the best outcomes.

Dr. Wendy Mogel is an author who does marvelously what each of us should do: she uses the texts of Jewish tradition to teach us about our lives today. In particular, she has written books on parenting that see children and their behavior through the lens of ancient Jewish texts. In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she points to a classic statement of Jewish law, from the so-called “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (19:14):

לפני עיוור לא תתן מכשול

Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.

Dr. Mogel uses this passage to refer to our children, and in doing so I think that she sums up all of this quite nicely:

“Keeping too close an eye on our children is a stumbling block. If they don’t have the chance to be bad, they can’t choose to be good. If they don’t have the chance to fail, they can’t learn. And if they aren’t allowed to face scary situations, they’ll grow up to be frightened of life’s simplest challenges.”

Our next generation is indeed precious; they will carry our body of learning, practice and values into the future. But we cannot treat them like they are precious. We have to teach them to swim. We have to give them the independence that they need to flourish.

The greatest mitzvah of parenthood is to let go. Don’t give your children what you didn’t have; give them what you did have.

As we send our children out into the world, the message that we hope they have received in love is, “You are ready. You are prepared. You’re going to be OK. You are loved.”

We love them so that we can set them free.

We’ll speak on Yom Kippur about lhttps://themodernrabbi.com/2018/09/20/increase-the-love-beyahad-community-kol-nidrei-5779/https://themodernrabbi.com/2018/09/20/increase-the-love-beyahad-community-kol-nidrei-5779/ve of community and love of the world.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5779, 9/11/2018.)

 

Next in the series:

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

 

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Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

Increase the Love: Ani / the Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Some of you know that I come from a family for whom musical theater is understood to be the height of artistic expression. (My wife is a former member of Actors Equity, having toured with Phantom of the Opera for 2.5 years.)

But even before I met her, I was always in love with the stage and musicals. You probably do not know this about me, but I can, in fact, sing every note and every lyric of Fiddler on the Roof. When I was 2 or 3, I had a well-worn vinyl copy of the Zero Mostel soundtrack that I used to play on my kiddie turntable. It was scratchy and skipped, but I was hooked.

Many of us have very nostalgic notions about Fiddler, as if it accurately captures a world that was. In fact, Fiddler, when it came out in the early ’60s, was already indulging in a romanticization of the shtetl.

You may recall that in Fiddler, Tevye’s daughters come to him, contrary to his expectations, to tell him who they are going to marry. They want to marry people they love.

“Love,” says Tevye. “It’s the new style.”

Because, at least according to Fiddler, that’s just not how they did it in the old world. Tevye then goes on to ask his wife, “Do you love me?”, a question that had apparently never been addressed in their household before.

A challenge that we face in contemporary Judaism is that most of us have come to believe that while Christianity teaches love, Judaism is about action and justice. That feeling has no place in the Jewish religious context.

That is frankly ridiculous.

Over these High Holidays, I will be speaking about love, because I think that the most important thing we can do right now, at this very moment, is to increase the love.

I have created a little mnemonic structure for the four sermons over these days; I hope you will all be here to hear the complete cycle:

אהבה
אני
המשפחה
ביחד
העולם

Ahavah (love) =
Ani / I;
Hamishpahah / the family;
Beyahad / together (i.e. community);
Ha’olam / the world.

That is today’s focus: the I. The Ani. And over the remainder of these High Holidays, we will expand outward from the Ani to love of family, love of community, and love of the world. (אהבה).

Before we talk about love of self, I need to explain why love is this year’s theme.

We are living in a time of great challenges to our society. I think that we are seeing a breakdown on multiple levels of inter-connectedness, of social capital, of ability to talk to each other. That has something to do with our retreat into our own individual electronic bubbles with the aid of social media, and a good deal to do with the political rifts that are quite evident today.

One of those factors is, frankly, selfishness. We are, for the most part, all looking out for ourselves. Not enough of us are concerned about the common good. In the last half-century, we have seen the rise of the “Me” generation, of “looking out for number one.” “Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko.

Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently published a book about our current situation entitled, The Common Good. Reich presents many examples of how we have lost the sense of working toward the common good.

From a macro perspective, consider the following: Frank Abrams, the CEO of Standard Oil of New Jersey, said the following in 1951:

“The job of management is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly affected interest groups… stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.” Reich claims that at one time, CEOs were “corporate statesmen” who felt responsible for the common good of the nation.

In contrast, consider Martin Shkreli, the young executive who arbitrarily raised the price of a necessary drug from $13 a pill to $750 overnight. Although widely execrated and eventually convicted on an unrelated charge, Shkreli was legally permitted to make this move, and those who needed the drug (and those of us who pay into the insurance system) suffered.

I am sure that we can think of many ways in which we have lost the sense of connection to and responsibility for each other. In many places in America, people do not even know their neighbors. (Here in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, we are, of course, bucking the trend somewhat, although how close are we to those around us?)

How can we expect to thrive in such an environment, where we’re all looking out for number one, where we are all lone actors, independent and isolated? How can a sense of the common good even exist?

The antidote to this disconnection is to Increase the love. If there is one thing we need more of in this world, it’s love. If there is one thing that a synagogue, that Judaism should stand for, it’s love.

ahavah

Now, you may not have heard that in Hebrew school. Judaism has often seemed cold: rabbinic tradition is fond of throwing up barriers, of drawing lines, of delineating clear boundaries. This is kosher; that is not. You can do this on Shabbat; you cannot do that. No emotion; just law.

When you dig a little deeper, however,  you will see that ahavah / love is invoked over and over in our rituals, in our texts. In other words, Tevye was wrong! Love is not the new style. Love is actually the old style.

Just a few examples:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha.

Love your fellow person as yourself. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)

Rabbi Aqiva (Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 30b) calls this a “kelal gadol baTorah” – literally, a great principle, that is, an essential, foundational idea upon which all of Torah is based. We will certainly be discussing this more over the next few days.

Rabbinic tradition actually thinks of Torah, in its greater sense, as the manifestation of God’s love for us. And, of course, when we recite the Shema itself, what is the first word of the second line?

וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶך

Ve-ahavta et Adonai Elohekha bekhol levavekha, uvkhol nafshekha, uvkhol me’odekha.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:5)

And some of us might speak of Ahavat Yisrael, love of fellow Jews, and Ahavat Torah, love of Torah, as being essential values.

But, pulling back the lens, love is what has to drive us, not only as Jews, but as members of a wider society that is really in crisis mode. Love is the basis of community; it causes us to work for the greater good; it enhances our lives and our relationships.

To understand the meaning of love in the Jewish way, we have to put the statement “Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha” in its proper context. That verse (Lev. 19:18) is found in a part of Vayiqra / Leviticus that focuses on the essential mitzvot between people. Among them we find the obligations to honor your parents (Vayiqra 19:3), to leave some of your produce to the needy (19:9-10), show deference to the elderly (19:32), treat the stranger among you with respect (19:33-34), use honest weights and measures in your business dealings (19:35), and so forth.

Love is essentially a matter of being in relationship with the people around you in a way that benefits the common good. The Torah does not care if you dislike the person with whom you have an exchange in the marketplace; you still have an obligation not to swindle him or her. The covenant of love requires us, on some level, to maintain a system of trust and responsibility with all people, even our enemies.

Our tradition wants – no, requires us to look beyond ourselves, wants us to reach out to others.

And you know what? You cannot love others until you love yourself. Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, says the verse. Because love is an all-encompassing thing: it flows from God, with whom we are in relationship, and flows into all of our relationships, including that with ourselves.

But there is a tension here. Consider the following story from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a), a classic conundrum:

שנים שהיו מהלכין בדרך וביד אחד מהן קיתון של מים אם שותין שניהם מתים ואם שותה אחד מהן מגיע לישוב דרש בן פטורא מוטב שישתו שניהם וימותו ואל יראה אחד מהם במיתתו של חבירו עד שבא ר’ עקיבא ולימד וחי אחיך עמך חייך קודמים לחיי חבירך

If two people were walking on a desolate path and there was a jug of water in the possession of one of them, and the situation was such that if both drink from the jug, both will die, as there is not enough water, but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area, there is a dispute as to the halakha. Ben Petura taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. This was the accepted opinion until Rabbi Aqiva came and taught that the verse states: “And your brother shall live with you,” indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other.

The Talmud is wrestling with the question of whether your love for your neighbor outweighs your love for yourself? Ben Petura says yes, and this love will lead you to die along with your buddy. But Rabbi Aqiva says no: your life takes precedence.

The reality, of course, is that we must balance these two inclinations. Virtually every situation involving other people dwells in the greys. The challenge therein is reflected in this well-known Hasidic story, from Rabbi Simhah Bunim of Przysucha, in central Poland. Rabbi Simhah Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one was written, in Hebrew: Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: “Va-anokhi afar ve-efer”—“And I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.

