Find the Holy Moments – Aharei Mot-Qedoshim 5777

What does it mean to be holy? (Take a moment to answer that question for yourself.)

What we read this morning, parashat Aharei Mot – Qedoshim, is entirely about holiness. In addition to the Yom Kippur rituals of the Kohen Gadol (in Aharei Mot), there is also the passage of Qedoshim which is known as the Holiness Code: for example, the instruction not to put a stumbling block before the blind, the commandments not to defraud others or withhold the wages of your employees, the imperative to leave some of your produce for the poor. But most of all, there is my favorite line in the whole Torah (Lev. 19:2): Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Holiness is an alien concept to us today. We are living in a very concrete world. Thanks to technology, industrialization, the scientific method, and all the ways that we have squelched the mystery out of our daily existence, everything is quantifiable. Everything is measured. Explanations regarding how everything works can be easily found. There is very little room left for the unseen; very few cracks through which the light – the Divine light – can enter our lives.

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And our understanding of Judaism has been likewise quantified, analyzed, researched. What was an organic folk tradition has, for at least a century and a half, become another field of academic study. This is the tradition from which the Conservative movement emerged; the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was founded by American congregations led by rabbis trained, for the most part, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where I studied to become first a cantor and then a rabbi.

The modern movements that we know today, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodoxy, all emerged from the intellectual ferment of 19th-century Germany, and particularly the approach to Jewish studies known as “Das Wissenschaft des Judentums,” literally, the science of Judaism. It used the tools of rigorous academic inquiry to analyze Jewish texts, history, rituals, laws, and customs. And it appealed to the newly-emancipated, newly-educated Jewish elite of Western Europe, who sought to be Germans on the street and Jews in the home. And its scholarly appeal soon reached across the Atlantic to take root here in America. Congregation Beth Shalom and synagogues like this all across North America grew out of this modern, scholarly approach.

I am about to admit something big. Actually, huge.

I love the history of the Conservative movement. I love the scientific, historical approach to Judaism, the style of teaching and relating to our tradition that views everything on a time line. I love the approach that values the original context of every piece of our unfolding tradition.

But I think that as a guiding principle for the Jewish people in the 21st century, it no longer resonates.

Why? Because it is possible to know a lot but feel little. We may be able to speak authoritatively about our ancient texts, or about the development and structure of our liturgy, or why the eating of qitniyot on Passover / Pesah is permissible even for Ashkenazim, and still not have an emotional connection to our heritage. It is possible to invest yourself in the meaning of the siddur or the humash, and still only hold it at arm’s length, rather than in your heart.

Rabbinical school does not teach you how to be a rabbi. What I have learned in my 10 years in the pulpit is to connect through feeling, through finding ourselves in our ancient texts, through emotional rather than academic engagement. What they failed to teach me at the Seminary is that Judaism is a coin with the emotional on one side and the scholarly on the other. Judaism cannot be relevant without both sides.

What we need to embrace is the decidedly anti-scientific concept of the holy moment.

Why do many synagogues today have difficulty filling the pews? Because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in famous speech to the members of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1953, we have become more concerned with the technical aspects of the execution of the service than with the Godliness, the holiness therein. We are very worried about getting it right:

There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray.  There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?

This is all in service of God, my friends. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about the recitation of words or the singing or chanting. It’s about communication – with ourselves, with each other, with the Divine. It’s about baring our vulnerability. It’s about sincere pleas for mercy and justice and salvation. This is a holy pursuit. It’s not about the how, it’s about the why.  The how matters, but only inasmuch as it is meant to get us to the why. What we do in a Jewish context is a means to an end.

And we live in a time in which the why, the meaning of the words and the rituals and how they are supposed to make us feel and influence our behavior, is the most important thing. Maybe that wasn’t so important to my parents or grandparents. But it’s important to me, living here in 5777 (also known as 2017).

Why do we count the omer? Why do we recite the Shema (other than because it says to do so in the Shema itself)? Why must we avoid using dairy implements for meat meals? We have a million such whys. You might be able to think of many yourself right now.

It’s not enough to answer those whys by saying, “Because it says so in the Torah,” or, “Because we have always done this.” It’s definitely not enough to say, “I don’t know, but I do it anyway.” It’s not enough to respond this way, even though all of those are legitimate answers in Jewish tradition.

Why do we do what we do, as Jews? Because that is how we become holy people. And every person here in this room could use a little extra holiness. Even the diehard skeptics among us.

