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Sermons

Your Next Vacation – Vayyiggash 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home, for Yosef, is Egypt.

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

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

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

So go there. Soon.

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

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Festivals Kavvanot

Bringing Light: The Message of Hanukkah

I’m writing from just about as far north in Israel as one can be, in the mountainous hamlet of Neve Ativ, just west and slightly downhill from the lofty Druze city of Majdal Shams, perched high on the Hermon mountain shared by Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It’s the upper limit of the Golan Heights, and my son and I were able to look down tonight into the Hulah Valley below, framed by the lights of Kiryat Shemonah. There is actually no wifi in our cabin (I know… Can you believe it?), so if you’re reading this I have already returned to a more central locale.

Hanukkah is, as you might imagine, a happy time in Israel. Sufganiyyot (jelly doughnuts) are everywhere; schools are closed, and there are performances throughout the country. And, of course, there are lights and lightings all over – I was in a franchise of a well-known coffee-and-sandwich chain around sunset time last night, when the manager announced over the intercom, “OK, everybody, time to light the candles!” I had been nursing a kafe hafukh (literally, upside-down coffee, it’s the common Israeli term for cappucino), and there were only 3 or 4 other patrons. But the waitstaff, all clearly secular Jews, found kippot, produced a hanukkiyyah with two candles (plus the shammash) and motioned for everybody to gather around the bar. And then, despite the fact that I was desperately trying to mind my own business, they volunteered me to lead us in the berakhot. So I sang for a bunch of strangers who hummed along – they had no idea that they had picked out the only Conservative rabbi/cantor in Israel – and we had a joyous moment of Jewish holiday bonding.hanukkiyyah

More so in Israel than in America, Hanukkah carries a message: that of bringing light where there is darkness. In my own childhood, Hanukkah was the Jewish answer to Christmas – we lit lights proudly and placed them in the window to demonstrate that we were different. We played dreydl games  and ate latkes and sang silly songs about the joy of the holiday and ate chocolate coins (the best ones were always those made by the Israeli chocolate manufacturer Elite). But the message was always of (a) the miracle of the oil and (b) the Maccabean victory, neither of which really resonated so much.

But Israelis seem to get it right. The songs sung by children on this holiday invoke the theme of light. It suggests to my adult ear the classically-understood role of the Jews in the world: to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is our obligation in this world to bring light where there is darkness, that is, to reach out to those in need, to seek peace and pursue it, to protect God’s Creation zealously, to live the values taught by our ancestors, to apply the principles of Talmud Torah, of Jewish learning to illuminate this otherwise unenlightened world, to counter the forces of chaos, terror, and hatred with love, equality, and reason.

That is the message of Hanukkah. That is the light we bring. חג אורים שמח! Hag urim sameah! A joyous and enlightening festival of lights to you and yours.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Categories
Kavvanot

The Dreamers Among Us – Vayyeshev 5776

“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one”

Embedded in John Lennon’s idealistic song is a little dig at dreamers: the line suggests that to call somebody a dreamer is a put-down. Those who pursue dreams, who chase after a seemingly impossible vision, are unrealistic. They are fools.

Bereshit / Genesis features several dreams: a few are Jacob’s, a few more are courtesy of his son Joseph, and still more belong to Joseph’s jailed companions. These dreams all move the narrative forward, and in the case of Joseph, his own dreams (and his boasting thereof) cause such aggravation that his brothers plot to kill him, resulting in a tale so sublime that it found its way to the Broadway stage.

As the brothers are conspiring against Joseph, they declare (Gen. 37:19), “Hinneh ba’al ha-halomot halazeh ba.” “Here comes that dreamer!” You can hear in the Hebrew how they are almost spitting these words out with rage. “Venihyeh ma yihyu halomotav!” “We’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

Rashi tells us that the latter statement is a challenge: We’ll see whose dreams come true, yours or ours! If they had succeeded in killing Joseph, of course, his dreams would not have come true. (Spoiler alert: the brothers’ attempts to foil Joseph fail; the latter’s dreams are eventually fulfilled.)

But in general, dreaming is neither solely fantasy nor reality. In an extended passage in Massekhet Berakhot (55a), the Talmud sees dreams as containing both some reality and some meaninglessness. “Neither a good dream nor a bad dream is wholly fulfilled,” says Rav Hisda. And so too for us today: we all dream, and we often look to our dreams for fulfillment.

Of course, there are dreams and there are “dreams.” We often speak in clichéd terms of “hopes and dreams,” although really those are only our conscious hopes. The “dreamer” put-down in Lennon’s Imagine refers to one whose hopes are unrealistic: those who picture an end to all war, a comprehensive solution to world hunger and poverty, universal access to clean water and decent education, and so forth.  

