Over the December vacation, I was fortunate to be able to see a couple of movies in theaters, something which I rarely have time for. One that my family and I saw was the new Avatar sequel, and it was quite good (although, I must confess, about an hour too long).
If you saw the original film from 2009, you know that there is a good deal of subtle, yet identifiably Jewish content. First, the one god of the Na’vi people on the planet Pandora is called Ehua, which is a thinly-disguised rearrangement of Yahweh, the likely pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton.* (Aside: the letters YHWH are all matres lectiones, consonants which often function as vowels in ancient Hebrew; hence the name is entirely breath, suggesting that Yahweh is the spirit which flows through us all.)
Another Jewish theme clearly referenced is that of the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life which is the spiritual center of the Na’vi people. It is clearly echoing the role of the Torah as our spiritual center.
And, of course, it is clearly not coincidence that the name “Na’vi” sounds an awful lot like the Hebrew word נביא / navi, meaning “prophet.”
In this newer Avatar, a shofar makes an appearance. As it rang out, Judy and I both called out “Teqi’ah,” perhaps amusing, or more likely annoying some of the other folks in the cinema. Another possibly coded Jewish theme in the new film is that the subtitle is “The Way of Water,” perhaps a reference to the essential role that water plays in Jewish liturgy and spirituality: the seasonally-appropriate prayers we say for rain and dew, the essential connection of water with God’s favor found in the second paragraph of the Shema, the prophet Isaiah’s connection of water with our spiritual redemption: ושאבתם מים בששון ממעיני הישועה / Joyfully draw water from the wells of deliverance (Isaiah 12:3), which we recite every Saturday evening at havdalah.
Now, am I perhaps seeing these movies through a Jewish lens, and reading into them things that are not there? Maybe. But some of these cues are more obvious than others.
Both the films play on the classic cinematic struggle of “the good guys versus the bad guys,” a struggle which is clearly more universal, but certainly also appears on the Jewish bookshelf. Perhaps the most significant such struggle is the story of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and eventual liberation. (We will begin that story next week, as we move on to the book of Shemot / Exodus.)
In Avatar, the “good guys” are the Na’vi: traditional, native, respectful and in harmony with their natural environment and the flora and fauna of Pandora. They are strong and resilient and zealously loyal to each other, to their elders, and of course to Ehua. They are spiritual people, and remarkably “human” in their sense of love and caring and support of one another and their willingness to fight to protect themselves and their way of life.
The “bad guys,” of course, are the actual humans, who are invaders. On Pandora, they are weak and dependent on technology to enable them to survive. They are portrayed often as uncaring and emotion-less, and of course dedicated to exploiting natural resources for profit, which they pursue to the detriment of other creatures and nature and tradition.
Now of course, as I am telling you this, it should be clear that the story favors the good guys, the Na’vi. We sympathize with them. They are, most of the time, the things that we want to be: communally-oriented, loyal to each other, and of course in tune with their environment. And we despise the bad guys, the humans, who are only on Pandora to conquer and subdue it and steal its natural resources. We want to be the Na’vi; we loathe the Earthlings.
And yet, we also know that the bad guys are us. We see ourselves despoiling God’s Creation here on Earth. We see ourselves putting profit over Godliness. We see reflected in the struggle the initial challenge to humanity captured in the two Creation stories of Bereshit: the balance between פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ / Peru urvu umil’u et ha’aretz vekhivshuha, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and conquer it” (Bereshit / Gen. 1:28) and לְעׇבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׇׁמְרָֽהּ / le’ovdah ulshomrah, “to till it and to tend it” (2:15). These films are a harsh, if overly simplistic and quite biased, critique of humanity’s relationship with God. But they replay this struggle as it is laid out in the Torah from the very beginning.
An ironic point that my daughter pointed out after seeing the film is that of course we want the good guys to win, for tradition and community and family to win out over greed, but of course, sequels are really only about making more money. So the irony is that the bad guys will never be vanquished. The struggle continues, and we humans will shell out another 12 bucks to see the next one.
A related aspect of the struggle between good and bad is reflected in an ambiguous passage of Parashat Vayḥi. As Ya’aqov lays on his death bed in Egypt, bestowing blessings upon his children, he says something curious to his son Yosef, who is essentially the hero of the last few parashiyyot of Bereshit (Gen. 49:22):
Joseph is a wild ass, A wild ass by a spring —Wild colts on a hillside.
That’s the translation you’ll find in the Etz Hayim ḥumash, from the Jewish Publication Society’s 1985 text, which you have here in the Sanctuary at Beth Shalom. However, check out this version of Ya’aqov’s words from the 1917 “Old” JPS translation:
Joseph is a fruitful vine, A fruitful vine by a fountain; As branches run over the wall.
OK, so, “wild ass” vs. “fruitful vine.” What gives? Truth is, it could go either way; most medieval commentators tend to the more friendly, fruitful depiction of Yosef. The problem is chiefly “porat,” which could be related either to פרי / peri, fruit, or פרא / pere, wild ass. If the latter, which the NJPS translators feel quite strongly about (for various reasons which I can’t get into here – if you’re interested, check out the JPS Torah Commentary Genesis volume by Nahum Sarna), then Yosef could be as wild and potentially dangerous as he is fruitful.
And so for all of us. Humanity is a mixed bag. We are good and bad. We are deep and complicated. Sometimes we are wild asses, and sometimes fruitful vines. We are certainly not black and white.
But here is the good news: you can be on the side of the good guys in this world, in real time. Right now. In fact, many of us in this room are engaged in that battle right now.
I heard a podcast this week about Shabbat by Ezra Klein, featuring the author Judith Shulevitz, who wrote a wonderful book on the subject more than a decade ago called, The Sabbath World. Apropos of nothing in particular, as far as I can tell, other than our desperate need for a day of rest, the two exchanged thoughts and ideas about the value of Shabbat.
Klein, who claims that he attended an Orthodox day school for a few years as a child, spoke about the profound effect that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Sabbath, had on him when he read it many years ago. In particular, Heschel speaks about how we spend six days conquering the space around us, and on the seventh day we abandon that project for higher ideals:
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.
(It is worth noting at this point that this week, on the 18th of Tevet, January 10-11, we mark the 50th yahrzeit of Rabbi Heschel, whose work continues to serve as an incomparable inspiration to many of us.)
God wants you to be with the good guys. To recapture Gan Eden, the simplicity and natural state of the Garden of Eden at least once a week, with your community, with your family. To simplify your life, to set aside your wild nature for fruitful spiritual pursuits. To avoid the tools of construction and commerce and conquering. To connect with the people you love. To be a part of nature, rather than an actor upon it.
The struggle of the Israelites vs. the Egyptians ultimately yields to the revelation on Mt. Sinai, in which humanity is given the seventh day as a holy day of rest, as a day to cease from the domination of the world around us. Even for us today, thousands of years post-slavery in Egypt, the daily struggle of six days necessitates the day which Heschel calls a “palace in time,” which we build from our souls.
If there is one thing I take away from the “Avatar cinematic universe” (as the kids say today), it is that we always have the potential to be the good guys, and setting aside the 25 hours of Shabbat to do so is a noble pursuit, and healthy for us as individuals and for our world as well.
* The letters of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God, YHWH (yod-heh-vav-heh) are all matres lectiones, consonants which often function as vowels in ancient Hebrew. Hence the name is entirely breath, suggesting that Yahweh is the spirit which flows through us all.
Perhaps you heard that the South African comedian Trevor Noah recently stepped down as host of The Daily Show, a satirical news program. On his last show, he delivered a kind of sermon regarding some of his lessons learned during his tenure as host, and it was mostly not funny, but delivered in a serious mode, which is unusual for a comedian. Comedians, of course, are good at pointing out the challenges that we all face, and doing it in a way that brings us joy, that enables us to laugh at ourselves.
In the course of this talk, he said something which, I think, is so important: “Never forget how much context matters.” He explained that we live in a world of limitless information, but we are suffering from a lack of context. We simply are not given the tools to understand our world and everything that we are seeing and experiencing.
All of this context-less information has made us extraordinarily susceptible to manipulation, and it does not bode well for the future of humanity. Video clips circulated online are cut or even altered to disguise what came before or after, just to show you the piece that will provoke you the most. The news that travels the fastest and the farthest is the one that makes you the most angry or the most aggrieved.
Throw in the fact that your computer and your smartphone not only know what you want to see, what will push your buttons, what will get you all anxious and upset, but are also effectively designed to keep putting material like that in front of you. And, given that most of us are looking at these screens all day long, we are primed for manipulation. And the algorithms for manipulation are getting smarter and smarter.
Here is the good news: you can combat this by seeking out the missing context. And, by the way, that is what Jews have always done. One might make the argument that the entirety of the rabbinic enterprise of the last 2,000 years or so is to provide context. We, the Jews, are historically talented at both text AND context. And the goal of seeking context is to be reflective, rather than reflexive, in how we approach life and all of its challenges.
Let me explain:
The Torah is a particularly difficult document to understand. To begin with, it was written in a language that nobody has spoken for thousands of years. It is also filled with contradictions, gaps, ambiguities, apparent grammatical errors, and obscure words which can only be understood by speakers of that language (i.e. nobody). (Worth noting here that Israelis, speakers of modern Hebrew, are just as befuddled by the Torah’s language as we are.)
And yet, the Torah is the foundational document of Judaism, the basis for much of our tradition. So the only way we can actually understand it is through context, and in particular, the context given by rabbinic tradition: the Talmud, midrashim, the commentaries of medieval and contemporary rabbis, from Rashi in the 11th century until today.
What do these commentators do? They place the context alongside the text, to help us see how the terse words of the Torah make us better people. They interpret ancient verses, which we sometimes barely understand, to show us how they apply to us in our day, in our context. They give us perspective.
For example, Parashat Vayyeshev, from which we read this morning, tells the story of our hero Yosef, who, after being sold into slavery and brought to Egypt, ends up in the house of a wealthy man named Potiphar, whose wife takes more than a passing interest in their new, handsome slave. She attempts to seduce Yosef, and there is a moment of hesitation before he rebuffs her. The suggestion is that he is certainly tempted to take her up on her offer.
A midrash, however, tells us that as she takes hold of his clothing with lascivious intent (Bereshit / Genesis 39:12), and Yosef struggles with his conflicting fear and desire, he has a vision of his parents, watching through a window behind Potiphar’s wife. And his father Ya’aqov says to him, “Your brothers’ names will be inscribed on the ephod, the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol [the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, which is at this point in the traditional chronology many centuries in the future]. Do you want your name to appear there with them, or not?” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 36b) And that is the point when he runs from her.
The point of the midrash is that context matters, that our moment-to-moment decisions should be shaped not by immediacy, not by what is happening exactly right now, but by the past and the future. And of course, that is not always so simple.
Many other moments in the Yosef narrative require context. Yosef does not see the larger context when he boasts to his brothers about the dreams in which they all bow down to him. The brothers are missing context when they throw him in a pit, and then sell him into slavery, and then lie to their father Ya’aqov about what happened.
All of these moments are, you might say, reflexive choices, made quickly and without considering the consequences. Reflexive, rather than reflective.
When we act impulsively, rather than taking time to reflect on the context, we cause damage and pain. When we respond in the anger of the moment rather than waiting, breathing deeply, and thinking carefully, we usually make things worse. When we pile onto the most hurtful, most anxiety-inducing news or online content with more frustration and more insults and more aggression, the lack of context usually leads everybody down the wrong path.
