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

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

Logo Shape the Center: USCJ Convention 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ektzentri” means “eccentric.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medeba map of Jerusalem
The Medeba Map of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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

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

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

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

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hevron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Seeking Ourselves for the Greater Good – Lekh Lekha 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה

Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’aynei hayeshua.

Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Torah and Science: Living with Contradiction – Bereshit 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah

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

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

Problem is, it breaks down under close scrutiny!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Memory and Compassion – Shemini Atzeret / Yizkor 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Opening the Doors – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5776

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

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

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

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

Here are her answers to that question:

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

No, because I still get restless in long services.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mo’adim lesimhah, haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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.

IMG_2987

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

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Heart and Mind Balance: Changing Our Understanding of the Synagogue – Yom Kippur Day, 5776

There is a wonderful story about the rabbi who is greeting congregants after services on Yom Kippur. He sees Mr. Goldstein, and realizes that he has not seen him for a full year.

Hayyim,” says the rabbi, “Are you in the army of God?”

“Of course, Rabbi,” says Mr. Goldstein.

“Then how come I only see you once a year?”

Mr. Goldstein leans in close and whispers, “Rabbi, I’m in the secret service!”

****

There is a verse from the Torah that we customarily say every time we enter a synagogue, and many of us are familiar with it (Numbers 24:5):

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael

How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!

The words come from the mouth of the non-Israelite prophet Bil’am, sent by the Moabite king Balaq to curse the Israelites. What comes from his mouth, however, are not curses, but rather blessings. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) interpret this line to speak of the two poles of Jewish life. Bil’am’s blessing says that the Jews will always have batei kenesset (synagogues: places where Jews have traditionally prayed) and batei midrash (traditional study halls, where Jews have learned the ancient words of our tradition). They read ohalekha = your tents = synagogues and mishkenotekha = your dwelling places = batei midrash.

That’s why Mah Tovu is the first thing in the siddur. That’s why we say it when we enter a synagogue, to recall that even as we lost the Temple in Jerusalem and were exiled and faced so many challenges in Diaspora, we could always count on this blessing.

Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, saw this verse as the key to Jewish survival throughout the centuries. We are drawn near to our tradition by Bil’am’s blessing: The synagogue speaks to the heart and the beit midrash speaks to the mind. These two places are the essential points of qesher / connection in Jewish life. They have kept us Jewish for two thousand years after we should have disappeared, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. That is why we need both. We need to engage both the heart and mind.

Before we go any further, however, I just have to make sure we all know what I mean by beit midrash. Both the beit kenesset and the beit midrash emerged in antiquity, but they developed separately and are identified in the Talmud as separate places. We all know the synagogue. But most contemporary Jews, and probably the vast majority of Jews throughout history, have not been in a beit midrash.

Picture a bunch of Jews seated around tables, heavy books open in front of them, reading, discussing, or indeed arguing, mostly in pairs, around the room. The walls are lined with books – sets of the Talmud, rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, collections of midrash, texts and translations, dictionaries, the tools of textual study. Some are deep in thought. Some sway in concentration. Some schmooze with each other and laugh. That’s a traditional beit midrash.

You may recall that I have spoken over these holidays now for three times about the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, and qedushah, also known as connection, community, and holiness. But today I’d like to add something to it: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov. Heart and mind.

A synagogue is a place where we make connections with each other and with God, where we build and engage with our community, and where we seek qedushah, holiness and holy moments. However, it is not meant to be only a beit kenesset, a place of gathering for prayer, but it should also serve as a beit midrash, a place of learning. The needs of the contemporary Jewish world require the synagogue to be both.

The synagogue is meant to be a place where we express emotion, of openness, of expressing our vulnerability. I have literally held the hands of fellow Jews as they cried in synagogue, as they grieved for lost loved ones, as they took an inventory of their lives and came up wanting. That’s what this place is for. It’s about love and yearning, as I spoke about last night. It’s about the ritual framework that supports us in our times of need, and helps us achieve exultant highs in our times of joy.

heartWe don’t have too many spaces like this in our society any more. Those of you who heard me speak in August about the future of the Conservative movement might recall that I mentioned the sociologist Robert Putnam, who documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam points to the disappearance of social societies (the Elks, the Shriners, Hadassah) and bridge clubs and bowling leagues and even couples dining out together to show that we have less and less social capital, that is, connections with each other, than we did in the middle of the 20th century. This is not healthy for a whole bunch of reasons.