But I would posit that those are the people among us, the “dreamers,” who ultimately move us forward as a society. They are the optimists, and I count myself among them. When it comes to the future, I would rather not succumb to the fear and hopelessness in which many trade; I prefer to keep dreaming.

I prefer to dream that tomorrow will be better than today; that terrorists will lay down their knives and suicide vests, that we learn to manage our natural resources so that we preserve God’s Creation, that racism and anti-Semitism and hatred of all kinds will disappear from our world, that no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will need to seek refuge from warring factions in Syria. And so forth.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. But if we cease to dream, if we manage only the symptoms and not the causes, if we are so distracted by cat videos and media circuses that we fail to confront the most pressing challenges of our time, then I am certain that nothing will change for the better. And those of us who look toward the better world of the future will lead us there.

Speedily, in our day. Even as Rav Hisda’s tempered words of caution continue to resonate, we cannot give up those dreams. Joseph’s dreams came true; let us hope that ours will too.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(A version of this devar Torah appeared in the Dec. 4, 2015 edition of The Jewish Chronicle.)

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Sermons

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

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

Logo Shape the Center: USCJ Convention 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ektzentri” means “eccentric.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medeba map of Jerusalem
The Medeba Map of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Sermons

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

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

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

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

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hevron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Sermons

Seeking Ourselves for the Greater Good – Lekh Lekha 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה

Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’aynei hayeshua.

Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Sermons

Torah and Science: Living with Contradiction – Bereshit 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah

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

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

Problem is, it breaks down under close scrutiny!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Memory and Compassion – Shemini Atzeret / Yizkor 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Festivals Sermons

Opening the Doors – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5776

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

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

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

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

Here are her answers to that question:

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

No, because I still get restless in long services.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mo’adim lesimhah, haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Living Inside the Box – Sukkot 5776

A few years back, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic became the first American journalist to interview Fidel Castro in a long time.  At one point, Goldberg asked El Comandante if his battle with cancer had changed his opinion on the existence of God.  I suppose that Goldberg was thinking of the old maxim, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and supposing that even a hardened communist might begin to think about greater spiritual things in the context of serious illness. Castro replied, “Sorry, I’m still a dialectical materialist.”

In a radio interview about his talk with Castro, Goldberg assured listeners that if Castro were doing a standup routine for a Marxist audience, that would be simply hysterical.  Frankly, I’m not sure that I get it, as I must admit that I am not up on my communist jargon.

However, the story reminded me of something that I always used to tell the students in my Bar/Bat Mitzvah Workshop (back in Great Neck) when we arrived to the unit on theology: what you believe now may not apply next year, or in ten years, or in 50.  Our understanding of God, our interaction with the Divine changes as we change.  So you always have to stay open to new ideas, new evidence, and new theological approaches.

An ideologue like Castro may never depart his atheistic moorings.  But those of us who occasionally step into a house of worship, however we feel about it, will surely develop in our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu.  And that development can go many different directions, as long as we remain open.

That brings me to Sukkot.  The primary goal of this festival, I am sure, is to challenge our theology, to make us revisit our understanding of and relationship with God, and I am going to give you four pieces of evidence to support this claim, four themes of Sukkot:  Joy, service to God, the well, and the rituals of Sukkot.

1. Joy.  Simhah.  It is the most joyous festival of the year (Deut. 16:15: Vehayita akh sameah – you shall be overwhelmingly joyful), and the only one that will be celebrated after the mashiah comes, at least according to one tradition.

It is at times of great emotion that we are most open to theology, and look for deeper meanings. The cold, rational exterior of the everyday routine keeps us focused on the business of going about life: work, family, shopping, paying bills, and so forth.  During these times, God seldom penetrates our consciousness.

But at times of great joy, like holidays, weddings, benei mitzvah, beritot milah, and so forth, when family gathers to celebrate, we are likely to reflect on what we are thankful for, and the source of good things.  Likewise, at sad times, surrounding illness, death, or other types of loss, we tend to look to God or tradition for answers.

As such, Sukkot seems like a perfect time for spiritual reflection – gratitude for what we have, anticipation for the future, relief for having sought teshuvah / repentance on Yom Kippur.

2. Service to God.  This was the time of the heaviest sacrifice schedule in the Temple.  Far more than any other holiday, there were a total of 98 lambs and 70 bulls offered on the altar over the course of the seven days of the festival.  All of this sacrifice was surely thanksgiving for the harvest, the most joyous time of the year in any agrarian society.  But it also suggests that the spiritual pathways to God are especially open on this festival, that God is most receptive to us, and we to God.