What makes the Yosef narrative work is learning the complete story. Although none of the characters involved could have known this, every choice along the way, good and bad, ultimately brought Benei Yisrael, the children of Israel / Ya’aqov, down into Egypt, where they would become slaves, and then ultimately become a free nation, destined to receive the Torah and to inherit their own land. And in the context of all of that, the series of reflexive moves is woven into a context which has shaped our people for thousands of years. So in this case, you might say it worked out well.
But we all know by now the corrosive effects of the social media platforms through which we all receive our information about the world. And we all know about the potential of these platforms, and to some extent even legitimate purveyors of news, to rile us up. We have seen their ability to enable the id, the unfiltered, most primitive piece of our psyche, to speak for us, and to easily spread hateful ideas of all sorts.
I am grateful that the Biden administration gathered a group this past week to discuss strategies on anti-Semitism, chaired by the Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff. But I am also not too optimistic that such discussions will yield anything productive. Hatred of Jews has been with us far too long, and I lament the fact that it will never go away.
However, what we all can do is to try to move society to a place that is more reflective, rather than reflexive. Labeling people as anti-Semites, or racists or trans-phobes or snowflakes or RINOs or whatever, diminishes the humanity of those with whom we disagree.
Teaching history, however, and giving context and the opportunity for reflection is the way to go. Jon Stewart, who was Trevor Noah’s predecessor at The Daily Show, has said that hearing anti-Semitism spewed out loud is better, because then it is an opportunity for teaching and providing context, kind of like cleaning a wound by opening it. I am not entirely sure I agree with him, but certainly meeting people and talking with them in-person, especially people with whom you do not necessarily agree, is the way to build bridges, to change minds.
Another observation that Trevor Noah shared in his “sermon” was that “the world is a friendlier place than the Internet wants you to believe.” Perhaps if, when we are tempted to respond in a way that is unhelpful, we remember our parents, and we remember the lessons which they attempted to impart to us about being better people, then we might be more likely to see the humanity, or even the Divine spark, in those who say hateful things. And maybe we have a better chance of allowing that Divine spark to bring that person to a more reflective, more contextual place.
A final thought: One of the best ways to slow things down, to bring context to our lives, to help us become more reflective and less reflexive, is to take one day a week to separate ourselves from the outrage machines of Big Tech. If I had one wish for our society, Jews and non-Jews, it would be to shut down your digital devices for 25 hours every Shabbat, and spend time with your family, your friends, and your Qehilah Qedoshah, your sacred community. I do it; you can too.
It is a special pleasure to read Parashat Toledot on this day, when we have named two baby girls, cousins who will surely get along better than Ya’aqov and Esav.
There was a moment up front in what we read this morning where Rivqah, their mother, is suffering miserably as the two baby boys are wrestling within her. (I’m picturing them pulling classic entertainment wrestling moves: Esav is executing a “pile-driver” on his brother.)
The Torah reports that the experience is so miserable for her that she cries out to God (Bereshit / Genesis 25:22):
The boys struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” And she went to inquire of God.
The JPS translation of lidrosh in the above quote is “to inquire,” but the verb לִדְרֹשׁ “lidrosh” really means to seek: Rivqah went to seek God.
This verb is most familiar to us in the context of interpreting words of Torah. You may be familiar with various forms of this verb: one gives a “derash,” a brief interpretation, or perhaps a lengthier “derashah,” a sermon. “Midrash” is a story which fills in the gaps of the Torah’s text, and of course a “beit midrash” is a house of study, wherein we seek the deeper meanings of our ancient texts, as we attempt to discern the wisdom therein.
Rivqah, in her misery, seeks God.
Right now, we are in a time of seeking, and in particular, we should be seeking God right now. I’ll come back to that.
I was away at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative Rabbis about three weeks ago, and I had the privilege of spending several sessions learning with Reverend Susan Beaumont, an ordained Baptist minister who works as a leadership consultant to houses of worship. Speaking to a room full of rabbis, she introduced concepts in a language that, at least at first, was effectively Greek to scholars of Hebrew and Aramaic.
The theme of her remarks was “Leading in a Liminal Season.” “Liminality” is the period of uncertainty in between; when the old paradigm is gone, and the new reality has not yet revealed itself. Right now, a few years of pandemic have in many ways altered, if not fundamentally changed, the landscape for many institutions, including houses of worship like this one. The challenge for all of us in this liminal season is how to move forward in this in-between period.
An appropriate parallel from Jewish life is the concept of “bein hashemashot,” the part of the day between sunset and dark, when you are not sure if it is still day or night has fallen. This is particularly important on Saturday nights, at the end of Shabbat. Is Shabbat over when the sun goes down? Or when you can see three stars? The answer, as you all know, is the latter, but there is a period of about 30-45 minutes of in-between, when it’s not clear if it’s still Shabbat. We wait until at least three stars are visible so we are absolutely sure. But there is, at least in theory, a period of discernment when we are waiting for those stars to appear, just to make sure we are safely into Sunday, before we recite havdalah, the prayer of separation from Shabbat.
You might make the case that pregnancy is also a liminal season, that Rivqah seeks God not only because the twins are struggling within her, but also that it is a time in which she has clearly left behind her life before motherhood, but has not yet entered the next phase of her life.
According to Rev. Beaumont, one of the keys to finding our way in a liminal season, in leading when we do not know what is coming next, is to seek to understand the soul of your congregation, and to tend that soul as we seek Divine guidance for the future.
And when she said that, the room full of 30 or so rabbis immediately thought, “What on Earth is she talking about?” Soul is a concept about which Christians talk a lot, but the idea is sort of mystifying for the Jews. She explained that a congregation’s “soul” exists outside of the individual members; it is a collective sense of who we are. Not culture, not rituals, not the organizational culture, not the collective voice of lay or clergy leadership, but the truest sense of self of the institution, that which is based in our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu / the holy, blessed One. The soul of this congregation is, as she put it, “the source of the Divine calling and character, and the protector of institutional integrity.”
I’m pretty sure I have seen the soul of Congregation Beth Shalom on display from time to time. I know I felt it when, two months ago on Rosh HaShanah, I could hear the hundreds of people in the room singing “Berosh haShanah yikkatevun; uvyom tzom Kippur yeḥatemun” (On Rosh HaShanah God’s verdict is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed in the Book of Life), singing those words together for the first time in three years in such numbers. That was an incredibly soul-filled moment; it brought me to tears. I might have caught a glint of Beth Shalom’s soul last Saturday night as we honored all of our past presidents.
But I do not think I could describe the soul of Beth Shalom. When pressed further on how to seek and find the soul of our congregations, Rev. Beaumont explained that it is not so simple. She described sitting alone in the sanctuary of her own church for six months in silence, waiting for some kind of revelation, and it did not come to her. So this is not easy work, but it is essential for leading in a liminal time. It is our soul which will guide us into the future.
“We cannot presume,” writes Rev. Beaumont, “to strengthen an organization, its culture, its processes, its structures, without engaging its soulfulness.”
Considering the state of our wider society, we need to seek God right now because there are just so many struggles, so many ways in which we are wrestling with each other. The recent mass shootings are only one particularly tragic sort of manifestation of this struggle; the eruptions of anti-Semitism in pop culture is another. I am sure you can think of many such ways in which American society is struggling with itself. Some of this is clearly due to the fact that we are in a liminal period, that we are seeking leadership and in need of discernment. The soul of America is hidden from view, and we do not know what is coming next.
The Torah, the rest of the Tanakh, the Talmud, and all of the greatest works of rabbinic literature always see God as an essential actor in the Jewish story, in collaboration with the Jewish soul. We have always sought God in times of crisis, in times of pain and of joy.
תהלים קל, Psalm 130 is one of my favorite psalms. It is one of the standard offerings of Taḥanun, the brief prayers of supplication which we recite on many weekday mornings. It opens with a reminder that the world is filled with, and has always been filled with, to use the polite term, tzuris. (That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew tzarot, meaning trouble.)
I am more eager for the Lord than watchmen watch for the morning
What is curious about that verse is the repetition of shomerim laboqer. And I have seen some translations merely repeat the words, i.e. “I am more eager for the Lord than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning.” But that is a poor translation. More accurately, the metaphor is the shomerim laboqer, the morning watchmen who are shomerim laboqer, watching, waiting eagerly for the morning.
What we hear in that verse is the painful waiting for God. The silence, punctuated by the ticking of a clock running on a geologic scale. Where is the Qadosh Barukh Hu? When will our redemption come?
When I hear that verse, I hear my Israeli son, serving guard duty, being a shomer, at his IDF base in the middle of the night, calling me out of sheer boredom, waiting, watching, waiting for morning, for the shift change, so he can go to sleep.
The metaphor speaks powerfully across the ages. We need redemption from all that ails us; to borrow from Psalm 121, we continue to lift up our eyes to the hills expectantly; from where will our help come?
It is that yearning, the ancient Jewish desire for God’s presence in time of need, which helps us be better people, which will ultimately guide us through the liminality of this moment. We need the sense of Divine action in the world, even if we cannot easily perceive it. We need the sense that help is on the way, even as we struggle with one another, and we have to hold ourselves together in the meanwhile, to find our way through the darkness. We wait eagerly for the dawn, and as we continue searching for our soul, we can reassure ourselves that we are not alone. That it is going to be OK.
It was Voltaire who said, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.”
If God did not exist, it would have been necessary for us to invent God, so that we may seek God during liminal times. It is through seeking God, through the source of Divine calling to the soul, that we will find our way into the future.
* One of the most captivating features of medieval Ashkenazi synagogue architecture, visible (for example) at the Altneuschul in Prague, the oldest continuously-functioning synagogue in the world, is that the sheliaḥ tzibbur (prayer leader) stands in a depression in the floor, a few inches lower than the rest of the congregation. This reflects the fact that we are crying out to God mima’amaqim, out of the depths.
In 1958, Esquire published a graphic version of the story of Noaḥ, called “The Deluge,” by Jewish satirical cartoonist Jules Feiffer. He depicted one Harvey W. Noah, government employee, who is contacted by an angel in a dream to build an ark.
The angel instructs Mr. Noah more or less according to the story we read today in the Torah. Feiffer wrote:
“What a screwy dream,” thought Harvey W. Noah, and he went back to sleep, only to be awakened the next morning by a telegram being slipped under the door. “This is to confirm your hallucination of last night. Proceed as directed re conversation pertaining to deluge, etc.”
So Mr. Noah goes to work and speaks to his government supervisor, who proceeds to alert the Navy, which contacts the Atomic Energy Commission, and a series of committees are launched to respond to the message, which is soon hopelessly garbled. 50 boats are launched, one for each state, containing lawyers, doctors, philosophers, and atomic scientists, but no animals, and no Harvey W. Noah. So he heads home.
And then it starts to rain.
Harvey W. Noah is caught in the tension between a message from an ancient God, and the response of modern institutions. And of course, Feiffer’s work is satire, so we can chuckle at the mess of it all, and maybe be grateful that we have never had such a dream, or all the more so received a follow-up telegram.
But we all live in tension between the ancient and the modern. In fact, we are all doing that right now, as we celebrate today with a young woman who was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, something which did not happen until 1922, but is an idea with truly ancient roots. The first indication that a young boy becomes an adult with respect tothe mitzvot at age 13 is found in Pirqei Avot (5:21), which dates to the 2nd century CE.
The idea that we are in tension of any sort with our tradition is not a new one. You can actually find it just about anywhere you look on the Jewish bookshelf.
Consider just the first verse of Parashat Noaḥ (Bereshit / Genesis 6:9)
This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.
Noaḥ was a tzaddiq, a righteous man. Had the Torah stopped there, everything would be fine and dandy. But then there is a qualifier: תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו. He was blameless in his generation.