But Putnam does point out that houses of worship still offer social capital in spades. You meet people at services, you kibbitz at kiddush, you celebrate together and grieve together and talk and learn and sing in synagogue.

This building makes our world a better place, and it functions by helping us connect to our emotions. The synagogue resides in the heart.

But the beit midrash is all about the mind. It’s about logic and deduction, about puzzling through ancient language and situations that are as resonant today as they were two millennia ago, because we continue to apply them to how we live here and now. It is a place where we connect to each other through the shared joy of the quintessentially Jewish pursuit of textual learning, and we unlock the qedushah found within the words of our ancient scholars. As Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is known to have said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”

mindLearning the words of our tradition is, according to the Mishnah (Pe’ah 1:1), the highest mitzvah in Jewish life. Higher than keeping Shabbat and kashrut. Much more important than fasting on Yom Kippur. That is why the beit midrash is so essential to Jewish life. Talmud Torah keneged kulam. The study of Torah, says the Mishnah, weighs more than all of the other mitzvot combined.

And so our tents and our dwelling places, the beit kenesset and the beit midrash, are the places that connect us to each other and to God. These are the places where connection, community, and qedushah are quite literally fashioned.

And today, for us, they have to be the same building. This synagogue must be for the heart and the mind. It must be a beit kenesset and a beit midrash, because the Jewish world needs both.

But it took me a while to figure that out.

***

More than eight years ago, when I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary as a newly-minted rabbi, I was under the impression that the most important thing for a rabbi to exercise was the mind. In the seven years that I spent there, I put a sizeable spike on my knowledge curve in the area of Torah, halakhah, Jewish history, ritual, critical approaches to the Tanakh, etc. All very heady stuff, gleaned from old, dusty books.

It took me several years thereafter to understand that while it is impressive to appeal to the mind, the appeal to the heart is much more valuable, much more welcome, and much more likely to inspire people (i.e. you). I can give the most sophisticated, deep, self-impressed reading of Torah verses, and it might be greeted with a shrug at kiddush. But I have found that when I demonstrate that the Torah can be interpreted to help us live better lives as Jews and as people, I find that the message is far more likely to be heard, understood, and appreciated.

So, for example, it seems that when thinking about Yom Kippur, we usually consider its mechanical aspects: fasting for no less than 25 hours, not bathing, repenting by reciting the standard language in the mahzor with the traditional melodies, confessing our sins, striking our hearts, blowing the shofar at 7:58 PM, and so forth.

But we should also consider that this is a time to acknowledge that we are broken, and that we are yearning for wholeness. Nobody here among us is perfect; we all come to Yom Kippur with something in our hearts that needs to be cleansed. As I said last night, we yearn for closeness with God, for mending our relationships, for spiritual purity. These are ideas which flow from the heart.

Consider this for a moment: the public confessional prayers, the Viddui, are recited 12 times over the course of this day. Six times in the silent Amidah, wherein we confess our sins to ourselves, and six times out loud, in public, led by the sheliah tzibbur / the congregational emissary who leads us in prayer. And every single time it is in first person plural: we have transgressed, we have cheated, we have stolen; for the sins we have sinned against You by qalut rosh / superficiality, or by qashyut oref / being stiff-necked, and so forth.

Think about that: we are standing in public, confessing to a whole litany of deplorable behaviors. Doesn’t matter if we have done them or not. We are all stating, to ourselves AND out loud, that we are broken. How powerful is it that Jewish tradition asks us to do so! How therapeutic!

(There is a nice custom to go with this, by the way: we all know that we strike our chests. But something else you can do during the confessional is lean over a bit; hang your head in shame. We should not be proud of having transgressed. We should not be standing upright. We should be a little hunched over.)

