Category Archives: Yizkor

Virtual Visitation – Shemini Atzeret 5779 / Yizkor

We, the Jews, are good at memory. It’s an essential part of our tradition. What are the ways that we remember people who have passed from this world?

  • Reciting Qaddish / other Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) observances
  • Yizkor (memorial services observed four times per year)
  • Book of Remembrance
  • Plaques

We are thorough at remembering. I think that might have something to do with our history. For much of the last two millennia, the Jews have moved around a lot, and every time we had to pick up and move to a new locale, we had to leave the cemetery behind. (Yes, the book of Shemot / Exodus records how the Israelites took Yosef’s bones with them as they fled Egypt, but that was an unusual circumstance.) It could be that we developed these regular rituals for remembrance.

When I look through our list of yahrzeit names, I often see that those who are observing yahrzeits are far away – who have since moved to Florida or Texas or New York – but their mother or sister or cousin is buried here in Pittsburgh. My grandparents are all buried in the Boston area; I don’t know if I will ever get to their graves again to visit. But I of course carry my memories of them, and I have shared some of those memories with my children. My grandmother, who, when she left her shtetl at the age of 8 in 1921, left her grandparents behind in the earth of Volhynia, Ukraine, could never have even thought about going back to visit them after she arrived in Boston. (For years, my mother and I have been thinking about traveling to the Ukraine to see if we can find them. BTW, I am captivated by the fact that I can see my grandmother’s little town on Google Maps. It’s nothing more than an agrarian crossroads, and the likelihood that the Ukrainians have maintained the Jewish cemetery there seems pretty slim.)

As the Jews were uprooted throughout history and went from Israel to Iraq, to Rome, to Spain, to France, to Germany, to Iran, to Yemen, to Morocco, to India and China and Jamaica and Chile and the Lower East Side and all the other places they went, they did not have the luxury of going back to visit.

So we developed virtual visitation. We carry the names, the faces, the memories of our departed loved ones wherever we go. We carry with us at all times those who have left us behind, and we take those memories down from our mental shelves from time to time. One of the great things about how we Jews mourn is that we force ourselves to remember. We are never entirely healed by a loss, but all that active remembering brings us comfort.

A couple of weeks ago on Yom Kippur, as we dedicated the new memorial plaques to be placed on the walls of Beth Shalom, a name caught my eye: Melaku Allen. Usually, the names that I see enshrined on plaques are drawn from the traditional Eastern European canon of names: Bernstein, Cohen, Levine, Shapiro, and so forth. Lots of Irvings and Idas and Morrises and Minnies. Not too many Melakus.

I actually wasn’t sure even how to pronounce the name.** The plaque was being dedicated by our member Dan Schwarcz. So I asked him about it at kiddush on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. This is the story he told me.

Melaku Allen was the son of an Ethiopian Jewish father and a Christian, African-American mother, and he grew up in New Jersey. His father returned to Ethiopia when he was young, but Melaku, captivated by the traditions of his absent father, was drawn to Judaism, and underwent no less than three conversions: first by a Reform rabbi, then a Conservative rabbi, and then an Orthodox rabbi. He met Dan when they became roommates; Dan was in graduate school, and Melaku worked for NJ Transit. That was in the mid-1980s, and Melaku was not young then – he had already served his country in Vietnam, where, among his tasks was the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. Melaku told Dan that he had been regularly covered with the stuff.

Dan and Melaku became very good friends, although they came from very different cultural backgrounds. Melaku occasionally referred to the two of them, jokingly, as the Schwarcz brothers. And they used to daven together at a little shul called the New Freedom Synagogue, so named because it was sponsored by an organization that was helping to resettle Jews from the Soviet Union, who were arriving in greater numbers in the 1980s.

But eventually, the Agent Orange exposure caught up with Melaku, and in 1987 he died of cancer. His funeral, Dan said, was unusually awkward, because his mother’s family was Christian, but it was a Jewish service. The synagogue members wanted to physically bury him, according to Jewish practice, but Melaku’s mother’s family was shocked by the practice. The officiating rabbi, who must have been a skilled communicator, explained gently that this was Melaku’s wish, to be buried according to Jewish tradition, and that the Jews consider it one of the highest forms of hesed, loving-kindness, to bury our deceased loved ones as a community, each of the assembled mourners helping out. So the Jews began the process of burying Melaku, and the assembled group seemed very tense and awkward, until Melaku’s mother stepped forward, picked up the shovel, and put some earth into his grave. There was a feeling of relief, and the Jews and the Christians all buried Melaku together, shoveling the earth together in fellowship while they remembered this man who died too young.

