Categories
Uncategorized

The Mishkan and the Tablet – Terumah 5776

Why do we read the entire Torah? Why don’t we just read the parts that apply to us? There are, after all, vast swaths of the Torah that seem as though they do not.

OK, well, for one thing, the ancient rabbis understood that we are commanded to do so. And, BTW, not just once through each year, but actually three times, according to a passage in the Talmud, Massekhet Berakhot 8a – Shenayim miqra ve-ehad targum. Read it in Hebrew twice, and then once in translation. (Even Numbers 32:3, which is just a listing of place names.)

Description Hebrew Sefer Torah scroll.JPG

Here’s the irony – when Rav Huna made that statement in the name of his teacher Rabbi Ammi, he was living in the third century CE, at least 200 years after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and aproximately 1400 years after the period of the mishkan, the Tabernacle used while the Israelites were wandering in the desert. That portable, sacrificial worship center was described in excruciating, monotonous detail in today’s parashah. And yet, if the traditional chronology is to be believed, it was in use for perhaps 300 years, until King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Even in the Middle Ages, when commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, an additional millennium removed from its existence, are still trying to muddle their way through the varieties of fancy cloth, wood, skins of animals that they surely could not have found in the desert, precious metals and stones that were featured in the mishkan’s construction.

And here we are today, in a 140-character world. Aren’t the chapters on the mishkan (mostly repeated again in a few weeks when the Israelites will actually build it) a frightful waste of time? The average teenager could easily send and receive over 150 text messages in the time it takes to read all of the details related to Moses by God. Surely by now the total length of time just spent READING this mass of detail by various Jewish congregations over the last two millennia far exceeds the actual period of usefulness of the mishkan itself.

So why on earth do we read it? And what can we possibly glean from it?

I’m going to come to the answer in a sort of roundabout way, so hold onto those questions for a moment.

*    *    *    *

Time. Accounting for time features so heavily in all the choices we make. And I take issue with the Rolling Stones on this: time is NOT on my side. Instead I’ll go with the Steve Miller Band: Time keeps on slippin’ into the future. And we all seem to have less and less of it.

Let’s face it – Judaism takes time. (Takes money too, but time is, I think, more valuable for most of us.)

And, more to the point, learning to be Jewish takes time. A lot of time. It takes more than 4-6 hours per week, which is generally what we provide our children with. And it takes even more time after the bar/t mitzvah.

My primary goal as a rabbi is to teach Jews about Judaism, and to help shape our congregation around the ongoing learning of our Jewish bookshelf. This task is made far more difficult by some of the parameters of today’s world. Yes, we are all short on time. But even more than that, we are all impatiently waiting for the next text message, the next email, the next 4G-LTE intrusion.

I am beginning to be concerned that the Information Age is, in fact, leading us into a new, tech-savvy Dark Age.

We are living in a great age of misinformation. We have so much more data at our fingertips than we did just 20 years ago. And yet we know, or perhaps are willing to learn, far less. Everything is moving so fast today that depth and intellectual rigor is falling by the wayside.

A few years ago at Temple Israel of Great Neck, we received a visit from Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue (the umbrella organization for all the wings of the Conservative movement). He spoke about developing a new model for the institutions of Conservative Judaism, but during the course of his remarks, he pointed out that this is the age of the handheld digital device, and one challenging feature of of these devices is that they allow us to hear and see only the things that we want to hear and see.

The iPod (remember that?), and all the devices that followed it, changed fundamentally the way we relate to information. Unlike the good ‘ol LP, the black vinyl that some of us are still nostalgic for, where you had to get a whole bunch of unremarkable songs along with your favorites, the iPod gave its owner complete control to edit those out, or not even purchase them to begin with.

These devices – tablets, smartphones, and so forth – are tools that keep us in touch, yes, and put all sorts of information at our fingertips. But they also elevate one’s personal choice and taste over all other considerations. Hence the “i” in “iPod” and “iPhone.” And we’ll be seeing a great many more i’s as we move forward. The larger phenomenon at work here is that we are moving into an age in which nobody feels that they have to listen to anything that they do not want to hear.

Here is an example:

Also a few years ago, at UC Irvine, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, noted historian Michael Oren, was invited to give a lecture. A large group, perhaps 50, anti-Israel activists interrupted him, with one student at a time standing up and shouting anti-Israel slogans. As each of these students stood up, they were escorted out by the campus police as their friends cheered.

