Category Archives: Sermons

Beautiful Equations – Shavu’ot, 5777

Close your eyes. Think for a moment about somebody you love. Think about what makes them special, what brings you pleasure when you are in their presence, what makes them unique, what you have learned from them, the good times you have shared.

It is always difficult to encapsulate why you love somebody in a few sentences or thoughts. It is the very nature of relationships that they can seldom be relegated to finite descriptors. We are much more likely to rely on our feelings, which are hard to put into words.

If you could describe the essential features of a lover, a companion, a spouse, a friend, a child, a sibling, a parent, what words would you use?

Comfort / Safety / Security / Shared experiences / Memories / Partnership / Simplicity / Warmth / Mutuality / Ezer kenegdo (sometimes translated as “helpmeet”; Gen. 2:18)

***

Many of you know that, as a recovering engineer, I am always looking for metaphors that come from science to help us understand ourselves and our various relationships, including our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God). So when I spot such metaphors or stories in articles or podcasts, I make note of them.

One such piece appeared in a recent article in the New York Times, which struck me as particularly fascinating. It was about how some people find mathematical equations aesthetically beautiful.

My father is one of those people. He has a doctorate in mathematics, and he has always found all things related to math quite captivating. When he was in elementary school, he would deliberately misbehave, because the teacher would “punish” him by giving him math problems. But the joke was on her, because my father enjoyed doing these problems. Today, my dad will talk your ear off about Fibonacci numbers, or why integration is never taught well, or how much fun he had trying to solve a mathematical puzzle. He’s been retired for a decade or so, but has recently taken to tutoring students over the internet. He gets paid for it, but I’m pretty sure he’s not doing it for the money.

So I understand people who like math. I’m kind of in that category myself, and of all the holidays of the Jewish year, Shavu’ot is the mathematician’s holiday. Its date is set by counting off  forty-nine, that is, seven-squared days from the first day of Pesah. Its very name, meaning, “weeks,” is derived from this. It’s a holiday on which we read about Aseret HaDibberot, the “Ten Commandments” (although really there are 13 or 14, depending on how you count), and we also read and meditate on Ezekiel’s vision of a four-sided chariot that descends from heaven. In fact, the very name “Shavu’ot,” meaning weeks, is derived from the Hebrew word for seven, sheva.

This article in the Times referenced a recent study that compared the relative beauty of mathematical equations. The researchers did this by hooking up a bunch of mathematicians to fMRI scanners, and watching their medial orbitofrontal cortices “light up” when they saw certain equations. This area of the brain, right behind the eyes, shows a lot of activity when people respond positively to aesthetic experiences, like music or art.

So they were able to measure which equations the mathematicians found most beautiful. And the one that they loved the most was Euler’s Identity:

eulers identity

Now, I must confess, that is one staggeringly beautiful equation. It’s just so darned cool: e (Euler’s number, the base of the natural logarithm) is an irrational number equal to approximately 2.71828; π, the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference, is also irrational. The other number, i, is the strangest of them all: it is an imaginary number that corresponds to the mathematically impossible solution of the square root of -1.

(My wife Judy reads all my sermons, and at this point she started inserting lots of question marks and exclamation points. So I’m going to apologize right now if you did not understand any of that – I don’t have the time to explain all of those things, and it’s not really that important. But very cool, nonetheless.)

And yet, somehow, when you throw all three of these mystical, seemingly unrelated numbers together, they magically resolve themselves to simplicity. Euler’s identity seems completely counter-intuitive, and yet it yields the most fascinating statement of math: that there is always an elegant solution. That’s one reason my father always cited for his love of math: that if you have done it right, there will always be an answer.

You might say that people are sort of like equations: we take in information about the world, mix it up within ourselves, and give back. We relate to others through variables and constants and operators. Right?

Or maybe not. OK, so people are not really like equations. We are much more complex. We rarely accept simple solutions. We have many more inputs and outputs, variables and constants. Most of the time we are difficult to understand. Our word problems are never so easily or elegantly solved. Our lives are not airtight, removed from all the other environmental factors around us. There is not always an answer; in fact, one of the most beautiful and agonizing aspects of humanity is that most of the time the answers evade us.

But sometimes, in the context of some relationships, the simplicity of our love for one another is striking. Sometimes we appreciate the others around us in a way that is absolutely indescribable, that cannot be put into words. I suspect that if you’d take a human subject, hook them up to the fMRI and paraded in front of them images of various people in their lives, their medial orbitofrontal cortices would “light up.”

As a regular part of my work as a rabbi, I sit with people all the time to discuss their relationships. It happens in the context of preparing for a wedding, when I ask the couples to talk about what makes their relationship successful. Or when I meet with a family in advance of a bar/bat mitzvah, when I ask the other members of the family to speak about the nascent 13-year-old. Or when I meet with the family who has just lost a loved one, in preparation for a funeral.