Counting the omer, for example, gives us a framework through which we connect freedom with Torah. As we rise from 1 to 49, counting off daily for seven weeks, we anticipate the spiritual fulfillment given at Mt. Sinai. We heighten our expectation; we count our blessings; we look forward to ascending yet another rung of self-improvement, of learning, of yearning. Imagine adding an extra moment of holiness to your evening for seven whole weeks! That’s why we count the omer.

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Two years ago, around this time, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a moving essay in which he identified the paradigm shift through which we are all living with respect to how we understand ourselves and our purpose on this Earth. He points to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as having been a public theologian, among others in the middle of the 20th century, and how the era of such thought leaders has passed:

Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against. All of that went away over the past generation or two…

These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.

The difficulty to which Brooks points is that while our great public sages have set like the sun, we have filled that space with Big Data: knowing everything about everything. Concreteness. There’s an app for that. We have much knowledge, but little wisdom. And hence Brooks says that there is a real hunger for change in this regard:

“People are ready to talk a little less about how to do things and to talk a little more about why ultimately they are doing them.”

We have an answer to the why. And that answer is holiness. The answer can be found in every holy moment that we encounter. And we have to broadcast that message at every opportunity.

And here’s the really good news: the fact that we are all sitting here, on a day when we celebrate the stepping up of a young man into the big leagues of Jewish tradition, indicates that there is still an interest in, and a forum for engaging with holiness. Our tradition offers wisdom. It offers mystery. It offers connection. As we said at our Passover tables a month ago, in Aramaic, kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Come and devour those brief moments of holiness, when the cracks in our reinforced walls of knowledge let in the Divine light.

This synagogue, and others like it stretching back for 2,000 years, have been places where our people have come to seek connection. We have to make sure that it’s not only about the how, but about the why. We need purpose. We need meaning. We need to find the holy moments in our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/6/2017.)

 

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Israel’s Story is More Complex Than That – Tazria-Metzora 5777

Our tradition always features multiple layers of stories, and this period of the year is especially resonant. There is the Exodus story of Pesah / Passover, leading to the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. There is the agricultural framework of the spring harvests. There is the counting of the omer, climbing the 49 rungs as we ascend toward the Sinai moment of contact with God.

Last week we commemorated Yom HaShoah, the day on which we remember those who perished in the Holocaust. Tomorrow evening we mark Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for those who have fallen defending the State of Israel. And then Monday evening and Tuesday we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, marking 69 years since David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State.

In Israel, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron are particularly somber days. On both days, there are sirens that sounds throughout the country, two minutes on each day, during which everything, and I mean everything, grinds to a halt. All over Israel, people stop what they are doing and stand. Cooks stop cooking. Barbers stop cutting hair. Office workers stop sending email. People who are driving stop their cars, get out, and stand quietly. It’s extraordinarily powerful.

In the spring of 2000 I was studying at Machon Schechter, the rabbinical and graduate school affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement, for my first year in cantorial school. On Yom HaZikaron, I went to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem where there is an annual solemn ceremony commemorating all those who gave their lives defending the Jewish state, attended by most of the leaders of Israel. I was actually waiting in the security line with hundreds of other people when the siren went off, and I must say there is nothing quite so powerful as standing, packed in tight, surrounded by people, none of whom are moving or talking. It was surreal and unforgettable.

Most American Jews have a difficult time understanding the power of Yom HaZikaron in particular. Few of us, particularly those of us born after World War II, know somebody who died on the battlefield. But in Israel, everybody does. Most people have served in the Israel Defense Forces, really the great equalizer of Israeli society. Everybody remembers a friend, a cousin, a neighbor, who gave his or her life for the Jewish state. Everybody takes a moment to remember them on that day.

Yom Hazikaron

And everybody also understands the narrative that this week suggests. Of course Yom HaShoah is a week before Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut – it makes total sense. And many Israelis are all imbued with the notion that the Shoah led to the establishment of the State. That the Jewish people, devastated by the death machine of National Socialism, arose from the ashes to build a tough, scrappy nation that is now an economic power, the only democracy in the Middle East, the pride of world Jewry.

My father-in-law, Judy’s father, Ervin Hoenig (alav hashalom), was a Shoah survivor who helped build the state. In 1944, when he was 19, the Nazis deported him and the roughly 100 other Jews from his small village in Slovakia to Auschwitz. He survived the selection upon arrival; many of the others in his transport did not, including his mother. He labored in a nearby work camp for seven months.

When the camp was liquidated and most of the prisoners were forced to march west, he got “lucky”: he had been injured and was in the infirmary, but, knowing the Nazis would not leave anybody behind, he summoned all of his strength to sneak down into the basement and hide among sacks of potatoes and corpses. And then the Nazis left, and it was quiet for two weeks until a Soviet regiment of Mongolian soldiers arrived to liberate the camp.

