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Elevating Ourselves Through Jewish Mindfulness – Ki Tissa 5776

Some of you may have read in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine about how mindfulness meditation produces some positive health outcomes. In fact, the research group that produced the study (which originally appeared in the journal Biological Psychiatry), is based at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the authors is our member, Jennifer L. Ferris-Glick.

The study showed that individuals engaged in mindfulness meditation, after three days, exhibited

more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.

Now that’s good news for those who meditate, but it also might be good for those of us who are invested in Judaism and Jewish life. I’m going to propose the following, arguably un-scientific, and yet potentially transformative way to understand Jewish prayer (although Jen told me on Friday that there is data to back this up):

If performed properly, the daily practice of tefillah can indeed be a tool for mindfulness.

PrioTime: Mindfulness – focused awareness in the present moment

For the last seven months, I have been thinking about how we can elevate our tefillah / prayer experience here at Beth Shalom.

There has been a certain amount of discussion lately about our weekday minyanim (daily services, morning and evening) mostly because attaining a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jews, has occasionally been challenging. This has been particularly true in the evening, when our minhah service has begun as early as 4:35 PM on weekdays, since we have customarily held this service around sunset time. As you can surely imagine, rounding up a minyan at that time is challenging when most of us are still at work.

However, in some sense, the timing of minyan is merely a red herring. It’s an answer to the wrong question. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Parashat Ki Tissa, which we read today, told the story of the molten calf (Ex. 32:1-6; while some of us have traditionally referred to it as the “Golden Calf,” the Torah itself calls it the egel massekhah, literally, “molten calf”).

What is fascinating to me about the calf story is not the aspect of idol-worship, but rather the need for our ancestors to have a tangible, visible God. It’s a strong need. And let’s face it – for the people who had left idolatrous Egypt just a few weeks earlier, it made a lot of sense. But it was the wrong approach for the new order, the order of Torah, which the Israelites were about to receive. It was not the right kind of worship.

And of course, what makes the molten calf that much more disturbing is that it is sandwiched in-between four parashiyyot (weekly Torah readings) about the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary designed for proper worship of God by the Israelites in the desert. There is an understanding in our sources that the mishkan was necessary because of that need for a physical center of worship.

Today, Judaism does not offer that kind of tangible theology, the kind represented by the mishkan. Our connection to God is through actions and words. And yet, we do have a physical requirement for Jewish prayer – that need for minyan, for ten adult Jews (from the Hebrew root m-n-’ – to count). As many of you know, certain prayers may not be recited without a minyan: all forms of the Qaddish, including the Mourner’s Qaddish, the Barekhu, the Qedushah section of the Amidah. And, of course, we do not read the Torah without a minyan.

For some of us, one very important reason for holding weekday services morning and evening is so those who are in mourning or observing a yahrzeit (annual commemoration of the passing of an immediate relative) may recite the Mourner’s Qaddish. Without a minyan, we do not say Qaddish, and that seems unfair to those who are recalling their loved ones.

It is not too difficult to understand why, then, that for some of us, the reason for supporting the daily minyan is to enable those who are grieving to say Kaddish.

But I’m going to say something right now that might seem scandalous. Hold on to your kippah:

Coming to minyan so that others may say Qaddish, while noble, is not an ideal which we should emphasize.

If it gets people here, that’s fine, and if it helps those minyan-goers understand and appreciate the value of daily tefillah, that’s even better. But if supporting the Kaddish-sayers becomes the only impetus to maintain a daily minyan, then as far as I am concerned, we should just pack it all up right now. Because in any case it will only be a matter of time before all of those for whom this is a motivator are gone. And then we will be left with nothing.

We have to reach higher than that.

On Thursday, I heard Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL (The Center for Learning and Leadership) speak at Rodef Shalom about engaging the “nones” (i.e. the growing number of people who claim no religion). He effectively said that synagogues and churches are like Barnes & Noble in an Amazon.com world – bricks-and-mortar institutions clinging to a model that will soon be obsolete. The type of prayer, and well the whole synagogue model that was familiar to our parents and grandparents, and the motivations to belong and participate, do not speak to the Millennial generation.

Rabbi Kula’s suggestion was not to despair, however. Rather, he reminded us that while the traditional music business has lost to Spotify, and that print newspapers are crumbling in the face of online content, people are still devouring news and music. He pointed to the success of Soulcycle, a fitness chain that presents spin classes in a “spiritual” environment. Plenty of people who would never set foot in a traditional church or synagogue are spinning away to candlelight and soulful music. Here’s a quote from their website:

SoulCycle doesn’t just change bodies, it changes lives. With inspirational instructors, candlelight, epic spaces, and rocking music, riders can let loose, clear their heads and empower themselves with strength that lasts beyond the studio walls.

The question is not, therefore, “What time will people come to minyan?” But rather, “How will we make tefillah relevant to the next generation?”

I cannot yet say that I know the answer to this question. In the meantime, however, I do know that we need to re-orient ourselves as to why we support daily prayer. Here are some better reasons to support the minyan. We pray on a daily basis:

  • to acknowledge our brokenness, our vulnerability;
  • to seek healing for ourselves and others;
  • to seek awareness;
  • to find the place in ourselves that understands the holiness and complexity in human relationships;
  • to judge ourselves (that is the literal meaning of lehitpallel, commonly translated as “to pray”);
  • and ultimately, to change the world through transforming ourselves.

התפילה: גוף ונשמה

Consider the following requests made during the weekday Amidah (traditionally known as the Shemoneh Esreh, meaning “eighteen,” even though there are nineteen berakhot therein):

  • Re’eh na ve-onyenu. Acknowledge our suffering.
  • Refaenu Adonai venerafeh. Heal us, God, and we will be healed.
  • Velamalshinim al tehi tiqvah. To our enemies, let there be no hope. (Our enemies are not necessarily the physical enemies of the ancient world. They are within us. Help us to conquer our enemies, the enemies of envy, anger, hatred, desire, greed, gluttony, hedonism, etc.)

And consider the humble undertones of tahanun, supplication, wherein we ask for forgiveness, privately, with our heads resting in the crook of our arms.

The quiet, peaceful, meditative nature of these daily tefillot gives us space for contemplation, something that this all-too-noisy world often lacks. It is a time to consider and re-consider, to examine ourselves and our world. And if we are mindful in the context of tefillah, as our tradition teaches, then it can truly become a sacred practice that will offer far more spiritual nourishment than any health club or online commercial portal could conceive.

And if that is not enough, another essential reason in my mind to support the minyan here at Beth Shalom is that we are the only egalitarian minyan in Squirrel Hill that takes place morning and evening, every day of the year – the only such service where women and men count as equals. That is tremendously valuable, and a fundamental statement of who we are as a community. And particularly on this day, when we celebrate the elevation of women in our community as shelihot tzibbur, liturgical emissaries of our community, we hold aloft that principle of equality as a beacon.

Let’s elevate ourselves and each other through Jewish mindfulness: daily tefillah. Come to minyan, and find yourself.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/27/2016.)

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Bosons, Kafka, and God – Shemot 5776

I tend to follow with great interest any news that comes out about particle physics, mostly because I am fascinated by things which we cannot see, yet are fundamental to understanding our world. But also, I love the theoretical aspects of math and physics that speak to the great theological questions that continue to pester us, even as we discover ever more about Creation. Subatomic particles always bring me back to God.

There was a piece of news two weeks ago from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider, a 27-km circular particle accelerator 100 meters underground outside of Geneva, was the international research facility that demonstrated the existence of the elusive Higgs boson in 2012. Without getting too technical, the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle whose existence had been predicted more than 50 years ago by a British theoretical physicist named Peter Higgs, but since the theory indicated that it would decay in a ten-sextillionth (10^-22 or 0.0000000000000000000001) of a second, it would be very hard to demonstrate that it exists. However, as a key particle in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, proving its existence was extremely important to scientists in the field. The Large Hadron Collider, at a cost of about $10 billion, was built largely (!) to pursue the mysterious Higgs; finding it would effectively “prove” the Standard Model and thus allow many physicists to sleep comfortably at night.

Large Hadron Collider Makes Comeback After Two-Year Hiatus - Modern ...
The Large Hadron Collider

Scientists were so confident in 2013 that they had witnessed the presence of the Higgs in the data obtained from the LHC that they took the accelerator out of service for two years to do some repair work. It came back on line in 2015, and just a few weeks ago, scientists working at CERN went public with a new discovery: yet another, newly-discovered, as-yet-unnamed and -untheorized mystery particle, perhaps a cousin to the Higgs.

What is captivating about all this to me is that in 2013, everything seemed hunky-dory in the field of physics. Big questions were answered. Great theories were proven. Some have referred to the Higgs boson as “the God particle,” because the idea was that once it was discovered, all questions would be laid to rest.

But that did not happen; not all questions were answered. Apparently, the Standard Model predicts many things about matter, but there are others to which there are no answers. (They are too far beyond the scope of this derashah for me to explain.) But that is what makes it interesting.

Are we getting closer to unlocking all of the secrets that God’s Creation has for us? Or is it possible that each door unlocked will lead to another door, which is still locked, and will require many more years and billions of dollars to unlock?