I am often struck by how difficult it is for us to talk about our closest relations, the people with whom we share the deepest, most complex bonds. How do you capture the richness of give-and-take between siblings? How do you acknowledge the massive burden of unpaid gratitude we owe to our parents?

And yet, we all know and intuitively understand, without trying to label it with words or ideas, the very deep connection we have with those whom we love, just as those mathematicians unwittingly revealed their appreciation of those gorgeous, elegant equations.

The great early-20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber is perhaps best known for his essential work of modern theology, I and Thou. His message in that short, yet powerful, text is that our relationship with God is the most unconditional relationship we have. We cannot put any conditions on God, says Buber, and God puts no conditions on us. All human relationships are subject to the complexities of expectations met and missed, of the ideal vs. the imperfect reality.

And yet, at the core of every relationship is that fundamental sense of connection – not a logical one, not a checklist of “these are the things I love about you,” but a taste of the Unconditional. That’s where the Godliness seeps into each of our relationships. That’s where the holiness lies.

On this day when we actively remember those whom we have loved who have left this world, I think it is easier to rely on that unconditional, deeply emotional bond that we share with them. We feel that love for them in a way that is beyond logical. And particularly after the equations of our lives have ceased to function, after they have exhausted all the data, what remains is a kind of snapshot of their lives that lives forever inside of us, a shortcut that represents the many ways we knew them, the rich roster of experiences that we shared.

As we turn now to recall those whom we have lost, I ask you to remember how they taught you, how they raised you, how they gave you wisdom and love and companionship and everything else that they gave. And I ask you to recall the deeper things that made your relationship special, the indescribable ways that you loved them, the moments when you just took a look at that person and subconsciously acknowledged their inner beauty.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, 2nd day of Shavuot, June 1, 2017.)

 

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Measuring Ourselves – Behar-Behuqqotai 5777

There is a classic Hasidic story about Reb Zusya of Anapol:

As he lay on his death bed, Reb Zusya trembled with fear. His students asked him why he was afraid. Reb Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Avraham Avinu, or Sarah Imeinu, or Moshe Rabbeinu / Moses our Teacher?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?'”

reb zusya of anapol

The final resting place of Reb Zusya of Anapol

How do we understand ourselves? That is, when we take those rare moments of reflection, how do we measure our emotions, our choices, our relationships? How do we judge ourselves?

Now of course I’m not talking about the tangibles. I’m not concerned with what you do for a living, or how much money you earn, or how many children you have or what kind of car you drive, although we for sure know that there are people who measure themselves according to those things. And let’s face it: those are easy things to measure.

What’s much harder is the internals, the intangibles. How do we understand who we are and why we behave the way we do? How do we evaluate whether we have made the right choices? Not so easy, or so measurable.

One possibility is that we measure ourselves based on the range of our life experiences. Who were the people in our lives whom we trusted, who taught us many useful ideas and skills? Who were the people that served as role models? What are the thoughts and principles that we have acquired that drive our choices, that sanctify our relationships?

For many of us, that will include our parents. It might also include teachers whom we remember fondly, or neighbors, or public figures, or authors. It would probably include some of the things that they taught us, the sayings and phrases that they gave us that come to the fore when we need them.

Those learned principles will certainly also include the lessons learned the hard way – the time that a good friend engaged in risky behavior that landed him in the hospital; the colleague who continued dating the person that was clearly wrong for her, and eventually was devastated when the relationship ended.

We hear these voices and we draw on them when we need them – to evaluate ourselves, to check our behavior, to  judge our choices.

I recall once being on a highway during my previous life in Houston, when suddenly there was a downpour that suggested Parashat Noah. Suddenly, I couldn’t see a thing, even though the wipers were on full blast. And then, out of nowhere, I heard my mother’s voice: “Get off the road!” she said, firmly. And I did. My safety, my mother said, was more important than whatever I was headed to.

We take the most salient things that stick in our heads, the pieces of wisdom that we accumulate as we go through life, and we refashion them for our own purposes, to be our measuring-sticks as we move through life. We pull them out, usually sub-consciously, when we need to re-examine that framework, to chart our course through life, to make decisions. They are all part of the glue that holds our lives together as we continue on our own personal journey.

We measure ourselves through the lens of past experiences and our reactions to them.

***

Now the interesting thing here is that Jewish prayer, tefillah, is a kind of model for this very phenomenon.

You may have heard me say that the essence of tefillah, of Jewish prayer, is self-judgment. Prayer is not just mumbling curious words in an ancient language – it has a structure, themes, choreography, history, customs, tradition, laws, etc. And the Hebrew word for “to pray,” lehitpallel, is actually a reflexive verb, meaning that you do it to yourself. The relatively obscure root, פלל (p-l-l), actually means “to judge.” So when we rise to lehitpallel, we are standing in judgment of ourselves.

