Category Archives: Yizkor

Beautiful Equations – Shavu’ot, 5777

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

eulers identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

 

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Joy and Grief – Eighth Day of Pesah, 5777

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

redwood stump

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

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

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

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

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

מצווה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimhah tamid.

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

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

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

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

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

Aristotle2

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

Hedonistic happiness yielded nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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A Yizkor Thought: The Wind Telephone – Yom Kippur 5777

As we recall our loved ones who have passed from this world, I’d like to share a brief story I heard recently on Public Radio International’s program, “This American Life.”

It comes from the town of Otsuchi, nearly 600 km north of Tokyo, which was devastated by the tsunami in 2011; many there died, over 400 are still classified as “missing.” In this town, a local man built a phone booth in his garden, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, so he could “speak” to the relatives he lost in the storm. He called it the “Wind Telephone.” It’s an old-fashioned sort of booth, with a black, rotary phone inside that’s not connected to anything. But this man, Itaru Sasaki, would sit in the booth and speak to his dead relatives.

Soon, word got out that this was a kind of magic phone. Other people came to sit and speak with their deceased family members. They dial the phone, and talk. Mr. Sasaki’s phone became a national phenomenon.

Japanese society is extraordinarily reserved; the Japanese are not inclined to talk with others about painful things. And what this Wind Telephone allowed people to do was to pour out their hearts, alone, in view of the ocean that destroyed their lives, and in some sense “speak” to those whom they missed so much.

A recent documentary about the phone on Japanese state television captured some of the conversations:

One man says, “If my voice can reach you, please listen to what I have to say….”

Another: “Come back fast, wherever you are. I hope you are alive.”

One writes in the guest book: “Where are you, mother? I’m sorry I was not a good child. I miss you.”

A woman brings her grandchildren: “Hi, Grandpa. How are you? I’ll be in 4th grade next year. Grandma is fine too.”

An older man, a farmer, says: “Nobuyuki, is Mom with you? Sorry to ask this, but take care of her, and Grandma and Grandpa too. I’ll be back.”

It’s heartbreaking. You can feel the grief of their words, hear the pain of loss and devastation echoing in this booth as it sits alone in the wind.

As Jews, we remember those whom we have lost in multiple ways – we light candles, we recite qaddish, and we gather four times per year for the ceremony of Yizkor. Most of our rituals associated with mourning and remembering are communal; as with much of Jewish life, we do these things together, as a community. The gathering of our people in the synagogue is our Wind Telephone; the community itself functions as the conduit through which we remember, through which we grieve.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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The Memory Machine – Second Day Shavuot, 5776

Remembrance of those who have passed from this world is a universal human desire; we all feel the need to recall our family members and friends who are no longer with us.

Two decades ago, when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I recall reading a statement about memory that has stuck with me.  It appeared in the campus newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, in the middle of a tongue-in-cheek article about something that I can’t remember.  But the statement that struck me read as follows:

“[So-and-so] is still trying to cope with the realization that he is a function of every person he has ever met and every book he has ever read.”

I remember thinking, hey, that’s me too.  I am also a function of every person I’ve ever met and every book I’ve ever read.  And here, the word “function” is used in its mathematical sense.  Perhaps some of you recall from junior high school algebra:

f(x)

or the diagram of the function machine:

function can be visualized as a "machine" that takes an input x and ...

A function is a box that performs some kind of action on data that is entered, such that what comes out is modified in a particular way.  So if f(x) is x-squared, then if I put in 2, the function turns it into 4.  If I put in 3, it becomes 9.  And so forth.

To say that we are functions of our life experience is a vast oversimplification, of course.  Our own function machines would have to be very, very complicated.  But on some level, this is not far off.  We are shaped by our experiences, from the moment we emerge from the womb, through schooling and relationships and work and success and failure and loss and happiness and sadness.

Perhaps a better way of understanding ourselves, then, is that we are  memory machines — sacks full of memory — that not only process our experiences through those memories, but also allow us to dig into our past, to re-examine, to think of the beautiful moments as well as the awkward ones that we wish had never happened. What we carry with us is invaluable; it is in fact who we are.

