Category Archives: Kavvanot

Praying for Our Country: A Thanksgiving Thought

If you have been to Congregation Beth Shalom in the last few years, you might have heard me say this: Tefillah is not intended to be rushed through, intoned meaninglessly. Pirkei Avot (2:13) tells us that our words of prayer should not be rote recitation, but rather pleas for mercy and supplication before God. It should never be that we mumble empty words of tefillah, trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, without connecting those ancient words with ourselves.

The same is true for the English “Prayer for Our Country” that we recite each Shabbat morning (p. 177 in Siddur Lev Shalem). There is a good case to be made that the words of this prayer are arguably more essential right now than ever before, as our nation faces great challenges:

  • The challenge of division, wherein people on opposite sides of the aisle cannot speak to each other civilly, or at all;
  • The challenge of distinct narratives, in which online echo chambers reinforce that division;
  • The challenge of hatred of those not like us; of hatred of all kinds; of fear of the immigrant and refugee;
  • The challenge of race; of fashioning a just society in which all are given a fair shot in life regardless of the color of their skin; and
  • The challenge posed by the erosion of our democratic ideals and the diminishing respect for scientific inquiry.
Jasper_Johns's_'Map',_1961

Jasper Johns, Map, 1961.

As we pray now for an end to hatred and bigotry, to poverty and racism, let us remember that we all need each other; that we cannot sing together until all voices join in. We have no choice but to rise above party and group identity, to reach beyond boundaries of religion and race and ethnicity for the sake of the common good.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a holiday on which we as a nation recall our gratitude for what we have. Perhaps on this Thanksgiving, we will all spend some time reflecting on those things that still connect us, be grateful for them, and consider what we need to do to build on those connections.

Let this Thanksgiving be a prayerful one.

 

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/17/2018.)

 

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Love, Tenderness, and Peaceful Co-Existence: A Thought from Mr. Rogers

While I was on the plane to Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday morning, feeling a whole lot of ambivalence about leaving Squirrel Hill, I was fortunate to watch for a second time parts of the recent documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” about our neighborhood’s most famous resident, Fred Rogers, zikhrono livrakhah (may his memory be for a blessing).

When Mr. Rogers testified before a Senate committee in 1969 to argue for funding for public broadcasting, he said that among his essential principles was the idea that children’s feelings were always OK.

… I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.

We are all filled with emotion today. We are raw, sad, angry, distraught, anxious, worn-out, and a whole range of other feelings. Although I am physically far away from all of you, in Jerusalem, I and the rest of our Beth Shalom group here feel the same things.

Mr. Rogers did not shy away from facing difficult, emotional situations on his show. In fact, in the first week it aired, he tackled the war in Vietnam, by having King Friday XIII declare war on people who “want to change things.” The residents of the Neighborhood of Make Believe were all upset and fearful, and tried to convince the king to back down from his aggression. Daniel Striped Tiger said, “I want there to be peace in this neighborhood. It’s been a hard time for everybody.” Together, they crafted a plan to influence the king: they tied messages like “Love” and “Tenderness” and “Peaceful co-existence” to balloons, and floated them up to the king’s castle, and ultimately the king relented.

Right now, I want all of us to remember that if Mr. Rogers were here, he would tell us that it is perfectly normal to be upset. Let the tears flow; let the emotions run. And think of the balloons that you would send up right now. If all of us take our desires for love and tenderness and peaceful co-existence, and saturate them with those tears, and cause them to radiate outward from Squirrel Hill to the rest of the world, we will all help each other manage that pain. And while we may not repair the hole in our communal heart, we just might help repair the world.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered by Rabbi Jeremy Markiz at Congregation Beth Shalom, 11/3/2018.)

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A Shabbat of Comfort

This has been perhaps the most challenging week that many of us have ever lived through. Right now, we all need a little comfort, and a little qedushah, an extra measure of holiness in our lives. When we gather together as a community, there is strength and comfort in that.

In the context of shiv’ah, the seven-day period of mourning following burial, it is customary to say to those who mourn, Hamaqom yenaḥem etkhem betokh she-ar aveilei tziyyon viyrushalayim. May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Hamaqom” is an infrequently-used euphemism for God. Literally, it means, “the place.” It sounds nonsensical if you translate the saying as, “May the place comfort you…” But the suggestion is very clear: we do not count only on God for comfort; we as individuals are as much a part of this place as God is. It reads as a kind of unity of us and God. Together in partnership we comfort those who mourn. And in this place, in this time, we are all mourning. Right now, we are all in shiv’ah.

Join us Friday evening at 6 PM and Shabbat morning at 9:30 AM, and every evening and morning at Beth Shalom as we not only offer words of tefillah / prayer in solidarity with each other and with God, but also moments of holiness, togetherness, and comfort. Although I am in Jerusalem with Beth Shalom’s congregational trip, in spirit I will be in our place, in our synagogue, with you in solidarity. Come be with your community this Shabbat, and stay strong.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

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A Post-Shooting Thought

During the minhah service at Beth Shalom this afternoon, we read the beginning of Parashat Hayyei Sarah, which recounts in its second verse the death of Sarah Imeinu, our mother Sarah:

וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ

Vayavo Avraham lispod leSarah velivkotah.

Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her (Genesis 23:2).

You can’t see this above, but in the Torah, the letter kaf (כ) in velivkotah is smaller than the other letters; it is an ancient scribal tradition. We read this small kaf as suggesting that Abraham, in losing Sarah, felt a little smaller as he wept for his wife.

The events of this tragic Shabbat in Pittsburgh have made me feel a little smaller, a little more powerless, a little more anxious. I wept at multiple points today as I began to comprehend the way our community’s soul was torn by a killer with an assault rifle who was spitting anti-Semitic slurs, for the synagogue-goers who had to run and hide as holy words of tefillah / prayer trailed from their mouths, for the families of those who are still awaiting confirmation of their loved one’s status.

Nonetheless, our community is a strong one, and I hope that at this time we continue to draw strength from our tradition and from each other as we grieve. Our people have survived millennia of persecution, oppression, displacement, pogroms, and genocide; Jewish Pittsburgh will overcome this tragedy as well. Even as we are all made smaller today, we pray for those whom we have lost, and we recall that it is our duty as Jews to continue proudly doing what we do and being who we are.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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Rabbi Heschel on Religion and Race

My ancestors were not from Norway, but they were slaves in Egypt.

It is this simple, foundational story in Jewish tradition that reminds us on a daily basis to remember the stranger, to lift up the oppressed, to do good works for the widow and the orphan and the homeless and the hungry.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 Poland – 1972 US), one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, was perhaps best known for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965. At the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, Rabbi Heschel said the following (as reprinted in his 1967 collection of essays, The Insecurity of Freedomp. 89):

It is not within the power of God to forgive the sins committed toward men. We must first ask for forgiveness of those whom our society has wronged before asking for the forgiveness of God.

Daily we patronize institutions which are visible manifestations of arrogance toward those whose skin differs from ours. Daily we cooperate with people who are guilty of active discrimination.

How long will I continue to be tolerant of, even a participant in, acts of embarrassing and humiliating human beings, in restaurants, hotels, buses, or parks, employment agencies, public schools and universities? One ought rather be shamed than put others to shame.

Our rabbis taught: “Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled without answering, act through love and rejoice in suffering, of them Scripture says: ‘They who love the Lord are as the sun when rising in full splendor’ (Judges 5:31).”

Let us cease to be apologetic, cautious, timid. Racial tension and strife is both sin and punishment. The Negro’s plight, the blighted areas in the large cities, are they not the fruit of our sins?

By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge, to chastise.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

(Although Rabbi Heschel used the terms “men” and “Negroes,” we should feel free to mentally substitute more inclusive/appropriate language and not be distracted by outmoded terms.)

As Heschel moves smoothly from the Talmud to Thomas Jefferson, I too tremble for our country when I recall that one of our primary imperatives as Jews is to fulfill the Torah’s words: “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – “Justice: you shall pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The vision shared by Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel is still alive, but far from completion; let us keep tzedeq / justice in front of us as we continue to not be silent, to not be complacent, to not let the strife of the moment prevent us from working toward a better society, a better United States of America, and a better world.

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Gandhi on Prayer

A friend recently forwarded this quote, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, about prayer. Gandhi came from a prayer tradition quite different from the Jewish one, and yet his words speak powerfully about our own experience with tefillah (prayer). I have appended comments, Rashi-style:

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

ghandi

“A longing of the soul

We need to express that longing, to acknowledge the need to heal our spirits, to seek wholeness in a fragmented world.

The soul does not speak English or Hebrew or Aramaic. It speaks yearning. It speaks prayer wordlessly.

“Admission of one’s weakness”

We go through life trying to demonstrate to everybody else and to ourselves how strong we are, how resilient we are, how talented we are.

We do not willingly admit weakness.

It is only through prayerful moments that we allow ourselves to admit even privately that we are vulnerable, that we are broken, that we need more from God or from others or from the universe.

“Better to have a heart without words than words without a heart”

Tefillah / prayer is not intended to be an empty recitation of words in a language we do not understand.

Rather, the ancient yearnings of our ancestors, found on the pages of the siddur, transport our own longing; those words provide a conduit for the heart, a tap into the soul.

As we learn in Pirkei Avot (2:18), Al ta’as tefilatekha qeva, Do not make your prayer a prescribed routine, but a plea for mercy and grace before God. Your words of tefillah should not be fixed, but filled with kavvanah: intention, spontaneity, honesty to yourself.

So as we sing / chant / mumble / meditate on the words of our own tradition, as we let the longing of our souls flow, remember that the kavvanah, the heart behind the words, matters more than the words themselves.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

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Pesah Evangelism

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

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

images.duckduckgo.com

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

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

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

And how might you do that? Very simple:

Ask questions and discuss.

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

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

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

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

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

“Big picture” questions:

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

Details of seder:

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

General Pesah questions:

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

 

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