So what’s the problem with that? The world at the time, as we learn in the subsequent verses, was filled with corruption and lawlessness. So when the text says, “in his generation,” what does it mean?
Rashi, the 11th-century French wine merchant, might have been sampling his product a little too hard when he wrote his commentary for this verse. On the one hand, says Rashi, this qualifier suggests a compliment: if he was righteous when everybody around him was corrupt, then how much more righteous would he have been in a righteous age! He would have been a saint! (Not that we have saints, of course.)
And then Rashi offers exactly the opposite. In his own generation, he says, Noaḥ was the most righteous. But in Avraham’s generation, Noaḥ would have been considered a nothing.
In other words, it could go either way. Thanks, Rashi, for clarifying that.
And there is even more tension in the verse, related to the curious end:
Which is generally translated as, “Noaḥ walked with God,” but that actually obscures the grammatical impossibility of what the text says, which, if translated somewhat more literally, might read, “Noaḥ walked God.”
Don Yitzḥaq Abarbanel, the Iberian commentator of the 15th century, tells us:
והיה זה לפי שאת הא-להים התהלך נח ר”ל שעם היות שדר בתוך רשעים לא הלך בדרך אתם אבל נתחבר ונדבק אל הא-להים לא נפרד ממנו כל ימיו
Being that Noaḥ lived among wicked people, he did not go along with them; rather, the text is telling us that he cleaved to God for all of his life.
In this case, resolving the grammatical tension leads to a different sort of tension, the problem of what it could possibly have meant for Noaḥ, who would have lived ten generations before Avraham and many centuries before Moshe received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, to “walk with God.” So what guidance did Noaḥ have that led him to be such a tzaddiq?
It is an intrinsic anachronism. We, the readers, know what it means to be righteous in our day. But how could Noaḥ have known?
The idea of living in tension with our text, with our traditions, is really an essential feature of being Jewish, and all the more so in the Conservative movement.
In 2005, Rabbi Neil Gillman, one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary and, perhaps coincidentally, the grandfather of our bat mitzvah, addressed the convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Boston. His talk was titled, “A New Aggadah for the Conservative Movement,”* and in it he attempted to reframe what it means to be a Conservative Jew.
Now, many of us tend to think of Conservative Judaism as being neither Orthodox nor Reform, but rather somewhere in-between with respect to practice and approach to Jewish life. And that is a somewhat over-simplified view.
Rather, we prefer a definition which includes our adherence to halakhah / Jewish law. We like to refer to ourselves as being similar to Orthodoxy in that we respect and maintain (i.e. “conserve”) halakhah, the laws which govern our observance, while also sharing some similarities to Reform in that we seek lenient positions which allow for adaptations to modernity.
A perfect example: calling a girl to the Torah as a bat mitzvah can only happen because we are egalitarian – we count men and women as being equal under Jewish law, an idea which is not acceptable in mainstream Orthodoxy.
But Rabbi Gillman rejects calling our movement halakhic, even as he states that our conservation of halakhah is a foundation stone of our movement.
Rather, he says, the primary way we should describe ourselves is as being “in tension.” And he pulls no punches in describing the ironies of our movement.
Our approach to halakhah is a superb paradigm of living with tension. Why do some laws change and others don’t? Why can we drive to worship on Shabbat but not to a museum? Why are all cheeses now kosher but oysters still treif? Why can a kohen marry a divorcee, but a Jew can’t marry a non-Jew? … Why change some portions of our liturgy but not others? I concede that these distinctions are real and important and I and my rabbinic colleagues can defend each of them, but for the layperson who has neither the education nor the time to study and speculate about these matters, the impression we make is total confusion. Our message is complicated… In contrast, the messages of the movements to our right and to our left, their aggadot [back-stories] are relatively clear. Polar positions are always clear. Center positions rarely are.
And he’s spot on. I spend a lot of my time trying to teach the nuance of what we do as Conservative Jews, and I often wonder how much is absorbed. We are complicated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is hard to relate, particularly in a world with attention spans that stop at 280 characters.
Rabbi Gillman concludes by saying that, rather than calling ourselves “halakhic,”
I suggest that we embrace the tension and ambiguity which has always been at the heart of our reading of Judaism. If we believe that all of God-talk is metaphorical, if we deny the historicity and the literalness of the Sinai narrative as it appears in Torah, and if we claim that the Jewish religion was essentially the creation of the Jewish people, of groupings of Jews at various critical moments in our history, … a notion that I am convinced most of the ideologues of our movement share—then we must conclude that authority in matters of belief and practice lies within the hands of the committed Jews of every generation. To say this is to relativize all of our ideological commitments, and effectively to consign us to a life of tension—which, I suggest we should embrace and which we will find liberating.
Now, I do not have time to unpack all of what Rabbi Gillman said here regarding how our religious tradition came into being; that is a lecture that would require several hours. But the tension which we experience as 21st-century Jews attempting to muddle our way through ancient rituals and texts is nothing new. It has always been a part of the Jewish experience, in every generation.
And Rabbi Gillman is right on: we should embrace the tension. That is how Jews have always lived, and that is how our tradition, particularly right here in the ideological center of the Jewish world, will continue. This is what keeps our religion alive, relevant. Ledor vador / from generation to generation we wrestle with God.
So what does that mean to us? How can we act on this today, here in Pittsburgh?
It means that we can confidently continue living how we live: firmly in the contemporary world, and yet still striving to find the ways in which our tradition still helps us to be better people. It means believing on the one hand that we are still cleaving to the framework of the Torah’s mitzvot, given at Mt. Sinai, because they fill our lives with structure and meaning, and that we also adapt them to our current circumstances. It means that we can celebrate a bat mitzvah, and still see ourselves connected to the spiritual pathways of our forebears.
I am grateful to be living in that tension, and proud to be a Conservative Jew.
* Aggadah: Aramaic, equivalent to the Hebrew haggadah, “telling.” Refers to the collection of rabbinic folklore, as opposed to the parts of rabbinic text that are law-giving (halakhah). The aggadah sits alongside the halakhah, in the pages of the Talmud and other works, giving context and story which often illuminate the halakhic discussion.
Some of you know that I love Parashat Bereshit, because it opens up all of the big questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Who is this God character, and where did he/she/it come from? How did all of Creation come into being? Why is humanity so complex?
Not that the Torah alone is equipped to answer such questions, of course, particularly for modern people. On the contrary: Bereshit offers partial answers to some of these questions, but leaves others more or less untouched, and some of those answers are not particularly helpful, given what we know today through scientific inquiry. As is usually the case when we dig into a meaty piece of ancient text, we might come away from the opening chapters of Genesis with even more questions. And particularly for contemporary people of faith, since science addresses the question of “how,” but often leaves off the answer to “why.” That is one reason that we absolutely need Torah.
It makes sense that the Torah starts in Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden; we want our beginnings to be pure. In Hebrew, the term “Gan Eden” is used to mean “paradise,”* but that English term brings with it associations that are not really found in the Torah’s text or Jewish interpretations. Gan Eden is not a place of the so-called “afterlife;” it is rather, you might say, a sort of womb for Creation, a protected, natural space in which God could raise the newly-created plants, animals, and humans. Gan Eden was God’s nursery: fresh and flowering and nurturing.
Our popular conceptions about Gan Eden comes to us from Christianity: that the first humans created there were without sin and immortal, and upon having eaten the apple, experienced a kind of spiritual fall, which made them fundamentally sinful and mortal.
But we, the Jews, read the story in a very different way. Humans were created to be mortal. And, by the way, the Torah never mentions an apple; the fruit is a non-specific fruit, although some Jewish sources suppose that it was a fig or a pomegranate.
More importantly, we do not have the concept of Original Sin, or the Fall. On the contrary, humans were created with the ability to transgress. And of course, they mess up very soon.
There is a wonderful midrash about the creation of human beings. Prior to doing so, God wisely consults with the angels to see how they feel about this new creature, which will be something like them, and they were not in agreement about humans. (As told in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, JPS 2003, vol. 1, p. 51):
The Angel of Love favored the creation of humans, because they would be affectionate and loving; but the Angel of Truth opposed it, because humans would be full of lies. And while the Angel of Justice favored it, because humans would practice justice, the Angel of Peace opposed it, because humans would be quarrelsome.
To invalidate his protest, God cast the Angel of Truth down from heaven to Earth, and when the others cried out against such contemptuous treatment of their companion, God said, “Truth will spring back out of the Earth.”
After consulting with the angels, God’s response was effectively, “Thanks for your opinion. And don’t you worry about that Truth business: it will be with us for sure.” So God creates humans, and places them in this lovely Garden, knowing that they will fail. And they will lie. And they will soon be lying and killing and doing all sorts of mischief.
But God also knows that humans have the great potential to do good, to carry out justice, to love, to till and to tend the Earth respectfully. God knows that humanity is a mixed bag, and that, although people will be a source of much pain and grief, they will also pursue and hold up truth. We are not fundamentally sinful, nor can we possibly be exclusively good. Rather, we are somewhere in-between. We are exactly as God the Engineer designed us.
Gan Eden, in Jewish tradition, is not paradise. It is a point of departure, not a future destination. The beginning, not the end.
Nonetheless, the fantastical idea of achieving paradise meanders through human existence. Many cultures have such a concept in their mythologies. We do, however. have the concept of “Olam HaBa,” the world-to-come, and there are some Jews in the world who work hard at performing mitzvot, fulfilling the opportunities for holiness in Jewish law, so they can attain a place in Olam HaBa.
Opinions found on the Jewish bookshelf on what Olam HaBa is vary tremendously, from visions of a pleasurable place (like Gan Eden), to denial that there is anything at all after we die. One such vision (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 17a) sees no Earthly pleasures in Olam HaBa, but rather merely sitting, with crowns on our heads, in the splendor of the presence of God, which will vastly exceed any kind of physical enjoyment.
I have always subscribed to the idea that we perform mitzvot not for any future reward, but because that reward comes back to us in the present. And I have some good support here: there is a concept in Jewish life of Torah lishmah, learning Torah for its own sake. That is, we do not study our ancient texts and apply them to our lives so that we can get into Olam HaBa, but we do so because it is the right thing to do. The reward is the performance of the mitzvah itself. We read, for example, in Pirqei Avot, the second-century collection of Jewish wisdom(1:3):
Antigonos of Sokho, received [Torah] from Shim’on the Righteous. He would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward; rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.”
Antigonos was onto something here, a more robust strategy for life. Since we cannot know what awaits us after we die, do good for the sake of doing good now and reap the rewards now. If it helps us in the Olam HaBa, harei zeh meshubaḥ! All the better.
Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, extends Antigonos of Sokho’s words:
The Sages meant to tell us by this that one should believe in truth for truth’s sake. And this is the sense they wish to convey by their expression, oved me-ahavah, “serving from motives of love.” (from Rambam’s Introduction to Pereq Ḥeleq)
We should “serve” our Master (i.e. God) and “fear Heaven” by speaking truth (remember Truth?) and pursuing justice and living according to the mitzvot not because we hope to get there after we die and hang around wearing crowns in God’s court, but rather because we do so out of an act of love for other people and the world. That is its own reward. Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake, is what we reap, and it is right here, right now.
Gan Eden, ladies and gentlemen, is not some mystical future destination for which we should strive. Neither is it an abstraction. It is, rather, what we can create for ourselves here on Earth, in the present moment.
We all have the potential to build Gan Eden, a place that is protective and nurturing, a place that is safe and innocent, green and pleasant and refreshing. All we have to do is make it happen by fulfilling the holy opportunities which have been given to us.