After studying at the university for a few years in Prague, Ervin eventually found his way to Israel, where upon arrival he was handed a rifle and immediately transported into the front lines of the War for Independence to serve with the Palmach, one of the Jewish paramilitary organizations that fought against the Arab armies.

And there are many such stories. Israel emerged from the gas chambers, just as Ezekiel’s dry bones of the valley were re-animated, flesh and sinews magically knitting together to form living beings. (We read that haftarah / prophetic reading two weeks ago on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah.)

But the story of modern Israel is not so cut-and-dried. It’s a wee bit more complicated. One striking thing that Ervin told me about was how in the early years of the State, the Israelis who were not survivors did not “get it,” did not understand the depth of the Nazi horror. “What was wrong with you people?” they would say to him. “Why didn’t you fight back? Why did you just let them round you up and take you to the camps?”

The narrative of the creation of the State of Israel, at least in those earlier years, was not necessarily about the Shoah. While there is no question that the UN vote for partition on November 29, 1947 passed because the Jews had the sympathy of the world, Ben Gurion’s people were not Holocaust survivors. They were Zionist ideologues. They were pioneers. Most were people who immigrated to Mandate Palestine before the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the Jewish world to help build what would become a new state.

They came, in the words of the poem by Naftali Herz Imber that ultimately became the national anthem of Israel, “Lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu,” to be a free people in our land. They came for the purposes of self-determination, to re-establish a place that the Jews, long strangers in strange lands, could call home, a place that would settle them among the other nations of the world, a place of pride.

This is an Israel that did not come into being in 1948. It did not even really begin with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the same year that Congregation Beth Shalom began, in which the British crown pledged to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Nor did it begin with the first wave of Zionist aliyah in 1882.

You might say that this Israel dwelt in the hearts of Jews all over the world for millennia – Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years – as they sat in ramshackle synagogues in Poland or in the markets of Persia, wailing by the waters of Babylon in Baghdad and waiting patiently for the messiah in Morocco. The return of those prior to World War II came from an ancient yearning for a national identity and a home to go with it.

The resurrection-after-the-Holocaust narrative is over-simplified. It neglects the Jaffa Orange, a key to early agricultural success, entirely. It leaves the political heavy-lifting of Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann out, not to mention the early Zionist writers Ahad Ha-Am and Hayim Nahman Bialik.

But national stories are like that. Consider American history: the Boston Tea Party. Paul Revere’s ride. There is always more to the story than such simple narratives can provide.

And Israel’s contemporary reality is equally complex. Every now and then I meet American Jews who are afraid to travel to Israel for safety reasons, because they have bought into the media-induced perception of Israel as a place where citizens live in constant fear of terrorist activity. But I know, having spent far more of my life there than in any other country save this one, that you are far safer walking down the street in Israel than in America, for a whole bunch of reasons.

And I also know that the political dialogue is never as simple as some would have it as well. Anti-Israel critics tend to characterize Israel as a monolithic oppressor of millions of Palestinians, that even the lefty intellectuals sipping cappucinos in Tel Aviv cafes and Jewish students on American university campuses are somehow monsters who deny civil rights to innocent, stateless victims. And on the other hand there are zealously pro-Israel activists who profess that Israel’s leaders can do no wrong, and even deny that there is such a thing as a “Palestinian.”

Life is not that simple. There are nearly 13 million people on that tiny strip of land – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Circassians, Karaites, Samaritans, black, white, Asian, etc. – and we should all continue to seek a way that they can all live side-by-side, each under his own vine and fig tree.

If you would like to expand your understanding within this complexity, you might want to check out the podcast produced by the Forward called “Fault Lines.” It features a reasoned, respectful, intelligent discussion between a hawk and a dove, Rabbi Danny Gordis and journalist Peter Beinart.

It is essential that we, as Hovevei Tziyyon, lovers of Zion/Israel, not reduce Israel to any such simple narrative, that we seek out the multiple narratives of Israel to better inform our relationship with it, so that we will all continue to act on those two millennia of yearning, so that the State of Israel will continue to be reishit tzemihat ge-ulateinu, the dawn of the flowering of our redemption.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/29/2017.)

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Drawing Lines in the Data – Earth Day / Shemini 5777

Last Monday, the 7th day of Pesah, Beth Shalom member Chris Hall spoke during morning services about the relationship between science and religion, and one element that he presented is that they answer different questions. In my mind, there is no conflict between science and religion because while science might tell us how the world works, it does not attempt to answer, “Why?” That is for the theologians.