And tefillah, prayer, is meant to be a text upon which we meditate when we stand in judgment. It is the Jewish mantra. And it is filled with the most resonant, the most appealing bits of Jewish text. Let me explain:

Everything in the siddur was assembled from previously-existing words and phrases, mostly from the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. It’s almost like a quilt made from recycled cloth: these phrases were selected from various textual sources and re-fashioned to suit the needs of the composer. These composers lived throughout the last 2,000 years in different places around the Jewish world; some we know, and some we do not. But all of them abided by the simple rule that these quilts are stitched together from the ancient sources. (A few  things, like the three paragraphs of the Shema, are direct quotes from the Torah, and were therefore not composed specifically for prayer, but most of the siddur is not like that.)

This quilt is warm, reassuring. The swatches of material repurposed for regular use bring together ancient wisdom and the gravitas of generations of Jews, who clung to them through the centuries and across continents, through pogroms and triumphs, through forced expulsions and Zionist yearnings.

There were, in today’s haftarah / prophetic reading, a bunch of these nuggets that have been recycled throughout our liturgical tradition:

בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּה’; וְהָיָה ה’, מִבְטַחוֹ

Barukh hagever asher yivtah badonai, vehayah Adonai mivtaho.

Blessed is the one who trusts in God, for God will be his stronghold. (Jeremiah 17:7)

This line appears in two places: in Birkat Hamazon, the “grace after meals,” and also in a section at the end of the weekday morning service called Qedusha deSidra.

וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל-מַיִם

Vehayah ke-etz shatul al mayim

[God shall be] like a tree planted upon the water (17:8)

This is quoted in the piyyut (liturgical poem) called “Geshem” (“Rain”), recited on Shemini Atzeret in the fall, anticipating the beginning of the rainy season in Israel.

בֹּחֵן כְּלָיוֹת

Bohen kelayot

[God is] the one who searches the heart (lit. checks the kidneys) (17:10)

This image of God appears in a piyyut for High Holidays, Vekhol Ma’aminim (“And all believe…”).

וְלָתֵת לְאִישׁ כִּדְרָכָו, כִּפְרִי מַעֲלָלָיו

Velatet le-ish kidrakhav, kifri ma’alalav.

… to give to every person according to his ways, to each the fruit of his doings. (17:10)

An adapted version of this appears in the standard funeral liturgy, in the section recited after burial called “Tzidduq HaDin,” the justification of the decree.

רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה וְאֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה:  כִּי תְהִלָּתִי, אָתָּה

Refa-eni Adonai ve-erafe, hoshi’eini ve-ivashe’ah, ki tehilati attah.

Heal me, God, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for you are my praise. (17:14)

This is found in the weekday Amidah, recited three times a day, except that the language we recite has been pluralized (i.e. “Heal us, God, and we shall be healed…”).

What is the lesson here?

One of the beautiful things about Jewish practice, about living our lives in Jewish time, is that we benefit from a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. Our textual sources, our collective body of knowledge, has enabled us as a people to see farther, as Sir Isaac Newton put it, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

shoulders of giants

When you walk into a synagogue and pick up a siddur, whether you know the history and development of the material therein, whether you can read Hebrew or not or know the melodies, you can rely on the fact that what is contained within is tested by time and filled with the best bits of Jewish tradition. You may not agree with it all (and I certainly struggle with some things in our liturgy), but at least you know that it is a genuine product of generations, and that all you have to do is pick it up to stand on their shoulders.

lev shalem

And, pulling back the lens, this very Jewish idea can infuse our entire lives with holiness. Just as the siddur / prayerbook, the Jewish mantra, is based on the most inspiring pieces of ancient text, just as the vehicle for self-judgment is a quilt of the wisdom of our ancestors, so too do we understand ourselves by peeking through the lens of the lessons we have gleaned from our most important teachers, the people who have personally given us their lessons. So too do we measure our lives by drawing upon all of the most powerful pieces of wisdom handed to us by others.

The lessons that we draw from our educators, parents, and friends help us to measure ourselves. We stand on their shoulders and thrive on their wisdom to give us clearer vision about who we are, about how we relate to others.

And that is what we do throughout our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/20/2017.)

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The Kibitzer and the Stop Sign – Emor 5777

Many of you know that Abe Salem (z”l) passed away this week. He was the former minyan leader and Torah reader here at Beth Shalom. As I was preparing for the funeral, I watched the video he made for the Holocaust Center (we sent out the link with the death announcement), and of course struggled to understand him, because he used to switch back and forth between English and Yiddish. So that got me thinking about Yiddish, and then I realized that one thing that we Jews have given to the world is the kibitzer.

What is a kibitzer? Definitions vary. Some kibitzers are funny people, joking and making fun and generally spreading good cheer. Some kibitzers offer unwanted advice. Some are there to throw off the rhythm of others engaged in serious activities, like playing chess or cards.

kibitzer

My wife recalled to me that when she was a little girl, her mother would play cards with her Hungarian friends, and ask Judy to be a kibitzer, but she was not sure exactly what that meant; neither of them spoke Yiddish. (BTW, I checked my trusty Modern English-Yiddish / Yiddish-English Dictionary, by Uriel Weinreich, and apparently the correct English term for “kibitz” is “kibitz.”