We create Gan Eden when we keep the Shabbat. Shabbat is a taste of the refreshment of Gan Eden, but only if you do it right – when you set aside your mundane stressors and focus on being there, being present with your family and friends, on gratitude and all that emanates from it, on the qedushah / holiness all around us.
We create Gan Eden when we reach out to others, when we work toward the common good, when we fulfill the mitzvot bein adam leḥavero, those mitzvot that maintain the qedushah between people: when we treat others with kindness, when we clothe the naked and comfort the mourner and feed the hungry.
We create Gan Eden when we gather in prayer, when we gather in joy and grief, when we fulfill the rituals of Jewish life which color our days with meaning.
One of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s most well-known songs is an ode to Woodstock, from their phenomenal 1970 album Deja Vu, although the song was written by Joni Mitchell (who was actually not at Woodstock because she had a gig on the Dick Cavett Show):
We are stardust We are golden We are billion-year-old carbon And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.
But Joni got it wrong. We cannot get back to the Garden. There is no going back.
But we can make it here. All we have to do is act on the truth that is our spiritual heritage.
* Interesting etymological note: the Hebrew עֵדֶן / ‘eden means refreshment or pleasure, so Gan Eden might be literally translated as “garden of pleasure.” The word “paradise” seems to have arrived in the English language via Latin and Greek from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza, meaning a garden enclosure.
One of the things that this season does to me is to remind me to read the small print in the siddur, to pay attention to details that my eye is trained to ignore during much of the year.
Since most siddurim / prayerbooks are used for a variety of days – weekdays, Shabbat, holidays – they are designed to reflect the changes in our daily tefillah routine. During the holiday month of Tishrei in particular, there are changes almost every day, which require you to pay careful attention to the smaller print.
If one goal of the Tishrei holidays is to make us all pay more attention, then for sure these subtle changes in our daily prayer are helpful. Even the extra le’eila which we say from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur manages to keep me just a wee bit more focused for some time.
And that, of course is a good thing: tefillah / prayer should never be by rote. As we read in Pirqei Avot (2:13):
Rabbi Shim’on said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and the Amidah, And when you pray, do not make your prayer something automatic, but a plea for compassion before God.
In tefillah, as in life, it’s the details that are important. While it is easy to think that the essential part of tefillah is the recitation of the words, the mishnah suggests that we have to actually be paying attention. True tefillah requires pouring our souls into the pages of the siddur, such that the yearning for compassion, the honest gratitude, the heartfelt praise and requests which are the building blocks of tefillah come from an honest place and can actually be felt by the davener.
It is not the outward symbolism which matters; not the broad strokes of being in shul (synagogue) and standing in silence and reciting the words; rather, it is the internal details. It is the richness of the ancient Hebrew idiom and how it lands on our souls which drive honest prayer. It is, in fact, the small print, laden with the special features of the season, which matters most.
And when we recall beloved family members and friends who are no longer with us, on days of reciting Yizkor prayers, the details of their lives are the most essential items.
What makes a person special and unique? It is not their appearance, or what car they drive or the color of their kippah. It is the intangible details: their deeds, their sayings, their values, their relationships.
You might have heard recently about so-called “click chemistry,” because three biochemists just received the Nobel Prize for their work in the area. Click chemistry is a relatively new chemical process which allows us to build new molecules with particularly desirable functionality using small, organic building blocks, somewhat akin to molecular Lego pieces.
Without getting too technical, the research of these Nobel laureates has made it possible to reliably build new molecules from these building blocks in a way that is cost-effective and has a high rate of success. The process will supplant older, more cumbersome and expensive methods of synthesizing such molecules. This will enable chemists to easily produce and test a whole new range of pharmaceuticals, polymers, proteins and other organic compounds. It is truly a remarkable breakthrough.
Now, the chemical engineer in me is inspired by this new molecular technology.
But I also find the idea of being able to assemble easily new molecules from building blocks appeals to me from, shall we say, a more homiletical perspective. As people, we are more than the sum of our parts; and yet we are constructed from the very same types of molecules that can be easily assembled through click chemistry.
We are, of course, exceedingly complex creatures. We are shaped by all of the forces around us: the people we meet, the books we read, the experiences we share with others, the love we receive and give, and all of the other tiny ways we fill our days and our lives. And all of these things, all of these minuscule moments and interactions are sifted through our basic structure, coloring all of the intricate pieces of our personalities.
With human personalities, of course, it is the details that matter. Our external features are not so different from one another; our internals are much more complicated. We have different strengths and creativities, different talents and hobbies and favorite foods and leisure activities. We are drawn to a range of entertainments and political pursuits, tastes in clothes and art and philosophy. We each have individual ways in which we express ourselves and fashion our lives.
A lazy search of the Internet led to somebody else’s back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many molecules there are in the human body, and that answer is perhaps on the order of 1027, or a one followed by 27 zeroes.
Much of that is water, but a good chunk of them are organic molecules, of the sort that are put together with the basic building blocks, the simplest Legos, of life.
But that is what makes us human: the great complexity of the chemical system of which we are made. Our memories, our knowledge, our experiences, remembered and forgotten, are all encoded into that organic soup of tiny, encrypted chunks of living matter. The variation of these codes, which make up our genetic material, yield people who may indeed look quite similar, but are vastly different in behavior and thought.
A friend recently reminded me that the events from our past which we remember are not necessarily those things which others remember about us. That is, the picture of our lives is far more complex than what we see. This also suggests that all of those details, all of those interactions which we can recall are probably less than half of the story of our lives.
That is what makes those who were special to us so memorable; why they take up so much of our brain space and emotional energy: the great complexity of our parents and grandparents, the mysteries of our siblings, the tender mercies of our spouses.
Tomorrow morning, we start reading Parashat Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah once again. We return to Creation ex nihilo, when God begins to speak, and the whole world comes into existence, from a point of light to the full flowering of Earthly bounty. You may recall that at the end of each day, the Torah tells us that God saw that what He had created was good.
It’s almost dismissive in its simplicity. Of course the creation of the sun and moon and stars was good. Naturally the flowering plants and trees and birds and bees and alligators and capybaras were good. But they were also incredibly complicated.
The creation of humans, male and female, on the sixth day is described as tov me-od, very good, something which might make us raise our eyebrows, given what we know about humanity.
Life, Creation, cannot be merely good or bad, but rather full of contradiction and complexity and an unfathomable myriad of details. The Torah (or, one might say, the Priestly author to whom scholars attribute the first chapter of Bereshit) seems to fail here in its terseness. It merely gives a social-media “like” when an encyclopedic excursus is called for.
And as we turn now to the service of Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of the souls, I hope that we can endeavor to remember not just the broad strokes of their lives, but also the details, all the ways in which they were special.
We should remember the parts of their personality that they gave us: the empathy he showed an elderly neighbor when inviting him for a meal, the pride she took in tending to her garden, the loyalty he had to his barber, her attention to detail, like ensuring the brass banister was always polished to a shine.
We should remember the ways in which they provided for us: the household economy, the food, the gatherings, in setting a beautiful table for the celebrations / semaḥot he arranged, all of the schlepping she did from school to game to recital and on and on.
We should remember the things that they said when we need to be uplifted: the words of encouragement and inspiration, the moment of shared joy when you got that acceptance letter and the tears during your bad breakup, the hugs and the kisses and sometimes the little push out the door that we needed.
We should remember the values they taught us, the Jewish rituals they loved, how he would make his special haroset recipe, how she loved to sing and tell stories and family lore. We should remember those times around the seder table, or in the kitchen, or in the Sukkah, or in the synagogue.
And we should remember that, as much as we recall of those who are no longer with us, there was ever so much more about them than we could possibly ever have known. All those many, many details encoded into who they were; all of the small-print details which made them special to others and to all those who knew them.
In broad strokes, we all had parents, and people whom we have loved but are no longer with us. But it is the details of who they were which made them special and unique. And those are the things which we should recall at this time.
Once upon a time, in a distant empire, the royal fisherman was out on the lake and caught a huge fish. “This is wonderful!” he said aloud. “The Queen loves fish!” The fish thought, “OK, then! I’m going to get to see the Queen.”
The fisherman took the fish to the kitchen of the castle, and presented it to the royal chef. “Ah, such a beautiful fish! Ze Queen, she loves fish. I will prepare zis fish in ze most perfect way.” The fish thought, “Ooh, I’m going to get special treatment! Maybe a massage…?”
Before preparing the fish, the chef and the fisherman brought her to the Queen to show off such a perfect specimen of fish, arrayed on a gorgeous silver platter. The Queen beheld the fantastic fish, and her eyes widened. “Such a beautiful fish!” she said. “I love fish! I simply cannot wait to eat it! Go broil it immediately!”
At this point, the fish realized what was happening, jumped up and blurted out, “You don’t love fish! You love yourself!”
What does it mean to be in a loving relationship with the people around us? As we gradually emerge from the pandemic, many of us are still re-learning to be around people once again, to be in public spaces with lots of others, to feel like part of a community. Now is the time, as we have entered 5783, for us to reconsider how we can be better partners, spouses, community members, and citizens of the world.
This is the fourth and final installment in the “Being There” series. We have up to this point discussed our ḥavurah, program, which we will be rolling out in the coming months; we have discussed the beit kenesset, the synagogue, as a symbol of the continuum of Jewish life; we have considered our relationship with the qehillah qedoshah, the sacred community of Jews around the world, and particularly with those in Israel.
Today, the theme is ḥevruta / partnership. Ḥevruta usually refers to the traditional Jewish mode of study, native to the beit midrash / study hall, and also refers to the person you study with. Your study-buddy for Jewish text is your ḥevruta.
A well-known slogan about learning in ḥevruta comes from the Talmud, in one of the stories of Ḥoni the Circle-Maker, who is perhaps best known for his talent at being able to draw circles within which rain will fall. But he was also known in his beit midrash as the wisest person, who could answer any question.
The story (BT Ta’anit 23a), in brief, is that Ḥoni falls asleep for 70 years, and upon waking he goes to his beit midrash to learn some Torah. But now, since he has been gone for 70 years, nobody recognizes him, and they do not treat him with respect, so he dies.
In responding to the story of his death, the sage Rava declares, “O ḥevruta o mituta.” “Partnership or death.” If we do not commit to ḥevruta, partnership, we might as well be dead. We need ḥevruta. We need partners. We need to be in relationship with others.
There are two essential messages of the concept of ḥevruta:
We all learn more effectively when we have a partner.
I cannot learn and be completely satisfied with myself until I have also made sure that my ḥevruta has learned as well. That is, we cannot move on until we both “get it.” So I am not in this just for myself – I am also doing it to help my colleague and friend. A good ḥevruta feels something like mountain climbers tethered to one another, so both can reach the top of the mountain together.
Ultimately, to be in relationship with others means that we give out at least as much love as we receive. And I am not speaking only of romantic relationships, or friendships, or family bonds. Rather, we have to strive to understand that we are in relationship with everybody around us – neighbors, business partners, strangers on the street, even with our perceived enemies.
What, after all, is society, if not simply a diverse, complex web of interpersonal relationships? Every group, every organization, every institution consists of people in relationship with one another.
Every other person around you is a potential ḥevruta. And Being There for those beyond our family and friends, for those whom we do not know, or come from a different culture, for people with whom we do not see eye-to-eye, for people with whom we might greatly disagree, is very difficult. Eizehu ḥakham? Who is wise, asks Pirqei Avot (4:1)? Halomed mikol adam. The one who learns from every person.
Each person with whom we interact is a potential partner. Each person has the potential to broaden our knowledge and our opinions to help us improve ourselves and our world.