That picture of Yom Kippur, going beyond the mechanics of the day to connect our tradition with how we live now, is an appeal to the heart. And that is far more attractive to all of us then the most well-executed midrashic analysis that is delivered entirely divorced from the realities of our lives. The Torah is meant to teach us lessons about how to live better, not to be analyzed dispassionately in slices arrayed on sterile glass slides.

And yet, it seems to me that what works best in the Jewish world is when the heart and mind are in balance. In parallel, just like in the verse: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

To uncover the love in Judaism, you have to dig deep into Jewish text. You have to go back to the mind.

When we study Torah, we acknowledge that there are shiv’im panim latorah, seventy faces to the Torah, that is, seventy ways (at least) of understanding every passage, every word, every story, every mitzvah, and so forth. (OK, so maybe not seventy, but that’s just rabbinic-speak for “a whole bunch.”)

There are many ways of understanding our foundational text, and the way we approach this text, referred to rabbinically as “Talmud Torah,” we must take as axiomatic the idea that no single approach is the lone correct understanding. Talmud Torah includes the seventy faces. And among those faces are those of the heart and those of the mind.

When we study Torah, we should not merely ask, “What does this mean?” but we should also ask, “What does this mean to us?” And this takes a whole lot more work. The standard commentators on the Torah that some of us know (Rashi, Ramban, ibn Ezra, etc.) usually try to resolve issues within the text by working through the challenging language. Midrash, stories written to fill in the gaps of the Torah, seeks to humanize the text by completing it. And Hasidic tales tend to go even further by seeking the personal angle – how might we learn from this to emulate the acts of piety and selflessness of which Hasidic lore often speaks.

There are many ways to find answers to the question of “What does this mean to us?” Talmud Torah for the modern audience has to hit us where we live: to answer questions like this:

  • What do I want my children to learn about life?
  • How do I make a difference in this world?
  • How do I balance my commitment to my family with my work obligations?
  • How do I improve myself?
  • Why is this world so much more complex than it used to be, and how do I navigate the complexity?

And so forth.

These are all essential questions that we might often overlook if they are not staring us in the face. And that’s why the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah. You can light all the Hanukkah candles you want; you can daven with passion while fasting on Yom Kippur; you can gorge yourself on matzah and sit in the Sukkah and make sure your boys are circumcized and your doorposts have mezuzot and on and on, but until you commit to learning the precious words of the Jewish bookshelf, you cannot fully appreciate the richness and value of our tradition. When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.

In an ideal synagogue, the one that we are building here at 5915 Beacon St., we will strike the proper balance between heart and mind. We will not only pray, ask for forgiveness, seek teshuvah / repentance, rejoice and mourn, but we will also learn the words of our tradition and what they mean to us. We will be both a beit kenesset and a beit midrash.

I have taken that journey from the mind to the heart and back again. And you can too. But it requires entering the Jewish study hall, that part of the synagogue devoted to lifelong Jewish learning. We will all have to dig deeper. You need both the heart and the mind to sustain that qesher, that connection with our tradition.

So – I know you’re waiting for this now – what’s the action item, Rabbi?

I would like you to seriously consider one simple question, a question that I hope will help you re-envision your entire understanding of Judaism and of the role of the synagogue. This is a kind of a self-test:

“How has your relationship with Judaism changed in the last ten years?” Judaism – the set of rituals and texts and customs that make up our tradition. Not the cultural trappings: the foods, the institutions, the cool Jewish sites you saw on vacation in Spain.

If you search very deeply and your answer is, “It hasn’t,” then we have some work to do, to engage your heart and mind. Give me a call, shoot me an email, message me on Facebook; I would love to meet up and talk about it.

If you can come up with a whole litany of things you have learned and practices you have adopted and books you have read and holy moments you have experienced, and ways you have applied values from our tradition to your life, then we still have some work to do, because Judaism is a lifetime of learning.

Talmud Torah keneged kulam. Keep learning, and asking “What does this mean to us?” It is high on my agenda here at Beth Shalom to move this congregation forward, and that will require a little more beit kenesset and beit midrash. Unlike Hayyim, who is in the “secret service,” I hope you will join me as we focus on both the heart and the mind, and we continue our collective journey in search of connection, community, and qedushah, holiness.

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur, 9/23/15.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

A Night of Yearning – Kol Nidrei 5776

Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish woman from New York, goes to her travel agent. “I vont to go to India.”