But we all know these characters. They are a standard feature of Jewish life steeped in Eastern European ethnicity. Wherever these Jews gathered, historically, there were kibitzers. Along with the nudnik, the schnorrer, and the yente, they form a certain stratum of Jewish society that serve as social connectors. They were part of the fabric of Jewish life that marked close neighborhoods, in which everybody knew each other (and of course each other’s business). We have a talent for connecting people together, and we have particular people that do it in particular ways.

(FYI: nudnik is a pest; schnorrer is a beggar, or somebody who takes advantage of others’ generosity; and a yente is a busybody.)

Of course, as a group, most American Jews today, even though we are mostly descended from people who knew these roles and the people who played them, we no longer have that sense of ethnic interconnectedness. Squirrel Hill, it seems, is something of a throwback among Jewish neighborhoods, but even so, many have told me that it’s not what it used to be. And

And the same is true for the wider society in which we live. As the saying goes, the Jews are like everybody else, only moreso.

There are many little ways through which we demonstrate our awareness of and respect for others around us. One small example is how drivers behave at stop signs.

stop

Back on Long Island, I used to live right by an intersection with a four-way stop. From my kitchen window, I could see cars driving through the intersection without stopping all the time. Some slowed down. Some did not. (Some seemed to actually speed up as they were approaching.)

Now, I cannot say that I myself have never rolled through a stop, or exceeded the speed limit. But I think it’s notable that we are living in a time in which it is almost expected that, except when one is in the presence of a law enforcement officer, certain illegal driving behaviors are ubiquitous.

The sociologist Robert Putnam, whom you have probably heard me mention in this space before, wrote a seminal work of contemporary sociology called Bowling Alone, in which he documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society, and the consequences thereof. One of his measures of this sense of interconnectedness is, if you can believe this, stop sign behavior.

A long-term study of intersections in New York, cited by Putnam, yielded this: in 1979, when the study began, 37 percent came to a full stop. In 1996, 97 percent did not stop at all.

Traffic laws, health and safety standards, business regulations, and so forth – these are all designed to create a just society in which people are safe from the yetzer hara, the evil inclination of others. They are all reflections of a deeper set of principles, which the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to as the social contract: that in order to live in a free society, we as individuals must surrender a few freedoms to protect most of the others.

The Torah, of course, contains principles of law which govern our public behavior, to benefit the general good. One such example is that when you build a house, you must put a parapet around the edge of your roof, to prevent people from falling off (Deut. 22:8). Another is that if you dig a hole in your yard, and somebody’s ox falls in and breaks its leg, you are responsible to pay monetary damages for the ox (Ex. 21:33). And there are many more such examples.

And a whole order of the Mishnah, one sixth of that earliest rabbinic work, is dedicated to what we call today tort law. It’s called Neziqin, “damages.” And several tractates of the gemara are likewise devoted to these cases.

The point, of course, is not merely to protect people or make sure they do not get hurt, but also to maintain our sense of awareness of the other. If you think about your neighbor’s safety, you are going to want to build a parapet on your roof and not leave dangerous holes in your yard. You want to protect the people around you from harm. You care about them. As with every good habit, it takes practice, consistency, and a healthy dose of mindfulness. That’s what the Torah and the Talmud are going for.

So the stop sign is one side of that interconnectedness: the things that we do to protect others from harm. But the other side is the social connection that happens organically when people gather together. And that brings us back to the kibitzer, and to Parashat Emor, which we read this morning.

It’s not explicitly stated, and it’s not really something you can glean from the English translation, and that message is this: some of the holy opportunities of Jewish life are for you singular, the individual. And some of them are for you plural, the collective. Society writ large. And all of them are, as Katriel suggested earlier, for the sake of Qiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s name.

Last week, in Parashat Qedoshim, we read the Holiness Code, a kind of guide to the kinds of interpersonal mitzvot / holy opportunities that help set up a just society. But mostly they are for individuals, and the language of the Torah reflects that: Do not profit from the blood of your neighbor. Do not bear a grudge. You should not use dishonest measures in the marketplace. And so forth.

But this week in Parashat Emor, we find the holiday cycle, and those mitzvot are in plural. Since we’re in Pittsburgh, yinz all know what the correct colloquial plural for the second person nominative pronoun is. Yinz shall keep My appointed times. Yinz shall observe Passover for seven days. And so forth.

Why plural for the festival cycle? Because those are the things that we do as a group, as Am Yisrael. The suggestion is, yes, you might be able to maintain the holiness in your individual relationships on a one-on-one basis, but yinz better be celebrating together. Because that’s what Jews do. We are individuals who are part of a collective. When we are together, we make a greater whole, and those are the times when we are closest to God.

And whom do you encounter at these group observances and celebrations? The kibitzers, of course, and everybody else.