There is a wonderful tale in the Talmud about ḥevruta. The story (BT Bava Metzia 84a) features the greatest ḥevruta pair ever: Rabbi Yoḥanan and Resh Laqish, who lived in 3rd-century northern Israel. Rabbi Yoḥanan was one of the most highly-regarded scholars of his age, diligently studying from a very young age and ultimately opening a yeshivah / academy in Tiberias to which students flocked. Resh Laqish came from a more nefarious background: he was a former thief and gladiator. Rabbi Yoḥanan agrees to let Resh Laqish marry his daughter if Resh Laqish commits to studying Torah, which he does.
What makes their ḥevruta so vaunted is that they came from such vastly different backgrounds and had such fundamentally divergent perspectives that they helped each other greatly in their learning. Rabbi Yoḥanan describes their learning relationship as follows:
בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא
In my discussions with Resh Laqish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakhah by itself would become broadened and clarified.
In other words, when they studied together, Rabbi Yoḥanan would make some kind of pronouncement about the text, and Resh Laqish would push back with numerous ways in which Rabbi Yoḥanan might actually be wrong. Rabbi Yoḥanan knew that in order to actually understand the Torah, he needed a ḥevruta who would widen his perspective, and thus better interpret what God expects of us.
Learning Torah, just as with learning about life, requires that our perception be challenged, that we have others pushing back at us, respectfully, to show us a wider picture.
When Resh Laqish died, Rabbi Yoḥanan was bereft; his students suggested that he study with El’azar ben Pedat, but Rabbi Yoḥanan found that El’azar was simply a yes-man: he would always agree with R. Yoḥanan, and Yoḥanan found this useless and frustrating. He missed his ḥevruta so much, that
הוה קא אזיל וקרע מאניה וקא בכי ואמר היכא את בר לקישא היכא את בר לקישא והוה קא צוח עד דשף דעתיה מיניה בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ונח נפשיה
Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, tearing his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Laqish? Where are you, son of Laqish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.
O ḥevruta o mituta. Partnership or death.
It is through opposition that we learn. It is by being challenged in our views that we broaden our minds. It is by engaging with the other side with love and respect that we develop nuanced perception which enables us to moderate ourselves.
The principle of ḥevruta is a means to work through differences in order to reach a meaningful understanding of the other’s point of view. Being There, using the ḥevruta model therefore means seeing the humanity of your interlocutor so that you infuse the argument, and indeed the relationship, with respect.
Pulling back the lens, the only way humanity can function sustainably is if we understand that we have to find common ground with others, particularly our rivals in thought, in religious practice, in politics; that we are in relationship with them as well; that we cannot only love ourselves and those like us. We must broaden our perspectives, and for that we need ḥevruta.
I often feel, ladies and gentlemen, that we have reached a place in our society in which many of us are not listening to one another, in which virtually all of the messages we hear are from those like us, people with whom we find it easy to talk to and to agree. Our media environment has become fractured and even atomized, such that we tune into the outlets which tell the story the way we want to hear it. Our social media platforms enable us to be surrounded by voices that sound just like our own, and we pile on with likes and comments which reinforce our own views.
We are all out for self-affirmation, for having our perceptions of the world constantly reinforced as the only possibly believable thing. Everybody else is crazy or dangerous. And everybody is angry; we all just want to tear down everything that does not fit our world view, to see only the broken tiles and not the larger mosaic.
The story of Rabbi Yoḥanan and Resh Laqish reminds us that a good ḥevruta is also a bar plugta, a partner with whom you stand in opposition, and yet you both understand that you need each other.
But many of us today are not seeing that need.
And in this environment, our institutions are losing out. Schools, houses of worship, social groups, families, professions, governments, and so forth – all are suffering from the sentiment that my opinion trumps yours, that my picture of the world is the only legitimate one. Libraries must kowtow to demands for books to be removed due to content which is objectionable to some; Zionists on college campuses are likened to Nazis. Politicians speak only to their base, and believe that they represent and must respond only to the people who voted for them.
We are quick to jump to conclusions and assume ill will; we are quick to be offended and not generous enough in spirit to give kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt.
And if I don’t like your position, I’ll berate you in public with a tweet or an Instagram post. That is much easier than calling you up and discussing our disagreement and seeking common ground, and it gets a whole lot more attention.
The author and scholar Yuval Levin, in his recent (2020) book, A Time to Build, describes the value of institutions, and how their declining influence is a great challenge to our society.
Institutions are by their nature formative. They structure our perceptions and our interactions, and as a result they structure us. They form our habits, our expectations, and ultimately our character. By giving shape to our experience of life in society, institutions give shape to our place in the world and to our understanding of its contours. They are at once constraining and enabling. They are the means by which we are socialized, and so they are crucial intermediaries between our inner lives and our social lives.
We need institutions, says Levin, even when they are somewhat flawed, because they shape us; they help us react to events in our world in a way that is healthy; they guide us in our interactions with others. But we are not using institutions the way we used to, allowing them to mold us into better people, according to Levin. Institutions, he says, have ceased to be formative, and have become performative. That is, we are using them as platforms through which we can advance ourselves, effectively through public performance, mostly via social media.
Without the institution of democracy guiding us, how will we ensure that we have a truly representative government? Without the institutions of religion and medicine and law guiding us, how will we ensure that people will make good choices for themselves, for their families, for their neighborhoods? How will we prevent our society from breaking down into a murderous free-for-all?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out that the Hebrew word for responsibility, אחריות / aḥarayut, includes the word אחר / aḥer, other. For us to be responsible human beings, said Rabbi Sacks, we must incorporate the other.
Healthy institutions help create an environment in which the sense of aḥarayut helps to guide our discourse across ethnic or racial or religious or ideological lines, and also guides our public and private behavior. These are the spaces in which ḥevruta flourishes, in which civility is fostered, in which true dialogue triumphs over mere shouting.
Yuval Levin’s solution to our society’s challenge in this regard is to recognize that our institutions need us to Be There.
What’s required of each of us is devotion to the work we do with others in the service of a common aspiration, and therefore devotion to the institutions we compose and inhabit. That kind of devotion calls for sacrifice and commitment. It calls on each of us to pledge ourselves to an institution we belong to unabashedly. To abandon ironic distance and dispassionate analysis and jump in.
So instead I will suggest the following: consider the ways in which you can bring the spirit of ḥevruta to the world. Think about how you can be in relationship with others who are not like you, to broaden your perspective and theirs. Consider how your group of friends might engage with others for the benefit of everybody.
Your online social network is not your ḥevruta. Your smartphone is not a bar plugta. Your aḥarayut, your responsibility to this world is to be in dialogue with real people, people who are not like you. You don’t need yes-men.
OK, Rabbi. So how about some specifics? How can I commit myself in 5783 to Being There for a better society and a better world? How can I act on the principle of ḥevruta?
Bring your energy and your resources in a positive way to the institutions that shape your world.
Join and financially support those organizations that reflect the values of a healthier society.
Volunteer with organizations that provide social services.
Get involved in the bodies of civic life: school boards, community organizations and partnerships, and make sure you do so while honoring the principles of ḥevruta – of listening and helping your partners along, of being open to the possibility that you might be wrong, that there might be a better way.
Try to spend less time letting yourself be angered by all the dysfunction of this broken world, particularly as concentrated in toxic online spaces.
Instead, focus on Being There for others, in person, whenever possible. Muster your love of people, and share it with them.
And, of course, come and daven and learn with us at Beth Shalom. By Being There for synagogue life, your involvement will pay off in many ways: in your personal spiritual satisfaction, but also in helping to foster an environment of ḥevruta which permeates the entire world.
In August, the Presbyterian minister turned novelist Frederick Buechner died at age 96. In an appreciation of his life and work, New York Times Columnist David Brooks said the following:
“Buechner’s vocation was to show a way to experience the fullness of life. Of death, he wrote, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
What we yearn for, when we remember those whom we have lost, is not the pain of their absence. It is rather who they were in life, what they meant to us, how they made us who we are.
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, said Buechner. What we find in the context of death and mourning is the accumulation of a lifetime of memories, of moments when your parents were there for you, when your brother made you smile, when your sister offered comfort, when your spouse gave you a hug and made all of the day’s troubles go away.
The people who are now no longer with us, they are the ones who gave us their life. All of that life is now ours. We do not carry their death; we carry their life.
First, a brief review: our theme for this year is “Being There” – being physically connected, being here, being present in both mind and body, and in particular how we need this especially right now as the pandemic is winding down and many of us are reconnecting to Jewish life.
I spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah about having your own minyan, that is, joining a ḥavurah, which is a small-group program that we at Beth Shalom will be rolling out in the coming months, and we hope you will participate.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the fact that Jewish tradition expects you to Be There, to show up. This is a continuum, and the synagogue has always been the primary place of gathering for the Jewish people. We are here for you at the corner of Beacon and Shady all the time, all the days of your life, and the nights as well. Come be here with us.
Tonight the theme is qehillah qedoshah, sacred community. Most of us may not be familiar with this term, but it is the universal Hebrew designation for “congregation.” Not synagogue, mind you (that, of course, is beit kenesset, “house of gathering”), but congregation, which is more a statement about relationship than about a particular building or location. A synagogue is a place. Qehillah qedoshah refers to the people.
While most of us gathered here tonight are members of this qehillah qedoshah, this sacred community of Beit Shalom, we are also part of a sacred community which extends to all Jewish people around the world. You might call that Qehillah Qedoshah Am Yisrael. The Sacred Community of the People of Israel.
That sense of interconnection has been a part of the Jewish people as long as there have been Jews. Sure, we disagree with each other, and we certainly do not all see eye-to-eye about theology or halakhah / Jewish law or even who is a Jew. Our world-wide community is marked by a great palette of variation in practices and customs, foods and unique rituals, music, and stories. But we are all connected within this community of Jews around the world.
What does that mean, exactly? It means that when you meet another Jewish person from somewhere else, that you know that you share certain things: our Torah, our rituals, our Shabbat and holidays, our Jewish values, our mitzvot, our history. There are certain terms and ideas which transcend language and local culture.
Years ago, I was at a Shabbat morning service at the Dohány Street synagogue in Budapest, the largest synagogue building in Europe, and I somehow managed to get an honor: hagbahah, lifting the Torah. So I’m sitting in the front row, and there is an older Hungarian gentleman sitting next to me, and he attempts to greet me. Now, my wife, being the daughter of Hungarian Shoah survivors, speaks reasonably decent Hungarian, but I know a few key words and nothing more.
It became immediately obvious to me and this older gentleman that we had no common language. But there we were, sitting in the front row in this 5,000-seat synagogue. And we shared that moment together, appreciating our mutual membership in the qehillah qedoshah, sacred community of our people.
Some of you know that Rabbi Shugerman and I participated in the Federation’s Mega Mission to Israel in June, along with about 240 other Pittsburghers, including about 25 who are members of Beth Shalom. Among the many things that we did was to visit the organizations and communities which our Federation supports, places like Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, which provides education and therapy services for people with disabilities of all ages, the United Hatzalah center in Jerusalem, where we dedicated a new motorcycle ambulance, and of course our partnership region in Karmiel and Misgav, all the way up north, where we not only celebrated with new teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but also packed supplies for the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees that the region has taken in.
It is something we might occasionally miss, sitting here in Pittsburgh, far away from such communities: we are part of an extended qehillah qedoshah. Our sacred community reaches around the world.
Last year at this time, I gave an emotional appeal for the State of Israel, about our connections to the people and land of Israel through the lenses of tradition, of culture, and of the issues surrounding Jewish power. I spoke of the philosopher Aḥad HaAm’s concept of the merkaz ruḥani, of Israel as the “spiritual center” of the Jewish world.