In my first year at Cornell, I read a short story by Franz Kafka called Before the Law. In it, an unidentified man comes from the country to seek the law, and is met by a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper refuses to let the man through the gate toward the law, but tells him that after the first gate is another gate with another gatekeeper and after that another and another, and each gate is even harder to enter. The man spends his entire life trying to gain access. At the end of his life, as the man is dying, the gatekeeper reveals that the gate was created only for him, and it will now be permanently closed. The man has failed.

When I think of the high-level and extraordinarily expensive research that must be surmounted in order to get answers to truly fundamental questions, I think of Kafka’s series of gates that are nearly inaccessible, and each one is harder to enter. And that, of course, brings me back to God.

Kafka, of course, was Jewish, and grew up in a household that knew Judaism; his father was a shohet (kosher butcher). Although he never wrote about Judaism explicitly in his work, this story to me sounds very Jewish. The man strives for entry to the law (i.e. the Torah) for his entire life, but never succeeds; we too strive to live the ideals and mitzvot of Judaism, and we always miss the mark. Part of the drama of the High Holidays is the acknowledgment that each of us has failed in one way or another; each of us is flawed.

kafka statue in this part of town i came upon a unique statue of kafka ...
Statue of Franz Kafka in Prague

But the series of increasingly challenging gates speaks to me of the way that I approach God. God is not provable by any theory or evidence, and that’s OK. God can live comfortably alongside the so-called God particle, the Big Bang, evolution, and so forth, because that is not the way God works. Does knowing where we come from and how subatomic particles behave answer the really important questions, like, “How do I find meaning in my life?” or “How do I make responsible choices in my interpersonal relationships?” No.

Knowing God and understanding the laws of physics are fundamentally different questions. But they are equally challenging in a way that highlights the impossibility of ever arriving at the conclusion. Just as understanding subatomic particles will be an infinite task, so too will our understanding of God.

God is elusive, and sometimes the more we uncover, the more we see that there is even more to know. And yet, we continue to strive for holiness, to seek God wherever Godliness might be found.

Some of us look at those who are deeper and more rigorous in our observance of religious tradition and think, “That guy – he must understand Judaism and God. He’s got it all figured out.” But you’ll have to trust me when I say, it doesn’t quite work that way. We all continue to seek, no matter where we are on the spectrum of Jewish knowledge or traditional practice. And we all return to the same fundamental questions, for which there will never be complete answers. And the whole array of Torah and our tradition remains before us to dig into along our journeys.

And this brings me back to Parashat Shemot, and in particular a passage that has captivated me since childhood. It comes from the episode with the burning bush (Ex. 3:13-14):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָאֱ-לֹהִים, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם, אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ, מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.  יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.

Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” (New JPS)

Call me Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, says God. “I am what I am.” We might expect this from Popeye, but not from God.

What does it mean? What does it tell us about who or what God is, about the nature of the Divine? Is God merely ducking the question, knowing that in 5776 / 2016 we’d still be asking?

The great Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdychiv (Ukraine, 1740-1809) reads this as future tense, “I will be what I will be.”  It is as if God is saying, don’t try to pin me down; you cannot fully understand me, and the same will be true effectively forever.

I suppose what was always the most fascinating thing about this line is the translation itself. When I was in Hebrew school, I was taught that “ehyeh” is future tense – I will be – and therefore goes with R. Levi Yitzhaq.

But actually, Hebrew grammar freaks like me know that although modern Hebrew has a tense structure that accords with European languages (past, present, and future), ancient Hebrew does not actually work that way. The Hebrew of the Torah, if you can believe this, has no tense! It has only moods. Those moods are perfect and imperfect. Perfect refers to actions which have been completed; imperfect refers to things that have not yet been completed. Both of these moods can refer to actions in the past, present, or future; although mood can sometimes suggest tense, tense is not intrinsic to the mood.

Ehyeh” is imperfect. It is an incompleteness, past, present, or future. It might suggest “This is what I am right now, but I will be something different in the future,” or “This is what I will begin to be when we get there.” It could even suggest, “This is what I was being, but I have since changed.”

Ehyeh asher ehyeh” is a layer of incompleteness on top of incompleteness. It says, “Not only have I not completed who I am right now, but even in the future I will not have even begun to be established.” It’s like Churchill’s statement on the Soviet Union: it was (perfect mood, BTW) “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

God is in an imperfect mood. God is not complete. God is still, even today, fashioning God’s self.

This is an imperfect world, and there is much work to do before we achieve perfection of any kind. Maybe it will never arrive, but we first must acknowledge this. That’s the meaning of “Ehyeh.”

Back to the Times story on the exciting, new boson, cousin to the God particle, the Higgs: the reporter who covered this revelation described the discovery of the Higgs as “not the end of physics,” but rather, “the end of the beginning.” This research is in the imperfect mood. Just as physicists will continue to dig deeper to find more answers, and even more unanswered questions, so too will we continue to attempt to enter one gate after another in search of God, in our quest for Torah, in our journey to ourselves. Kafka and the Higgs boson suggest that this search will never be over; our task is to keep looking.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2016.)

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We Need Each Other – Vayhi 5776

I mentioned last week that I was in Tzefat on my last day in Israel. After walking meditatively through that city’s famous cemetery and visiting the graves of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the AR”I, Elohi Rabbi Yitzhaq, the godly Rabbi Isaac), creator of Lurianic Kabbalah, and Rabbi Shelomo Halevi Alqabetz, the payyetan / liturgical poet who composed Lekha Dodi, I walked further up the hill into the center of the city.

FROM SPAIN TO SAFED: THE LURIANIC KABBALAH
R. Luria, R. Alqabetz, R. Cordovero

If you’ve been there, you know that Tzefat consists mostly of little alleyways winding around the hill. It’s a maze – all the printed maps are wrong – and it is actually impossible to actually find your way through Tzefat unless you live there. You can really only stumble into the artists’ colony or the central business district.

At one point as I’m wandering, I had a brief encounter that caused me to think deeply about Jewish pluralism. I see a woman coming toward me who looks like a nun in a black habit. As she drew closer, I realized that this was not a nun, but a Jewish woman in a black robe that covered everything except her face. I was face-to-face with one of the very traditional women who have opted for the Jewish version of the Muslim burqa. (Technically, for those of us who are familiar with women’s dress codes in the Muslim world, it was really a chador, a full-length robe open only around the face, favored in Iran and Afghanistan. You can watch an investigative report about these women from Israeli television, in Hebrew, here.)

Now this is very troubling to me – in some ways, it is an affront to all that Judaism stands for, and particularly the egalitarian principles which Conservative Judaism has pioneered. (BTW, Orthodox and Haredi authorities in Israel have railed against the burqa women as well.)

But even while most rabbinic authorities have rejected the so-called “frumka,” some advocate gender-segregated buses, sidewalks, and even supermarkets in their neighborhoods. I am sure that many of us are aware of the battles that have taken place at the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex) over mixed-gender services and women’s services. (And if you have not been there lately, you should know about the Ezrat Yisrael area set aside for egalitarian services below Robinson’s Arch – it’s much nicer than the traditional area of the Kotel – quiet, serene, removed from the chaos and political hubbub nearby.)

But I suppose that the pluralist in me has to acknowledge that even while I disagree with these extreme forms of gender separation, and particularly the radical covering-up-ism taken on by a couple of hundred women in Israel, that these are also among the Jewish paths to God. While I think that there are security issues with anybody walking around in public with their face obscured (as with a true burqa), I suppose that women who choose to cover themselves up to avoid the wanton gazes of men have something of a leg to stand on.

If we are really committed to pluralism, we have to accept a wide range of Jewish behaviors in both directions. I do not judge members of this community who eat treyf or go shopping on Shabbat. I tolerate (well, actually I encourage) a wide range of understanding God. I have become aware that many more Jews are being cremated, which is a true affront to Jewish tradition on multiple levels. I try not to be annoyed when mobile phones ring in shul / synagogue on Shabbat.

We in the middle of the Jewish continuum have an obligation to love and accept all Jews who come our way, regardless of their choices. As a Conservative rabbi, I advocate for kashrut, Shabbat, and traditional Jewish burial, as well as halakhic change to account for a changed contemporary landscape.

On the other hand, however, perhaps pluralism must have its limits. Just as our upstanding, moderate Muslim colleagues repudiate the extremists in their midst, so too must we. We Jews should never tolerate murder or revenge in the name of Judaism. We should never tolerate the perversion of our teachings for radical purposes. (And, on a related note, we should distance ourselves from the behaviors of Jewish extremists caught on video at a recent wedding, celebrating the murder of 18-month-old Palestinian Ali Dawabshe and brandishing knives and guns.)

And really, as contradictory as this sounds, it’s hard for me to get past the feeling that women who cover themselves up so as to obscure their bodies to such an extent may be beyond the pale. The statement that they are making is that men have no control whatsoever. It makes sense to me that in a contemporary context, men should take as much responsibility as women in protecting human dignity and in respecting one another. If either men or women insist that it is only the woman’s duty to fend off inappropriate glances, to me it feels like pre-emptively blaming the victim.