So you may want to consider this the next time you come to a stop sign, but even more than that, think about it as we kibitz at the luncheon today, and the next week, and for Shavuot in two weeks, and so forth:

If you are doing Jewish right, you are sensitized to and aware of all the people around you. That is what our tradition is for. And that is what we stand for as we make the words of Jewish life and learning alive for us today.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/13/2017.)

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Find the Holy Moments – Aharei Mot-Qedoshim 5777

What does it mean to be holy? (Take a moment to answer that question for yourself.)

What we read this morning, parashat Aharei Mot – Qedoshim, is entirely about holiness. In addition to the Yom Kippur rituals of the Kohen Gadol (in Aharei Mot), there is also the passage of Qedoshim which is known as the Holiness Code: for example, the instruction not to put a stumbling block before the blind, the commandments not to defraud others or withhold the wages of your employees, the imperative to leave some of your produce for the poor. But most of all, there is my favorite line in the whole Torah (Lev. 19:2): Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Holiness is an alien concept to us today. We are living in a very concrete world. Thanks to technology, industrialization, the scientific method, and all the ways that we have squelched the mystery out of our daily existence, everything is quantifiable. Everything is measured. Explanations regarding how everything works can be easily found. There is very little room left for the unseen; very few cracks through which the light – the Divine light – can enter our lives.

blog-contemplation

And our understanding of Judaism has been likewise quantified, analyzed, researched. What was an organic folk tradition has, for at least a century and a half, become another field of academic study. This is the tradition from which the Conservative movement emerged; the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was founded by American congregations led by rabbis trained, for the most part, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where I studied to become first a cantor and then a rabbi.

The modern movements that we know today, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodoxy, all emerged from the intellectual ferment of 19th-century Germany, and particularly the approach to Jewish studies known as “Das Wissenschaft des Judentums,” literally, the science of Judaism. It used the tools of rigorous academic inquiry to analyze Jewish texts, history, rituals, laws, and customs. And it appealed to the newly-emancipated, newly-educated Jewish elite of Western Europe, who sought to be Germans on the street and Jews in the home. And its scholarly appeal soon reached across the Atlantic to take root here in America. Congregation Beth Shalom and synagogues like this all across North America grew out of this modern, scholarly approach.

I am about to admit something big. Actually, huge.

I love the history of the Conservative movement. I love the scientific, historical approach to Judaism, the style of teaching and relating to our tradition that views everything on a time line. I love the approach that values the original context of every piece of our unfolding tradition.

But I think that as a guiding principle for the Jewish people in the 21st century, it no longer resonates.

Why? Because it is possible to know a lot but feel little. We may be able to speak authoritatively about our ancient texts, or about the development and structure of our liturgy, or why the eating of qitniyot on Passover / Pesah is permissible even for Ashkenazim, and still not have an emotional connection to our heritage. It is possible to invest yourself in the meaning of the siddur or the humash, and still only hold it at arm’s length, rather than in your heart.

Rabbinical school does not teach you how to be a rabbi. What I have learned in my 10 years in the pulpit is to connect through feeling, through finding ourselves in our ancient texts, through emotional rather than academic engagement. What they failed to teach me at the Seminary is that Judaism is a coin with the emotional on one side and the scholarly on the other. Judaism cannot be relevant without both sides.

What we need to embrace is the decidedly anti-scientific concept of the holy moment.

Why do many synagogues today have difficulty filling the pews? Because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in famous speech to the members of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1953, we have become more concerned with the technical aspects of the execution of the service than with the Godliness, the holiness therein. We are very worried about getting it right:

There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray.  There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?

This is all in service of God, my friends. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about the recitation of words or the singing or chanting. It’s about communication – with ourselves, with each other, with the Divine. It’s about baring our vulnerability. It’s about sincere pleas for mercy and justice and salvation. This is a holy pursuit. It’s not about the how, it’s about the why.  The how matters, but only inasmuch as it is meant to get us to the why. What we do in a Jewish context is a means to an end.

And we live in a time in which the why, the meaning of the words and the rituals and how they are supposed to make us feel and influence our behavior, is the most important thing. Maybe that wasn’t so important to my parents or grandparents. But it’s important to me, living here in 5777 (also known as 2017).

Why do we count the omer? Why do we recite the Shema (other than because it says to do so in the Shema itself)? Why must we avoid using dairy implements for meat meals? We have a million such whys. You might be able to think of many yourself right now.

It’s not enough to answer those whys by saying, “Because it says so in the Torah,” or, “Because we have always done this.” It’s definitely not enough to say, “I don’t know, but I do it anyway.” It’s not enough to respond this way, even though all of those are legitimate answers in Jewish tradition.

Why do we do what we do, as Jews? Because that is how we become holy people. And every person here in this room could use a little extra holiness. Even the diehard skeptics among us.

Counting the omer, for example, gives us a framework through which we connect freedom with Torah. As we rise from 1 to 49, counting off daily for seven weeks, we anticipate the spiritual fulfillment given at Mt. Sinai. We heighten our expectation; we count our blessings; we look forward to ascending yet another rung of self-improvement, of learning, of yearning. Imagine adding an extra moment of holiness to your evening for seven whole weeks! That’s why we count the omer.