And it is really hard to wrap our brains around that.  We often measure people by the superficial stuff: how they appear, what car they drive, where they go to synagogue, when they go to synagogue, and so forth.

But what really makes us who we are is our own, personal, individual sack of memory. And in particular on a day like today, when we reflect back on how our lives were touched by those whom we remember.

The proper name from Yizkor, by the way, is Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of souls. What we do on this day is to attempt to bring up those shards of memory of those who have left us: who they were, what they stood for, what they taught us.

Perhaps this endeavor serves as a reminder on an ongoing basis of our obligation to treat others well, to remember that every interaction that we have with other people is logged in somebody’s memory.  And not only that, but also that many little actions can add up to a tidal wave of memories, memories that cross over from individuals to peoples.  Memory shapes not only individuals, but also cultures, politics, and nations.

I’m going to share with you a few examples from my own memory machine, memories that have shaped me as a contemporary Jew, as an American, and as a rabbi.

When I was in cantorial school, and before I had a cantorial position that required me to be at the same synagogue every Shabbat and holiday, I used to do a lot of “shul-hopping.”  That is, I would walk to different synagogue in Manhattan to listen to different hazzanim, to hear them practice their art.  One year on Shemini Atzeret, I walked to Fifth Avenue Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on the East Side, to hear Cantor Joseph Malovany.  Unfortunately, he was not there that day, and his substitute was unremarkable.  But I was treated to something else that day: the author Elie Wiesel was there, sitting quietly in the front row on the rabbi’s side.  I did something that day that I was not accustomed to doing at the time: I stayed in the sanctuary for Yizkor, mostly so I could watch Elie Wiesel as he stood up to recite his own personal Yizkor prayers, recalling, I imagined, all of the things that he had recounted in his books: the loss of his family, his Romanian village, the loss of his faith upon arrival in Auschwitz.  He stood with his eyes closed, gently rocking side to side, his head cast slightly upward.  Where is he?  I wondered.  Where is he right now?

A different story: The summer of my seventeenth year I visited Israel for the first time.  I spent eight weeks there on an academic program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where we learned Jewish history from ancient times until present day, and visited relevant sites all over Israel to put it in context.  It was amazing — much of what I learned that summer I have carried with me and used again and again.

Of course, when you have 40 seventeen-year-olds living together in a dorm for eight weeks, you learn a whole lot about the complexity of human relationships as well.  One thing that I remember from that summer was learning about how mean one Jew can be to another for the sake of one interpretation of Judaism.  One weekend, we had some free time in Jerusalem, and one of my female friends was caught inadvertently among a mob of Haredim (so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews, although I prefer not to use that misleading term) who were protesting the opening of certain cinemas on Shabbat.  She was wearing something that someone in that crowd deemed inappropriate, and so he spat upon her.  She was, as you can imagine, more than taken aback; the Jews among whom she had grown up and lived with and traveled around Israel with did not behave that way.

That was a memory that I am sure that she carries with her to this day, and so do I by proxy (even though I was not there when it happened).

Ladies and gentlemen, as a people we came through the Shoah together, laden with horrible memories, with martyrdom an essential feature of the modern Jewish psyche.  We established a Jewish state in our historical homeland.  We have empowered women to participate fully in Jewish life and mitzvot.  Many of us in this room remember all of these things personally, because you were there.  Our memories have shaped us as a people. And they will continue to help us move forward as a people into the bold, inchoate Jewish future.

Many of you have been to parlor meetings with me over the past year, and you know that part of the process is to tell a story about a Jewish memory, a meaningful Jewish experience. My goal in asking you to do so is not so that the others in the room might simply say, “Now that’s nice.” Rather, it is to (a) remind us of the power of memory, (b) create a sense of community through shared stories, and (c) try to connect who we are and how we live today as Jews with our past experiences. We fire up those memory machines to connect them with each other, and then with Congregation Beth Shalom.

On this second day of Shavuot, this day of remembering, it is upon us to look back not only on the people that have created deep personal memories for us, our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our friends, but also those among our people who have created salient cultural memories for us as Jews, and the community that we have inherited.

Memory makes us collectively stronger as individuals and as a qehillah. Turn on those memory machines; now is the time to actively remember.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 6/13/2016.)

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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.) 

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