We are all faced with the constant dilemma of, am I the most important thing in my world, or should I place others above me? The great sage Hillel said, Im ein ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who am I? Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi mah ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I? (Pirqei Avot 1:13). Is the world created for my sake? Or am I but dust and ashes?

Maimonides actually draws circles to illustrate this point in his discussion of tzedaqah, the giving of charity. What does the word tzedaqah mean? Literally, it means “righteousness.” By taking care of those around us with material donations, we are acting righteously; we are acting out of love. You are at the center of every circle. You are the starting point for love of everybody else. You (singular) have to come first. We cannot love others until we love ourselves. If, as Rambam says, there are concentric circles of caring, where do they all start?

How do we love ourselves? Is it through…

  •     Exercise
  •     “Pampering”
  •     Vacation
  •     Buying stuff
  •     Personal time / alone time

I would argue that, while most of these are good things, they are not necessarily self-love. All of these things, perhaps with the exception of alone time, are physical. And it makes sense that we would consider these things first: material things are always easier to understand, to grab hold of than spiritual things.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz tells the following tale: A fisherman caught a large pike, and said to himself, “This is wonderful! I’ll take it to the Baron; he loves pike.” The fish is thinking, “Oh, good! There is some hope for me yet.” The fisherman brings it to the Baron’s manor, to the kitchen. The cooks ooh and aah over the fish, chattering about how much the Baron loves pike. The fish is getting woozy, but this sounds hopeful.

So they summon the Baron to the kitchen, and upon seeing the large pike, he says, “Cut off the tail, cut off the head, and slit it this way.” With his last breath, the fish cries out in great despair, “Why did you lie? You don’t love pike, you love yourself!”

We are awash in stuff, and in ways to amuse and distract ourselves. What we really need to do is to nourish the spirit. And I have some good news for you: one of the ways to do this is to do what you are doing right now, that is setting aside time for matters of the spirit. Meditation. Reading inspirational material. Spending time pondering the grandeur of Creation. Introspection. Considering philosophy and ethics. Giving yourself space to grieve. Making a point to be grateful. I would hazard a guess that most of us are not doing enough of these things.

There are two major traditional Jewish ways of doing this: through tefillah, prayer, and limmud, learning our ancient Jewish texts.

Most of us think that tefillah / prayer is “talking to God.” I would argue that actually tefillah is primarily talking to yourself. Not that we hope God doesn’t hear, of course, but the actual Hebrew word, lehitpallel, means, “to judge oneself.” (BTW, it does not mean, “reciting obscure words in an ancient language that I don’t understand.”)

When we are doing tefillah (praying is really just an inadequate translation), we are actually standing in judgment of ourselves. If you’re doing it right, particularly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you should be taking stock of yourself, doing a personal inventory.

It is an opportunity to “check in” with ourselves, something that most of us rarely do. It is also a way of ensuring that every day, you take a moment to offer some words of gratitude: gratitude for what you have, gratitude for the fact that all (or most) of your body parts still function, gratitude that the Earth continues to bring forth food and rain and daily wonders.

And, by the way, nobody cares if you don’t know the Hebrew words, or when to bow, or cover your eyes. For sure God doesn’t care. Use the words that come to you. Or don’t use any words at all.

The other major vehicle in Jewish life is learning. Many of you have already learned something today about Judaism: that our tradition highlights love as an essential value.

But Judaism’s richness in learning is practically limitless. Many of you have heard me sing the praises of the Jewish bookshelf; its wisdom, once unlocked, can give you the tools not only to love yourself, but also to love your neighbor and the rest of the world. It is our tradition that reminds us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to build peace in this world.

It is our tradition that reminds us to be responsible for the strangers among us. The Talmud says that this principle is invoked 36 times, i.e. double חי / hai. You should love the stranger in your midst enough for two lifetimes.

And it’s not just cracking open a volume of Talmud or a siddur / prayerbook that teaches us to love ourselves. It is also in regular Jewish practice.

Kashrut / dietary laws teach us about taking care that what goes into our mouths is as important as what comes out. Yom Kippur teaches us to be responsible for our behavior. Shabbat teaches us to set aside time to just be present.

(You know, one possible way of loving yourself might be to turn your smartphone off for the 25 hours of Shabbat. Might be worth trying – it’s not so hard. Trust me – I do it every week. And it’s great.)

How do we love ourselves? By finding balance between the material and the spiritual. By learning the value of reaching out to others. By scouring our internals to find the areas that need work. By making sure that we are self-aware enough to separate our needs from our wants and to make sure that our choices are our own and not those of others.

The Hebrew word for “I,” ani, begins with the same letter as “ahavah” / “love”, with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the alef.

But there is something curious about that letter. Unlike any letter in English, the alef is silent. So the word ani starts from a place of silence, an infinitesimally small place. You might think of that place of silence as your very core, that place from which Maimonides’ concentric circles of caring emanate.

That silent alef embedded within each of us is the point from which all love emanates. In order to increase the love, we have to find that alef, to find the love within ourselves and embrace it.

Shanah tovah!

Read the second installment: Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779, 9/10/2018.)

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שאינו יודע לשאול: The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask is the Future – Yom Kippur Day, 5778

Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first three in the series:

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1: The Wise Child Sees Past, Present, and Future

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present

Kol Nidrei 5778: The Simple Child Sees Only the Past

arba'ah banim

***

Today, we take a look at the שאינו יודע לשאול / she’eino yodea lish’ol, the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask. That child is our future.

I hosted my first Pesah seder when I was a sophomore in college. I wasn’t able to go home for sedarim that year, so I figured I would do it myself in my co-operative house at Cornell, where I lived. So, figuring I had to make it somewhat traditional, I got from my mother instructions on how to make certain Jewish foods. Tzimmes. Matzah-ball soup. And, although I was effectively vegetarian at that point, I learned how to cook a chicken for my friends.

The next time I hosted my own seder, I did it my way: fully vegetarian. No tzimmes. No matzah-ball soup. (Maybe there was gefilte fish.) I roasted a beet instead of a shank bone to put on the seder plate. My mother was shocked.

The Passover Seder Plate and New Traditions | The Kitchn

Our expression of Judaism has never ceased to change. Customs come and go. Musical tastes and styles change. What they consider traditional Jewish foods among the Persian Jews, for example, is quite different from what they ate in Poland on Rosh Hashanah, and that has everything to do with geographical separation of these communities, and the changes that took place within each.

And, as I have emphasized over these holidays, we are living in a time of great change here in the New World. So great, in fact, that many of us who are intimately tied to traditional Jewish institutions have not even figured out that it’s going on.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the Jewish world is reaching the growing number of Jews who are not connected to Jewish life or institutions. We all want to do this – Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Federations – but nobody really knows how. Chabad does it by bringing some Jewish rituals into the public square. We in the non-Orthodox world tend to reach out by putting together great programs and hoping that people show up. (We at Beth Shalom are trying to change this model with Derekh, our new programming area with five entry portals.) But we all want the disaffected Jews to find their way in.

Consider also that Jewish North America is quite different than it used to be.

  • Roughly 60% of Jews who have married in the last two decades have married somebody who is not Jewish;
  • We are no longer exclusively white and Ashkenazi (although of course calling Jews “white” is problematic);
  • We no longer have the expectation that a Jewish household consists of one woman, one man, and a couple of children;

Furthermore, Judaism is attracting new members – not those who wish to convert for marriage, but people also genuinely motivated by the appeal of our rich, ancient tradition. And not only that, but many of those of us who grew up with two Jewish parents and had a Jewish education are uncomfortable in traditional Jewish environments because we don’t know Hebrew, we haven’t learned Talmud, we can’t speed through the Amidah like the old-timers seem to do, or we simply find Jewish rituals baffling.

In short, we have many Jews and people married to Jews who are part of the community, but have not found their way in.

I heard about a new program recently, called Honeymoon Israel, which has come up with a new way of reaching out. The program was founded by Mike Wise, who was at one time the head of the Jewish Federation of Buffalo. He was in Pittsburgh back in the spring to discuss launching a cohort of Honeymoon Israel here. Let me explain how it works:

Basically, it’s a week-long trip to Israel at a heavily subsidized price (I think it’s $1800 per couple) for couples aged 25-40 that are within their first five years of marriage (or commitment – marriage is not actually required). At least one partner must be Jewish, and at least one partner must not have been on an organized trip to Israel (e.g. Birthright). Among the organizers’ stated goals are the following (from their website):

  • We particularly welcome participants of diverse backgrounds, including interfaith couples and LGBTQ couples.
  • One of our goals is to create a fulfilling, welcoming experience for people without strong Jewish connections. There are no rules about how “Jewish” you need to be to participate.

Most importantly, each of the trips builds a cohort from a particular metropolitan area. Thus, if you are from Denver, you will be traveling to Israel with 19 other couples from Denver. Same for New York, Atlanta, DC, and, as of next spring, Pittsburgh. That is an essential part of the experience, because when these couples return to their home cities, they have an instant cohort of other Jews with whom to gather for Shabbat dinner or a Passover seder. They have an entree into community.