“Mrs. Cohen, why India? It’s much hotter than New York, and crowded, and not for the faint of heart.”

“I vont to go to India.”

“But it’s a long journey, how will you manage? What will you eat? The food is too hot and spicy for you. You can’t drink the water or eat fresh fruit and vegetables. You’ll get sick.  And can you imagine the hospital, no Jewish doctors?”

“I vont to go to India.”

The necessary arrangements are made, and off she goes. She arrives in India and, undeterred by the noise and crowds, makes her way to an ashram. There she joins the long line of people waiting for an audience with the guru. She is told that it will take at least three days of standing in line to see the guru.

“Dats OK,” Goldie says.

Eventually she reaches the guru’s entryway. There she is told firmly that she can only say three words.

“Fine,” she says.

She is ushered into the inner sanctum where the guru is seated.  As she approaches him, she is reminded: “Remember, just three words.”

Unlike the other devotees, she does not prostrate at his feet. She stands directly in front of him, folds her arms on her chest, fixes her gaze on his, and says: “Shmuel, come home.”

***

There is a great tradition of Jews who have sought spiritual fulfillment in other traditions, particularly those of the East. We are a people who yearn for connection, and our rich, ancient tradition is often perceived to be insufficient, or perhaps merely impenetrable to satisfy some of us. Author Rodger Kamenetz wrote about these people, whom some call “JuBus,” Jewish Buddhists, in his book about the Jewish delegation that went to see the Dalai Lama in 1990, The Jew in the Lotus. (I think the Shmuel of the story actually appears in the book, perhaps under a different name.)

And yet, we have in our tradition, which is vast and deep and thoughtful and complex, all of the spiritual tools to provide that nourishment, that sense of qedushah*.

The irony, it seems, is that many of us do not appreciate the range of offerings our tradition has. Many of us have confined Judaism to a box that contains Hanukkah candles, bagels, Yiddish-accented humor, and a whole lot of mumbling in a language that nobody can understand (and takes hours).  Hence the need to seek elsewhere for spiritual satisfaction.

A synagogue is not just a place to daven / pray. It is not merely a place where you can interact with God. You can talk to God, or listen for God’s voice anywhere.

Rather, a synagogue is a beit kenesset, a place of gathering. It’s our communal home. It’s a place that is designed for Jews to come together, whether for ritual, social, educational, spiritual, or organizational reasons. The English word “synagogue” is a direct translation of the Hebrew beit kenesset: “syn” = together, “gog” = place. Each of us should think of this place as an annex of our home, a third place (home, work, synagogue) whose doors are always open. We’re here for you. Not just me and the staff, but your community. We’re here. Gather with us.

This is a place of the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, qedushah*. Connection, community, and holiness.

The real reason that you are here tonight is because of the three qofs. You need to be counted as part of the qehillah, to be with your people, to connect with others who are here, to reach out and grab just a wee bit of qedushah, holiness. It’s not about Kol Nidrei, per se. This is a night of yearning. Yearning for these three things, which most of us are not even aware that we need.

Judaism does not really have intrinsically holy places or objects. Qedushah is a little more elusive than that. I know that runs counter to what many of us have been taught. The beit kenesset / synagogue?  We make it holy with our presence. The Sefer Torah? “Holy” books? We endow them with holiness when we use them. The Kotel? Har HaBayit / the Temple Mount? While there is a tremendous sentimental value to those ancient rocks, the prevailing opinion is that when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed. Like a beit kenesset, we make those items and locations holy when pray, celebrate, weep, and yearn with them or at them.

It’s not the tangible things in Judaism that are holy. It’s time. We sanctify time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Shabbat as “a palace in time.” We mark holy moments. We resonate together at Kol Nidrei, at Ne’ilah, at joyous and mournful lifecycle events. The high points within Judaism are moments in time, moments marked by qedushah / holiness. It’s not the stained-glass windows; it’s the moment.

That is why the Jewish calendar is so much more complicated than the Gregorian calendar** – because we care very deeply about the sanctification of time. Time is much more valuable than any physical thing.