As Jews, we sanctify time; I mentioned this on Yom Kippur.  The spiritual pathways that were open to our ancestors at this time must still be available, because even though we do not sacrifice animals like they did, we still sanctify this festival with prayer and rituals and joyous celebration. This is a week of abundant holiness.

3. The well.  At the end of the first day of Sukkot, the biggest party of the Israelite year was thrown.  It was called Simhat Beit Hashoevah, the celebration of drawing water from a certain well in Jerusalem, and is identified the Mishnah, Tractate Sukkah, where it says (5:1) that anybody who has not witnessed this ceremony has never seen true simhah, true rejoicing in his whole life.

This custom is long gone, of course, perhaps because we do not know where that well is, or what the purpose of the ceremony was.  But learning about it conjures up some kind of magical, mystical image of unabandoned celebration of a holy, essential act.  There are synagogues and other Jewish communities who have revived a form of this party today, generally by hosting musical events.

When I was in rabbinical school at JTS, I had a philosophy class on the newer modes of spirituality, and how they differ from the traditional Western concept of “religion.”  We discussed two major types of seekers today, the mountain climbers and the well-diggers.  Mountain climbers look outside for spiritual nourishment; they climb up to see what they can see.  Well-diggers look inside; they mine themselves for enlightenment.  In our canon, Moshe was a mountain-climber; Avraham was a well-digger. If Shavuot is the festival of mountain climbers, then Sukkot is the holiday for well-diggers.

Perhaps the celebration of the well suggests something particularly deep (ha ha!) about the nature of this festival.  At the same time that we receive great pleasure from the harvest, which is about material success, we are also celebrating having emerged from Yom Kippur cleansed of sin and rejuvenated, and we therefore must remember to also mine our own personal depths for the non-material elements of God’s favor.

The well ceremony is thus a kind of metaphor for our own internal wrangling with God.

4. Rituals.  Sukkot today is laden with curious rituals, some of which seem to be drawn from non-Israelite customs – waving four species around, living in temporary dwellings, beating willow branches against the ground, parading around asking to be saved.

Let’s check out the Torah’s reasoning for living in sukkot during this week (Lev. 23:42-43):

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

You shall live in sukkot (temporary structures) seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.

The commentators suggest that it is incumbent upon all of us to live in the Sukkah as much as possible, and that the Torah specifies “citizens” to make clear that it is for rich and poor alike, that nobody should feel like doing so is beneath them.

We “live” in the Sukkah to bring us back to the wilderness for just a moment.  And, as we all know, the wilderness is the place for visions of God: the burning bush, receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, Jacob’s angelic dreams, Ezekiel’s chariot and valley of dry bones, and so on. The Sukkah is a place to be open to communication from God.

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The commentator Rashbam says that this is precisely the time of the year, when the harvest has been gathered and we’re feeling flush, that we should vacate our homes and property to live in a simple hut.  Even though most of us are not farmers, the sukkah still reminds us that it is not through our own hands that we have obtained all of our material goods.

* * *

I have a colleague who posted a story on Ravnet (the email list for Conservative rabbis) about how he was approached after services on Rosh Hashanah by a congregant who told him that the services were not “spiritual.”  The rabbi fretted over this for a while, as I would do, and then discussed the matter with his wife, as I would also do.

The rabbi’s wife said, in essence, relax.  There are no spiritual services, only spiritual people.  A true partnership in congregational Judaism is when the clergy opens the door, and the laity walks through.  We can only meet you halfway; you must seek God as well.

And sometimes you need to shake up your surroundings a bit to, reconsider, rethink, and be inspired, to get our of your material house and into your spiritual hut.  You could call this concept, somewhat ironically, “living inside the box.”

Just about everyone except Fidel Castro has the potential for theological growth.  So leave your comfort zone for Sukkot.  Here is a multi-pronged approach to theological openness for the coming week:

  • Spend some time in a sukkah, and keep yourself open to new inspiration
  • Eat there with your family and friends, or alone – and take a moment to think about the blessing of food and nourishment.  Perhaps discuss what it took for the food to reach your table.
  • Read in the sukkah.  Take your favorite anthology of poetry or a book of Jewish short stories or a siddur.
  • Meditate on the themes of joy, service to God, and the spiritual well.
  • Sit alone in the sukkah and close your eyes and just “be.”

In this season of heightened spiritual energy you might get lucky and discover an open well that you had not noticed before.

Hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

First Day of Sukkot, 5776