You see, the goal of the trip is not necessarily connection to Israel, per se, but rather connection to Jews and Jewish life. Israel may be the destination, but this is more about the journey – the Jewish journey after their return. In fact, each couple is screened (there is a waiting list, particularly in the larger cities) and the ones with WEAKER Jewish connections are actually more likely to be selected for the trip. That pretty much guarantees a greater bang for the investors’ buck – reaching deeper into the ranks of disconnected young Jews and giving them a better chance to connect them.

So here is the fascinating part: the demographics of the 2000 or so who have participated include about 70% interfaith couples, and among the remaining 30% about half include a partner who converted to Judaism. About 9% are same-sex couples. As you may imagine, the participants run the gamut of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. This is an honest portrait of Jewish America. As such, the trip organizers work very hard to make sure that the language is inclusive, that there is no apparent agenda in terms of conversion or other religious pressure.

Now, there are some among you who are clearly thinking right now, “But rabbi, how can this possibly be a Jewish trip if (א) they are not requiring participants to put on tefillin every day and (ב) a third or more of the participants are not even Jewish?”

The early 20th-century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, raised a secular Jew, was on the verge of becoming Christian to further his academic career, but gave traditional Judaism a final shot before taking the plunge. He quickly discovered the richness of our tradition, and went on to write one of the best-known works of contemporary Jewish philosophy, The Star of Redemption, and to establish the Lehrhaus, the contemporary House of Jewish Learning, in Frankfurt. When asked later in life if he was putting on tefillin every day, his answer was, “Not yet.”

Franz Rosenzweig - Wikipedia

Franz Rosenzweig

Let me tell you this, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, we in the Conservative movement accept the traditional idea that halakhah / Jewish law applies to us, that Shabbat and kashrut/dietary laws and daily tefillah / prayer are an essential part of what we do as Jews.

But the approach to take when welcoming marginally-connected folks into the fold should be, “Not yet.” Don’t hit them over the head with dietary restrictions, with shutting down for Shabbat, with diving into Rashi and Rambam.

Rather, we should welcome them by building a network of other Jewish people with whom they can dip their toes in the water. But we need to warmly invite them in rather than push them away by setting the bar too high. We cannot make them feel inadequate for not knowing Hebrew or what Shemini Atzeret is. (Heck, I don’t really know what Shemini Atzeret is!)

Our goal, as contemporary Jews and people who appreciate the value of our tradition, is to open the doors. Just throw ‘em wide open and say, “Come on in! We value you. We want you as a part of our community. We don’t judge you for your sexuality or if your partner is not Jewish. Bring them along!”

Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, here is an area where we need to do a little bit of teshuvah. We have been judgmental. I am aware of a number of instances where people who do not match the expectations of others have been told unfriendly things. The tough ones are those who stuck around despite the judginess. The not-so-tough ones probably never came back.

Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford to turn our backs on anyone who walks into a synagogue, who seeks to connect with Jewish tradition. Yes, we still have an obligation to halakhah, to Jewish law. But nobody will learn this if they are turned away at the door or made to feel unwelcome.

One thing that Mike Wise mentioned is that in their interviews with potential couples for Honeymoon Israel, there were a lot of tears; many stories of rejection.

But the outcomes have been positive. Honeymoon Israel continues to track their participants afterwards, and have found overall greater levels of engagement with Jewish life, and a greater sense of shared involvement in Jewish life, even when one partner is not Jewish.

We are a synagogue – beit kenesset. A place of gathering. And we should strive to make sure that all are welcome here.

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And for those of you who may be wondering, “But Rabbi, doesn’t the future of Judaism depend on making sure that our children only marry Jews?” I would respond by saying, “Actually, the future of Judaism depends on making sure that all who enter into our synagogues understand the richness of our tradition. The future of Judaism depends on sharing our wisdom and values with the world. The future of Judaism depends on offering a deep sense of connection and spirituality. The future of Judaism depends on supporting each other as a community. Perhaps most importantly, the future of Judaism depends on imparting all of this to our Jewish children and grandchildren. And if some non-Jewish partners get swept up in our enthusiasm for these things, then that is simply wonderful.”

Now of course we are still bound by halakhah, Jewish law in the Conservative movement, but I’ll tell you this: in 5777 I welcomed 15 new Jews into our berit, our covenant. Six of them were women married to Jewish men and their children. That is what we stand to gain by being open.

We need to look for those who do not know how to ask, and help them, gently, assuredly, to find their way in.

And certainly, I understand why many of us are concerned about opening up the tent. We are, as the philosopher Simon Rawidowicz declared in the title of his 1948 essay, “The Ever-Dying People,” on how Jews have always been anxious about their nascent disappearance.

Rabbi David Hartman addresses this issue in his book, A Heart of Many Rooms (Jewish Lights, 1999). He says the following:

“If we can rid ourselves of the obsession with certainty and finality – if we can internalize the spirit of the covenantal idea – then the uncertainties of the modern world will not deter us from renewing the vital interpretive processes that define our religious heritage.”

OK, so I know Rabbi Hartman’s prose is slightly impenetrable, but his point is that embedded in our berit, our covenant, is God’s keeping God’s word to us regardless of the uncertainty that modernity has brought us. It’s going to be OK. But if we want Judaism to continue, we have to be less focused on merely practicing Judaism and more interested in the meaning behind what we do, and making sure that we continue to interpret and redefine for today. Judaism did not stop moving forward in the shtetl of Eastern Europe. Ever since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE (remember from the first day of Rosh Hashanah?), Judaism has never ceased to grow and change; that is the source of its resilience. And we have to continue to let it move forward today, given the realities of where Jews are.

And where might we find the meaning that our tradition teaches? How might we engage those vital interpretive processes to which Rabbi Hartman refers? You could throw a dart onto just about any page on the Jewish bookshelf and hit something powerful.

The bottom line of Judaism, drawn from our historical texts, is treating each other well. About society. About the providing for the needy among us; about treating the refugee among us respectfully, about ensuring that the orphan, the widow, the homeless in our neighborhood are taken care of. All of that comes from the same books that speak about kashrut and Shabbat. We read in the haftarah today, the words of Isaiah (58:5-7), speaking of the fast day of Yom Kippur:

“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?…

No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free; …

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”

That is the Judaism we must teach to the she-eino yodea lish’ol, the child who does not know how to ask. That is the future we must create.

I spent a good deal of this sermon speaking about the mysterious “they” who are unconnected to Jewish life. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all the ones who do not know how to ask, because we have been conditioned not to ask. We have been intimidated by the apparently high bar of knowledge it seems you must have to enter and learn from Jewish text.

That’s gotta stop. The Jewish future depends on your willingness to invest your mind and heart in our rich tradition, in the words that have enabled us to survive the last 2000 years, through persecution and oppression and genocide.

The challenge, moving forward, is to find your way in. And not just you who are here today, but the many more who are not. And we’re going to help you with that.

Over these holidays, we have built a bridge across the Jewish year, uniting the framework of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the Pesah theme of the Four Children. When we complete this High Holiday cycle this evening with Ne’ilah, you do not have to wait until Hanukkah or Pesah to reconnect; this thread of Jewish connection, of the Jewish operating system, is there for you all year long. Come back to Beth Shalom regularly; stay connected; watch for the Derekh programming coming your way. Make a little more room in your heart and mind for what we are doing now – what you put into this community will be paid back to you doubly in the satisfaction of creating a better you, and a better world.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur day, 9/30/17.)

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תם: The Simple Child Sees Only the Past – Kol Nidrei 5778

Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first two in the series:

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1: The Wise Child Sees Past, Present, and Future

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present

hashmal arba'ah banim

***

Throughout my life, there have always been two flags on either side of the bimah, or the Jewish  stage: the American flag and the Israeli flag. This is not an arrangement that derives from divided loyalties, but rather a double measure of pride: On the one side the pride of being a citizen of the nation that provided a safe haven for my family members who fled persecution in Czarist Russia and enabled them to thrive in an open, tolerant land, and on the other side the nation that continues to symbolize the dawn of our Jewish redemption, a beacon of hope and democracy in the Middle East and an eternal symbol of our tradition.

So let’s talk about the tam, the simple child: In the Pesah haggadah, what is the answer given to the simple child’s question of “Mah zot?” What is this?

בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

It was with a mighty arm that God took us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 13:14)

The answer given to the simple child dwells only on the past. No complexity: we were slaves, and then we were free. Only history; no present or future.

Although our past is essential to who we are today, we cannot be content to be the simple child, to dwell only on the past. That cannot be us. Let me explain.

What does the past look like? Well, I think it’s different depending on how many years you have been on this earth.