We might be tempted to dismiss the Torah’s story of Creation because it conflicts with the story that current scientific opinion tells us. But I think it is essential for us to consider what we learn from both. While astrophysicists have determined that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and that the after-effects of the Big Bang can still be measured to this day, we learn nothing from this about our responsibility for the world we have received. That we can learn from the book of Bereshit / Genesis. What is our relationship to the Earth, says Bereshit? Le’ovdah ulshomerah. “To till it and to tend it.” (Gen. 2:15)

Now granted, we haven’t read that parashah since October, so I am not going to dwell on it today. But something that does appear in Parashat Shemini is a list of things we are permitted to eat and not eat. And there is a lesson to be drawn from that as well.

But first, a little science.

Today, you may know, is not only Kylie’s bat mitzvah. It is also Earth Day, the annual, global awareness-raising event that brings people together around the world to remember the obligations of Genesis. To that end, I would just like to share a few items with you:

  1. 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third straight year in a row of record-setting temperatures since record-keeping began in the 1880s. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/science/earth-highest-temperature-record.html
  2. This past February, the average global temperature was 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 20th century. That may not sound like a lot, but in climatology terms, it’s huge. https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/03/17/globe-second-warmest-winter-on-record/99303812/
  3. The great plume of plastics that continues to grow in the Pacific Ocean is now flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

I could cite numerous other such bits of data: how much oil we consume each day, how much food we throw away, how much carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere per hamburger eaten, and so forth. But what does it mean to us? How might we regard that information and take action? What might our Jewish tradition teach us about our responsibilities vis-a-vis Creation?

On this Earth Day, let us turn to kashrut, the principles of holy eating, for answers.

What does the word “kasher” (accent on the second syllable) mean? Fitting, appropriate. (“Kosher” is the Yiddish/Ashkenazi pronunciation.) The word does not appear in the Torah at all, but in rabbinic literature is used to denote anything that may be used for a holy purpose, not just food. What makes something kasher? That it is legally permissible under Jewish law to eat it or use it for ritual purposes.

In Parashat Shemini, we read a list of animals that are appropriate to eat. Some are identified by certain categories – the split-hoofed ruminants, like cows and deer and sheep – and some are named specifically, mostly the birds. The Torah does not tell us why these are allowed and not camels or shrimp or alligators. All we know, at least from the parashah, is that God does not want us to eat those other things, which are called “tamei” (impure) or “sheqetz(literally, an abomination; this is the Hebrew origin of the Yiddish slur sheygetz / shiktza, and why one should never use these terms).

It is curious that the Torah provides no rationale. Did the authors want us not to ask why? Was the answer known to the ancients, and so obvious that it did not need to be stated? Perhaps this “why” is left dangling for us to discover ledor vador, in each generation according to what is relevant in its time.

Or maybe it is that the only reasoning we might be able to glean from this passage is that, well, some things are in and some things are out. That when God gave Creation to us, to till and to tend, that there were simply some natural limits to our behavior. That not all things are available to us. That while we are permitted to take advantage of some things, others are off limits. That we must leave some parts of Creation untilled and untended.

Perhaps, as Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Shemini, #7) suggests, the goal of kashrut is to teach us mindful consumption:

“The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?”

Perhaps we might learn from this that the drawing of boundaries in the natural world should lead to our ethical behavior in other spheres: in our relationships with others, in our relationships with ourselves, in our relationships with the animal realm. Perhaps the drawing of lines in what we consume as individuals will lead us to draw lines in how we as a society consume our resources, to determine where our limits are as we continue to advance as a civilization.

Where are our lines?

How will we know when we have crossed them? When the Arctic ice is gone? When the giant, swirling heap of plastic currently in the Pacific Ocean has filled the Chesapeake Bay? When the bumblebees are gone?

I recall a curious incident in a rabbinical school theology class. Most of my classmates were not science people; they had degrees in literature, or history, or Judaic studies. I know you may find this hard to believe, but I was somewhat unusual in that I had two degrees in chemical engineering. I do not recall the apropos, but the subject of science vs. God came up, and I said that our understanding of God changes, but science does not. Several of my classmates jumped on this, saying, “But science does change.”

Actually, no. As with God, our understanding of science changes. As we move forward, we learn more about the world that we have been given, and so we adjust our understanding, our theories and formulas, to reflect the data that we collect. But science and God do not change. Their nature and secrets are revealed to us as human civilization matures. Just as God continues to be revealed to us, so does science.

The principles of physics and chemistry and thermodynamics and math that govern how our world works are immutable. And they will neither teach us about faith nor answer the hard questions that we face every day.

But our tradition teaches us to act. And act we must. We must till, we must tend, and we must draw lines. We do not have free reign to use and abuse Creation.  With God-given power comes God-given responsibility.