20170508_121405_resized

Two years ago, around this time, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a moving essay in which he identified the paradigm shift through which we are all living with respect to how we understand ourselves and our purpose on this Earth. He points to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as having been a public theologian, among others in the middle of the 20th century, and how the era of such thought leaders has passed:

Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against. All of that went away over the past generation or two…

These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.

The difficulty to which Brooks points is that while our great public sages have set like the sun, we have filled that space with Big Data: knowing everything about everything. Concreteness. There’s an app for that. We have much knowledge, but little wisdom. And hence Brooks says that there is a real hunger for change in this regard:

“People are ready to talk a little less about how to do things and to talk a little more about why ultimately they are doing them.”

We have an answer to the why. And that answer is holiness. The answer can be found in every holy moment that we encounter. And we have to broadcast that message at every opportunity.

And here’s the really good news: the fact that we are all sitting here, on a day when we celebrate the stepping up of a young man into the big leagues of Jewish tradition, indicates that there is still an interest in, and a forum for engaging with holiness. Our tradition offers wisdom. It offers mystery. It offers connection. As we said at our Passover tables a month ago, in Aramaic, kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Come and devour those brief moments of holiness, when the cracks in our reinforced walls of knowledge let in the Divine light.

This synagogue, and others like it stretching back for 2,000 years, have been places where our people have come to seek connection. We have to make sure that it’s not only about the how, but about the why. We need purpose. We need meaning. We need to find the holy moments in our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/6/2017.)

 

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Israel’s Story is More Complex Than That – Tazria-Metzora 5777

Our tradition always features multiple layers of stories, and this period of the year is especially resonant. There is the Exodus story of Pesah / Passover, leading to the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. There is the agricultural framework of the spring harvests. There is the counting of the omer, climbing the 49 rungs as we ascend toward the Sinai moment of contact with God.

Last week we commemorated Yom HaShoah, the day on which we remember those who perished in the Holocaust. Tomorrow evening we mark Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for those who have fallen defending the State of Israel. And then Monday evening and Tuesday we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, marking 69 years since David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State.

In Israel, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron are particularly somber days. On both days, there are sirens that sounds throughout the country, two minutes on each day, during which everything, and I mean everything, grinds to a halt. All over Israel, people stop what they are doing and stand. Cooks stop cooking. Barbers stop cutting hair. Office workers stop sending email. People who are driving stop their cars, get out, and stand quietly. It’s extraordinarily powerful.

In the spring of 2000 I was studying at Machon Schechter, the rabbinical and graduate school affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement, for my first year in cantorial school. On Yom HaZikaron, I went to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem where there is an annual solemn ceremony commemorating all those who gave their lives defending the Jewish state, attended by most of the leaders of Israel. I was actually waiting in the security line with hundreds of other people when the siren went off, and I must say there is nothing quite so powerful as standing, packed in tight, surrounded by people, none of whom are moving or talking. It was surreal and unforgettable.

Most American Jews have a difficult time understanding the power of Yom HaZikaron in particular. Few of us, particularly those of us born after World War II, know somebody who died on the battlefield. But in Israel, everybody does. Most people have served in the Israel Defense Forces, really the great equalizer of Israeli society. Everybody remembers a friend, a cousin, a neighbor, who gave his or her life for the Jewish state. Everybody takes a moment to remember them on that day.

Yom Hazikaron

And everybody also understands the narrative that this week suggests. Of course Yom HaShoah is a week before Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut – it makes total sense. And many Israelis are all imbued with the notion that the Shoah led to the establishment of the State. That the Jewish people, devastated by the death machine of National Socialism, arose from the ashes to build a tough, scrappy nation that is now an economic power, the only democracy in the Middle East, the pride of world Jewry.

My father-in-law, Judy’s father, Ervin Hoenig (alav hashalom), was a Shoah survivor who helped build the state. In 1944, when he was 19, the Nazis deported him and the roughly 100 other Jews from his small village in Slovakia to Auschwitz. He survived the selection upon arrival; many of the others in his transport did not, including his mother. He labored in a nearby work camp for seven months.

When the camp was liquidated and most of the prisoners were forced to march west, he got “lucky”: he had been injured and was in the infirmary, but, knowing the Nazis would not leave anybody behind, he summoned all of his strength to sneak down into the basement and hide among sacks of potatoes and corpses. And then the Nazis left, and it was quiet for two weeks until a Soviet regiment of Mongolian soldiers arrived to liberate the camp.

After studying at the university for a few years in Prague, Ervin eventually found his way to Israel, where upon arrival he was handed a rifle and immediately transported into the front lines of the War for Independence to serve with the Palmach, one of the Jewish paramilitary organizations that fought against the Arab armies.