If you are over a certain age, you might see our history of persecution drawn in relief; you might remember the Shoah and its aftermath; you might recall that Jewish identity in the middle of the 20th century went hand-in-hand with remembering the Holocaust, and how the sympathy of the world in the late ‘40s contributed to the creation of the State of Israel (Pew Study 2013: 73% of Jews said that “Remembering the Holocaust” is essential to what it means to be Jewish, more than any other feature of Jewish life). You may also be aware of the arc of upward mobility of American Jews, and in particular the pattern of those who remained culturally Jewish but increasingly looked to religious leaders to be their proxy in spiritual matters.

Those of you who are younger than I am (I am grateful to have walked this earth for 47 very complicated years) might have a different perspective on the past. You grew up in America with no barriers to entering wider society. Anti-Semitism has not seemed particularly relevant, at least until the last year, with the rise of the alt-right. You have never lived in a world without a strong, resilient State of Israel. You may even be increasingly disappointed that Israel may not be the or lagoyim / the light unto the nations that we expect her to be. Your relationship to Judaism is far less connected to institutions, and more do-it-yourself.

So how do we move forward together from this point, as one people who are drawn to two flags?

We cannot be the simple child, only replaying and living in the past. Rather, we have to acknowledge the past and embrace the future. That is, we must embrace the unknown.

 

100 Years of Balfour

Let’s consider Israel.

This is a fascinating year with respect to Israeli history, because we are commemorating two anniversaries this year. On November 2, 1917, the same year that Beth Shalom was established, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated the following:

“His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.”

It was a major victory for the political Zionists who had been working with the Brits to secure a Jewish state, with the goal of fulfilling hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years.

Remember on Rosh Hashanah, when we spoke about the Romans destroying the Second Temple in 70 CE?  From that point on, that region was controlled by one empire or another.

Successive waves of immigration, starting in the 1860s, had brought tens of thousands of pioneers to the land, so that by 1917 there were already a good number of Jewish pioneers living in Palestine and building the new home for the Jews. But they had not yet received any assurance from any major player that a new Jewish state was even remotely possible. They were working the fields, growing Jaffa oranges, and meditating on the words of Theodor Herzl: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you desire it, it is not a fantasy.

With the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I, the land that the Romans had labeled Palestine now lay in British hands. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, then president of the British Zionist Federation, worked quickly with British politicians, including Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour (the one who wrote the famous Declaration), to set the foundation for a new political entity in the region. (Dr. Weizmann went on not only to found the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, but also to become the State of Israel’s first president.)

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Arthur Balfour - Apr. 13, 1925 ...

The Balfour Declaration paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Herzl’s desire became a reality; the Jewish dream of being am hofshi be’artzeinu, a free people in our land, had taken a substantial leap forward. (BTW, the British government reinforced its support for the Balfour Declaration in April of this year.)

Fast forward 50 years after Balfour, to June of 1967. The State of Israel, 19 years old and only tenuously holding on to her tiny piece of land,  She pre-emptively attacked her Arab neighbors, who were busy amassing troops to attack. In what came to be known as the Six Day War, Israel captured not only the Old City of Jerusalem, reuniting the city that had been divided for 19 years, but all the remaining territory of the historical Palestine, plus the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights, effectively tripling its area. The world, including Diaspora Jewry, woke up to the fact that Israel was here to stay.

But the heady victory of the Six Day War not only secured Israel’s future and guaranteed her ongoing stability, it also set up fifty years of political complexity on the ground. Not only was she still technically at war with the entire Arab world, but now also in control of an additional 1 million Arabs, who had been building a national identity in resistance to Egyptian and Jordanian control, and who were certainly not grateful to their new landlords. It was only five years later that the Palestinian Black September terrorist operation killed 11 Israelis in Munich, opened up Israelis to ongoing terror at home and abroad.

Herzl and Weizmann and Balfour and Ben Gurion did not anticipate that we would be in the place that we are today: a world in which the intractable challenges of creating safety, security, and peace in the Middle East have cost the region nearly 100,000 lives and, by one estimate, $13 trillion dollars.

So while we continue to celebrate the past, to revel in nearly 70 years of the state of Israel, we also have to be realistic about the future. Many of you know that I am an incurable optimist, and optimists are especially rare right now.

I am also a proud Zionist, one who is committed to an Israel that continues to be strong and democratic. And I am also the father of an Israeli 11th-grader, a kibbutznik who is facing his bagruyot (the high school matriculation exams) with greater anxiety.

But I also believe in talking, in bringing the relevant parties back to the negotiating table. I wish I had the answers.  I don’t know how to bring about peace and security for Israel. But I do know that the status quo is not sustainable, that the arsenals of Hezbullah and Hamas continue to grow, that the next time rockets fly from Gaza they will reach my son’s kibbutz, and that the only way things will change is by looking to the future rather than the past.

We cannot simply look back and admire the string of successes of the last 100 years. Even if we leave aside the question of a Palestinian state or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran: Israel has serious challenges within, among them many citizens living in poverty, the always growing divide between secular and religious Jews, the politically fractious nature of Israeli politics, and of course the current government’s willingness to throw non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry under a bus for political purposes.

Those of you who heard my Hamilton impression on the first day of Rosh Hashanah may be relieved that I will not be rapping again. Nonetheless, Washington’s advice to Hamilton from the Broadway show comes back to me here: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing is harder.”

Embracing the future means that we have to keep talking, keep facing all of the serious challenges before us, and look forward.

 

American Jewish Experience: Decline of “Ethnicity”

But Israel is only one of the flags of my identity; the other flag paints my Magen David in red, white, and blue.

The landscape of American Judaism has changed dramatically since this congregation formed in 1917 as the first Jewish congregation established in Squirrel Hill. And that has everything to do with what you might call a decline in a distinct Jewish “ethnicity” among American Jews.

It has often been said that the Jews are like everyone else, only more so. And today, that is more true than it has ever been!

The world of our parents and grandparents was one of exclusion from the wider society. Living apart from the Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles was expected in the old country; when our forebears immigrated to this country many of them maintained their distinct dress, language, foods, songs, and of course religious rituals for a generation or so.

But my grandmother, who was 8 years old when she came to Boston in 1921 from the province of Volhynia in the Ukraine, did not want to be a “greenhorn.” She refused to speak Yiddish. She soon learned that she loved to eat lobster and clams, like so many other Bostonians. She wasn’t so interested in Jewish life. And so she, like many other immigrants, began to shed the ethnic attributes of the old world.

Nearly a century later, where are we as modern Jews? We speak the same language, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and hold the same jobs as our gentile neighbors. And, perhaps most significantly, they don’t mind socializing with, and even marrying us. So where does that leave our Jewish identity?

Much of what we think of as Judaism is highly connected to Jewish ethnicity. And now that the ethnicity is mostly gone, the practices associated with Judaism seem, for many, irrelevant.

Today, while our Shabbat morning services are full and lively, we occasionally struggle on weekday and even Shabbat evenings to make a minyan of ten people. Only reluctantly can we get members of the congregation, even those who know and love tefillah, to come on a regular basis to help us make a minyan, a quorum of ten. Even more troubling to me is the idea that the weekday service is there only for people to say kaddish, memorial prayers for their deceased loved ones. I am fairly certain that’s not the original idea of daily tefillah / prayer.

Meanwhile, from where I stand, the number of younger people in our orbit who derive meaning in services seems to decline.

We are in a totally different place today from when this congregation began; the Jews have a completely different view of themselves. We do not necessarily need a social club of our own, since we are welcome everywhere. We do not need a place where people can schmooze or kibitz.

We cannot operate a synagogue based on the models of the past. We cannot only look backward with nostalgia. That is what the simple child does.

Instead, we have to take what we have and move forward. And what we have is the richness of accumulated Jewish wisdom. We have the words of the Torah, which tell us to leave a portion of what we reap in life to those in need. We have the words of the Talmud, which speak of the essential obligation of visiting those who are ill, of performing deeds of lovingkindness, of making peace between people. We have the words of philosophy, which teach us to find the meaning in our concrete, scientific world. We have the words of tefillah, of prayer, which bring us humility and compassion as we reach within ourselves and out to the Divine. We have the ongoing inspiration that is the State of Israel and our connection to it. We have all of these things, even if we do not speak Yiddish or eat gefilte fish.

Sea Breeze Fish Market in Plano Offers Classes, House Made ...

All of that has already been uncoupled from the trappings of ethnicity. But we still need a synagogue, because this is the house that keeps all those things alive. This is the place where we teach them, where we live them. It has been observed that while Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish, today they come to BE Jewish.

Ladies and gentlemen, this particular moment, 100 years after the establishment of Congregation Beth Shalom and 100 years since Lord Balfour set in motion the creation of the State of Israel, we are at a critical juncture. We need to continue to be here as a community, as a synagogue, offering guidance and inspiration and community and connection and qedushah / holiness. We need to continue, as our mission statement says, enriching lives through community, lifelong learning, and spiritual growth.