The president of the university, after the first of these outbursts, reminded the protesters that they were violating school policy, and emphasized that there would be an open Q&A session at the end of Ambassador Oren’s remarks, and that this would be the appropriate forum for challenging him. They continued, not allowing Mr. Oren to speak, until the large group left en masse. 11 people were arrested.

The way that dialogue happens, the way that we solve big problems, is by listening to the one with whom you do not agree. Silencing the discussion, in my mind, produces exactly the opposite effect.

I am certain that we could all think of countless examples of ways in which we do not listen to each other today; one need not look too far past our fractured political system to see that compromise is a lost art.

We are all listening exactly to what we want to hear, and not to each other, or the other side. And that does not bode well, for democracy, public discourse, the State of Israel, or Judaism in general.

And to return to where we started, if we do not have time to listen to all of the words of the Torah, we have as Jews a slim chance of surviving the forces of modernity. And I fear just as much for the rest of America.

So back to why on earth do we read the whole Torah – I’m going to give you the words of Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th-century Iberian commentator and noble:

Do not think that the commandments about the mishkan, which do not apply to us here in the exile, or the laws that are valid only in the land of Israel, or the laws of priestly purity, have no value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Gen. 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.

Reading the entire Torah seems, at best, quaint, or perhaps outmoded. But that is, in fact, why we do it. One of the messages of the Torah is that, in the words of the curiously-named Ben Bag-Bag from Pirqei Avot, we turn it over and turn it over, because everything may be found in it. We have to keep looking, not merely hitting the repeat button on those passages that we want to hear. And so we read the details of the mishkan, and the sacrifices, and the barbaric ritual for testing a woman accused of being unfaithful, alongside the commandments to treat one another with respect, and to be just in your business dealings, and to keep the Shabbat. And we need to dedicate enough time to this task to earn our reward in this lifetime and the next.

We have to read the whole Torah. We have to listen to and parse all of its words, even the ones that we do not like, or do not want to hear.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/13/2016.)

Categories
Uncategorized

Paradigm Shifts, Ancient and Modern – Yitro 5776

I watched a captivating TED talk this week, featuring the futurist author and scholar Juan Enriquez. It was about evolution, and more particularly about how humans are still evolving today. But not only that, but we are in the middle of a particularly rapid period of human evolution. Mr. Enriquez identifies some of the fantastic technological advances of our time, and presents some curious data about the development of the human brain (for example, a doubling in the rate of occurrence of autism in the last decade). He also points out that many of us today take in more information in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime. Nobody is sure where we are headed, but Mr. Enriquez proposes that our children will effectively be a different species than we are: he suggests the term “Homo evolutis,” since we are effectively taking control of our own evolution.

We all know that in the course of our lifetimes, the world has changed dramatically. Remember when you were sitting around and having a conversation, and somebody was trying to remember the name of that band that had a single hit in 1972 and then disappeared, and gee, that was such an awesome song, but what were they called? And if nobody knew, you had nowhere to turn. Maybe you could go to the library and ask a reference librarian, but that would only be on Monday morning, and by then you would have forgotten.

Or maybe you remember a time when you had to have explicit directions written out in advance to get to a new friend’s house, and if you got lost along the way, you had to find a payphone. Or that the only way to get a flight ticket was through a travel agent. And if you heard a rumor about a celebrity, there was no way to check to see whether or not it was true. And so forth.

But today, everything has changed. Our children and grandchildren may never understand why rotary telephones did not play video, that television shows were broadcast at a certain time, and if you missed it, you missed it. They will never live in a world in which their every movement, purchase, activity, meal, and preference is not recorded somewhere and stored for later use. Juan Enriquez foresees a time in which our memories may be downloaded, and perhaps shared with others, raising a whole host of new ethical questions.

Humans have been on this Earth for a relatively short while; out of 4.5 billion years, Homo sapiens sapiens, anatomically modern humans, came into existence a mere 100,000 years ago. It is a well-known exercise to put the history of the planet on a year-long timeline; we appear on Dec. 31st, less than twelve minutes to midnight. The Torah came down to us at about 11:59 and 40 seconds. It is clear that we and our tradition are recent arrivals.

2001: A Space Odyssey

And yet, human existence has taken quantum leaps forward at various points. One of those jumps was identified today in Parashat Yitro. This parashah is the lynchpin in the paradigm shift of the Israelite nation. The central metaphor of the Torah, and hence Judaism, reaches its climax with the episode at Sinai. Redemption from Egypt leads to revelation, i.e. the giving of the Torah. And this is, you might say, the fundamental paradigm shift of the Five Books of Moses.