Dan did not have to take upon himself the obligation for remembering Melaku. He was not a relative.

But Melaku did not have anybody else to recall him in the Jewish way. So Dan took the virtual visitation upon himself. And then he went a step further to recall him with a plaque, which will now sit on the wall in Beth Shalom as long as this building stands.

One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that remembrance is all-encompassing. We remember and grieve for all those whom we have lost. The sibling from whom one was estranged. The abusive parent. The stillborn child*. Those that perished in the Shoah, and of course for many of them there is nobody to mourn. Those that gave their lives to defend their country, and in particular those who gave their lives for the state of Israel.

That is one reason that I urge people not to follow the old Ashkenazi custom of not staying in the room for Yizkor. We need more remembrance. We can always offer words of Yizkor. The need for recalling those for whom there is nobody saying qaddish is far greater than old-world superstitions.

And even for those for whom there is no plaque, and no living relative, we continue to recall them. Just as Moshe fulfilled the promise that the Israelites made to Yosef, hundreds of years prior, to take his remains up from Egypt with him, we fulfill that obligation to all who came before us, carrying the spiritual remains, if you will, of all Jews who came before.

There is a Jewish cemetery in Berlin, which I once visited on a tour of Jewish sites there, where Moses Mendelssohn is buried. Mendelssohn, of course, is the father of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that began in the 18th century, as Jews stepped out of the shtetl and into Western society. Mendelssohn was, arguably, the first modern Jew: he lived an observant life and wrote extensively on Jewish topics, but also entered the salon culture of Berlin, wherein he schmoozed and sparred with non-Jewish German philosophers of the time, most notably Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He is one of the three great Moseses invoked in the piece of Jewish intellectual folk wisdom: From Moses [the biblical one] to Moses [Mendelssohn], there is none like Moses [Maimonides].

The Nazis destroyed the cemetery, and as you walk through it you see fragments of the matzevot (gravestones) in the ground. But when I visited in 2001, there was one matzevah standing: that of Mendelssohn. It’s a recreation, of course – it’s not the original. But it’s a stark, powerful statement of memory.

MosesMendelssohn 2

Does Mendelssohn need a marker? No. We recall him every time a contemporary Jew acts like a citizen of the world: dressing like an American, or studying at a French university, or voting in a democratic election in the State of Israel, or recording a hit rap album (with a nod to Mac Miller, z”l). Our virtual visitation of Mendelssohn consists of living proudly as Jews who are welcomed into the broader society.

We continue to mark Moses Mendelssohn’s passing, and Melaku Allen’s, and all those whom we recall today, as we make our way through life, virtually and physically. But the essence of remembrance is not what’s on the wall, or in the Book of Remembrance that you all hold, or even in reciting Qaddish or lighting a candle. It is in what is in our hearts as we remember them, the things that they gave us, the moments we shared, the times we hear their voices coming out of our own mouths. Those are the items that sustain and honor our beloved parents, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands and partners, our sons and daughters and friends and all those whom we recall, as we continue through life.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shemini Atzeret 5779, 10/1/2018.)

* Yes, some have the custom not to mourn children who do not live past 30 days. But first of all, that is because in the pre-modern world, many, many children died this way. Also, it’s just a custom. If it helps you heal to mourn for a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a baby who died soon after birth, then you have every right to do so.

** Dan tells me that while his mother accented the first syllable, “MEL-a-ku,” his Jewish friends accented the second and turned the k into a khaf: “mel-A-khu.” I cannot confirm this, but my suspicion is that it is an Amharic (Ethiopian) cognate of the Hebrew melekh, meaning “king.” Amharic and Hebrew are both in the Hamito-Semitic family of languages.

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Everyone Has a Story – Shavuot Day 2 / Yizkor, 5778

Shavuot is kind of a funny festival. It’s one of the least well-known, mostly because it usually falls after Hebrew schools have concluded for the year. It doesn’t really have all the tactile and gustatory experiences of Sukkot and Pesah, say, or the fun-loving, child-centered holidays of Hanukkah and Purim, or the gravitas of the High Holidays. I don’t think it’s even as familiar as Tu Bishvat, which is not actually a holiday at all.