And we need Israel to be there as or lagoyim, that inspirational light unto the nations, a beacon for Diaspora Jews and for the rest of the world.

And so that’s why we have to think to the future. That’s why we cannot be like the simple child. We cannot merely think wistfully about the past, and expect that the 20th century version of Beth Shalom will always be relevant. We have to look forward. We have to think outside the box. We have to find ways to connect with people that are new and powerful.

And that’s why I am counting on all of you.

Many of us in the room know that this is the only night of the year on which one wears a tallit, a prayer shawl. Traditionally, the tallit is worn only during the day.

It is customary to wear a tallit in the evening on Yom Kippur because our prayer never stops; even though we go home and sleep. We don’t eat, and we deny ourselves a range of physical pleasures. It is as though on this day we never stop pleading with God for forgiveness.

In the spirit of the full 25 hours of kavvanah / intention of Yom Kippur, when you go home tonight, take that one step further. Rather than fantasizing about breaking the fast tomorrow evening, take some time to think about what it is that will make you put more time and energy and resources into building our future together.

Do not think that because you cannot read Hebrew at light speed you are not capable of contributing to the future of Judaism. Do not think that if you do not know Maimonides from Mendelsohn you are unworthy of creating the Jewish future. On the contrary: I’d make the argument that this would make you uniquely qualified to participate in the conversation. If being Jewish matters to you but you do not know exactly how or why, then you are perfectly positioned to help us envision our community for the next 100 years.

I hope you, unlike the tam, the simple child, will look to the future. You chose to be here tonight.  Make the decision to be here next week.  Invest in the future of this community with integrity and pride.  And please don’t just come to me with, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that you should do.” Rather, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that I want to do, and I’m willing to help make it happen.” Because our sustainability depends on your willingness to partner with this community in building together.

To read the final installment in the series, The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask is the Future, please click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, evening of Kol Nidrei, 9/29/17.)

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רשע: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present – Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2

How many of us have experienced information whiplash this year? Not just information overload, which I think many of us have managed to live with in the past decade or so, but the sense of having our emotions pulled one way or another by current events, only to be pulled another direction a day or two later? I love coffee, but I had to dramatically reduce my consumption of caffeine this past year to cut down on my anxiety regarding the state of the world. Who would have thought there would be Nazis marching with rifles and helmets in Virginia? Who would have thought that a foreign power would try to manipulate elections?

I think it’s essential that we keep some perspective about the world, and not let events of the present moment throw us too far off the path of forward progress. Yes, the present may be disorienting, but we must try to put everything into proper perspective.

Recap: These four sermons are about our past, present, and future, as seen through the eyes of the famous “Four Children” of Pesah. Yesterday, we spoke about the wise child as being the one who sees past, present, and future.

Today, we’re going to talk about the רשע (rasha), the wicked child. What does the wicked child see? Only the present. It’s all about me, right now.

That cannot be us. Us Jews. We have to think broader than that. And if there is anything that our tradition teaches, it is this: we cannot be the wicked child. We have to see beyond the present moment.

Teaching the Four Sons in the 21st Century | My Jewish ...

Operating system vs. App

I recently heard an appealing image in the podcast, Judaism Unbound (if you don’t know what a podcast is, please ask your grandchildren). Many of us today are carrying smartphones around, and there are two overarching software features to a smartphone: the operating system and the apps. The operating system (OS) is the environment that you see when you turn the system on: the screen where you see all the things you can possibly do. It’s the wizard behind the screen that is making everything function, all the bells and whistles that your smartphone features. You turn it on, and the OS is working. It makes everything go, connects everything together.

The apps (applications) are individual programs that do a specific task. You open one to check and send email. You open a different one to see if it’s going to rain. You open another to see when your next appointment is. Another will help you find a restaurant with vegetarian options for dinner. You get the idea – specific tasks.

The operating system is like your house; it provides space and structure and utilities. The apps are items in the house that do certain things: the blender, the bookcase, the shower.

So the Judaism Unbound hosts have been tossing around the idea of whether Judaism is an operating system or an app. Traditionally speaking, of course, the rabbis who created what we know as Judaism during the Talmudic period (i.e. the 1st through 5th centuries CE), thought of Judaism as the operating system.

Ours is a tradition that has something to say about all facets of our lives: not only how we interact with God or what we eat, but how we speak to each other, how we maintain our physical health, how we learn, how we interact with our relatives and neighbors, how we create a just society, even how we make love. As they taught us to say in Hebrew school (not that we really understood this so well), Judaism is not a religion; it’s a way of life.

And that is the way we have conceived of our tradition for two thousand years.

But we are living in a time, say some, in which fewer of us are thinking about Judaism as an operating system, but rather as an app. That is, when you want it or need it, you open the app. You come to the synagogue. You celebrate a lifecycle event. You speak to a rabbi about a personal issue. And then when you’re done, you’re on to the next app, and you close Judaism until the next time you need it.

That may very well be the case for some of us. Let’s face it – many of us are not even opening the Judaism app at all. Only about half of the Jews in America make an appearance in synagogue on Yom Kippur, but that’s only one measure; most likely far fewer are connecting to the wisdom on the Jewish bookshelf in any substantial way; few are supporting Jewish charities; few find spiritual value in the traditional offerings of Judaism. I would not be totally surprised if, on an average Shabbat morning, there are more American Jews in yoga studios than in synagogues.

Leaving Judaism aside for the moment, the challenge that we are facing as a society is what you might call “application-based thinking.” All the information that is flying at us all the time, all of the constant distraction, is forcing us to compartmentalize our lives in a way that is not only unhealthy for us as individuals, but also as a society. We are moving so fast, trying to accomplish so many things, that we’ve lost sight of the big picture. We are focusing on the moment, on the task at hand without questioning how this particular task fits into the grand scheme.

As an example, I will freely concede that I have become addicted to my own mobile phone. Except for the 25 hours of Shabbat every week, which in my household is a sacred technology-free time, during the rest of the week, like many of you, I compulsively check my text messages, my Facebook notifications, my Twitter and Instagram feeds, my two email accounts, my WhatsApp, and of course the New York Times and the Post-Gazette.

And yet, I am amazed at the numbers of people I see coming into the synagogue, ostensibly to spend a moment doing something holy, who cannot put their phones down on Shabbat and holidays, even for an hour that they are sitting in the pews, even when we ask them to do so.

smartphones

Ladies and gentlemen, if all we see and consider is what is on the screen for a few moments, that is our inner wicked child taking over. That is living only in the present.

Another example: I’m going to tread very lightly here, but let’s return for a moment to American politics. What is afflicting our system is not necessarily the personalities involved, but rather the imperative to seek short-term political victories over long-lasting policy decisions that benefit us as a society. Sound-bites and insults have become the norm of political discourse, and few politicians, let alone voters, are willing to think too far beyond that.

We have reached a point where few can even entertain, let alone articulate, the position of the other side, and in such a situation, nothing can be accomplished that will further the project of building this country. I fear a future of languishing – of neglect of infrastructure, of failure to confront the devastating consequences of the phenomena that are gnawing at our citizenry: not enough rehab beds for opioid addicts, the outrageous cost of health care, the stagnation of wages for half of America.

True leadership in our body politic requires the long view, of past and future at the same time.

Let’s face it: the present is an illusion. There is no present at all. Dr. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard social psychologist, has said in his TED Talk, The Psychology of Your Future Self, The present is merely a wall, a kind of mehitzah (divider between men and women in some traditional synagogues), if you will, between the past and the future. Who we are at any given moment is just one point of data along a shifting continuum; nobody in this room is finished growing, developing, changing. It does not matter if you are 19 or 90. We’re all still moving forward into the next iteration of ourselves.

And just as politicians and the news media focus only on the “now,” so too are we, the citizens, not taking the long view; we are thinking only about ourselves, in this moment: how will this impact me right now? That is not how a healthy society functions. We’re all in it together.  Ultimately, what affects our neighbors affects us.

The רשע, the wicked child sees only the present, because there is nothing more important in their world than themselves.

When are we the wicked children?

  •     When we see suffering in this world, and we look away.
  •     When we put metaphorical stumbling blocks before the blind – that is, those who are blind to the consequences of their choices.
  •     When we withdraw from the community.
  •     When we put the value of saying yes over doing the right thing.
  •     When we seek financial gain in place of the sanctity of our interpersonal relationships.

I do not have time to give examples of each of these, but I am sure that we can all think of times when we have made the wrong choice, the one that highlights ourselves over the greater good. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we might even see examples of this in our behavior every single day.

So how might we get beyond the present? How might we find our way into the long view?

Ladies and gentlemen, I encountered a wonderful idea in Rabbi Alan Lew’s book about the high holidays, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, generally my go-to source for inspiration at this time of year. (I rarely recommend books in this way, but if you need some high  holiday inspiration, you might want to invest in this book. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read about Judaism.) Rabbi Lew has a talent for infusing his Jewish commentary with ideas drawn from the Buddhist tradition of meditation.