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves here regarding what it means to be a Conservative Jew: like Orthodoxy, we understand halakhah / Jewish law to be valid and binding, but we account for modernity with conservative (i.e. minimal) changes within the halakhic system. We accept men and women as being equal under Jewish law. We accept the historical view of Judaism, understanding our tradition as having unfolded gradually in the context of many places and cultures, rather than having all been given in final form at Sinai. We accept contemporary understandings of the origins of the Torah and of God. These Conservative “changes” flow naturally from our tradition; they are not a break with it.

Many of these ideas are not welcome in some quarters of the Jewish world, and some of the sentiments and principles that emerge from those quarters I find objectionable. But there is still, at least for now, some mutual sense of belonging. We are all still Jews. And as I passed Geveret Burqa there in Tzefat, we shared what you might call a little pluralistic moment – an acknowledgment of the different ways of being Jewish, even if I am disappointed that she would take the Jewish value of tzeni’ut, modesty, to a rather absurd extent.

We concluded the first book of the Torah today, and as Bereshit drew to a close with the patriarch Ya’aqov on his deathbed, each of his sons received some parting words. These fatherly praises and admonitions speak to me of pluralism. For example:

Gen. 49:8 (re: Yehudah)

יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ–יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ

You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;

Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;

Your father’s sons shall bow low to you…

Gen. 49:5-6 (re: Shim’on and Levi)

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים–כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:  כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.

Simeon and Levi are a pair;

Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

Let not my person be included in their council,

Let not my being be counted in their assembly.

For when angry they slay men,

And when pleased they maim oxen.

At this stage, the Israelite nation is really only a family. Jacob is here driving home the point, at the end of his life and effectively the end of the family narrative, that our family has internal strife. Not only do we disagree with each other, we are sometimes openly hostile. Not too dissimilar today – our internecine struggles are effectively ancient.

And yet, despite the harsh words from Ya’aqov, Shim’on and Levi continue to be counted among the Israelites. Ya’aqov does not write them out of his will, or out of the family. I am from the tribe of Levi.

In some ways we still retain that sense of family. The Talmud (BT Shevuot 39a) tells us that:

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh

All of Israel is responsible for one another.

We are all dependent on one another, all connected. We have always thought of ourselves in this way. We even have our own term for our connectedness: kelal Yisrael. Loosely translated, it means, “All of us Israelites.”

We are kind of like a giant cousins’ club. Since the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Zionist movement, some have called this phenomenon “peoplehood.” One of the major results of this sense of peoplehood in modern times is the State of Israel; a more mild form is the pride that American Jews used to take in playing “Spot the Jew”: knowing that the Three Stooges and and Dinah Shore and Kirk Douglas were all Jewish. (Re: Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.)

But the Jewish world is much more fractured than it used to be. The landmark Pew Research Center study on American Jews from two years ago showed a religious hardening on the right and growing disengagement on the left, with a disappearing middle. I think it might be harder today for us to acknowledge that we are all connected, that our souls are bound together, that we have a shared destiny, common values, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I believe we are indeed still one people. We are all Jews, even if large fractions of the Jewish world do not accept other large fractions. The concept of kelal Yisrael still resonates. And certainly, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in some quarters of the world might serve to remind us all that those who hate us surely do not care about our divergent approaches to halakhah or whether or not we ordain female rabbis or call women to the Torah.

Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall ...
Women of the Wall.

Pluralism means that we should tolerate each other, acknowledge each other. We who proudly call women to the Torah will never agree with those who must walk and ride and shop in single-gender environments. Those of us who support the State of Israel with all our hearts will never understand our fellow Jews who protest its very existence. We do not have to agree, but we have to at least acknowledge each other as fellow members of the tribe. And I think that we are still doing that. We may be a dysfunctional family, but we are still a family.

We have to continue to work together, for the benefit of our extended cousins’ club. I very much hope that we will.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/26/2015.)

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Your Next Vacation – Vayyiggash 5776

I experienced a certain amount of relief two and a half weeks ago at a rather unusual time. I was boarding a plane at Newark Liberty Airport. My relief was not, as you might expect, that I had discovered that there was nobody in the seat next to me, or that the plane was equipped with free wifi, or even that the in-flight staff was exceptionally friendly. Rather, it was that this flight to Israel was fully booked. Indeed, it was bursting at the seams: families with young children, religious Jews, secular Jews, a teen group from a non-Orthodox Jewish high school, even some non-Jews. (They are easy to pick out: they’re generally the ones who pay attention when the flight attendants tell them to sit down and fasten their seatbelts or to stop talking on their phones.)

I had been concerned that this would not be the case. I had been worried that there would be not only an empty seat next to me, but lots of them. Flight tickets were relatively inexpensive this year, and I figured that the prices were low because the stabbings had scared away the tourists. But this is not the case. (It may be that the prices have been lower because the price of oil has declined so much. We’re paying significantly less at the pump here, and in Israel the price of gasoline was the equivalent of merely $6/gallon, which is much lower than it’s been for the last decade or so.)

Whatever the reason, this plane was full. Despite the two-month-long wave of terror attacks in Israel, despite the worldwide criticism of Israel in the wake of the Gaza mess two summers ago, despite BDS and their supporters, all of these people were flying to Israel. And that’s a very good thing; although Israel’s high-tech sector has been booming for years, the economy still depends on tourism, and it is a growing sector — it accounts for 7% of the economy, which does not sound like much, but has the additional added value of bringing in lots foreign currency.

I have been on flights to Ben Gurion Airport when the seats were sparsely populated. I was in the north of Israel when Hizbullah’s rockets were falling there in the summer of 2006. I was in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, when the streets of the midrakhov on Ben Yehudah were painfully quiet and nearly every cafe had its own security guard out front who frisked every entering customer.

But that was not the case on this trip. I was happy to see chartered buses crawling throughout the land, piled with tourists from all over the world – in one kibbutz dining hall I noted Christian tour groups from Taiwan, Singapore, and a couple of different American locations. Israelis are not cowering in their homes, forlorn. Life goes on in the Holy Land.

And of course it always does. The Israeli character has been toughened by decades of terrorism; Israelis are accustomed not only to living with it as a given, but also to minimize their fear through rationalization. It’s a self-protective mechanism, of course, but it is also the only real way to continue living. We cannot allow fear, and much less the purveyors of terror to dictate our daily choices. And that is as much true in America as it is in Israel. If we let ourselves be scared by terrorists, they win. That’s why they are called “terrorists.”

And remember that the news media are not our friends in this regard. If it bleeds, it leads, and they are in the business to sell you something. They want Israel to appear dangerous, because we read that stuff. But it’s not. In the two weeks that I was in Israel, there were (if I can rely on the accuracy of Internet searches) four attacks on Israeli civilians, only two of which actually took place within the Green Line; no Israelis died, although roughly 15 were injured. In the United States in that period, the statistics suggest that over 4,000 Americans were shot by guns in the same period, and of those, 420 were homicides. How many of those did we read about in the news? (Based on averages given here.) Yes, terror attacks are disturbing, and they undermine all hope for a peaceful future. However, the picture that some of us have of Israel as being more dangerous than other places is simply not accurate.

***

My intent here today is not to speak about terrorism; it is, rather, to convince you to visit Israel. I moved to Pittsburgh from a community that was very strongly connected to Israel. Many of my congregants in Great Neck had relatives in Israel, or even if they did not, had been to Israel on multiple occasions. True, it is easier and somewhat less expensive to get there from New York, with direct flights plentiful on multiple airlines, but I have been somewhat surprised here in Pittsburgh. In forums where I have inquired about travel to Israel, those who have been there are usually in the minority.

We should change that. Many of us want to support Israel, but do not know how. Here is an excellent way to lend your support to the Jewish state: go there.

And all the more so, we need to go to Israel particularly when the situation is bad. I have witnessed a number of tour groups fall apart because something scary happened on the streets of Jerusalem.

But I have some unpleasant news for all of us: in light of recent events, no place in the West is any more safe than any other. Now, that does not mean that we should be afraid — there is no point in adding terrorist threats to our burgeoning list of contemporary fears. We should of course ensure that law enforcement is doing its job, and be vigilant. But Israel is no longer unique in this regard; we are all in the same boat.

So that should give us all the more reason to go to Israel: you are actually safer there! Why? Because Israelis have been trained, effectively from birth, to watch for and report suspicious activity. Because everywhere you go, there are security personnel of various types. When was the last time your car was checked on the way into a mall parking lot? It happens all the time in Israel.

Given that, I want to enumerate for you just a few reasons why you should plan your next vacation in Israel, whether you have been there or not:

  • Support the Israeli economy. Israel is not cheap, it’s true. But when you travel there, you have access to a whole spiritual dimension that you may not find in other locations..
  • Get in touch with your heritage. The streets of Israel are filled with Jewish history and life. By walking those streets, by meeting your cousins, by visiting the ancient locations from where our history emerged, you will connect with our national story in a way that is simply impossible anywhere else.
  • Israel competes with any other vacation destination in the world for relaxation opportunities. Beaches? Oh, yeah. Museums? Some of the best in the world. Scuba diving? Eilat is gorgeous year-round. Fine dining? Some of it is even kosher! And the cafes are awesome. Hiking? There are incredible vistas and amazing trails all over.  Israel has been described as a half dressed lady: lusciously robed in green landscape to the north, with the Hermon mountain seasonally snow-capped, and naked to the South with the mesmerizing Negev desert and the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea.
  • Learn. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, the best place to understand Israel and the complexity and precariousness of her position in the Middle East is to visit. We Americans like to weigh in on Israeli politics and military strategy, but the most honest way to approach this is to actually be there and soak up the environment. Nothing is ever black-and-white, and being on the ground and talking with the people who actually face the challenges of the region on a daily basis can be extraordinarily revealing.
rakevel 2
Haifa.