And yet the story that Shavuot tells is so central to what it means to be Jewish – the celebration of the gift of Torah, and everything that flows from it. Shavuot is the story of the ongoing revelation of our tradition, of how we continue to receive and reinterpret ancient wisdom for our time. As such, it should be the central pillar of the Jewish year, the one holiday that unites everything else we do with our most essential spiritual journey, our lifelong quest for understanding ourselves and our world.

OK, and there’s also cheesecake.

Two weeks ago, we laid to rest a long-time member of Beth Shalom, Ruth Lessing. She was a few months shy of a full century when she passed away.

Whenever I perform a funeral, I meet with the immediate family of the deceased to get the full story: who they were, what they enjoyed doing, what they took pride in, their successes and failures, and so forth. With Ruth, this process was not so easy: she had one son who lived in Wisconsin, and was on hospice care when his mother died; he himself passed away a few days later. So I had to rely on a couple of more distant relatives here in Pittsburgh, and they told me what they knew: they gave me as much of Ruth’s story as they could. Getting that information was not so easy. I eventually heard about Ruth’s parents in Germany, who bribed a whole range of officials to get five of their seven children out of Germany prior to the Sho’ah, but who ultimately perished, along with Ruth’s younger brother, at the hands of the Nazis.

But it reminded me of an essential piece of who we are: that each of us has a story.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem

One of the poems included in our Yizkor (memorial service) booklet is “Lekhol Ish Yesh Shem / Everyone Has a Name.” It was written by the Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984), usually referred to as Zelda:

(Note: Hebrew is a gendered language. Please understand that while Zelda wrote entirely in the masculine, it can be read as “he” or “she”; I have modified the translation to reflect this.)

לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו אלוהים
ונתנו לו אביו ואמו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו
ונתן לו האריג
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו ההרים
ונתנו לו כתליו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו המזלות
ונתנו לו שכניו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חטאיו
ונתנה לו כמיהתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו שונאיו
ונתנה לו אהבתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חגיו
ונתנה לו מלאכתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו עונות השנה
ונתן לו עיוורונו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו הים
ונתן לו מותו
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to her by her parents
Everyone has a name
given to her by her stature and the way she smiles
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to her by her walls
Everyone has a name
given to her by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to her by her longing
Everyone has a name
given to her by her enemies
and given to him by his love
Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to her by her work
Everyone has a name
given to her by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea
and given to her by her death.
(Translated from Hebrew by Marcia Falk, quoted from “Generations of the Holocaust” by Bergmann and Jugovy)
Zelda stamp

Zelda

Our name is our story; captured within those few words, you might say, is all that we stand for as individuals: our likes and dislikes, our deeds and misdeeds, our family connections, our obligations and characteristics and quirks and reputations.

We live in an increasingly dehumanizing world, one in which our individual stories are less and less relevant to all that we do. I am increasingly concerned that, given the way things are moving, we shall all soon be reduced to a pile of numbers. The new algorithms that suck up our information like water, predicting our behaviors, knowing which product we will buy and which candidate we will vote for even before we have thought about it, are sapping our free will. It’s more than a little creepy, and quite alarming. We will soon have no secrets, nothing that is hidden from the rest of the world. Maybe that’s already the case.

Not long after the news broke about Cambridge Analytica, the election research firm that scooped up personal data on 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge and in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, the New York Times ran a few analysis pieces about the information that Facebook and Google and other big data companies collect and use. The author had downloaded and reviewed all the information. Facebook’s data amounted to 650 megabytes, including all of his Facebook activity (likes, shares, posts, etc.), all of this friends’ contact info, including addresses and phone numbers, and a list of all the companies and organizations that had requested his information for the purposes of advertising on the site. (BTW, I downloaded my own Facebook data after reading this article, and among this latter list was none other than Congregation Beth Shalom, which has purchased a few targeted ads on the site.)

Google and Facebook know a lot more about you than your parents do. Even, by the way, if you do not have a Google account: these companies create files for people that are connected to others who do have accounts. They may not know your name, but they know a lot of things about you, and they assume that some day that info will be useful. Google owns the text of this sermon, by the way; in my own Google drive, there are nearly 6 gigabytes of writings and photos and videos and sermon ideas just sitting there waiting to be delivered.