And there are many such stories. Israel emerged from the gas chambers, just as Ezekiel’s dry bones of the valley were re-animated, flesh and sinews magically knitting together to form living beings. (We read that haftarah / prophetic reading two weeks ago on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah.)

But the story of modern Israel is not so cut-and-dried. It’s a wee bit more complicated. One striking thing that Ervin told me about was how in the early years of the State, the Israelis who were not survivors did not “get it,” did not understand the depth of the Nazi horror. “What was wrong with you people?” they would say to him. “Why didn’t you fight back? Why did you just let them round you up and take you to the camps?”

The narrative of the creation of the State of Israel, at least in those earlier years, was not necessarily about the Shoah. While there is no question that the UN vote for partition on November 29, 1947 passed because the Jews had the sympathy of the world, Ben Gurion’s people were not Holocaust survivors. They were Zionist ideologues. They were pioneers. Most were people who immigrated to Mandate Palestine before the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the Jewish world to help build what would become a new state.

They came, in the words of the poem by Naftali Herz Imber that ultimately became the national anthem of Israel, “Lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu,” to be a free people in our land. They came for the purposes of self-determination, to re-establish a place that the Jews, long strangers in strange lands, could call home, a place that would settle them among the other nations of the world, a place of pride.

This is an Israel that did not come into being in 1948. It did not even really begin with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the same year that Congregation Beth Shalom began, in which the British crown pledged to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Nor did it begin with the first wave of Zionist aliyah in 1882.

You might say that this Israel dwelt in the hearts of Jews all over the world for millennia – Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years – as they sat in ramshackle synagogues in Poland or in the markets of Persia, wailing by the waters of Babylon in Baghdad and waiting patiently for the messiah in Morocco. The return of those prior to World War II came from an ancient yearning for a national identity and a home to go with it.

The resurrection-after-the-Holocaust narrative is over-simplified. It neglects the Jaffa Orange, a key to early agricultural success, entirely. It leaves the political heavy-lifting of Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann out, not to mention the early Zionist writers Ahad Ha-Am and Hayim Nahman Bialik.

But national stories are like that. Consider American history: the Boston Tea Party. Paul Revere’s ride. There is always more to the story than such simple narratives can provide.

And Israel’s contemporary reality is equally complex. Every now and then I meet American Jews who are afraid to travel to Israel for safety reasons, because they have bought into the media-induced perception of Israel as a place where citizens live in constant fear of terrorist activity. But I know, having spent far more of my life there than in any other country save this one, that you are far safer walking down the street in Israel than in America, for a whole bunch of reasons.

And I also know that the political dialogue is never as simple as some would have it as well. Anti-Israel critics tend to characterize Israel as a monolithic oppressor of millions of Palestinians, that even the lefty intellectuals sipping cappucinos in Tel Aviv cafes and Jewish students on American university campuses are somehow monsters who deny civil rights to innocent, stateless victims. And on the other hand there are zealously pro-Israel activists who profess that Israel’s leaders can do no wrong, and even deny that there is such a thing as a “Palestinian.”

Life is not that simple. There are nearly 13 million people on that tiny strip of land – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Circassians, Karaites, Samaritans, black, white, Asian, etc. – and we should all continue to seek a way that they can all live side-by-side, each under his own vine and fig tree.

If you would like to expand your understanding within this complexity, you might want to check out the podcast produced by the Forward called “Fault Lines.” It features a reasoned, respectful, intelligent discussion between a hawk and a dove, Rabbi Danny Gordis and journalist Peter Beinart.

It is essential that we, as Hovevei Tziyyon, lovers of Zion/Israel, not reduce Israel to any such simple narrative, that we seek out the multiple narratives of Israel to better inform our relationship with it, so that we will all continue to act on those two millennia of yearning, so that the State of Israel will continue to be reishit tzemihat ge-ulateinu, the dawn of the flowering of our redemption.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/29/2017.)

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Drawing Lines in the Data – Earth Day / Shemini 5777

Last Monday, the 7th day of Pesah, Beth Shalom member Chris Hall spoke during morning services about the relationship between science and religion, and one element that he presented is that they answer different questions. In my mind, there is no conflict between science and religion because while science might tell us how the world works, it does not attempt to answer, “Why?” That is for the theologians.

We might be tempted to dismiss the Torah’s story of Creation because it conflicts with the story that current scientific opinion tells us. But I think it is essential for us to consider what we learn from both. While astrophysicists have determined that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and that the after-effects of the Big Bang can still be measured to this day, we learn nothing from this about our responsibility for the world we have received. That we can learn from the book of Bereshit / Genesis. What is our relationship to the Earth, says Bereshit? Le’ovdah ulshomerah. “To till it and to tend it.” (Gen. 2:15)

Now granted, we haven’t read that parashah since October, so I am not going to dwell on it today. But something that does appear in Parashat Shemini is a list of things we are permitted to eat and not eat. And there is a lesson to be drawn from that as well.

But first, a little science.