My personal rabbi on the subject of our responsibility to Creation is the author Theodore Seuss Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. In what I consider to be his finest work, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss reminded us of our responsibility vis-a-vis the Earth. The Lorax, after failing to prevent the destruction of a piece of unspoiled land, a beautiful, holy gift of plants and animals and scenery, takes his leave from an altar labeled “Unless.”

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We can make personal, individual choices to reduce our own energy footprint. We can use LED light bulbs and compost our kitchen scraps and recycle our plastic and even buy electric cars. We can draw many personal lines in our own behavior.

But unless we as a society make some collective decisions for change on a grand scale, nothing will change. Unless we draw some lines, we will continue to monitor and watch and take data that give us no answers.

The time to act is now.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/22/17.)

 

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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.

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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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Slavery Is Not an Ancient Abstraction – First Day of Pesah 5777

There is a certain amount of debate in the pages of Jewish commentary about a verse that appeared in today’s Torah reading, Shemot / Exodus 12:42:

לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה’, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה’, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם

That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages. (JPS)

I have also seen “leil shimmurim” translated as, “a night of watchfulness,” playing on the apparent connection to the simple form of the verb, lishmor, to guard or keep.*

The debate in interpretation is regarding the watchfulness. Who is being watchful? Is it, as Ibn Ezra suggests, that God was watching/guarding the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the 14th of Nisan, when the Angel of Death swept through, to see them depart safely? Or is it, as Ramban states, that the Israelites are to be watchful on this night when we commemorate our departure from Egypt, as we did last night?

watcher

The Etz Hayim commentary (p. 389), by the way, splits the difference: it is a night of vigil both for God and for us. Regardless, Pesah is unquestionably meant to be a holiday of awareness. Awareness of ourselves, of God, of our freedom, of spring. Pesah is about paying attention, about guarding, about being ready to act.

*****

I remember leading a seder at my home a few years back, and leading a discussion (yes, I lead discussions at home as well with my family – I am, after all, their rabbi. They pretend to listen and occasionally participate as well). We were talking about the passage that I think is the most essential line in the entire haggadah (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt.

It is a direct quote from the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5), and the imperative to me seems clear: the whole point of Pesah is not to speak about the journey from slavery to freedom in the abstract, but rather to understand it as our current reality. We are all former slaves. We have all earned our freedom, with God’s help. And we must actively recall that redemption every day of our lives.

So there we were, talking about the import of this statement, when it suddenly occurred to me that we had, sitting at the table with us, a person who had actually been a slave. So I asked, has anybody here ever been a slave? And my father-in-law, Judy’s father, who spent seven months in a labor camp in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex, said yes. And that very moment was so powerful that no more questions were required. He had lived that very journey. He had survived the Exodus.

I mention this because slavery is not something that is only in the past. It has always existed, and still exists today. In fact, estimates vary widely, but despite the fact that it is illegal in every country in the world, there are between 20 million and 36 million slaves on this planet. That’s somewhere between the population of New York State and California. About three-quarters of them are located in India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. India alone has about 14 million slaves, around one percent of the population of that country, and more than the number of people living in Pennsylvania.

slavery

There are different types of slaves, among them bonded labor, where people take loans under the condition that they work off the debt, but are never successful in doing so; sexual slavery, including forced prostitution and the like; and child labor, which is the predominant category in India.

Now, you may make the case that challenging circumstances (war, economic hardship, and so forth) create slaves, and that is surely true. But this is what is more troubling is this: however slaves came to be enslaved, we keep them enslaved. Many of the products that we buy – food, clothing, electronics – have slaves involved somewhere along the production line. Just as the Nazis used my father-in-law and perhaps millions of others to keep their balance sheet in the black, so too do the economic engines of today’s global marketplace. You can read all about it on the Internet – simply type “contemporary slavery” into your favorite search engine. And it’s not just products, of course. The US State Department estimates that about 50,000 people, mostly women and girls, are trafficked into the United States each year to be forced into prostitution.

child slavery

So when we discuss slavery as free people around the seder table, we should be aware that it is not an ancient abstraction. Slavery is very real, and still an ongoing scourge. It is even in our midst. And hence we need to be watchful. We need to pay attention to where our money goes, who it benefits, and who it punishes.

OK, Rabbi, thanks for the bad news. Now what can we do?

First, be aware. On this holiday of awareness, when we decrease our joy by removing drops of wine from our cups while mentioning the ten plagues, when we only recite a partial Hallel to account for the suffering of the Egyptians, when we stay up late at the ready, when we make it a point to teach our children about freedom, we need to remind ourselves that there are oppressed people in horrible circumstances in the world, even as we recline as free people at the seder table. And we should know  how our spending habits affect the lives of others.