This evening, I would like to remind us all about some fundamental truths about the State of Israel, things that we all should know. And I want you all to recall that Being There, that is, being a part of our qehillah qedoshah, our sacred community, includes feeling connected to and supporting our Israeli cousins. And all the more so right now, as American public opinion, and to some extent American Jews, are turning away from the State of Israel.
You may have seen the recent CNN Special Report on anti-Semitism in America, in which the CNN reporter Dana Bash, who is Jewish, covered several stories about the return of Jew hatred here.
“Jews are an ethnic group who come from Israel. This is proven by genealogical, historical and archeological evidence. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.”
As a result, other members of the NPA group began to call for her removal from the group, because, in their opinion, anybody who is a Zionist is not welcome in the group, because Zionism is “racist” and “white supremacist” and that Zionists promote “genocide.” Members of the group accused her online of condoning oppression and violence against Palestinians, which she does not.
The NPA’s Instagram account featured a post stating that, “The origins of sexual violence are rooted in colonialism… Colonialism uses sexual violence as a tool to uphold white supremacy and conquer stolen land,” and that any justification of “the occupation of Palestine” is therefore effectively condoning rape.
Blotner and another member of the group, Ofek Preis, who is a Jewish Israeli, soon became victims of online harassment, including anonymous death threats. They filed a civil-rights complaint against SUNY New Paltz, claiming that the university failed to protect them from harassment and threats.
What is especially disturbing about this episode is that Ms. Blotner, a sexual-assault survivor who was seeking to help others like her by creating a support group, was further victimized by others who implied that her pro-Israel views were effectively causing sexual violence. If that is not an example of blaming the victim, I don’t know what is.
Along those lines, if you have not seen the new Ken Burns documentary, The US and the Holocaust, it is certainly worth the 6 hours or so of your time. The series deftly defuses the mistaken belief that the United States did not intervene to stop the Nazi horror because Americans were unaware of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe. This is a myth with which many of us were raised here in America.
On the contrary: Burns shows in abundance that the whole world knew, and even though President Franklin Delano Roosevelt personally felt that the US should intervene to save Jews, American public opinion was that our country should not open its doors to Jewish refugees. Sadly, this opinion was even espoused by some American Jews as well.
In one episode, the Holocaust historian Daniel Greene points out that a poll taken in 1938 showed that two-thirds of Americans believed that Jews in Nazi-controlled areas were either partially or completely responsible for their own persecution. Let that sink in for a moment.
Ḥevreh, I cannot stand before you and say with a straight face that all criticism of the State of Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism. I have lived in Israel, and my oldest son is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces. There is plenty to criticize, with regard to the State’s historical treatment of Mizraḥi Jews, Jews from Arab countries, with regard to recent governments’ poor handling of issues surrounding freedom of Jewish practice for non-Orthodox Jews like us, and of course regarding aspects of the treatment of Palestinians in the territories. Israel is a real nation with real problems, governed by real people; she is also a thriving democracy, with a healthy free press. Citizens of China and Russia and Iran, and really much of the world would be envious of the robust debate and criticism of government policy found in Israel’s public discourse if they were aware of it.
But we as American Jews must also acknowledge that our Israeli cousins are part of our greater qehillah qedoshah, and in doing so we have to call out unfair criticism, particularly when it veers into anti-Semitic territory.
To that end, there are three things that you may hear some critics of Israel say which should make you very, very uncomfortable:
Calling Israel an “apartheid” state.
Labeling Israel a “colonial” enterprise, or a “settler-colonial” state.
Accusing Israel of genocide.
Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “separateness,” was the legally-enshrined racial categorization system that functioned in South Africa for nearly five decades in the 20th century. Under apartheid, all citizens were categorized into four distinct races: White, Black, Indian, and Coloured, and laws about whom you could marry, where you could live and work, how you could vote and for whom, were all a part of that system. It was a system that was fundamentally unjust, denying non-white people many of the rights that we all agree should be universal.
The application of this term to Israel is not only inaccurate, it also diminishes the suffering of Black South Africans under apartheid, and demeans their struggle and loss of life in defeating that system. In Israel, there are Arab doctors and lawyers and professors and judges, and for the last year even an Israeli Arab party in the governing coalition. While Israeli Arabs certainly face discrimination and inequities, many also thrive within Israel and are loyal citizens.
It is certainly true that the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank live in much worse circumstances, and the failures and intransigence among multiple parties involved in attempting to resolve these challenges continues to extend their predicament, including high unemployment and other serious social ills. And while Israel is certainly a part of this situation, it is not solely the fault of the Israeli government. And even in the Palestinian territories, applying the term “apartheid” is clearly only an attempt to unfairly characterize the situation to make Israel and Jews look bad.
It has become fashionable in some circles to refer to Israel as a “settler-colonial” state, meaning a place where a foreign power sent settlers to colonize the state and establish an outpost of that foreign power. All of the nations in North and South America, and many other places around the world, would fall into that category. But Israel does not, for a few reasons:
There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel for at least 2500 years.
The Jews who left other countries in the waves of Zionist migration from the 1860s and onward were not sent by Russia or Poland or Germany or England or Yemen or Iran to establish outposts of those countries; on the contrary, those folks who relocated saw themselves as returning to the historical home of the Jewish people, and in many cases, were of course fleeing the native anti-Semitism in their former lands.
In doing so, they rejected the cultures of their former countries, reviving the Hebrew language, adopting Middle Eastern foods and cultural norms. No other settler movement has done so.
One can only conclude that the terms “colonial” or “settler-colonial,” when applied to Israel, are meant as a slur to delegitimize her, and deny that Jewish people have a right to live there.
There is no statute of limitations on ancestral land, and we, the Jewish people are entitled to the self-determination that all other nations enjoy.
This is an especially flagrant distortion. We, the Jews, know what genocide is: we still have living witnesses among us to the Shoah.
Genocide, as attempted by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians, by the Nazis, in Burma and Bosnia and Rwanda and Cambodia, is deliberate and systematic, and the intent is to destroy the targeted group.
After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the terrorist group Hamas took control of the territory. Whenever there is fighting between Israel and Hamas, and of course this has continued to happen from time-to-time due to Hamas’ continued attempts to kill Israeli civilians, the number of Palestinians killed is always dramatically higher than the number of Israelis. In May of 2021, in eleven days of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, followed by Israeli reprisals to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, 14 Israelis died, and 256 Palestinians.
We should never dismiss the loss of any human life, and the pain of loss on both sides of the Gaza border is truly awful. But the asymmetric body count does not make Israel guilty of genocide. On the Israeli side, this is a fight for defensible borders, so that she can protect her people. But for Hamas, the stated goal is, in fact, Israel’s annihilation.
There are no roving Israeli killing gangs deliberately targeting Palestinians. There are no concentration camps, no transports to death camps, not even attempts to physically relocate the Palestinian population to Jordan or somewhere else.
The accusation of Israeli genocide is outrageously hyperbolic, and we should decry it as such.
OK, Rabbi. Even if those characterizations are inaccurate or unfair, why should we support the State of Israel if we have to constantly defend her actions? And why should we care, here in Diaspora? Should we not focus more energy on our spiritual needs here?
As tempting as it may be, we cannot look away. We cannot stand idly by while fellow members of our qehillah qedoshah, our sacred community, are slandered. It is up to us, the second-largest Jewish community in the world, to stand with Israel.
And I want to reinforce that that does not mean we cannot be critical. But we should do so in a way that does not amplify the voices of those who want to see Israel just go away. We cannot give ammunition to Israel’s enemies, and she has very real enemies, who are armed and dangerous and located very close by. On the contrary, the only way we are going to guarantee a sustainable future for all the people who live on that tiny strip of land, is to be in conversation with all those who are willing to work toward that future together. Coexistence is the only possible solution.
We cannot turn our backs. We cannot disengage. We cannot afford to do so.
On the contrary, we have to work harder to connect with and understand Israel and Israelis.
As for the question of, “Why should we care?” Two generations ago I would not have had any reason to even address the question. But given some of the statistics which I have shared with you in the past about American Jews’ gradual disengagement with Israel, I find myself making this case again and again: Israel is worth defending.
The idea of a Jewish homeland is worth defending, even for those of us who are perfectly happy living here in America. And Israel the country – with all her imperfections – is worth defending.
One of those reasons is that of which we should never lose sight: had Israel existed in the 1930s, it is quite likely that six million souls would not have succumbed to the brutality of the Nazis and their willing collaborators. The Burns documentary makes that abundantly clear, when he reminds us that at the Evian Conference in July, 1938, 32 nations in attendance from around the world all expressed sympathy for the plight of German and Austrian Jews seeking refuge, but only the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica agreed to raise their immigration quotas. Hitler saw that as a green light to dispose of his Jews any way he wanted to; nobody else wanted us.
God forbid we should need Israel for that purpose. But there is a better reason for us to remain firmly connected to Israel: and that is that she is, increasingly, a source of inspiration for contemporary Jews around the world, not only as a tech powerhouse or a proud center of secular Jewish culture, but she is also rethinking Judaism for modern Jews.
In recent years, new batei midrash / houses of study have popped up in Israel, created by and aimed at secular and non-Orthodox Jews, where Israelis from diverse backgrounds are learning Talmud and midrash and other Jewish text. New egalitarian and contemporary congregations have formed, headed by a generation of young, native rabbis, who are re-envisioning what it means to be Jewish. Modern Jewish identity is changing. Rabbi Rinat Safania Schwartz, who leads a congregation in Shoham, recently wrote the following:
I want everyone to feel that the very fact of being Jewish confers both the privilege and the responsibility to take personal and communal ownership of their Judaism – of our language, tradition, culture, literature, and all aspects of Jewish creativity. It’s critical that we move people away from relating to their Judaism as if it were in a museum. People must feel that they can “touch,” feel, renew, and create from within.
From “From the Fruit of the Land: Ten Israeli Spiritual Leaders Reflect on the Budding Opportunities for Israeli Judaism Today,” The Honey Foundation for Israel, 2022.
Rabbi Schwartz’s language is quite different than that of most Orthodox Israeli rabbis; she is not alone in finding new ways for Jewish Israelis to express their Judaism.
The members of our extended Qehillah Qedoshah in Israel will help us all build the new Judaism of the 21st century. It is Israel which will be the Diaspora’s partner in maintaining a healthy non-Orthodox Judaism for the future.
So what can you do?
Get to know our four shinshinim, young Israelis who are between high school and army service, who are with us in Pittsburgh for the year
Spend some time learning the history of how and why this patch of land passed from one empire to the next. Learn how the modern state of Israel came to be.
Become familiar with Israeli politics. This is an exciting time – the fifth round of parliamentary elections in three years, coming up in a few weeks.
Go there! We’ll have another congregational trip, probably in 2024
Send your kids to Israel! There are so many options now: Ramah, USY, HSI, Nativ, and of course Birthright.
It is up to us to recognize the bonds that tie each and every one of us people together around the world, and to acknowledge that Israel is the gravitational center of our peoplehood, Qehillah Qedoshah Am Yisrael.
Tomorrow, for our fourth and final installment in the Being There series, we will speak about ḥevruta, the essential Jewish concept of partnership.
This is the second in the “Being There” 5783 High Holiday series. You might want to start with the first one: You Need a Minyan.
The Big Book of Jewish Humor is one of the most-beloved items on my bookshelf. My copy was in fact a bar mitzvah present in 1983, and I have managed to hold onto it now for nearly four decades. Rabbi Goodman and I, in fact, are both so familiar with the material in that book that we occasionally walk by each other’s office and just recite a punch line, which sends us both into stitches.