And there are many more reasons to visit, not the least of which are the falafel, the shawarma, and the hummus.

When I returned to Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning, I had a funny sensation: the feeling that Pittsburgh is home. I have lived in many places: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, New York, and of course Israel. “Home” is a difficult concept for many of us today, as people are more mobile than they have ever been.

Today in Parashat Vayyiggash, we realize that Yosef has really become a naturalized Egyptian. When he finally breaks down and asks his brothers about home, he does not seem nostalgic for the land of his birth; he inquires only about his father’s health. He does not say, “I’m coming back with you to our home, and my servants will send with us enough food for a decade.” He does not even engage small talk about the state of things back at the Israelite ranch. Rather, he invites his family to come down with him to Egypt, to create the first diaspora community, and to set in motion the series of events that will lead to slavery and then freedom and return to Israel.

Home, for Yosef, is Egypt.

Our home is here, it is true. We are loyal Americans, committed to all of the principles that this country upholds, and grateful for the freedom from oppression which it has provided for our parents and grandparents, and for this same freedom and opportunity which, we hope, it will continue to offer those who come from afar.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book of Bereshit / Genesis, which we will read next week, Yosef will request from his family that when they leave Egypt and return to Israel, they should bring his bones with them to be re-interred in the land promised to his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Yosef understands that his real home is there.

And today, living here “be-sof ma’arav,” at the end of the West, as the great poet Yehuda haLevi put it in 12th-century Spain, we are still undeniably connected to that small strip of heart-breakingly beautiful, holy earth halfway around the world.

So go there. Soon.

And let me add by way of conclusion that in the handful of parlor meetings that we have held since I started here, many of you have mentioned that we should host a congregational trip to Israel. So let’s do that. Let’s put together a task force and make it happen next year. That would be a wonderful thing. If you want to make it happen, come talk to me.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/19/2015.)

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Building the Future with an Eye to the Past – Toledot 5776

For three days this week, I am in Chicago to participate in the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which is boldly titled, “Shape the Center.” Dave Horvitz (our president) is already there, and Ed Frim will be there as well. I have heard that the attendance will exceed that of the centennial convention two years ago, with over 1200 attendees from all over North America.

Logo Shape the Center: USCJ Convention 2015

This is, of course, a time of great anxiety for the Conservative movement: declining numbers, an aging population, financial and spiritual challenges.

And yet, in my mind, this is also a time of great optimism. The core of the movement is excited to act, to re-envision what we do, to create new modes of engagement and learning. Maybe we’re a wee bit late – why were we not re-thinking and re-envisioning two decades ago? Nonetheless, the great renovation project of the Conservative movement is underway, and the USCJ convention is ground zero for this groundswell of activity.

Why the optimism? Because there will always be a need for the center in contemporary Jewish life. Because although we have lost numbers, those whom we have retained are more committed. Because there will always be a demand for a Jewish environment which is at once traditional and and yet sensitive to contemporary sensibilities. Because, as my colleague, Rabbi Joshua Rabin, put it in a recent opinion piece that appeared in the Forward,

The fact that the Pew Study showed that Conservatives Jews are by far the most engaged non-Orthodox population in every measurable category, including Israel activism, ritual practice, synagogue attendance and investment in Jewish education, is proof that Conservative Judaism is not only a critical Jewish voice, but an effective one, too.

But among the greatest challenges that we face as a movement, and all the more so in our 140-character world, is that it is difficult to describe who we are. What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew? I am a lifelong Conservative Jew, and I could not really adequately articulate that until I was a student at JTS.

We have no effective soundbite. Maybe that’s not a bad thing – an ancient religious tradition, after all, cannot be reduced to a few glossy phrases.

But here is the irony: What I think really makes us the Conservative movement is history. History is on our side, and the future is shaped by the past.

We understand that Judaism and Jewish practice has always been influenced by the culture and time in which it existed. We understand that the Oral Law, the rabbinic interpretation documented in the Talmud and later literature, is more malleable than principles enshrined in the Torah, that it actually encourages argument and multiple acceptable positions. We understand the motivations of the human hand in our sacred scriptures, revealed through academic study. We understand that halakhah / Jewish law and Jewish rituals have changed continuously over the last two millennia.

History is our friend, and the future depends on our understanding of history.

Our understanding of the Torah is also intimately tied to our history. I am something of a  grammar buff, and I have always been drawn to Torah commentaries that address the eccentricities of our historical language, Hebrew.

Several years back, around this time of year, the Philologos column in the Forward took up the question of foreign words adopted into Modern Hebrew.  There are many such words, since the corpus of Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew from which Modern Hebrew draws is lacking in many terms required by modern life.  Some of these adopted words are more “Hebraized” than others:

Lesabsed,” for example, means “to subsidize.”

Ektzentri” means “eccentric.”

Pluralizm” means (I know this is hard to believe) “pluralism.”

Philologos points to, among others, the Hebrew word “historiya,” which means, of course, history.  “Historiya” is a Greek word which arrived in English via Latin as “history,” and is derived from the Greek term for learning.

Now, if I were you, I would be wondering, “Given that Rabbi Adelson just told us about the importance of history in Jewish tradition, why did Hebrew need to borrow a Greek term for history? Is there no original Hebrew word?”

I’m so glad you asked! It does seem surprising that the language of the Torah, and for that matter, all of rabbinic literature does not include such a word.

And yet, as Philologos points out, the correct form of “historiya” when used in construct with another noun (construct: like birkat ha-mazon, the blessing of food, or qeri’at ha-Torah, the reading of the Torah) is not “historiyat ha-yehudim” for example.  Rather, the first word of the construct changes entirely, replaced with “toledot.”  As in, Ve-elleh toledot yitzhaq (Gen. 25:19), which were the opening words of our parashah this morning.  The JPS translation renders this as, “This is the story of Isaac.”  To modern Israeli ears, these words sound more like, “This is the history of Isaac.”

The word “toledot” seems to be a form of the shoresh (root) “yod-lamed-daled,” child, and from which all forms of begetting and begotten are derived (e.g. yeled, laledet, velad, holid, moledet, molad).  It seems to mean history, but literally, it means, these are the generations of Isaac.  When used, however, it is not merely about who begat whom – it is also used to introduce important details of the lives of Biblical characters.  The same word, by the way, introduces the second Creation story in Genesis as well (Gen. 2:4 – Elleh toledot hashamayim veha-aretz), the one that includes the intrigue of Adam and Eve in Gan Eden – not generations, but history.

As Jews, we constantly, actively relive our history.  From week to week, as we observe the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays that tell the story of one ancient happening after another, we are invoking our history.

Medeba map of Jerusalem
The Medeba Map of Jerusalem

We are here today because God rested on Shabbat, and our ancestors have always done so.  We built our Sukkot seven weeks ago because our ancestors wandered through the desert.  In a few weeks, we will kindle the Hanukkah lights to commemorate the Hasmonean military victory over the Hellenized Syrians in middle of the 2nd century, BCE.  And so on.

So while you can make the case (as some scholars do) that “historiya” is a modern idea, you cannot deny that the Jews have always been committed to retelling the past – celebrating the victories, and recalling the low points to avoid them in the future.

History is central to who we are.  And all the more so as Conservative Jews.  The Conservative movement was originally called “the positive-historical school,” referring to a group of Central European Jewish scholars of the mid-19th century who were positive toward Jewish tradition and law, but also historically-inclined.  That is, they saw Judaism as a developing tradition and studied it in the historical and cultural context of the wider cultures in which it has existed, and were likewise committed to halakhah, Jewish law, in its own historical arc.

We like to think historically. Whenever I teach rabbinic literature, and many of you know this already, I have a timeline nearby to put everything in context.

It is only through the historical lens that we can truly understand who we are and where we are going – from the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and a whole range of dates and places and kings and rabbis and interpreters and wars and exiles and migrations.  And so forth.

And here we are today, still trying to find our paths through Judaism.  Here is where our long view becomes even more important.  We are living in a time in which historical memory is painfully short.  Who has to remember anything anymore, when everything you could ever possibly need to know is a few swift keystrokes away?

We as Jews know and understand history, and as the wider world drifts into an ahistorical stew of digital present, we must continue to take the long view, to continue to seek our future in the context of the past.

I spoke last week about the mandate to teach our teens the history of the State of Israel. But really, the task is much greater than that. Isaac’s story, toledot yitzhaq, is our history, and so is everything that follows, right up to the events of last week. We have to keep referring back to that timeline, and all of the characters and places and events on it, to maintain a vital Jewish center here in North America. We have to continue to teach the value of Shabbat, to live the value of hesed, acts of lovingkindness, to resonate with the traditional words of the siddur, even as we find ways to balance these practices with contemporary society and where our people are today. And we can do this without compromising our essential ideals.