One of the names of Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikkaron, the day of remembrance. Traditionally, we understand this to mean that these days are days on which we remember God, and God remembers us. We ask to be remembered in the Book of Life for a good year. We try to remember the good deeds of the past year, and how we hope that these exceed our transgressions, which, with chagrin, we also remember.

Rabbi Lew reframes the idea of Yom HaZikkaron. Rather than remembrance, he says, we should refer to this day as the day of mindfulness. That on these days, we should be mindful of time, of where we have been and where we are going, and mutual awareness between us and the Qadosh Barukh Hu:

“If God were not aware of us, this whole pageant of teshuvah and forgiveness wouldn’t make much sense. Who would there be to return to? How could we ever be forgiven if there weren’t an awareness out there that knew precisely what we have done and how we feel about it now? And if Rosh Hashanah did not provide us with the perspective of heaven – with the opportunity to see ourselves with perfect clarity as if from the outside – how would we ever achieve this kind of clarity? How would we ever manage to get far enough outside ourselves to see ourselves accurately?” (p. 137)

Mindfulness, which some have translated into Hebrew as “Eranut,” drawn from the word ער, er, awake, is, of course, one of the portals of Derekh. It is an entry point to Judaism, an area in which we at Beth Shalom are now offering innovative activities for you. (E.g. meditation once per month on Shabbat mornings at 9 AM, starting in November.)

One traditional understanding in Judaism that may be help us to not be the wicked child, to see beyond the present, is the idea of the yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, which are usually translated as “the good inclination” and “the evil inclination.” But a more accurate traditional understanding of the yetzer hatov is, “the inclination to selflessness,” and the yetzer hara as “the inclination to selfishness.”

When we live only in the present moment, we are governed by our yetzer hara, the inclination to selfishness. On the other hand, when we successfully think about past and future, about lessons learned and potential consequences, about ancient and modern wisdom, we are being governed by our yetzer hatov, the inclination to selflessness. When we realize how our lives are intertwined with our community, how our fate is bound up with that of our fellow citizens, that is the yetzer hatov acting. That is when we see beyond the present moment, when we see the past and the future, and the betterment of others around us.

Hands Reaching Out Related Keywords & Suggestions - Hands ...

I am inclined to think that our knowledge and awareness of God on these days is reflected in a more practical way in our awareness of the individuals and society around us.

Now, that’s not an easy thing to do. But Judaism provides direction.

One of those things that help to bring out the yetzer hatov is tefillah / Jewish prayer. Prayer is a kind of mental training, similar to meditation or yoga. It is entering a mode of focus, of reciting an ancient formula that connects our hearts and minds to our hands and mouths. I love the meditative aspects of tefillah; that is one reason that I ask you to engage in some moments of silence and create some internal space to strive to hear the still, small voice of the Divine during the Amidah prayer – we want to give everybody in this room the opportunity to find that meditative focal point. If you feel unable to connect with the words on the written page, listen to that inner voice as your guide.

After prayer, the second thing of primary value in our tradition is Jewish text learning. “When I pray, I speak to God,” said Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “When I study, God speaks to me.”

Think, for example, about the internal struggle reflected in the words of Hillel found in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And If I am only for myself, what am I?” Those words from the Mishnah are more than 1800 years old. And yet they continue to echo in the challenge that we each face as we continue the daily struggle between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, the inclinations to selflessness vs. selfishness.

To get to the best gems of rabbinic literature, you have to be open to reading and discussing the words of our tradition.

Even if you are ambivalent about traditional theology, or the idea of “organized religion” (You call this “organized”?!), the words of our tradition will speak to you, because they are not about God, per se. They are about humanity, about intellectual stimulation, about making this world a better place, about self-improvement. These words are about you, and about us.

In 2007 when I was completing rabbinical school and applying for jobs, I had an interview with a team from a large west coast congregation. Toward the end of the interview, they asked me the following:

“A congregant comes to you and says, ‘Rabbi, I feel as though I really need some spiritual engagement, but I work like a dog and I just can’t make it to synagogue on Shabbat. I need to go to the beach.’ What do you say to that person, Rabbi?”

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I explained that, after trying unsuccessfully to get this theoretical Shabbat beach-goer to a Talmud class or a discussion on theology, I concluded that the only solution is to say, “Well, you should know that God is also at the beach.”

 

I did not get the job.

But I think the answer is not to answer Mr. Beach Guy at all. When he comes to me to ask the question, I have to grab him at that moment, sit him down with Pirkei Avot or the beginning of Massekhet Berakhot, the first tractate of the Talmud, and start learning right then and there. That is, to give him the perspective on the depth and richness of our ancient collected wisdom, something that many of us somehow missed in Hebrew school.

I think that we have no choice but to force ourselves to see beyond the present; to recall the past and prepare for the future. We have to let the words of our tradition infuse our lives, to let them draw us out of the app and into the operating system.

While it may be obvious that none of us wants to be the רשע, the wicked child, it is sometimes a lot harder for us to see beyond the present. But that is exactly what we need to do.

To read the next in the series, The Simple Child Sees Only the Past, click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5778, 9/22/2017.)

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Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

חכם: The Wise Child Sees Past, Present, and Future – Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1

Shanah tovah! Welcome to 5778, and of course welcome to Beth Shalom as we continue to celebrate our 100th year.

You may recall that, two years ago, when I first stood before you at this moment, the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5776, I made a heartfelt confession as a way of introducing myself. I confessed that I know next to nothing about sports, and that I would not be able even to make cocktail-party-level conversation about what’s going on with the local teams.

So I now have some very good news. No, I have not been following the Pirates this summer (although I was there at the stadium for Jewish Heritage Night in August). But the good news is that since I have been in Pittsburgh, the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup two years running! Coincidence? I don’t think so.

One hundred years ago, long before there were Penguins in Pittsburgh, there was no rabbi to give a high holiday sermon in Squirrel Hill; there were only a handful of optimistic Jews who needed a place to daven (to pray), and set up over a store on Forbes. A century later, it is clear that we, that you have built something truly awesome. We will be celebrating by throwing the party of the century on November 11th, and I hope you will join us then – gala chairs Marlene Silverman and Bernice Meyers and the rest of the centennial team are cooking up something wonderful for that night.

So 5778 is a truly special year for this congregation. As such, I am framing this series of High Holiday sermons on past, present, and future. At the current moment, we are at one end of a lengthy time line. But there are thousands of years before us, and (we hope) thousands after us as well. 100 years, though it may seem like a lot to us, is really only a very small slice of the Jewish path through history.

Relive the Journey of Our First 100 Years!

So that’s a weighty thought. Here we are in 2017, the beginning of 5778. We are looking backward one century, and looking forward into the next. But really, we are at the nexus of a paradigm shift as to how we relate to Judaism. We have received thousands of years of tradition, and now it is our job to carry it forward, to make it our own and make sure that our children and grandchildren carry it as well. This is, in my mind, the primary reason we are gathered here today. This is the reason we have a synagogue. This is why we need Beth Shalom.

But the framework here is not only about past, present, and future. For the four sermons over these holidays, I am also going to borrow from another holiday, one that is a reflection of the High Holidays directly across the cycle of the year: Pesah / Passover, and specifically, the Arba’ah Banim, the Four Children. (I know the tradition is sons; I prefer the more egalitarian, non-gender specific “children.”) To refresh your memory, the Four Children are:

  • The Wise Child – חכם (hakham)
  • The Wicked Child – רשע (rasha)
  • The Simple Child – תם (tam)
  • The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask – שאינו יודע לשאול (she-eino yode’a lish’ol)

From Arthur Szyk’s illustrated haggadah, 1939

How is it, you may ask, that I can just borrow a theme from a totally different part of the Jewish year? Simple: we do this all the time!

For example, there is a custom that some have of saving their lulav and etrog after Sukkot, allowing them to dry out, and using them to help burn the hametz on the day before Pesah. On Simhat Torah, there is the custom of using melodies from the entire Jewish year in the hatzi qaddish before Musaf (it’s called, in Yiddish, the “yareskadish,” the qaddish of the whole year. There is the custom that some have of wearing a kittel, the white robe that is traditionally worn on the High Holidays to suggest purity, at the Pesah seder. And so forth.

Our customs connect us across the Jewish year. Melding past, present, and future with the Four Children, we arrive at the following:

Today, I will speak about the wise child, the one who sees past, present, and future.

Tomorrow, I will speak about the wicked child, who sees only the present.

On the evening of Kol Nidrei, I will discuss the simple child, who sees only the past, and does not know how to connect it with the future.

And, on the day of Yom Kippur, I will focus on the child who does not know how to ask; that child is our future. And we have to show them the way in.

***

Today we consider the חכם, the wise child.