The book includes a few faux-Hasidic tales by Woody Allen (pp. 200-201), including the following:
Rabbi Tzvi Hayyim Yisroel, an Orthodox scholar of the Torah and a man who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West, was unanimously hailed as the wisest man of the Renaissance by his fellow Hebrews, who totaled a sixteenth of one percent of the population.
Once, while he was on his way to synagogue to celebrate the sacred Jewish holiday commemorating God’s reneging on every promise, a woman stopped him and asked the following question: “Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?”
“We’re not?” the rabbi said, incredulously. “Uh-oh.”
What’s funny and ridiculous, of course, is that it is clearly impossible that this Hasidic rabbi could have missed the memo on pork.
And yet, I must say that it is surprisingly easy for even deeply-committed members of our community to miss things that are going on here at Beth Shalom. Yes, it is true that there are many, many things happening.
But I am often surprised when, for example, a few months after returning from our last synagogue trip to Israel in 2018, a member said to me, “Gee, Rabbi, wouldn’t it be great if we could organize a congregational trip to Israel?”
It is true that we are not always paying attention. Not just to Beth Shalom events, of course, but to lots and lots of things. Part of the challenge is that there are so many more means of distraction today, and you all know what I am talking about.
But of course there are many other reasons for this as well. Many of us are squeezed for time, as our work has invaded all corners of our lives thanks to the digital leashes that most of us are carrying around in our pockets. Many of us are pulled in so many different directions, between child-rearing or taking care of aging parents or trying to scrape together a living or just trying to find a few moments of peace.
But the greater challenge regarding our ongoing connection to Jewish life is the disconnection from the institutions which have shaped our lives. Not just organizations like synagogues, but some of the essential ways that our contemporary society has structured itself.
We are all, it seems, compelled to be independent operators; we are all, to some extent, “bowling alone.” And this disconnection from the established organizing principles of society and religion and culture threaten the foundations of our lives.
Our theme over these High Holidays is “Being There.” And the angle I am taking today is Beit Kenesset – the synagogue, the traditional “place of gathering” of the Jews. What I mean by that is that our Beit Kenesset, Beth Shalom, is here all the time – standing not only at the corner of Beacon and Shady, but also in our hearts. And most of us only set foot in it once in a while: on holidays, on benei mitzvah, or perhaps for a yahrzeit (that is, saying qaddish on the Hebrew date commemoration of a loved one’s death).
But whether you come here regularly or not, Beth Shalom is always here, and Jewish life is a continuum marked by a set of rituals and traditions and halakhah / Jewish law. And those items, in particular those distinctly Jewish actions, are essential to being Jewish. Without them, without that continuum of practice, Judaism cannot provide the framework that makes you a better person and this world a better place.
I recently heard about a fascinating new book by University of Connecticut sociology professor, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas. It is called Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.
In it, Dr. Xygalatas describes how rituals “help individuals through their anxieties, they help groups of people connect to one another, [and] help people find meaning in their lives.” He describes how, when he was a child growing up in Greece, he was forced to attend church and participate in rituals that did not seem to have any immediate, tangible result. He did not appreciate the rituals, or understand why he had to perform them.
But academic studies have shown that all types of rituals provide a benefit to people, just not necessarily what they are ostensibly for. Fisherman in Papua New Guinea, for example, who perform a ritual before going out to fish in the open sea, cannot prove that the ritual actually helps them catch more fish. But it certainly helps them cope with the stress of open-sea fishing, which can be dangerous, and provides them a framework into which they can lean for support.
But here is the thing about rituals: you actually have to perform them regularly and consistently for them to have that kind of effect. And Judaism goes even one better than this, because if you are performing our rituals properly, and you are paying attention, you also know the textual basis from which they come, and that adds even more meaning and guidance.
Ḥevreh, you have heard me speak fairly frequently about the value of our ritual framework. About the value of prayer, of tallit and tefillin, of Shabbat and our holidays and kashrut and studying our ancient holy texts.
So here’s the thing: I want you to make your Jewish connection less sporadic. Jewish life, Judaism, is not just something that you do on Shabbat morning, or on the High Holidays, or Purim or Ḥanukkah.
Rather, if you are doing it right, Jewish life is a thread that weaves through all the pieces of the fabric of your life. And it is up to us, following the model of Avraham Avinu / our father Abraham, to say, Hinneni! Here I am, as we read in the Torah this morning. To show up. To be present. To be there.
Consider, for example, a line which my son chanted on the day he was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah a month ago, in Parashat Re’eh. It is a line that you may know from the Passover haggadah:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “Behold I am like a man of seventy years and I have not merited [to understand why] the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night until Ben Zoma explained it, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 16:3), ‘In order that you remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life;’ ימי חייך – ‘the days of your life’ [indicates that the remembrance be invoked during] the days, כל ימי חייך – ‘all the days of your life’ [indicates that the remembrance be invoked also during] the nights.”
The Torah tells us that we should remember the Exodus every day and every night of our lives. This should be read as not just once a day and once per night, but of course we should hold that idea with us at all times.
There are good reasons for this: they are among the reasons that Pesaḥis among the most resonant holidays of the Jewish year, still observed by most of us:
We should never be so proud of ourselves that we forget our origins; our peoplehood was founded in slavery, and we remember what it means to be a slave.
This collective memory should guide us in our interactions with others: recalling our historical oppression guides us to stand up for justice wherever we can.
The redemption from Egypt also reminds us that we can bring future redemption: if we remain faithful to our tradition and to God, that holy partnership will ultimately yield a time of peace for the whole world.
We should remember the Exodus, and all of the symbolism and meaning thereof, all the time. And those of us who attend synagogue on a daily basis know that remembering the Exodus pops up in all sorts of places: in the third paragraph of the Shema, for example, so if you are saying it evening and morning (as mandated in the first paragraph), you are remembering the Exodus every day and every night at Ma’ariv and Shaḥarit. And we also mention it in the Friday night qiddush. And certainly we should remember the Exodus when we sit in the Sukkah. And, well, on every Festival. And it appears multiple times in the scrolls found in every set of tefillin. And so on.
So, if you’re doing Judaism right, the lessons learned from our having left slavery are with us every day, not just for a night or two in the spring. And the daily rituals which frame our lives in the continuum of Jewish practice give us the strength and resilience to appreciate and act on the meaning embedded therein.
But not just that: kashrut, the set of Jewish dietary principles, reminds us every time we put food into our mouths that we have an obligation to be holy. And that what comes out of our mouths should be at least as holy as what goes in. And those two activities, eating and talking, take up much of our days.
And there is more: the Jewish principles of business law which should guide our work activities, principles like not withholding wages from a day laborer (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:13) and using honest measures in the marketplace (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:35-36). This is the sort of guidance our tradition offers, and these principles guide us in making just choices every day.
I could cite many more examples of how the nexus of practice and text, of ritual and the Jewish bookshelf, help us be better people. But we cannot just cite them and be done with them; we have to perform these rituals. We have to live by them.
If our Jewish connection is always there, always present with us through our customs and values and text, it will help us through our days.
Let not this Book of the Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.
… says the book of Joshua, a verse which we read during the haftarah on Simhat Torah. Repeat these words day and night, and live by them, so that you may receive the benefits that our ancient tradition affords us. We recite tefillah / prayer and study and argue over our ancient texts so that we might prosper – not only financially, of course, but in our relationships with the people around us, which of course are far more important than money.
If you’re doing it right, the sense of connection to our tradition, to our text, to our rituals, to our values, should be with you all the time. Try to cut through all the noise in your life to keep these things in front of you all the time.
Think of your beit kenesset, Congregation Beth Shalom, which has been perched up here at the top of Squirrel Hill for an entire century. Stable, solid, consistent – standing here as a reminder to come back. We are the continuous beacon on Beacon Street, symbolizing and promoting what we have done for thousands of years, that ancient continuum of ritual and wisdom.
That is the principle of Being There. In order to reap the benefits, you have to show up. You have to be present. You cannot phone it in, or be using your phone while you are engaging with our tradition. Don’t let all of that day-to-day hustle crowd out the essential pieces of our tradition, the continuum of Jewish life.
And here is something else: the stakes are high. As we read in Pirqei Avot (2:15):
Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.
Somewhere along the way, in our embrace of modernity, we have forgotten that Judaism is not a “religion” in the Western sense, but a mode of living. That is, you cannot just show up sporadically or include little pieces or symbols here and there. Rather, we should always be striving to do more, to reach higher, to fill our lives with our tradition and its teaching. “Religion” is something you do in church; Judaism colors our lives with meaning.
Because the value is infinite, and our future as a people as well as the future of this world depend on our daily choices.
Rabbi Mark Goodman pointed something out to me recently: that the Zoom participants in our weekday morning services were not able to hear the shofar being blown. Apparently, Zoom’s noise-canceling software heard the shofar and immediately assumed that it was unpleasant background noise that needed to be eliminated, so the folks tuning in via Zoom could not hear it. Yes, indeed: Zoom canceled the shofar.
Now, there are two possible lessons to be gleaned here:
That being in person for services is better. OK, so I certainly agree with that, and I am grateful that the vaccines have enabled us to do so safely, but of course there are still some people who have reason to be concerned due to their compromised immunity, and others who simply cannot physically make it into the building for other reasons, so of course we will continue offering services by Zoom. Nonetheless, it is better to be here in person!)
The other lesson has nothing to do with Zoom, but rather is a question of really hearing the shofar, and everything else that we do. If your world is filtering out the content and meaning of Jewish life, if you find yourself unable to hear the words of the ancient bookshelf, then you are missing something.
The solution to hearing the shofar over Zoom, by the way, is actually to turn on a setting called “Original Sound.” This setting turns off that technology that mutes the shofar.
I am going to suggest the following: find the settings in your life that will enable you to hear more, to do more, to derive more meaning from what we do. I understand that you may not be able to show up for every service, every program, every type of gathering (and we do offer many, many opportunities to gather). But the only way to keep that thread of Jewish connection flowing through the fabric of your life is to refresh the connection every day and every night. Don’t miss a note of the shofar, or a word of Jewish learning; it is through that continuum of practice, of Being There, that we can all truly benefit from our tradition.
The key to finding the meaning in Jewish life is Being There. And this place, the synagogue, the beit kenesset, both stands for that idea, and serves as the place in which we make it happen. So keep coming back.
On Yom Kippur we will talk about being part of our world-wide qehillah qedoshah, sacred community, and the true value of ḥevruta, partnership.
As some of you know, I went to see the Pirates play in PNC Park in August, on Jewish Heritage Night, my first time back to the stadium since 2019. (As some of you know, I threw out the first pitch as well, and didn’t embarrass myself…) And I remembered something extraordinarily important that evening, something which many of us might have lost touch with during the pandemic, an essential principle of human life: being there in person is much better than watching it on a screen.
And I must say that I am concerned about us, ladies and gentlemen. I am concerned that the pandemic has dramatically accelerated a phenomenon that was already taking shape beforehand: not being there. I am, of course, not referring to Pirates games, but not being physically or spiritually present in general.
What do I mean by “not being there”? It is very easy today for us to be in touch with many people, using all the platforms that we have, without actually being in their physical presence. It is all too easy today to attend a meeting, a class, a work appointment, even a synagogue service, while you are actually somewhere else, and maybe even doing something unrelated. How many of us have Zoomed into work meetings or committee meetings while driving, or reclining on the comfy sofa in your living room? Some of us are doing it right now! It’s OK – I’ve done it too.