And that’s why I am in Chicago for a few days. David and Ed and I will bring back material to share with everybody, so that we can continue to re-fashion the Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement that will ignite the passions of our grandchildren.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/14/2015.)

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What We Need to Teach Our Children, and Ourselves, About Israel – Hayyei Sarah 5776

I’m flying to Israel in a couple of weeks to spend some quality time with my teenage son. My flight tickets were relatively cheap – that’s good for me, but not so good for Israel. Prices are down, of course, because demand is down. And demand is down because of the recent rash of stabbing attacks. Not so good for the Israeli economy, which naturally depends heavily on tourism.

I must say that every time I visit Israel, and I go often (I am proud to say that I have flown there about 30 times in the last 15 years), I have to kvell a wee bit. I am so proud to see what Israel has become – a highly-developed country on par with much of the West – and all the more so because of the obstacles that Israel has faced. Not that everything about Israel is wonderful – the traffic is horrible in the big cities, the cost of living is ridiculous, and there is a constant feeling of pressure that many Israelis feel – but when you pull back the lens, what you see is very impressive. I remember seeing poll data in recent years that despite all of their societal and political challenges, Israelis are actually among the happiest populations in the world. And that’s really surprising, given that most of them are Jewish.

Of course, the obvious reason to be proud of the State of Israel is that it is, in some sense, a fulfillment of centuries of Jewish yearning. One might make the case that this yearning began with the tale in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, when Avraham needs to find a burial place for his deceased wife, Sarah, and so negotiates with the Hittites for a plot of land in Hevron (Hebron), right smack in the middle of the Judean hills. The Torah is particularly explicit – not only does it describe the purchase of this piece of land and the formal negotiation through which Avraham and the Hittites arrive at a price, but it also identifies the specific area surrounding the Cave of Makhpelah.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hevron

Many of us might read this passage as a deed to Makhpelah, and arguably an ancient anchor point for the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. Certainly, many commentators believed so: a midrash in Bereshit Rabba (79:7) cites it as one of three places in Israel for which the nations of the world cannot taunt the Jews by saying that they are stolen lands. (The others are Joseph’s Tomb in Shekhem and the Temple Mount. Interesting that all three are today in contested areas!)

Jerusalem Old City Gates & Walls map The Old City of Jerusalem is ...

And throughout history, from the time of the Babylonian Exile (beginning 586 BCE) and thereafter, Jews living in Diaspora have looked to Israel as our spiritual home. We have highlighted our connection to the land in poetry, song, and tefillah/ prayer.

We are extraordinarily fortunate to be living in a time in which there is Jewish sovereignty in that tiny strip of land. Think of how our ancestors living in Iraq in the 6th century CE or Spain in the 12th century or Poland in the 15th century must have thought about Israel: distant, dream-like. The idea of a Jewish state in Israel, where Jews from all over the world could visit easily and regularly must have seemed so remote as to be inconceivable.

Who could have imagined that, 67 years after the creation of the Jewish state, that Jews worldwide would have to battle Israel’s ideological opponents both within and without our ranks? Who could have imagined that having a Jewish state would require constantly having to defend its legitimacy? Who could have imagined that Israel would be singled out for special criticism even as the neighboring government in Syria kills hundreds of thousands of its own people?

A week and a half ago, I sat with a group of teens at the JCC to talk about Israel. I was invited by Carolyn Gerecht, whom many of you know. My goal was to put the recent stabbing attacks in perspective. So, once we had established some of the basic facts of the situation, I took them on a whirlwind tour of the history of Zionism and the modern return to Israel.

We spoke about the earliest rumblings of Zionism, even before it was known by that name, in the middle of the 19th century in Eastern Europe. We spoke about Theodor Herzl and the Zionist Congress. We spoke about the British Mandate and the War of Independence and the Six Day War. We spoke about the Oslo accords and the Intifadas. We spoke about the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the subsequent series of military engagements with the terrorists of Hamas. If they were listening (and I know that some were), they learned quite a bit.

It seems almost crazy that we need to equip our teenagers with this information. American children of French extraction do not need to be prepared to defend the existence of the French Republic. But as we all know, there is plenty of misinformation, exaggeration, and downright lies about Israel that are being spread as truth, and we have to make sure that our children do not fall victim to falsehood.

There is a lot of concern nowadays about college campuses and where our children stand on Israel. But here is the problem: to truly understand the news from Israel, to dig beneath the headlines, one needs at least 120 years, and arguably 3,000 years of historical background.

You may know that the current attacks in Israel seem to be the result of a social media campaign, not organized by any particular organization, to stoke Palestinian anger over a rumor that Israel plans to upend the status quo over the Temple Mount. Without getting too deep into this, since Israel captured it in 1967, the Temple Mount has been controlled by a Jordanian Muslim trust called the Waqf. An increase in visits by Jews to the Temple Mount in recent years has resulted in the concern that Israel intends to take over control of the Temple Mount from the Waqf, even though Israel has stated firmly and clearly that this is not the case.

Judaism has traditionally discouraged Jews from walking around on the Temple Mount. Even though the Temple has not stood for nearly 2,000 years, there is a concern that it would be inappropriate for us to tread on the area that had been the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies (the inner chamber where the Ark of Covenant was kept, and wherein the Kohen Gadol / High Priest would enter once a year on Yom Kippur to pray for forgiveness on behalf of all the Israelites.) Nonetheless, I visited there in 1999, and even entered both the Mosque of Al-Aqsa at the southern end of the plaza, and the Dome of the Rock itself, which sits approximately where the Temple stood at the rocky outcropping at the top of Mount Moriah.

After paying my entrance fee, I was given a guide to the area produced by the Waqf that contained the following tidbit of information (this is a direct quote):20151109_142051_resized“The beauty and tranquility of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem attracts thousands of visitors of all faiths every year. Some believe it was the site of the Temple of Solomon, peace be upon him, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, or the site of the Second Temple, completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, although no documented historical or archaeological evidence exists to support this.”20151109_142105_resizedNow, had I not already been aware of the wealth of archaeological information that does in fact exist, I might have believed that statement. But I know that, despite what the New York Times printed a few weeks back (prior to issuing a correction), there is no scholarly debate on this point: both Temples were there. That location was undeniably the ritual and political center of Israelite and Jewish society for centuries.

I only had one hour with those teens at JLine, so I covered only the bare essentials. But we need to equip them with more information. They have to be able to spot a bald-faced lie like I did, and speak up.

We have to send them to Israel, and not merely on fun tours of the clubs of Tel Aviv and wineries in the Golan, and not only on archaeological tours of our ancient sites of holiness. We have to give them the background that will enable them to put all of the elements of the current situation into perspective. They have to know not only about the history of the Temple Mount, but about the Balfour Declaration, the UN Partition Plan vote of November 29, 1947, the Camp David peace agreement, and on and on. Our teens have to have these dates and places and agreements in their heads and on their tongues. If they do not, then the forces of denial and untruths will continue to whittle away at Israel’s legitimacy, at her very right to exist.

And that does not mean, by the way, that we have to deny the Arab, Muslim and Christian history in the land, as (in some cases) they have denied ours. On the contrary, we must continue to take the high road. We cannot lower ourselves to the level of those who peddle misinformation. And we have to give our children a whole lot of credit here: they will know that when we are committing sins of omission. We have to give them a complete picture, and acknowledge the breadth of history dwelling in that land.

And let’s face it – this is not easy, especially when it seems that our teens are harder and harder to reach. But the very size and importance of this task points to the necessity of ongoing Jewish education after bar or bat mitzvah. (This is a subject that has been raised around me continuously since my arrival in Pittsburgh; it came up several times at the inaugural meeting of Beth Shalom’s brand-spanking-new Benei Mitzvah Committee, two nights ago.)

Even though the deed to Makhpelah is in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, there are thousands of years of history that follow. We have to know that history, and we have to teach it to our children.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/7/2015.)

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Seeking Ourselves for the Greater Good – Lekh Lekha 5776

Back in Great Neck (you might have heard me use that phrase a few times already in the last two-and-a-half months) I used to teach a workshop for benei mitzvah families, wherein we spoke about (among other things) our understanding of God. And every single time we had the God discussion, I would emphasize that where you are at age thirteen in your understanding of God is probably not where you’ll be at age 18, or 22, or 40, or 65. I actually wish that somebody had told ME that when I was preparing to become bar mitzvah.

But nobody did, so I had to figure this out for myself.

As we move through life, we change. The character and quality of our interpersonal relationships change. Our outlook changes. Some of the things we value as teenagers eventually seem ridiculous, and things that once seemed irrelevant have value. And even when the circumstances of our lives are not dramatically altered, sometimes the internal journey is much more powerful and revealing.

Consider, for example, our relationships with our parents. Mark Twain gave us the following piece of wisdom: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

Our understanding of God and ourselves is central to Parashat Lekh Lekha. How does the parashah open? God tells Avram, (Gen. 12:1)

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

Lekh lekha me-artzekha, umimoladtekha, umibeit avikha, el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.

Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Those two deceptively simple words, lekh lekha, are translated (New JPS) as “Go forth.” But the depth concealed within those three simple syllables is astounding.