And the older I get, the more I appreciate the value of time, and the more I understand that I have to try to fill as much of my time with as much qedushah / holiness as possible.

We all want a little holiness in our lives. But we do not always know how to find it.

I have good news for you. The real action is right here, right now. Tonight is the night to get a little taste of holiness, when the gates of heaven are truly open. It’s the most powerful night of the Jewish year, this night of yearning.

All it takes to make it happen is for you to open up, to allow that yearning to surface.

الموضوع: أشواقنــا ؟

But that’s not so easy.

I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about how the shofar opens us up, breaks through our tough exterior to reveal our internal radiance. But Yom Kippur works a little differently.

It is a unique day for many reasons:

  • It is described in the Torah as Shabbat Shabbaton – the Sabbath of Sabbaths – the only day in the Jewish calendar more holy than Shabbat
  • This is the only evening of the year when we wear a tallit
  • We never actually conclude any service until the very end; it’s as if we are in prayer all day, the full 25 hours
  • We are supposed to “afflict our souls” on this day. Not necessarily the body, but the soul. (Don’t confuse the two!)
  • We wear white (as I suggested on Rosh Hashanah) to suggest the purity for which we yearn
  • This day is both weighty and joyous: historically, a happy day on which young women went out into the fields looking for husbands (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:4)

The very singularity of this day, its uniqueness, point to one thing: that we are all united today. That Benei Yisrael, all of the descendants of Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah, stand together on Yom Kippur.

One commentator to address the nature of Yom Kippur was Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the late 19th-century head of the Ger Hasidic court, often known by the name of his major work, the Sefat Emet (or Sefas Emes, depending on your perspective). The Sefat Emet took note of the rabbinic explanation that Yom Kippur is the day when Moshe brought down the second set of tablets from Mt. Sinai. This is, of course, after the first set was broken because the Israelites had built an idol, a calf made from melting down their jewelry.

The molten calf (although we often refer to it as the “golden calf,” “molten” is the translation of the Hebrew, “egel masekhah,” the term the Torah uses to describe it in Exodus 32) is the closest thing that Judaism has to the Christian concept of “original sin.” (We do not see people as fundamentally sinful – everybody is born with a clean slate, and every Yom Kippur we have the ability to wipe that slate clean again.)

Ancient interpreters understood the molten calf as having inspired a cascading effect that compelled the Israelites to perform a wide range of bad things, from sexual indiscretion to murder to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred.

And so, when Moshe returns on Yom Kippur with the second set of tablets, the Israelites had many transgressions for which to atone. Yes, avodah zarah / idol worship was high on the list. But also the relationships between the people had been broken through these sins. They were in need of interpersonal repair; they needed to stand together, to achieve wholeness once again as a qehillah, a community.

And so too today. The Sefat Emet tells us that on Yom Kippur, we seek to recover wholeness as a community – mercy for one another, acts of hesed, the sense of ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha / love your neighbor as yourself. When we seek those things, we recapture the qedushah / holiness of the moment when Moshe comes down with the second set of tablets. Then we can re-activate the Torah within us; we regain that clean slate; we start fresh on a new path for the new year.

That is why we are here tonight: to restore a sense of who we are as a community – what connects us to each other, what values unite us, how we live the words of our tradition from day to day.

And for the entire day, from Kol Nidrei until the final teqi’ah gedolah, we yearn for that unity, that wholeness. We yearn to be restored as a qehillah.

****

I have been overwhelmed with many emotions since meeting you all for the first time back in February. This is a congregation with tremendous history. We are very nearly 100 years old. A whole century. There are not too many congregations in America that can claim that sort of lifespan.

And over the arc of the last century, the fortunes of this congregation have risen and fallen. But you know what? The reason that Judy let me apply here (in our house, the rebbetzin wears the pants!) is that we saw readily that this congregation has wonderful potential; it has all the features that we were looking for in a qehillah:

  • Many, many volunteers. The level of personal involvement here is very impressive. There are a lot of you who care very strongly about Beth Shalom, and are willing to put in personal time and energy to help make it better
  • Very knowledgeable active core of members
  • Not just a number of young families, but a bunch of actively-involved young families. This core will inevitably attract more.
  • Day school nearby that is integral to the community.
  • Unique and vibrant JJEP religious school
  • Tight-knit, urban setting
  • Healthy daily minyan
  • Enthusiasm. Judy and I have been overwhelmed with how excited people are about Pittsburgh, about Beth Shalom, about our joining this community.
  • It is part of a wider community that is a shining beacon of Jewish pluralism and togetherness (very different from the New York area, BTW) Jewish Pittsburgh is indeed a unique community.