Your genome, by the way, is small by comparison. Your DNA, the chromosomes found in each of the cells in your body, effectively what makes you you account for about 750 megabytes; it can be further reduced to the essential variations that differentiate individual humans from each other, is maybe only about 125 megabytes, depending on the method of storage.

DNA

But that’s not a story. We are not the sum of our data points, or our clicks or our lists of friends or where we purchased groceries. We are not a set of ones and zeros, or even patterns of genetic nucleotides. We have souls. We have journeys. We have lives. We have names. Everyone has a name, which is shorthand for the life we have lived.

You cannot capture love in a digital file. You cannot describe the palette of human creativity, or the full range of human feelings, or the complexity of interpersonal relations. You cannot record the thrill of watching your daughter perform on stage, or the joy of meaningful conversation, or the exultant abandon of group singing around a campfire. A computer would have no reason to argue with another computer over the meaning of a verse in the Torah, or a Talmudic sugya. Microprocessors do not mourn their parents.

What makes us people, what gives us our names, is the full complement of human experiences that we acquire over years of living. It is learning to walk, and failing at dating. It is hiking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, tasting the most fabulous dessert you’ve ever had. It is staying up all night to write a term paper and getting a mediocre grade. It is scoring the winning point and losing a beloved partner.

I must say that I am slightly concerned over the bold new future, in which companies will reduce us to a pile of numbers, but I am not THAT concerned, because we will always have our souls. Nobody can take that away from you.

And nobody can take away the souls of those whom we have known and lost. We carry them all with us. We carry their names. And we carry their stories.

Lekhol ish yesh shem. Each of us has a name, and each of us has a story.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 5/21/2018.)

 

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May (S/He) Remember – 8th Day Pesah 5778 / Yizkor

In last week’s New York Times, there was a column by Nicholas Kristof about clergy in America (“The Rise of God’s Spokeswomen,” Sunday Review, April 1, 2018), and how clergy of most denominations are increasingly female.

We in the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1985, and as their numbers have grown, the idea of a female rabbi has become more widespread and more acceptable. I have female colleagues who are in large congregations, who are the senior spiritual leaders of their flocks, and who are as respected and as effective in their positions as men. And that is a good thing.

Kristof says something that I found particularly moving: that our changing attitudes to spiritual leadership, that our increasing openness to women in the role of rabbi or minister or priest will ultimately transform our theology. He cites Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary (just across the street, by the way, from my rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), who suggests that women will ultimately dominate religious leadership in America, and that this will reshape our understanding of the role of God in our lives, moving from “stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”

The student body at Union is now nearly 60% female; at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 63% of rabbis ordained since 1998 have been women. About one-fifth of all Conservative rabbis are women, and that percentage grows a bit each year; this spring’s ordination class is 16 women and 12 men, or 57% female. The membership of the Cantors Assembly, the professional organization that consists primarily of cantors serving in Conservative synagogues, is 35% female.

Women Rabbis Lean In

Conservative rabbis

With so many more women joining the ranks of clergy, our relationships with the various faith traditions, at least in the progressive movements, will naturally change. And so too will our theology.

Still, the sense of “maleness” in Jewish tradition is ever-present, and hard to miss. Consider the special service that we will perform in a few minutes, the proper name for which is “hazkarat neshamot,” the “remembering of souls.” But almost everybody in the Ashkenazi world refers to it as Yizkor (accent on the “yiz,” since both Yiddish and English tend to accent the penultimate syllable in most words; the original Hebrew, properly pronounced, accents the “kor”). “Yizkor” is the first word in the memorial prayers that we recite during that part of the service; these prayers are recited only four times per year: on Yom Kippur, on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesah, and the second day of Shavuot.

What does “yizkor” mean? Literally, “May He remember,” and since it is followed by the word Elohim (one of the common terms for God), it should be understood as, “May God remember,” as in, May God remember my mother, my father, my sister, etc. Now, in English, the translation is non-gender specific. But in Hebrew, the word yizkor is totally, unapologetically masculine. There is actually nothing we can do about it – there is no gender-neutral third person conjugation in Hebrew. It’s either yizkor or tizkor, may She remember, and with that latter term there is the same challenge. So, while we might avoid the issue by referring to the service by its proper name, Hazkarat Neshamot, we can’t really do much about the memorial prayer itself.