First, we know nothing about Avram. Nothing more than his lineage and that (at the end of Parashat Noah last week) his father Terah had once started to emigrate to Canaan, but was sidetracked and remained in Haran. There is nothing that suggests that Avram is the right person to be sent on this journey, or that he is somehow holier or more pious or more intelligent or capable than anybody else.

Second, there is no indication, at least in this verse, that Avram has any clue where he is supposed to go once he has left his family behind; he only knows that God will show him. This is an entirely indeterminate journey.

Third, the imperative “lekh lekha” is grammatically difficult. To translate it literally, it might be saying, “Go unto you.” Given the complexities of translation, particularly from ancient to modern languages, it is nonetheless clear that this phrase speaks volumes.

Yes, it seems that God is telling Avram to leave his ancestral homeland (which would today be located in Iraq) and go somewhere else. But even more so, Avram is also being urged to take not only a physical journey, but a spiritual one as well – to leave the idolatrous landscape of his family, and to start anew in a headspace that only features the one true God. And the drastic nature of his physical journey reflects the challenge of the spiritual journey.

Rashi tells us that the “lekha” suggests, “For your own benefit and for your own advantage.” That is, Avram’s move will be good for him. What follows the opening verse, of course, is a promise that he will sire a great nation, a promise that will ultimately be reiterated to Isaac and Jacob as well.

But we must read this promise as not just a physical benefit, but also a theological benefit. Avram’s journey is to improve himself, to seek the proper way to live, to find his true nature, but it also encompasses his initiation of a monotheistic legacy, which will ultimately impact much of the world.

All the more so, says Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, in his analysis of Lekh Lekha. We are each endowed with our own unique challenges, our natural characteristics, which may include some unsavory aspects, like anger or lust or pride. But we are also given the opportunity to rise to the occasion to fulfill our own particular roles in this world to do good.

Avram’s spiritual journey, then, is the challenge of self-discovery as well as self-improvement. He is ordered to leave his home, his family, to go off to some unknown place far away. But he will surmount this difficulty and thus fulfill his role as the common ancestor of all monotheistic traditions.

And the Slonimer Rebbe takes it even further: Lekh lekha tells us not only that it is Avram’s role to overcome the idolatry of his youth, but that it is the role of every single Jewish person to repair one’s own soul so that we might go on to repair the world. And furthermore, he says, it is not enough merely to learn Torah, to pray, to perform mitzvot / commandments. Rather, he says, when one arrives in heaven, s/he will be asked, “What did you DO in the physical world?” And what Rabbi Berezovsky is telling us is that even the most pious among us, the ones who davened three times a day, every day and never even so much as looked at an un-hekhshered slice of cheese pizza, we will be challenged to demonstrate that we have pursued the iqqar, the principle item of importance. And that iqqar is not ritual acts or Torah study, but rather tiqqun olam, repairing the world. Doing good works with our hands for the benefit of others in need, for the greater good of humanity. That is the essential physical task of life.

OK, that’s great rabbi, but what do I do? How do I know what my role is in this very fractured world?

Well, so I am sorry to say that I cannot tell you that. That is only something that you can determine for yourself. That is what Avram did by leaving his homeland and moving to Canaan.

But his seeking of himself does not end with his arrival in Canaan; in fact, upon arrival, he almost immediately departs to Egypt. Later we find him moving to and fro in Canaan, digging for wells in Beersheva, journeying to Moriah, what will eventually be called Jerusalem, to climb a mountain that will some day be the spiritual focal point for his offspring, and so forth. His is a lifetime of seeking; he never quite completes the journey.

And so too do we continue to seek. Our journey goes on.

Every week at the conclusion of Shabbat, we recite words from Isaiah (12:3):

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה

Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’aynei hayeshua.

Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.

Those wells are within us. Yes, Avram may have traveled all over the ancient Middle East in seeking himself, in going forth unto himself. We do not necessarily have to do that. (Of course, a trip to Israel that includes a visit to the holy sites of Jerusalem and hikes in the desert and a good soak in Yam HaMelah / the Dead Sea can indeed be revelatory.)

We do not have to seek outside of ourselves; we can find the answers about what our individual or collective roles are within, deep in those internal wells of salvation. But we do have to look. And that takes work – not unlike the physical challenge posed by God to Avram to pick up and leave his homeland and his father’s house. And it also takes time, as we mature and learn ever more about ourselves.

As we attempt to frame our lives with meaning, the key question, then, posed by the Torah and by Jewish tradition, is not our understanding of God, but rather how we understand ourselves.

Most of us will probably not receive a direct commandment from God to pick up and leave home. But we will all face a changed understanding of ourselves and how we relate to God and the world as we age. Many of us, I hope, will reach beyond our comfort zone into those deep wells in search of our true selves, to look for that role that we all might play in repairing the world. You don’t have to move to Israel or enroll full-time in the Jewish Theological Seminary to do so, but you do have to dig. Each of us has that potential; I hope that you will act on it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/24/2015.)

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Sermons

Torah and Science: Living with Contradiction – Bereshit 5776

My daughter is in third grade. She loves being Jewish, and Judaism is the fabric of her life. Last year, in second grade, she started to express ambivalence about God and the Torah. She had encountered the theological conundrum that many of us face as young adults or even later in life. How can we accept the story of Creation as truth, when scientific inquiry has yielded a vastly different story? How can we accept the Torah as legitimate if it is not verifiably true, according to scientific principles? Doesn’t the whole Judaic enterprise come crashing down if the Torah conflicts with science? (OK, so she didn’t really ask those particular questions, but in any case I was not expecting this for many more years…)

I have arrived at my own response to these questions, and we’ll come back to that in a few minutes. But meanwhile I would like to take you on a wee tour of the first chapters of Bereshit / Genesis.

There are not one, but two Creation stories in Bereshit. The first is the six-days-of-Creation- followed-by-God’s-resting-on-the-seventh-day story. That is all of chapter 1 of Bereshit (begins on p. 2 / 3), plus the first few verses of chapter 2 (p. 6 / 13).

The second story is a different take on Creation, and features “HaAdam” and “HaIshah” (the man and the woman) as the first two human characters. It begins in the second half of 2:4 (p. / 13), and continues for the rest of chapter two (until p. 10 / 17).

These two stories are very different for a number of reasons: the first is ordered, numbered, logical. It constantly reminds us that God admires Creation and labels it “good.” It suggests the tone of an engineer designing a linear, sensible world, in which everything is measured and put in its proper place. The creation of humans, man and woman together, occurs at the end of the process, because we all know that human beings will inevitably foul this orderly, organized world.

The second story, however, is somewhat more chaotic. It presents a different order of things, in which HaAdam, the man, is fashioned from the ground (“adamah”) much earlier in the process, and is almost a partner in Creation. The woman appears later, only after God realizes that the man must be lonely (2:18). The woman, of course, is fashioned from the rib of the man, and for this reason the second story seems to suggest a much more complex relationship not only between HaAdam and God, but also between HaAdam and HaIshah, a complexity that will play itself out in events later in the parashah.

In addition to the content of the story, it is also immediately apparent that the style of writing between the two stories is quite different; the first is almost mechanical, while the second tells a story of the interplay between the three characters (God, man, woman) as the world comes into being. They use different names for God, and draw on a different vocabulary. The second story speaks of emotion; it describes one origin of the human condition.

Torah

The classic medieval commentators, who detected these differences, tried to resolve the two stories by explaining that the second story is merely an elaboration on the first. (Rashi, for example, glosses this difficulty by citing a hermeneutical principle that suggests that the Torah frequently states a general idea, e.g. the creation of people, and follows it with specific details, e.g. that HaAdam helped in naming all the plants.)

But the commentators can only take it so far because their agenda is to resolve problems, to make sure that the Torah seems like a unified document, that everything flows nicely and is not contradictory.

Problem is, it breaks down under close scrutiny!

A better way of understanding these two stories, of which we are capable because we live in the 21st century and not the 11th, is that they do not have to comment on each other. There is no need to resolve them to make sense. Rather, here is one story, and here is another.

Why is this OK? Because we can handle it. We are committed enough to our Judaism to accept that this is just one more contradiction of many: How, for example, can God be all-good and all-powerful if humans suffer needlessly? How could Moses have taken dictation from God about his own death (as we discussed on Simhat Torah, Baba Batra 15a)? How could Haman be a descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites if King Saul and the judge Samuel killed all of them? How can it be that the shofar is permitted on Rosh Hashanah but not on Shabbat? How can it be that the Talmud explicitly permits women to be called to the Torah, but contemporary Orthodoxy still forbids it?*

Anybody who wants you to believe that everything makes sense in Jewish life is trying to sell you a bill of goods. It doesn’t. And we have lived with many of those contradictions for thousands of years, sitting there on the Jewish bookshelf.

Please now recall our guiding principle when discussing the Torah: “What does this mean to us?”

Let’s return now to another contradiction: the Torah tells us a few things about the creation of the world. But those of us who have had a secular education (i.e. just about all of us) know and understand that science tells us a story that cannot possibly be resolved with either story found in the Torah: that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, that it originated in an infinitely dense point that suddenly exploded outwards (the “Big Bang”), that the Earth is hardly the center of the universe, that various forms of life evolved gradually from simple self-replicating proteins to the many complex species that exist today.