Second, act. The Torah exhorts us over and over to recall that we are slaves, and to behave accordingly. I recently counted these instances; there are at least ten times in the Torah (there may be more) where it says a variation on the following, “Do not oppress the stranger/poor/slave among you, because you were slaves in Egypt.”** And add to that the Torah’s imperative, also recurring in many places and forms, to care actively for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your midst. We’ll read one such example in tomorrow’s Torah reading (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22 – identifies the mitzvot / commandments of Pe’ah / leaving the corners of your fields un-harvested, and Leqet / leaving gleanings for the poor). Our tradition requires us to act. And action can take the following forms:

  1. Donate to organizations that work to free slaves, end human trafficking, and work for human rights all over the world. Here are a few: (I can’t make any claim as to whether or not these are good charities)

Made in a Free World

Free the Slaves

Anti-Slavery

It may be just a drop in the bucket, but every life that is reclaimed from slavery brings our own redemption one step closer. Think of it as a mitzvah in the category of piqquah nefesh, saving a life, which takes precedence over all other mitzvot.

  1. Consider buying “fair trade” products when possible. This is not necessarily a cure-all, but may have an impact, particularly if many of us do it. The most visible fair trade products of late are coffee and chocolate, but certification labels are now appearing on textiles and other products. Look for them. We have the potential to change the world merely by altering slightly our spending patterns.
  2. You may want to consider submitting a suggestion to the companies that supply the goods that keep us fed, clothed, and digitally connected. Some of the websites listed above allow you to do this directly from the website.

Our obligations in this season go beyond recalling the Exodus. Pesah is a festival of freedom for the entire world, but it is also a journey of awareness. Be watchful; be aware, but don’t forget that ours is a tradition of action.

Hag sameah!

~Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First day of Pesah 5777, Tuesday morning, 4/11/2017.)

 

* Back in cantorial school, they taught us a melody, a “mi-sinai” tune (not actually from Mt. Sinai, but so old that it might as well be) for the series of piyyutim that begin with “leil shimmurim,” recited on the first two nights of Pesah, inserted into ma’ariv service. I’ve never actually used that melody in a synagogue, and the piyyutim do not appear in our siddur, but they are still bouncing around in my head.

 

** The ones I found, using a concordance, were:

Shemot / Exodus 22:20, 23:9

Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:34

Devarim / Deuteronomy 5:15, 10:19, 15:15, 16:12, 23:8, 24:18, 24:22

 

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Pesah Evangelism

Without question, Pesah is the most important holiday of the Jewish year. It eclipses Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It outstrips Purim and Hanukkah by a great distance. Shavuot? Sukkot? Fahgeddaboutit. Pesah is where it’s at. Let me tell you why.

Pesah is the only holiday where you have a chance to guarantee a Jewish future. That’s how high the stakes are. Pesah is the most spiritually sustainable holiday of the year. It’s the festival that incorporates the greatest creativity and personal engagement. It’s also the time that we have the most people around the table. It’s an opportunity of epic proportions.

images.duckduckgo.com

And it’s up to us not to let this opportunity pass by.

Somewhere between 70-80% of American Jews still show up for the seder. Most of them are not affiliated with Jewish communities or institutions. Many of them do not feel that Judaism infuses their lives, or has any real value from which they can draw. Many are bringing partners and children who have not yet joined the Jewish people.

And that’s where you come in. You can be a Pesah evangelist. (You should pardon the association.)

And how might you do that? Very simple:

Ask questions and discuss.

Sure, you should sing, drink four cups of wine, make a Hillel sandwich, spill wine from your cup when you remember the plagues, etc.

But the real way to be a Pesah evangelist is to get away from the printed seder to one that includes asking more questions than the standard four: questions of who we are and why this all matters to us. The Talmud (Pesahim 115b) tells us that matzah is the kind of bread that elicits conversation:

אמר שמואל (דברים טז, ג) לחם עוני (כתיב) לחם שעונין עליו דברים

Shemuel said: It is written (Deuteronomy 16:3) “lehem oni” (literally, “the bread of poverty”): [this can be understood as] the bread over which one answers many matters.