Today, you may know, is not only Kylie’s bat mitzvah. It is also Earth Day, the annual, global awareness-raising event that brings people together around the world to remember the obligations of Genesis. To that end, I would just like to share a few items with you:

  1. 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third straight year in a row of record-setting temperatures since record-keeping began in the 1880s. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/science/earth-highest-temperature-record.html
  2. This past February, the average global temperature was 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 20th century. That may not sound like a lot, but in climatology terms, it’s huge. https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/03/17/globe-second-warmest-winter-on-record/99303812/
  3. The great plume of plastics that continues to grow in the Pacific Ocean is now flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

I could cite numerous other such bits of data: how much oil we consume each day, how much food we throw away, how much carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere per hamburger eaten, and so forth. But what does it mean to us? How might we regard that information and take action? What might our Jewish tradition teach us about our responsibilities vis-a-vis Creation?

On this Earth Day, let us turn to kashrut, the principles of holy eating, for answers.

What does the word “kasher” (accent on the second syllable) mean? Fitting, appropriate. (“Kosher” is the Yiddish/Ashkenazi pronunciation.) The word does not appear in the Torah at all, but in rabbinic literature is used to denote anything that may be used for a holy purpose, not just food. What makes something kasher? That it is legally permissible under Jewish law to eat it or use it for ritual purposes.

In Parashat Shemini, we read a list of animals that are appropriate to eat. Some are identified by certain categories – the split-hoofed ruminants, like cows and deer and sheep – and some are named specifically, mostly the birds. The Torah does not tell us why these are allowed and not camels or shrimp or alligators. All we know, at least from the parashah, is that God does not want us to eat those other things, which are called “tamei” (impure) or “sheqetz(literally, an abomination; this is the Hebrew origin of the Yiddish slur sheygetz / shiktza, and why one should never use these terms).

It is curious that the Torah provides no rationale. Did the authors want us not to ask why? Was the answer known to the ancients, and so obvious that it did not need to be stated? Perhaps this “why” is left dangling for us to discover ledor vador, in each generation according to what is relevant in its time.

Or maybe it is that the only reasoning we might be able to glean from this passage is that, well, some things are in and some things are out. That when God gave Creation to us, to till and to tend, that there were simply some natural limits to our behavior. That not all things are available to us. That while we are permitted to take advantage of some things, others are off limits. That we must leave some parts of Creation untilled and untended.

Perhaps, as Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Shemini, #7) suggests, the goal of kashrut is to teach us mindful consumption:

“The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?”

Perhaps we might learn from this that the drawing of boundaries in the natural world should lead to our ethical behavior in other spheres: in our relationships with others, in our relationships with ourselves, in our relationships with the animal realm. Perhaps the drawing of lines in what we consume as individuals will lead us to draw lines in how we as a society consume our resources, to determine where our limits are as we continue to advance as a civilization.

Where are our lines?

How will we know when we have crossed them? When the Arctic ice is gone? When the giant, swirling heap of plastic currently in the Pacific Ocean has filled the Chesapeake Bay? When the bumblebees are gone?

I recall a curious incident in a rabbinical school theology class. Most of my classmates were not science people; they had degrees in literature, or history, or Judaic studies. I know you may find this hard to believe, but I was somewhat unusual in that I had two degrees in chemical engineering. I do not recall the apropos, but the subject of science vs. God came up, and I said that our understanding of God changes, but science does not. Several of my classmates jumped on this, saying, “But science does change.”

Actually, no. As with God, our understanding of science changes. As we move forward, we learn more about the world that we have been given, and so we adjust our understanding, our theories and formulas, to reflect the data that we collect. But science and God do not change. Their nature and secrets are revealed to us as human civilization matures. Just as God continues to be revealed to us, so does science.

The principles of physics and chemistry and thermodynamics and math that govern how our world works are immutable. And they will neither teach us about faith nor answer the hard questions that we face every day.

But our tradition teaches us to act. And act we must. We must till, we must tend, and we must draw lines. We do not have free reign to use and abuse Creation.  With God-given power comes God-given responsibility.

My personal rabbi on the subject of our responsibility to Creation is the author Theodore Seuss Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. In what I consider to be his finest work, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss reminded us of our responsibility vis-a-vis the Earth. The Lorax, after failing to prevent the destruction of a piece of unspoiled land, a beautiful, holy gift of plants and animals and scenery, takes his leave from an altar labeled “Unless.”

unless

We can make personal, individual choices to reduce our own energy footprint. We can use LED light bulbs and compost our kitchen scraps and recycle our plastic and even buy electric cars. We can draw many personal lines in our own behavior.

But unless we as a society make some collective decisions for change on a grand scale, nothing will change. Unless we draw some lines, we will continue to monitor and watch and take data that give us no answers.

The time to act is now.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/22/17.)

 

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Joy and Grief – Eighth Day of Pesah, 5777

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

redwood stump

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

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

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

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

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

מצווה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimhah tamid.

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

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

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

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

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

Aristotle2

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

Hedonistic happiness yielded nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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