“Miller-Urey experiment-en” by GYassineMrabetTalk✉This vector image was created with Inkscape.iThe source code of this SVG is valid. – Own work from Image:MUexperiment.png.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miller-Urey_experiment-en.svg#/media/File:Miller-Urey_experiment-en.svg

Yes, there are people who will tell you that the six-day story of Bereshit chapter 1 is meant to be interpreted such that each day represents a much longer time (an average of two billion years per day!), and that the order in which things were created roughly echoes the way that scientists have envisioned the unfolding of the universe. While this explanation might satisfy some, I cannot accept it – it requires too much force to squeeze the first Genesis story into that scheme. How is it, for example, that there could have been liquid water (1:2) at the beginning if the initial act of Creation (i.e. before vayhi or, “let there be light”) was a cataclysmic explosion? And how could there have been green plants and fruit-bearing trees (vv. 1:11-12) when there were not yet Sun, Moon, and stars (1:14:18)? And then what happens to the second Creation story? No, I am sorry to say that this does not work for me, either.

So what is a scientifically-minded chemical-engineer-turned-cantor-turned-rabbi to do? The only possible answer to these questions is not to try to resolve them. They can occupy two different parts of our brains, and not be troubled by each other. Just like the two Creation stories that disagree with each other are side-by-side in the opening chapters of the Torah, so too can these two perspectives sit side-by-side in our heads.

Because, really, the apparent challenge of the scientific story vs. that of the Torah is a bogus challenge. They do not need to be resolved, because they are, in fact, answering different questions.

There was an article in the New York Times magazine back in April about the language of science vs. religion which spoke to these apparent contradictions. The author, T. M. Luhrmann, pointed to recent scholarly articles that suggest that religious belief and scientific understanding occupy two entirely different areas of our consciousness. We use different words and concepts when discussing faith or science. Religion speaks to “Why?”; science answers “How?” Religion uses the subjective language of belief, but science is about observed laws and principles and measurable evidence.

Ms. Luhrmann cites a story that suggests that the non-intermingling of the two areas is both healthy and common, courtesy of the anthropologist and physician, Dr. Paul Farmer,

…about a woman who had taken her tuberculosis medication and been cured — and who then told Dr. Farmer that she was going to get back at the person who had used sorcery to make her ill. “But if you believe that,” he cried, “why did you take your medicines?” In response to the great doctor she replied, in essence, “Honey, are you incapable of complexity?”

In one realm, that of the rational person living in a time of great technological advancement based on the principles of science, the Big Bang model answers all of the questions surrounding the origin of the universe. It is an answer that makes sense through the lens of academic inquiry.

In another frame of mind, that of the Jewish person of any era who turns to our national Jewish story to help make sense of this world, the stories of Bereshit answer our greater questions.

The Torah and the Big Bang are indeed contradictory, but they can both be understood to be true in some sense. They are different lenses through which we can understand our world. They occupy different places in our consciousness; you might say that the Big Bang belongs to the mind, while Bereshit resides in the heart.

The Torah teaches us values, how to live a meaningful life, why we should care about others. It helps us to answer the question of “Why?” Science is not concerned with meaning – it toils in the “What?” and the “How?”

We need both the “Why?” and the “How?” and the answers that follow them. We need both science and Judaism, so that we can be in balance with ourselves and our world. We need the Big Bang, and we need Bereshit.

Shabbat Shalom!

* See Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23a. The reason given in the Talmud for not calling women to the Torah is “kevod hatzibbur,” “the honor of the community.” However, in a world in which women can be doctors, lawyers, CEOs, professors, and perhaps President of the United States, why would calling a woman to the Torah be shameful to the community? Furthermore, traditional Jews who indulge in the apologetic claim that women are exempt from mitzvot because they are “on a higher spiritual plane” and therefore don’t need them are perhaps unaware that it seems ridiculous that women are on a higher spiritual plane but nonetheless cannot be called to the Torah. Wouldn’t we want those endowed with extra “spirituality” to be the ones who lead us in prayer?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/10/2015.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Memory and Compassion – Shemini Atzeret / Yizkor 5776

This is a day of memory, a day when we recall those who shaped us, who gave our lives meaning by their presence and wisdom and love.

We Jews excel at remembering. There is a reason for that: through centuries of exile, persecution, dispersion, displacement, forced conversions, and so on, we had to cling to our history, because often it was all we could take with us.

Memory is what drives the Jewish world. It is what keeps us Jewish. Our past sustains our traditions; our ancient stories have nourished us and comforted us and granted us joy for thousands of years. When we had no homeland, when we had no safe haven, when we were being burned in autos-da-fe or tried for treason or marched into gas chambers, we could always take with us what we held in our hearts, the words of our tradition, our rituals, our ancient stories. We could always take with us our own personal tales of struggle and faith, of our poor yet pious great-grandparents who came from a far-off land to build a new life where they were free to be Jewish.

We are our memories. To borrow from the language of Birkat Shehehiyyanu, which we say upon reaching any milestone, our memories have kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day. And that’s a good thing.

But it may not be enough today. It may not be enough for our children and grandchildren, because the world is changing so dramatically. Our memories are catalogued extensively, yes. Today we are blessed to have huge libraries containing millions of volumes about the Jewish world that was, Jewish studies departments at universities all over the world, Jewish scholars and Jewish artists and Jewish websites and archives and museums.

And we have the greatest set of Jewish resources before us in history, resources that would make Rashi and Rambam green with envy, had they foreseen these things in the 11th and 12th centuries. We have electronic resources, instantly searchable, with which you can find virtually anything on the Jewish bookshelf. We have fantastically footnoted and interpreted translations that make the Tanakh and Talmud and midrashim and halakhic codes instantly accessible. We have databases in which you can easily peruse all the great works of the Jewish bookshelf.

And yet, as we move forward, I see the lights of Jewish memory fading in the eyes of our children, lost in the din of billions of gigabytes of information. As we integrate our devices into everything we do, we run the risk of losing sight of what the important things are.

There are rabbis in this world who rail against the use of computers and smartphones and the evil Internet because they are corrupting influences that draw us away from God and Judaism. I am not one of them (as you may know, my sermons are all accessible online). But I am concerned that our electronic interconnectedness has the effect of de-emphasizing distinctiveness, of flattening everything out so that every piece of information is the same value as every other.

So one irony of today’s Jewish world is that while we have more tools at our fingertips thanks to the Information Age, the noise and distractions with which these tools come make our ancient messages, our holy memories, harder to hear.

How do we cut through the noise to ensure that our tradition of memory is carried on? We have to change the tone.

My inspiration here comes not from Rashi or Rambam, but from a contemporary spiritual leader of tremendous importance: Pope Francis. Francis, who is the first Jesuit pope and the first from the Americas, has been masterful in changing the tone of the Roman Catholic church, something that the church sorely needed. In his tour of the United States that coincided with the Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance (as well as the annual Muslim hajj festivities), the Pope spoke in several venues to re-affirm what has become the trademark of his papacy: to focus less on standard church doctrine and more on the many good things that the church and that religious people of all sorts do all over the world: acts of compassion.

Francis is the Conservative rabbi’s favorite pope. He is a good friend of a Conservative rabbi from Buenos Aires, the rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (the JTS of Latin America), Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he co-authored a book on faith and frequently appeared for public lectures and discussions. Dr. Eve Keller, a good friend and former congregant of mine from Great Neck teaches at Fordham University, a Jesuit school, and she refers to the the Jesuits as the Conservative movement of the Catholic church: dedicated to academic scholarship, progressive, and committed to tradition.

While there are some in the church want to hear the pope speak against abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and the hot-button issues of our time, Pope Francis uses every opportunity to remind the world that there are poor, needy people everywhere who lack the essentials for a decent life. He has placed the concept of mercy front-and-center. While he has not changed significantly the church’s position on anything, he has changed the tone, changed the discourse.

When he spoke before the joint session of the United States Congress on September 24th, he quoted the principle that appears in the Christian scriptures (Matthew 7:12) and is known widely as the Golden Rule, but we in the Jewish world know it as the sage Hillel’s advice to a potential convert as the summation of the Torah. The pope said the following:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…

Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.

This was a reminder, in the most public forum that the pope had during his visit, that the social and political flashpoints that divide us are not, as we say in Hebrew, the ‘iqqar, the central principle of the church, or of any religious tradition, including ours. Rather, the essential message is, to use Hillel’s phrasing (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a): “Do not do unto others what is hateful unto you; all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”

Ultimately, we will be judged not on our devotion to halakhic minutiae or the dogmatic details of religious belief, but on how we have treated others. Have we made compassion the default option? Have we allowed only the holiest words to emerge from our mouths? Have we really worked to change this world for the better, to improve the lot of the poor, of the disenfranchised?

In the book co-written by Rabbi Abraham Skorka and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the rabbi cites a midrash about the Tower of Babel. The Torah tells us one story of God’s objection to the tower. But the midrash suggests that the real reason that God foiled the builders’ plans is that they were more concerned about bricks falling out, and thus slowing down the work, than if a worker were to fall and be killed.

The big picture was lost in the focus on the small details. The sanctity of life, the holiness of our relationships became obscured by the noise of the construction site, the business at hand.