Stephen Hawking, in his work, A Brief History of Time, cites a familiar story about theories about the world:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Perched up here in 5778 / 2017, looking down at all the turtles supporting us, or better, at the giants of our history upon whose shoulders we stand, we have the benefit of hindsight. We have a sense about where we have been. And, like wise children, we will take the lessons of the past, apply them in the present, and thereby shape the future.

What has brought us to this day is the past. But as we stand here in the present, we must look toward the future. The future is in innovation – the kind of innovation that will help lead us onward while strengthening the roots that connect us to our tradition.

And the cynical among us might ask, “Why should we care about our tradition?” Because we need it. And I am going to make the case over these holidays for how we will move forward – standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were, creating the innovation of the future, and helping you to find your way in.

The Past

What makes Judaism so special is that we continue to acknowledge the depth and breadth of our past. You may be familiar with the popular, witty summary of every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat.” Cute, yes. Accurate? Well, not really.

Jewish history, our national story, continues to inform us; we continue to learn how to be better people, how to improve ourselves and our relationships from the lessons of history.

My family has recently become obsessed with the soundtrack for the Broadway musical Hamilton; its success has as much to do with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop grooves as it does with the eternally-valid lessons of history.

How did we get here? To paraphrase (badly) the opening lines of Hamilton (if you’re reading this on the blog, please imagine a tall, skinny, white rabbi trying to rap):

How did a worn-out, ragtag bunch of former slaves

emerge from the desert a new nation,

to give to the world the most meaningful,

the most magical,

the most awe-inspiring long-lasting story ever written?

How did we outlast the Romans, the Babylonians, the Assyrian Empire, the Crusaders?

Was it because of ritual?

Was it because of commitment to Torah?

Was it because of bagels? Or a prodigious talent for comedy?

(OK, so I’m not much of a rapper.)

The answer is, of course, is not simple; there is no particular moment or item that we can point to and say, “Aha! There it is. That’s the reason we are still here.”

At the very least, there are three dates in Jewish history that you should memorize. And I’m going to pretend that the wall behind me is our time line. (Did I mention how much I love time lines?):

  • 586 BCE, the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians;
  • 70 CE destruction of the second Temple by the Romans; and
  • 1948, establishment of the State of Israel.
  • 1492, the Expulsion from Spain, is a bonus.

And of these four dates, one is a wee bit more special than the others. One particular moment in history, one cataclysm that spawned a paradigm shift that forced innovative thinking, enabling us to survive until today. That change was the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

What happened in the Temple was NOT what we think of as Judaism today; our ancestors practiced, until about 2,000 years ago, an ancient form of animal sacrifice, coordinated by a priestly class, the Kohanim and Leviim. The way you expressed your gratitude to God or sought atonement for your transgressions was by bringing animals or grain to be sacrificed by the priests on the altar. There were no synagogues and few rituals that could be performed without a kohen. Everything in Jewish life was centrally controlled in Jerusalem and rigidly hierarchical.

The Second Temple in Jerusalem, detail from the model at the Israel Museum

So what did the Romans do? By destroying the Temple, by putting an end to the sacrifices performed there by our ancestors, they caused us to rethink who we are and what we do. They created a situation in which everything that the Jews had known up to that time about God and the Torah became suddenly irrelevant.

But while the Romans thought that they had crushed the Jews and Judaism, the joke’s on them, because we’re still here, and where are they?

The Jews had no choice but to create a new framework. That is the framework that ultimately was written down in volumes you find on the Jewish bookshelf:  in the Talmud, the midrash, the Torah commentaries, the medieval halakhic codes of Jewish law, and so forth. The Romans are long gone. But by burning Jerusalem and ultimately banning Jews from living there, they caused us to re-invent ourselves, and make it such that our tradition was no longer top-down, no longer specific to one particular mountain in the Middle East, no longer in the hands of a privileged few.

Judaism became open to the Jews. The regular folks. And, in some sense, the rest of the world as well. The events of 70 CE enabled us to create a system in which we were bound not to an ancient sacrificial altar, but contained within the “arba amot shel halakhah,” the four cubits / six feet of personal space in which we each carry out our tradition as individuals. That system is what we know as Judaism today; it is what we refer to as “rabbinic Judaism” – the Judaism that was created and led by rabbis, not kohanim. Rabbis are decidedly NOT priests; they are teachers.

So the last two millennia of Jewish life, of rabbinic Judaism, have been dedicated to the ongoing project linking our hearts and minds; of learning and interpreting our texts and creating personal and communal rituals. This 2,000-year project of fashioning Judaism after the Temple has been about finding a way to connect the Torah with how and where we live, how we treat ourselves, others, and the world, day after day.

The most wonderful secret of the pages of the Talmud is that the lessons to be found therein crackle today with vibrancy. Jewish texts provide a framework for life that has worked for these two millennia. Our tradition is rich with advice on how to live and improve our lives and our relationships, ideas that still apply today.

Just a small taste, straight out of the Mishnah, Avot 4:1:

.איזה הוא מכובד? המכבד את הברייות

Eizehu mekhubad? Hamekhabed et haberiyot.

Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creatures.

Imagine what a spectacular world we would live in if all of us went through life remembering that every other person, every other living thing, and even the earth itself deserved honor and respect? Imagine what this world could be like if we took to heart the kedushah, the holiness all around us?

This is only one tiny but resonant example. We are all inheritors of a wonderful, rich, inspiring tradition. It’s all there if you reach out. The past is part of our present. The novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And he was not even Jewish.

Our past is not past; it is our future.

The Future

The Jewish future in America depends on two things: our willingness to open those ancient books, and our willingness to accept change. Because as much as many of us are committed to this – this building, this mode of worship, this siddur – the Jewish future will require us to recommit to the most essential mitzvah of Jewish life: Talmud Torah: learning the words of our tradition.

The events of 70 CE were a paradigm shift in Jewish life. And we are on the verge of another shift. The Information Age may not change the value of our ancient texts, but it has certainly already made their dissemination easier. And we all have the potential to benefit in ways that our parents and grandparents could not.

To be wise children, we have to take the past and make it the future. We have to think about what comes next.

As you may recall from just about anything you might have heard me say over the last two years, the time is now for us to be rethinking what we do as Jews. Gone are the days when people would simply join a synagogue because, well, that’s what you did. Today, we have to continually make the case for what involvement in Jewish life will give you. We have to show the world that being a part of a synagogue community, learning the words of Jewish tradition, and engaging with our customs and rituals will enrich your life, will strengthen your relationships, will bring you a greater sense of appreciation and satisfaction and will better our world.

So what will it take to be innovative? Well, we have already begun. As you may know, we have just begun to build, in conjunction with our Centennial fundraising campaign, the new set of programming offerings known as Derekh, meaning literally, “the way.”

We have hired Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, who is also our director of Youth Tefillah, to get this program off the ground, to fashion the entry points into our tradition. The whole idea, of course, is to make the synagogue essential to your life, to help you find your way into our tradition, to help you discover the various ways that Judaism can benefit you individually and communally.

Derekh is our engine of innovation; it is the means by which we will be wise children, seeing past, present, and future. We will be using the new technologies at our disposal to reach out better. We will be thinking creatively about new ways to reach you, and to engage the people who are not in this room. We will be offering new means to connect to Jewish text, to Jewish culture, to social action, to Israel, and to the mindfulness that our tradition teaches.

derekh logo - high quality

Today’s Beth Shalom is firmly rooted in our 100-year history, and the 2,000-or-so year history of rabbinic Judaism. But tomorrow’s Beth Shalom will rely on your willingness to embrace innovation, to consider new paths in Jewish life, and to invest yourself in building this community.

I want you to reach higher. I want you to come around for something you do not usually do. Come join me for a lunch and learn discussion on a Jewish philosopher that you should know. Have coffee with me or with Rabbi Jeremy to discuss building community. Take advantage of all the monthly beit midrash programs, in which you’ll learn about the ancient wisdom which continues to guide us. Come learn with scholars from the whole community in JJEP’s adult learning programs. Come to the new early Shabbat morning program (on non-benei mitzvah days) at 9 AM, in which we will offer a rotating offering of meditation, niggun singing, and text study. Watch for an upcoming film series. Check out a weekend retreat. Check out the range of short videos we are putting out through the Beth Shalom Facebook page. We’ll be putting together a trip to Israel as we begin our next 100 years.

We have so much new stuff going on, and I promise you that it will be informative, connective, and worth your time. Join us.

So even as we recall all the turtles supporting us, even as we invoke and cherish what our ancestors have given us, even as we celebrate 100 years, we have to reach higher. We have to be the חכם, the wise child.

I am, in some sense, throwing down the gauntlet. Here is a challenge to you: let’s make this community sparkle with all the illumination that our ancient texts still shed. Come find your way in.

To read the next in the series, The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present, click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5778, 9/21/2017.)