Now, on the one hand, that can be good. It certainly allows those who are physically unable to participate – for medical, or physical, or locational reasons – to remain involved with others. On March 15, 2020, Zoom suddenly became my primary means of meeting with people for services, for pastoral conversations, for teaching, and so forth. At the time, our community was acting on the essential Jewish value of piqquaḥ nefesh, saving a life. We likely saved lives in doing so.
But our digital connectivity has also come with a number of downsides. We were already spending lots of time looking at screens prior to the pandemic, and then we were suddenly spending almost ALL of our time doing so. As a result, our ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time has been reduced even further, likely due to the infinite amount of amusing material available instantly at our fingertips from TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc., etc., and the constant interruption our mobile digital devices offer us: calls, text messages, alerts, notifications, and so forth.
Second, all of that constant digital interruption and amusement has made it difficult to discern what is important. Is the latest Internet-generated crisis more important than having a conversation with a good friend who is sitting in front of you? Is watching videos or sharing memes more valuable than spending time in reflection and meditation in the context of your synagogue community? Our affection for our screens has distorted the picture of our lives by pushing into our field of vision ideas and opinions which may not actually be as important as they may seem in cyberspace. The tech giants control our eyeballs; the most frequent posters and influencers tinker with our perception.
Third, while Zoom meetings have made it more efficient for many of us to gather or work or communicate without leaving the comfort of our living room, I hope that the experience of the past couple of years has left you wanting: Wanting human contact; wanting to catch up with a friend before or after the meeting; arguing a finer point in the parking lot; shaking hands or getting a hug when needed. At least as of right now, you cannot do that on any platform in a way that feels like being in another person’s physical presence.
I am dedicating my High Holiday sermon series this year to Being There. (Yes, I borrowed the name from the classic 1979 film starring Peter Sellers, about the naive gardener who, by being in the right place at the right time, accidentally convinces everybody around him that he is the world’s most brilliant and inspiring person.)
Judaism has some essential principles regarding Being There:
Minyan – The principle that daily synagogue services and certain other rituals require a quorum of ten people physically present
Beit Kenesset – The synagogue, as the primary Jewish building throughout history, is the central place of Jewish gathering. Every community needs a gathering space, and both the Greek term “synagogue” and the Hebrew “beit kenesset” reflect that this is a house of gathering.
Qehillah Qedoshah – The Hebrew word for a Jewish congregation; the literal meaning is holy community. Qehillah* is derived from the Hebrew word “to gather,” and is today the preferred term that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism uses to refer to its member congregations.
Ḥevruta – This Aramaic word meaning “partnership” refers both to a pair of learners who study Torah together, and also to that style of learning, which is native to the beit midrash, the Jewish study hall. “O Ḥevruta o mituta,” says the Talmud. “Partnership or death.” We need holy Jewish partnerships for us to learn and practice our tradition, so that we might squeeze the most value out of it.
Today, tomorrow, and on Yom Kippur, I will explore Being There – being connected to each other and our community in real time, in person, through these four essential perspectives, because we all can appreciate right now how much we need that personal, physical connection. And it is fundamental to Judaism and Jewish life, as well.
Today’s topic is minyan, the essential quorum of ten people. But I’m not going to take the angle that you might be expecting.
Let me begin with this: You need a minyan. Yes, of course you need a minyan for synagogue services, and we at Beth Shalom provide one every single day of the year, morning and evening. (I’m just going to throw out a quick Todah Rabbah / thank you very much for everybody who regularly supports our daily minyanim by attending, by leading services and reading Torah, by preparing and serving breakfast, by dropping everything to come to shul when we are in need of a ninth or tenth person, and of course by making it possible for all of you to come and daven and recite Qaddish and so forth. You all deserve so much credit, so many mitzvah points for being here frequently.)
But you need another kind of minyan as well. Remember that the word “minyan” does not mean “service,” even though you need a minyan for a service. What it means literally is “count,” “The count is 2 and 0.”
The count, for Jewish purposes, is ten. (You may also know, BTW, that some Jews have a superstition about not counting people, so some will “count” the people in the room, when checking for minyan status, by “not counting”: not 1, not 2, not 3, etc. My father, the mathematician, loves this; only mathematicians can imagine a world in which ten people is “not 10.”)
What you need – what we all need – is a quorum of people whom you can count as your mini-community within this community.
I have been here in Pittsburgh for seven years now; this is actually my eighth Rosh Hashanah on this pulpit. At this point, I feel like I have a sense of how this community works. And there is something that I have noticed for a while, and I have been struggling for several years to figure out how to address it.
You all know that Squirrel Hill is the most wonderful neighborhood in America, if not the world. OK, so we may not have the groovy vibes of Lawrenceville or the anything-can-happen, seductively dangerous appeal of East Carson Street on a Saturday night. But we have a center of Jewish life, stable and vibrant now for over a century, a neighborly place where everybody knows who lived in your house before you did. Some of you who grew up in Squirrel Hill have known each other your entire lives; there are days on which I am particularly grateful to the Allderdice Class of 1976 in particular for every way in which they help make this congregation run.
But something else has been happening for a while, something which some of the veteran members of this community may not have noticed: that while there are fifth-generation members of this congregation, and octogenarians who grew up here, there are also a whole lot of people, including yours truly, who are newcomers. We are people who grew up in New York and LA and Wisconsin and Florida and Western Massachusetts, and have relocated to Squirrel Hill. And we do not have the connections that you all do. We do not have cousins who belong to every shul in the neighborhood, and we do not bump into old friends who grew up on our street at the Giant Eagle. And the challenge here is that, as immigrants to Squirrel Hill, we do not feel as deeply rooted in the neighborhood as the people whose great-grandparents used to live in the Hill District.
So we have on the one hand, a stable population of people who have known each other all their lives and are often related to each other, and a newer, more transient population who are less connected. What can we do about that?
And just to add another complication. As Americans, we are more isolated than we have ever been, and it is not good for our health, mental or physical.
I was actually somewhat surprised recently to hear a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered about how to make friends. It is fascinating, and a little depressing, that we have reached a point in which we need to be reminded that to make friends, you have to go do things with other people, but that is more or less what the NPR story said.
That is why you need a minyan.
One of the most powerful principles of minyan is that it brings together people who might not otherwise spend 45 minutes together in the same room. It is a source of social capital a la Dr. Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor of public policy who wrote the book on social capital, Bowling Alone.
(Very briefly, in case you haven’t heard me describe this before: Putnam demonstrates, using various measures, that social capital, that is, the connections we feel to the people around us, has declined steadily since the early 1960s, and that this lack of connection is not healthy for us as individuals or as a society.)
Social capital – being interconnected with others around you – makes you more resilient. It creates an environment where you are supported by the wisdom, the perspective, and the friendship of the people around you.
So we have a solution, something that will help us build a stronger community and a healthier, more resilient Beth Shalom, and that solution is ḥavurot.
What are ḥavurot? A ḥavurah is a group of people within the congregation who meet regularly to do things together. The Hebrew word חבורה means “group”; it is related to the word חבר / ḥaver, meaning friend, or לחבר / leḥabber, to connect. Those of us who know some modern Hebrew might also think of the term חבר’ה / ḥevreh, meaning “folks.”
We have a few informal ḥavurot which have formed over the years, but we at Beth Shalom have decided to step up our game and facilitate the creation of these groups. The idea is to bring more of us together in a smaller, more manageable environment, so that you can all be more strongly connected with a wider group of Beth Shalom members. We are a congregation of about 600 families, and I dare say that while many of us know each other, we need to boost our social capital, to be more interconnected.
The idea will be, for those members of Beth Shalom who choose to participate (and I strongly urge you to do so), that we will attempt to group you according to various affinities: demographics like stage-of-life and activity interests. So parents with young children might form one ḥavurah, and people who are interested in social action might form another. Our intent is that these ḥavurot will be no more than about 10 family units (a unit being a family, a couple, or a single person).
We will also provide some suggestions about how often to meet, and what to do with your ḥavurah. The events that groups will hold will not necessarily be at Beth Shalom, although you might occasionally meet here. All the more so, the idea is to have events that take place under the umbrella of Beth Shalom, but also in your homes, in the park, at a cafe, and so forth. And they do not need to be explicitly Jewish activities, although having a Shabbat dinner or coming together to dance with the Torah on Simḥat Torah could potentially be ḥavurah activities.
I am sure that some of us will welcome this idea, and immediately sign up. Some of us, I’m sure, are thinking, what do I need this for?
I am going to offer two reasons: the personal and the communal.
The personal: We all need stronger interpersonal connections. We need more robust relationships with one another, with the people immediately around us. Part of the challenge that we are facing today with the polarization of American society is that we barely know each other any more. Yes, I know that Squirrel Hill is bucking the trend (I know many of my neighbors). But there is no question that having more, and stronger interpersonal bonds will have many good outcomes for all of us.
The communal: If we want Beth Shalom to continue to be the center of non-Orthodox Jewish life in Western Pennsylvania, we need to be a more highly integrated community. Everybody here should have the sense that this building is like an extension of their living room, and that the other members of the congregation are like family. And furthermore, we want people on the outside to also think, “Wow! Members of Beth Shalom are really tight. I want to be a part of that.”
Some of you might also be thinking, I have plenty of friends already. Why should I sign up for this?
Here is something else I will suggest: you can create a ḥavurah with, let’s say, six other families, and then open it up to invite four more in, so that you expand your connections within the congregation.
We are going to be rolling this program out in the coming months, after the holidays, and I hope that you will participate. Watch for the materials that we send you – we will ask you for some information to get the process started. Although this will take months and years to build and grow, we hope that this will ultimately be a benefit of membership that is unique in our neighborhood.
We will build social capital; we will create a more-interconnected, more resilient, more healthy congregation. And, post-pandemic, we absolutely need it; we need that spiritual support which a ḥavurah can provide.
Back when I lived in Jerusalem, now more than two decades ago, I would occasionally be walking down the street, minding my own business, when I would be solicited to help make a minyan. I was always glad to help; I met interesting people, heard exotic synagogue melodies from places like Algeria and Syria and Iran, and of course helped out fellow Jews who really wanted to be able to complete their services. It gave me a certain amount of pleasure to do so, if I had time.
No matter how “cool” our devices are, no matter how “talented” artificial intelligence technology becomes, it will never replace the essential human need for personal contact, for being in the presence of others. Our tradition has both relied on and satisfied that need throughout Jewish history. And we need it all the more so today.
Let Mark Zuckerberg try to make Meta the place where everything is happening virtually; you will still need a minyan of actual people, not just to say qaddish, not just to call 13-year-olds to the Torah for a bar/bat mitzvah, not just for weddings.
Rather, you need a minyan to get that essential feeling of connection which comes only from being around others, and part of a tight-knit group.
As we enter 5783, we should be looking for ways to renew ourselves, our connections to others and to our community, our relationship with our faith and our people. This is the time to take on new challenges to help improve ourselves and our world, and here is an excellent opportunity to do so.
When the opportunity comes to sign up to join a ḥavurah, please take it. Your willingness to participate will ultimately help to build Beth Shalom in many ways.
Tomorrow we will talk about the continuum of Jewish life, as symbolized by the synagogue itself, the beit kenesset.
* Yes, I know that USCJ and many other folks spell this “kehillah,” with a k. However, this disguises the fact that the Hebrew word is spelled קהילה, with a qof, and the Latin equivalent of the Hebrew qof is a q. They actually are even written alike – just reflections of each other (ק – q). Some Jews (e.g. Iraqis, Yemenites, and Persians), in their historical pronunciation of Hebrew, actually pronounce the ק differently from the כ (kaf), whose English equivalent is a k.