What is our big picture? Is it Jewish law? Is it the performance of mitzvot / commandments? Is it the lifelong commitment to Jewish learning? Is it ritual, services, holidays, waving the lulav/etrog, sitting in the sukkah, etc.?

Those things are all important; they are the behaviors that define us as Jews, and have maintained our distinctiveness and our relationship to God. But the central message to which all of these Jewish activities should lead, the one that we must recall on this day of memory, is compassion.

Each of us has the potential to play a special, sacred role in this very fractured world: to do good works for others, for the sake of those who have come before us.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, alav hashalom, became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at age 3. He grew up on a farm near Boston with a foster family, Jewish farmers who were decent people. He did not finish high school. But he was a good person who always took care of the people around him. He operated a candy store during the Depression, but lost it because he gave free stuff away to anybody who came in and asked. I never heard him say a negative word about anybody, except about the people who once sold him some stock that ultimately tanked. My mother tells me that he complimented his wife, my grandmother, on her cooking, no matter how badly dinner was burned. When I think of this sweet, sweet man, I remember how essential it is to be kind and gracious to everybody, to give all people, strangers or loved ones, a fair shake in life.

The memory of our ancestors, of the people they were, of the good things they did, of the hard work that enabled them to survive and us to thrive, should inspire us to continue to do good works in this world, to practice acts of passion and compassion.

That is the essential message, the one that Pope Francis and I hope will rise above the din of all the chaos in our lives, the one that previous generations gave us and that we will pass on to those who come after us.

As we turn now to recall those who endowed us, the living, with the ability to effect positive change in this world, we should not forget that remembrance is not a momentary prayer. It is a daily choice. Let our prayerful moments today translate into good works for others tomorrow.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shemini Atzeret, Monday morning, 10/5/2015.) 

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Opening the Doors – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5776

Over the last year, the Forward newspaper ran a series of articles by Abigail Pogrebin about Jewish holidays entitled, “18 Holidays: One Wondering Jew.” Ms. Pogrebin committed to observing traditionally the full year of holidays, from Rosh Hashanah through Tish’ah Be’Av. Although she is Jewish, she had never done so, and she supplemented her observance by speaking with a number of rabbis and Jewish leaders and scholars of all sorts. It was a very thoughtful project, and a pleasure to read.

I must confess that I read her attempts to get to the bottom of Jewish holiday observance with a certain smugness – after all, this is the life that I lead, and these are the thoughts that I had as I took upon myself later in life to be a traditionally-observant Jew. I’ve had these conversations with myself and others. I’ve struggled with the line between appreciating the holidays and feeling overwhelmed by them (particularly in the month of Tishrei, which is stacked with many festive days). Even though I grew up in an observant home, my awareness and observance of the halakhic details of these days is much higher than it was in childhood – we barely knew of the existence of Shavuot, for example, and Tish’ah Be’Av, as far as I knew, only happened at Jewish summer camp.

Her conclusion to the series appeared a few weeks ago, and what I found to be most fascinating about it were her responses to a question which, she claimed, she has been asked over and over: “Did it change you?”

Did this year of six fast days, thirteen yamim tovim / festival days, nine hol hamo’ed / intermediate non-yom-tov festival days, twelve or so minor-holiday days, forty-nine days of counting the Omer, eleven Rosh Hodesh / new month days, three weeks of summer grieving for the destruction of the Temple, and a whopping fifty Shabbatot improve her life? Did these observances grant her more awareness, make her feel more grateful?

Here are her answers to that question:

Yes, because the mindfulness it incited — an unexpected wakefulness — made me look harder at every priority, every relationship, time itself.

No, because I still get restless in long services.

Yes, because I now see the point of rituals I used to think were pointless.

No, because I still don’t see the point of many rituals.

In short, it was a mixed bag. Ms. Pogrebin expresses relief for having survived (!), and states candidly for the record that she will never do it again. She also confesses that she was not able to fully carry out some Shabbat and Yom Tov principles – she did not succeed in turning off her phone, for example (something to which I very much look forward on holidays) – and in some cases used her journalistic distance to avoid immersing herself entirely in the experience of some holidays.But she also clearly states that there is significant value in our tradition, that some things which had never been clear were now sensible and rewarding.

Her project points to a particular set of challenges that Judaism poses for the contemporary person, challenges that must be addressed, moving forward:

  1. Why do we do all the things that we do?
  2. What is the value in performing these rituals and customs?
  3. Who has time for all these holidays?
  4. And, if I have successfully come up with the justification, the time, and the inclination to dig deeper into Jewish life, where do I start?

These are questions that we must answer as a community. If we don’t, we have no future.

Here is a brief story about tradition, which you may have heard before: Mrs. Goldberg is preparing a brisket for Rosh Hashanah. Her young daughter is watching, and she notices that before she puts it in the oven, she cuts off both ends of the brisket, what looks like perfectly good meat, and she throws them away.

“Why do you do that, Ima?” asks young Hannale.

“That’s the way my mother did it,” reports Mrs. Goldberg. “Let’s ask her.”

They call the grandmother and ask. “That’s the way my mother did it,” says Bubbe. “Let’s ask her.”

They call the great-grandmother and ask the same question. “Why did you cut off the ends of the brisket?” She answers, “Because my pan was too small.”

(BTW, this is such a well-known story with so many variants that it has its own snopes.com entry!)

***

As Abigail Pogrebin states, most of us do not observe the holidays the way that she did over the past year. And most of us do not know why we do what we do. But many of us grew up in homes in which certain things were done, but we were not sure why. But we did them because, well, that’s just the way we do things.

We like preserving things. There is a general principle in rabbinic Judaism: Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu. Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.

But times, as we know, have changed. Nothing may be taken for granted any more. The transmission of the brisket recipe, let alone many more essential Jewish rituals, have been left behind. The cycle of expecting our children to make the same choices that we have has broken down in the ocean of infinite choice set before each of us. At the last United Synagogue convention, two years ago, Rabbi Ed Feinstein described America as “choice on steroids.” Given that, we will have to rebuild our notions of what it means to be Jewish.

Ms. Pogrebin describes the value of observing the holidays traditionally as follows:

Something intensifies. Like when my eye doctor gives me option “1 or 2” when he sets my eyeglass prescription, I suddenly saw option 2. The Jewish schedule heightened the stakes somehow -— reminding me repeatedly how precarious life is; how impatient our tradition is with complacency; how obligated we are to aid those with less; how lucky we are to have so much food, so much history, so much family.

I was honestly, maybe saccharinely, moved by mundanity itself — and its simplest joys — more than ever before. The small stuff got sweeter — in my normal, non-religious life: The way my daughter and son talk to each other when they don’t know I can hear them. The way something tastes after a fast. The sight of a delivery guy loaded with bags on his bicycle. My baby sitter’s loss of her brother in Trinidad. The ease of having my college friends at one table. I marked more. Paid attention. Lingered longer.

And yet, her conclusions suggest that the bar is too high. She sees the value in following the cycle of holidays, and yet she is unable to fulfill all the expectations. She is open to it, but still will not jump in. If not her, then who?

You might make the case that the holiday season is about being open:

  • Open to tradition
  • Open to God
  • Open to community
  • Open to forgiveness; but mostly
  • Open to others

Sukkot, of all holidays, suggests these things the most. On these days, we invite others into our tents; it is about celebration tinged with the lingering sense of repentance and forgiveness. It is about looking back over the holiday cycle and forward into the coming year. Openness. Wistfulness. Frailty. Joy.

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We have to open more doors, so that more Jews will enter, so that more will find the same benefits that Abigail Pogrebin discovered: the heightened joys, the greater appreciation, the increased awareness of the need to see beyond one’s own nose. There is a real, tangible value to being invested in Jewish life.

There were a lot of people here on the first two days of Sukkot. Many of us in this community understand Sukkot; we understand how the holidays frame our lives with joy and gratitude, love and appreciation, structure and comfort in difficult times and so forth. We know and appreciate the spiral of our lives as we move upward in time, bolstered by the holy moments of the Jewish year as they come around for each successive mahzor, cycle.

And yet, most of American Jewry does not know very much Hebrew; most of us do not keep kashrut / the dietary boundaries; most of us do not keep Shabbat or festivals in any traditional way; most of us are not marrying fellow Jews.

These are realities of today’s Jewish world. How are all of those non-engaged Jews ever going to drink from the wells of Jewish tradition, to appreciate its value?

We cannot pretend that people who are not committed to living a halakhic lifestyle are simply going to show up at 7:30 on Wednesday morning and start davening Pesuqei Dezimrah. We have to invite them in through other doors. We have to start small. If we want to widen our circle, if we want more people to join us, we have to lead them to an entry point and encourage them to stick at least a toe in. Otherwise, we’re merely cutting the ends off of the brisket for no apparent reason.

We’ll be talking more about this as the year goes on, in various forums.

But meanwhile, for those of us who are here, who have those happy holiday memories, who have those strong bonds with Judaism and Jewish life that keep pulling us in, let’s continue to revel in the power of the holiday cycle. Let’s continue to let those holy moments change us, to inspire us to learn and re-evaluate, and to draw on that inspiration to welcome others in.

We have to create memories for others, and create relationships with those who are not here.

We need these days. The Jewish world needs these days. Open up those doors.

Mo’adim lesimhah, haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/3/2015.)