All of the ingredients are here for a shining future. We – you and me – are going to make it happen. We are going to make this congregation not what it was, but what it can be.

There is so much here to be proud of; so much to celebrate, so much to be inspired by and to be hopeful for.

And, given that the Sefat Emet tells us that this is a night of unity, Yom Kippur 5776 should be a powerful reminder of the task before us. We must see ourselves as united to move forward, and willing to do the following:

  • Be more open: open to outsiders; open to people from across the religious and social spectrum; open to new ideas and new methods of engagement; open to all the variations on the contemporary Jewish family
  • To have a sense of togetherness, that we are all on the same side
  • To have a sense of purpose – that we have a shared mission upheld by Jewish values writ large and Conservative Jewish values in particular.

Those are all attitudinal points. In terms of what we offer, I think we should have:

  • More engaging services.
  • More music, both vocal and instrumental.
  • More provocative speakers.
  • More social action activities.

And all of these have to be reinforced by what I think is the most valuable thing that Jewish communities should be doing today: More small-group experiences.

While the Judaism of our parents and grandparents was buoyed by the dramatic feeling of classically beautiful services in huge, ornate rooms and featuring fiery rabbinic oratory, most Jews are not looking for these experiences today. What most of us are looking for in this isolated, impersonal world is more intimate, more personally meaningful interactions with other people like us. We are looking to sanctify those holy moments in ways that are familiar and amiable.

I am going to pause from all this envisioning for a moment to suggest that on this eve of Yom Kippur, on this holiest of holy moments, we ask ourselves a crucial question. It seems that there is something for which we must, as a united community, request forgiveness, something for which we must seek teshuvah / repentance.

I am told that there are many people who left this congregation or are still angry because members of this community spoke to them in a way that was inappropriate (or mean, or nasty). So it is extremely important that we ask ourselves if we are indeed repentant. Have we changed the way we speak to each other?

Have we spoken ill of any of our fellow congregants, whether in private or in public? Have we gossiped?  Have we exchanged harsh words or spoken with a lack of respect within or without these walls?  We cannot truly heal ourselves as a qehillah qedoshah / holy community, we cannot move forward if we do not resolve to treat and speak to each other with only the highest respect.

And so, looping back to Shmuel, or anybody else who has not yet found their entree into a fulfilling Jewish life, I hope that together we will find ways to present our very rich heritage of learning, values and culture by reaching out through affinity groups, by capitalizing on our own internal social networks. We will thereby draw more of us into the center from the periphery.

In the mean time, let our yearning this evening translate to action. Let our desire for the future of Beth Shalom, un-clouded by the uncertainties of the past, drive us to fashion a new type of congregation, where more of us are involved on a more regular basis through a new set of entry points.

Here is the action item: Find some way to participate. Volunteer to help out. Come to our adult ed offerings. Learn something new so you can participate in parts of services. Brainstorm new programs or ways to engage others. Donate your time or your funds (or both). Come to the parlor meetings that we will be hosting through the coming year to discuss all of these things.

We are going to build. And for that we need you. We need you to seek connection, community, and qedushah here, among your people.

Tonight we yearn for that rosy future; on this night next year, we will be well on the way to building it. Let’s stand together to bring Shmuel, and all the other Shmuels, back home.

* Apologies if the “q” seems strange. One way of representing the Hebrew letter ק (qof) in English transliteration is q, because (as you can readily see if you look at them right next to each other) the Latin q is actually related to the Hebrew ק. (The Latin “k” comes from the Hebrew כ (kaf).) By transliterating this way, it helps English speakers learn or remember the Hebrew spelling of the transliterated word.

** How much more complicated? I can’t even begin to explain. Just trust me on this.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Leil Yom HaKippurim, 9/22/15.)