Here is a list of possible discussion questions (some have simple answers, but can be used to spark further conversation). Use them at your seder table:

“Big picture” questions:

  • What does it mean to be a slave, literally and/or figuratively?
  • In what way are we slaves today (i.e. to the clock, to work, to societal expectations, to money, etc.)?
  • Envision not being a slave to these things.  What would that feel like?  What is the downside?Why is it important to have a celebration of freedom?
  • What is the meaning of freedom, and what responsibilities does freedom carry with it?
  • Who or what is your Pharaoh?
  • To what are we slaves today, and how are we free?
  • Would it have been easier to have remained slaves in Egypt?
  • What is your favorite Jewish holiday and why?  Why or why not Pesah?
  • The Pesah story is the precursor to the giving of the Torah.  What is our relationship today to the Torah and its mitzvot?
  • Fill in the blanks:  Had God _______ but not _______, would it have been enough?

Details of seder:

  • Why do we “recline” while we eat/drink?
  • Why do we dip some things into other things?
  • Why do we eat eggs, and why is there one on the seder plate but it is never mentioned?
  • Why do we tell the same story year after year?
  • Why have a seder at all?
  • What is the significance of each of the items on the seder plate, and in particular the shankbone, the matzah and the bitter herbs? (this discussion fulfills one of the obligations detailed in the Mishnah)
  • Why are there all these funny songs at the end?
  • Why do we eat the afikoman as dessert?

General Pesah questions:

  • What are the prohibited foods of Pesah?
  • If the Conservative movement allows us to eat kitniyot (legumes, etc.), is that enough of a reason to dispense with a 700-year-old custom for Ashkenazi Jews?
  • Doesn’t it seem strange that Sefaradim can traditionally eat some things on Pesah that Ashkenazim do not?  And yet we are all Jews. Discuss!
  • Which days of Pesah are Yom Tov (i.e. festival days on which many of the celebratory Shabbat guidelines apply) and why?
  • What’s the deal with the Omer?  When do we start counting and why?  When does it conclude?
  • How is Pesah connected to the next festival, Shavuot?

If you need more resources to draw on, a whole bunch of them may be found here, courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America:

http://www.jtsa.edu/passover-resources

Don’t let this opportunity go. The seder is a wonderful way to reconnect with Judaism, for everybody around the table. Good luck! Happy evangelizing! And hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

 

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Be the Alef: Unity Against Hatred – Vayaqhel-Pekudei 5777

Rabbis have curious schedules. No day is the same as any other. The range and varied nature of my work is such that it’s never dull. However, the week before last was especially interesting, and particularly challenging.

I went to two training sessions. One, called “Stop the Bleed,” is part of a national effort to train law enforcement officers and people who work in schools how to prevent the unnecessary loss of life in the context of what is now called a “mass casualty incident,” that is, a shooting or stabbing of multiple people in a public place. This training session, run by the FBI, was sponsored by UPMC, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, and so there were not only cops there, but also an assortment of employees of Jewish institutions. We learned how to apply direct pressure, to pack wounds and to tie tourniquets, all ways to prevent the injured from dying of blood loss. (Not only did I receive a certificate from the FBI, but they also gave me my very own tourniquet! I hope I never have to use it, but it will live in my tallit bag.)

The other training was held here at Beth Shalom, run by the Federation’s new Director of Jewish Community Security, Brad Orsini, and this one was “active shooter” training. You can imagine what that’s about: 1. Run! 2. Hide! 3. Fight!

It is exceptionally tragic that we have to be prepared for these things. But it is today’s unfortunate reality. I don’t want anybody to be concerned – we of course are hoping that we will never have to face such a situation. But it is certainly better to be prepared. (You should know that we are also revamping our current security plan here at Beth Shalom.)

I must say that I was quite surprised and dismayed by the news, which broke on Thursday, that the perpetrator of at least some of the threatening calls to JCCs and day schools was a Jewish teen living in Israel, a 19-year-old with dual citizenship, some apparent emotional challenges, and a phalanx of fancy technology. While I am relieved that this activity was not committed by a hate group, I am utterly devastated that one of our own would cause so much chaos in our community.

Nonetheless, there is no question that anti-Jewish activity is on the rise. We do not know where it is coming from or why, but the increase is unmistakable. The organizations that keep track of these things (the ADL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, etc.) have reported a rise in anti-Jewish incidents in the last few years, independent of the current political climate.

About a month ago on Shabbat afternoon, one of our families was yelled at in Squirrel Hill, walking home from Beth Shalom after services. (“Hitler did nothing wrong!” was screamed from a car window.) While Brad Orsini told us that local law enforcement has not seen a significant increase in such incidents, we have to be aware that they do happen, and that it’s very upsetting and frightening to experience these things.

If something like this happens to you, please report the incident! Call Brad at Federation. Call me. Get a license plate number if you can. This information is truly valuable to law enforcement.