There is a midrash that I truly love about the creation of humans as described in Bereshit / Genesis on the sixth day of Creation. It’s about the verse, Genesis 1:27:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

The midrash interprets the verse to indicate two stages of the fashioning of human beings. The first adam, the first human creature, has two sides, a male side and a female side. Because the Hebrew in the first half of the verse has a singular direct object (“vayivra et ha-adam… bara oto,” “God created man… He created him”), it is clear that God created only one creature at first. Furthermore, one may also extrapolate that, since the text tells us twice that this being is fashioned in the image of God, that God also has two sides, a female and a male.

adam and eve

Adam and Eve, by Tsugouharu Fujita

The second part of the verse, “zakhar uneqevah bara otam,” “male and female He created them,” has a plural direct object, so the midrash’s perspective is that God took this two-sided figure and split it into two distinct beings, a female human and a male human. Both are therefore equally in the image of God. Both are God-like, and God is neither male nor female but actually both.

I must concede that when I think and speak about God, I am trying not to envision a specific image. On the contrary, my personal understanding is much more along the lines of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s view of God as kind of force within the natural world, a process that works through and around us, and such a force has no gender, no body, no clear “actions” as described in the Torah and midrash. But I know that if you scratch two Jews, you’ll get at least three different theologies. And, of course our text and liturgy is saturated with images of God as a distinct character, and in particular, a distinctly male character: Avinu malkeinu, Avinu shebashamayim, God sitting on a heavenly throne, God creating the world, God dictating to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and so forth. And all that language is unquestionably masculine.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share a personal anecdote, one that might help illustrate a different model for understanding God.

A few of you know that I lost my first cousin, Anne Lerner, last week. She was 50 years old, and taught in a middle school for “inner-city” kids in Hartford. She died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and we were all shocked and raw, particularly in the context of Passover, to be burying her at such a young age. Anne was never married; she did not have children of her own. But she was so loved by all her students, current and former, that there were about 300 people at her funeral. The school where she taught actually closed on Monday so that teachers and students could attend, and the school actually brought the students in buses to the synagogue in Manchester, CT where the funeral was held.

I am telling you this not to share with you my grief over the loss of my cousin, but rather because in discussing the arc of my cousin’s life with my family members in preparation for delivering a eulogy, I came to understand that she saw her students as her children. She was to them like a nurturing mother, leading and guiding and nudging where possible, making sure they were taken care of, making sure that their needs were met, that if they were not receiving love and support at home, then at least they would get it at school.

Anne loved those students. She loved them dearly. And they loved her right back.

Teaching is holy work, and although my cousin would not have thought of herself as holy, she was in some sense modeling for all of us a way that we might understand God: our teacher, our guide, our provider, our nurturer, the one who makes it possible for us to love. God need not be “Our Father, Our King,” but rather, “The One who loves us and gives us the ability to love.”

That is a theology that appeals to me, and arguably an understanding that is made even more reasonable as the clergy becomes more female.

Any of you who have ever discussed theology with me, in a class or my learners’ service or one-on-one, knows that I am all for re-thinking how we understand God, because the traditional images do not work well for me. And some of you may also know that I draw heavily from my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (zekher tzaddiq livrakhah / may his righteous memory be for a blessing) in this matter, whose bottom line was that we have to seek the understanding of God that works for us as individuals. (BTW, if you are interested in learning more about this, come to my session at the Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot on Saturday night, May 19th at the JCC. I will be discussing Rabbi Gillman’s legacy and why connecting to theology is so essential.)

What works for me is to see the entire palette of humanity as reflecting the image of God: God is male and female, black and white and everything in-between. And God is also none of these things.

As we embrace more women in the clergy, we will surely welcome a broader understanding of the Divine, a more balanced sense of God that incorporates both paternal and maternal aspects.

While I am almost certain that we will always continue to refer to hazkarat neshamot as “Yizkor,” may He remember, I think it would be a good thing to, when we recall our loved ones who are no longer with us, to remember that they were as much subject to God’s nurturing love as to God’s justice.

May that God, the one that reflects the balance of humanity, remember all of those whom we recall today. May our God-given ability to love inspire us, in their memories, to spread more love in this world.

anne lerner

My cousin, Anne Lerner z”l

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning / 8th day Pesah, 4/7/2018.)

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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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