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4 Whys #4: Why Do We Need Torah? – Yom Kippur 5777

As you surely know by now, this is the fourth and final sermon on the topic of “Why?” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we covered, “Why be Jewish?” On the second day, “Why do we need the mitzvot, and Shabbat in particular?” Last night, we discussed why we need Congregation Beth Shalom.

Today’s why is, “Why do we need Torah?” Why do we need to learn the words of our ancient tradition, our stories, our customs and principles and values and laws?

***

I recently heard a podcast that positively blew my mind. It was on Radiolab, which is an NPR program about ideas, often featuring scientific subjects.

The idea featured in this particular episode is about inter-connectedness, about networks, but not how we usually think of them. It was uncovered primarily by a professor of forestry from University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, whose research has demonstrated, effectively, that trees are networked with each other through something called a mycorrhizal network, and that this network helps the trees support each other.

The way it works is as follows: in the soil, there are tiny, nearly invisible tubes called mycorrhiza, which are parts of various kinds of mushrooms. Fungi. There can be miles of these tubes in a pinch of soil. The tubes affix themselves to the roots of trees, and engage in a kind of exchange with them: the tree provides sugar to the mushrooms, and the mushrooms provide minerals to the tree.

Brain Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is the example of an ideal leaf The Fungi ...

Note to plant pathologists: yes, I know this is not the kind of fungus we’re talking about here. But it’s a pretty photo nonetheless, don’t you think?

OK so far? It’s even better than that.

Not only is there an exchange between the fungi and the tree, but the fungi, which are connected to many of the other trees nearby, actually share nutrients through the network between trees. And the trees support each other – when one tree needs more nutrients, the other trees will, with the help of the network, send them. When there is a shortage of one type of nutrient, the mycorrhizal network will hoard that nutrient and dole out to the neediest trees. The network also ropes in the assistance of other creatures – bacteria and insects – to help maintain the whole system.

It’s almost as though the forest is “thinking,” like some kind of huge plant brain; strategizing, sharing, supporting.

What is truly revelatory and beautiful about this is that it seems that there is no such thing as a lone tree. Each tree is linked into the whole system. Prior to discovering the network, Dr. Simard had noticed that when you pulled out one tree, sometimes another nearby tree of a different species would die, clearly a result of upsetting the balance in the network.

So why am I telling you this?

When I heard this story, my mind immediately went to us, the Jews, and how we are linked together.

When you think about it, it’s downright unbelievable that we are still here. I mentioned this briefly on Rosh Hashanah – we outlasted the great empires that ruled Israel, that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, that dispersed us all over the world. We have long since bid goodbye and good riddance to the Babylonians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Russian czars, the Fascist regimes of the middle of the 20th century.

What has kept us alive? I would like to propose that our metaphorical mycorrhizal network, the invisible, powerful connection that has maintained our network and supported us is Torah. Not THE Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, but “Torah,” without any definite or indefinite article. It is a much more comprehensive term. Torah is what flows from THE Torah.

It refers to the entire Jewish bookshelf.  Torah obviously begins with the Torah, which we read through each year. But that is just the beginning – Torah in its greater sense is all of our collected learning, including the rest of the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim – the entire Hebrew Bible), and it flows through the collected network of rabbinic texts which make up the Jewish bookshelf: the Talmud, commentaries and supercommentaries on the Torah, midrashim, halakhic codes (Jewish law), mussar (ethical commentaries), Hasidic stories, kabbalistic literature, the words of tefillah (prayer), Jewish music and artistic interpretation, and on and on.

“Torah” in its greater sense is the ongoing project of two thousand years of intellectual development: debating the meaning of our ancient texts across generations, continents, and centuries; it is the thread that connects us to each other, to our ancestors, to our families, to Israel, to our people.

Torah (in its greater sense) is what holds us all together. It is our unseen, yet essential network. None of us are individual trees; we are the Jewish forest, connected by a textual, mycorrhyizal network, sharing and distributing all of that wisdom, ancient and modern.

What holds us together is words. Centuries ago, we were dubbed by the Muslim world as Ahl al-Kittab, the People of the Book. But we took that moniker proudly as our own: we are Am haSefer.

“Ours is not a bloodline,” write Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book, Jews and Words, “but a textline.” What connects us from generation to generation is not Hanukkah candles or matzah or even Yom Kippur. It is not our being an extended cousins’ club. It is not mah-jongg, or eating Chinese food on Christmas. It is our collected body of wisdom. What connects Moshe (Rabbeinu) on Mt. Sinai to Moshe (Maimonides) in 12th century Cairo to Moshe (Mendelssohn) in 18th century Berlin is that thread of interpretation that makes the matzah come alive for us today. Without the text, it’s just a lousy, unsalted cracker.

In what is one of the best-known stories found in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b-57a), Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai effectively launches rabbinic Judaism by having his students smuggle him out of besieged Jerusalem in a coffin.

The year is 69 CE. The Jews have been revolting against the Romans for a few years, trying to preserve their way of life, their land, and particularly their Temple, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, wherein they have been sacrificing animals and produce to God for nearly a thousand years. The Romans, led by Vespasian (who is not yet the Roman Emperor), have taken Israel by force, and have surrounded Jerusalem.

After having been smuggled out as a corpse, Rabban Yohanan arrives at Roman military headquarters, and pops out of the coffin in front of Vespasian. A lively debate ensues in which the Romans exhibit their inclination to live by the sword, and Rabban Yohanan counters with proto-rabbinic wisdom: “All neighbors who do harm to others find that they have done it to themselves,” he says. Vespasian understands that he is in the presence of a very wise man.

Then something happens that changes the course of Jewish history.

Rabban Yohanan has predicted that Vespasian will soon be the emperor, and sure enough, while they are speaking, a messenger arrives to crown him as Caesar. Vespasian says to him, “I am now returning to Rome, and will send somebody else to take my place. You may, however, make one request of me, and I will grant it.”

Rabban Yohanan says, “Give me Yavneh and all its sages.” That is, give me a little, out-of-the-way, sleepy seaside town where I can assemble a crack team of rabbis to figure out what comes next in Jewish life.

He did not say, give me back Jerusalem. He did not say, just let me keep the Temple and let the Kohanim continue making sacrifices for the Jews.

He said, give me space to start writing the first chapter in the textline. I need a forest where I can plant some fungi.

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Sometimes, we have to conquer our fears of the future and embrace change. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the rabbis of Yavneh fashioned from the rubble of the Roman destruction not a Third Temple, but rather what we know today as Judaism. Thanks to Rabban Yohanan and his scholars, Judaism was re-invented. We, the Jews underwent a paradigm shift, eliminating the barbaric rituals of animal sacrifice and replacing it with the meditations of our hearts. This was the biggest historical turn for our people since leaving slavery in Egypt and receiving the Torah, 1300 years prior.

We all need to be a little bit more like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: facing down our fears, letting go of what was, and embracing the future. That’s why I spoke last night about re-envisioning this synagogue, about the vision of Beth Shalom as a center of contemporary Jewish life and learning for the whole region.

And that brings me back to our mycorrhizal network, about our need for Torah, about our need for connection to each other through our ancient wisdom. But first, a collective “Al het.”

Al het shehatanu lefanakha. For the sin we have sinned against you God, by practicing Judaism without seeking meaning within it.

If there is a bottom line to everything that I have said over the past ten days, it is that Judaism’s future depends on our willingness to let it bring meaning to our lives.

Why are we like so many individual trees, not connected to the network? Because we have failed as a community to look to our textual heritage. Because we have assumed that being Jewish meant lighting Hanukkah candles and saying kaddish and “having a bar mitzvah,” without making any serious effort to connect these things to who we are, how we live, what we feel. Because Judaism loves to tell us more about how to do something rather than why.

The key to the Jewish future is the mycorrhizal network of Torah. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai pulled off a nervy stunt to get an audience with Vespasian so he could ask, not for ritual, not for ancient sacrifices, NOT EVEN FOR JERUSALEM, but for Torah.

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As disconnected trees, we will die. As trees whose roots intertwine with the tiny underground tubes, connecting us to our Etz Hayyim, our tree of life, we will thrive.

That’s why we are still here. That’s what makes us a community, a qehillah, brought together for a holy purpose, sustained and nourished by the words of Torah, thousands of years of collected knowledge that is still fresh and fragrant today.

****

Why have I devoted these four sermons, nearly 100 minutes of talking, over 10,000 words, to answering the question of “Why?”

I told you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah that these are essential questions that we must be asking if we want there to be a future to progressive Judaism.

But more importantly, I want to make you care. I want you to understand the value of what we have inherited. I want you to ask why, and then go seek out the answer. And sometimes, all it takes to appreciate what we do as Jews is a new take, a fresh perspective, a captivating insight.

And beyond that, we should never do anything merely because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” That answer is insufficient for me, and it will not further the cause of connecting Jews with Judaism.

We need to ask “Why?” more. And we need to dig deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to find the answers.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 5777, 10/12/2016.)

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