As I have said here before, I grew up in an America almost completely un-molested by open anti-Semitism. Almost all of my friends, growing up in small-town New England, were Christian, and none of them seemed to harbor any anti-Jewish attitudes. Yes, a high school friend once used the expression “to Jew me down” in my presence, not knowing what it meant and why it might be offensive. And, when I was in 6th grade, I started wearing a kippah on a daily basis to my public school, where there were very few other Jewish kids. I was teased for it, but in my mind that was kids making fun of difference rather than gentiles targeting a Jew. Aside from these things, the America in which I grew up has always seemed to me not only welcoming to Jews, but more or less religion-blind.

But that was not true for my parents’ generation. I think that, prior to the middle of the 20th century, Jewish life was marked by fear and mistrust of the non-Jew, and with good reason. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Empire, once remarked, “We used to think of ourselves as beloved by God. Now we think of ourselves as hated by the gentiles.” The bread-and-butter elements of rabbis’ sermons, deep into the 20th century, were the Holocaust and Israel, resonating with a palpable fear and its perceived antidote.

So it is all the more shocking that anti-Semitism is on the rise again. How do we respond to these disturbing trends? What can we do as individuals and as a community to ensure not only our physical well-being, but also our spiritual wholeness?

The essential response is one of qehillah, which you might translate as “community.”

It’s an interesting word, qehillah. (You all know by now how much I love words!) It’s the term that is currently in fashion at United Synagogue for how to refer to a synagogue community. Perhaps a better translation of qehillah would be “gathering” or “assembly.” A choir is a “maqhelah;” the book that we call Ecclesiastes in English (well, Latin) is Qohelet, the one who gathers people to distribute his wisdom.

And, of course, the first word (and title) of our parashah this morning was “Vayaqhel,” meaning, Moshe “gathered” the the whole Israelite community to tell them about a range of important laws, among them explicit instructions regarding the building of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary that the Israelites used in the desert to make sacrifices).

One suggestion that we might read from this is that the mishkan is a tool of assembly. It is a focal point that brings people together for a holy purpose.

We have no mishkan today, or anything like it. Buildings are not holy; it what takes place within them that creates qedushah, holiness. And what we do to create that virtual mishkan today is to gather as a community, to come together for holy purposes. One such purpose is what we are engaged in right now: tefillah / prayer and talmud torah / learning, and of course there’s the eating and schmoozing after.

Another such gathering of Jews as a community for a sacred task was the communal vigil that was held last motza’ei Shabbat (Saturday night) on behalf of immigrants and refugees. As a qehillah / community, we have the potential to stand up in defense of the gerim, the resident aliens among us, whom the Torah exhorts us to treat with dignity 36 times.

Another such gathering of Jews for a holy purpose was the communal Purimshpil at the JCC two weeks ago. The story of one righteous woman who triumphed over the forces of Amaleq was told in song and dance and theatrical frivolity, as is appropriate for Purim.

And we will gather as a community in a few weeks for a communal seder, at which we will tell the story of liberation from slavery and dine as free people who understand that our obligation is to free all the slaves in this world.

And just a few weeks after that, we will gather to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, and remember that the State of Israel, its people, its culture, and yes, even its political balagan (mess) are an essential part of who we are, even seven time zones away.

Our strength is in our togetherness. When we stand together, we show the world and ourselves what we can do as a qehillah, as a people gathered for a holy purpose.

When we at Beth Shalom stood together a few weeks back to receive the Aseret HaDibberot, the Decalogue (aka the “Ten Commandments”) in Parashat Yitro, just as our ancestors did at Mt. Sinai, we rose together to hear God’s introductory line: I am the one who brought you out of Egypt. Anokhi, says God. “I”.

The early Hasidic sage, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanov (1745-1815), said that all that the Israelites heard at Sinai, gathered at the foot of the mountain, was the alef, the first letter of anokhi. This is, of course, paradoxical; the alef itself makes no sound. It is a simple glottal stop, the absence of consonant or vowel. But contained within that silent alef was all of the content of Jewish life, a unity of revelation in apparent nothingness.

That unity is the numerical value of alef; one. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the alef is also the first word of the Hebrew word for unity: ahdut (from ehad, one).

What the Israelites heard, assembled together as a qehillah at Sinai, was unity. Oneness. Togetherness. And when we stand together today, we are one in a way that has kept us as a distinct people 2,000 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, 900 years after the Crusades, 500 years after the Expulsion from Spain, and 72 years after the end of the Nazi reign of terror.

That alef has enabled us to stand up to fear and hatred in our midst. All kinds of fear and hatred.

What can we do to combat hatred? We can stand together. We can be a qehillah. We are the alef.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/25/2017.)

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