Our ancestors go from slavery to freedom, celebrate their departure from Egypt, and then receive the basis for law and custom, the foundational document of ancient Israelite religion and thousands of years of Jewish history and culture. That’s the entire basis for Judaism right there. Peoplehood. The land of Israel. Our Jewish bookshelf. Customs. Traditions. Halakhah / Jewish law, Jewish values – all delivered in a scant 40 days and 40 nights on an assuming mountain in the desert.

12 Mt. Sinai & Second Coming Compared - Deity and Humanity
Gebel Musa in the Sinai desert

And of course it did not end there – the law-giving continues for the rest of the Torah, another 40 years, a longer period but no more than a rounding error on the scale of geologic time.

And somehow, three millennia or so later, here we are, still debating the meaning of those ancient words, still trying to relate to our tradition in our time, still recalling the Exodus and Mt. Sinai, still observing the seventh day as holy.

And yet, many of us are wondering, will my children take hold of any of this? Or will Homo evolutis reject Judaism and Jewish tradition entirely? Will our history and culture be left only to those who have isolated themselves from the creeping invasion of modernity?

The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a few weeks back about millennials and politics. He cited a range of statistics which show a large gap between millennials (those born after 1980) and all Americans of previous generations, and not only regarding how they vote.

Brooks describes this demographic as “the self-reliant generation.” They are more inclined to understand society as “loosely networked individualism,” and hence far less likely to join institutions, less trusting of people, government, and organizations, and of course, far less likely to belong to religious groups. Brooks summarizes the millennial character in this way:

The general impression one gets is of a generation that is stressed, energetic, creative, skeptical and in the middle of redefining, and thinning out, the nature of affiliation. Its members have been thrust into a harsher world where it is necessary to be guarded, and sensitive to risk. They want systemic change but there is no compelling form of collective action available. Their only alternative, which is their genius, is to try to fix their lives themselves, through technology and new forms of social interaction, rather than mass movements.

The coming generations will be much less likely to think of themselves as part of a people, a nation, a group of any kind, and in particular will be less inspired by our national story.

So that leads me back to the Decalogue, to the Mt. Sinai moment of contact between humans and God, and indeed to the moment earlier today when we re-created that contact by standing together to hear the words of the Aseret HaDibberot. Many of us grew up in a time when collective involvement in many things, including Judaism, was a powerful motivator. One well-known midrash suggests that all Jews, past, present and future, were at Sinai, that the experience of revelation was therefore not a one-time historical event, but that we all accepted the covenant as a nation.

For thousands of years, that has been a comforting thought. That ancient paradigm shift was inspiring and powerful. Our foundational story of slavery -> freedom -> Torah -> Israel was an essential piece of who we are. The Jewish nation, the Jewish collective, kelal yisrael, was nourished by that idea of resonating together in the echoes of Mt. Sinai.

But our children are far more skeptical (and I know this from personal experience) than I ever was as a child. We may in fact be entering a new paradigm, a new phase of the relationship with our tradition.

And, like Juan Enriquez, who wonders aloud whether our subsequent generations will be the same species, I am left with the question, “If our ancient stories do not speak to us as they used to, how are we going to convince our young people of the value of this?”

Now, I’m not into fear. I am not fond of those who promote fear and outsize concern for the future, and I will not engage in that sort of thinking. I do not want to raise the flag of anxiety by screaming, “Oh no! What if my children reject Judaism? What if Judaism disappears?”

Rather, I want us to think of this as a challenge, a healthy opportunity to work harder to engage our descendants, and to think about how we have to change what we do in order to stay relevant. Of course, I have no definite solutions, no concrete answers to the question of, “How do we maintain our tradition?” But I have a few suggestions to help managing this new paradigm from where we stand today:

  1. We must be able to define for ourselves why the Sinai moment, and indeed the whole enterprise of Judaism is valuable to us. And the potential answers cannot include, “I’m Jewish because my parents were,” or “I’m Jewish because I’m not Christian,” or “I’m Jewish to spite Hitler.” Those things may all be true, but they will not speak to millennials.

    Rather, we have to say things like, “I’m Jewish because the teachings of Jewish tradition fill my life with meaning and my head with guidance,” or “I’m Jewish because Judaism keeps me grounded and offers me comfort,” or “I’m Jewish because Jewish texts inspire me to work for the benefit of others.” And so forth.

  2. We have to use the tools of technology to create more access points for those who want to be involved. In my Judaism 101 class, for example, I have a few students who participate by Skype every Thursday evening because they live too far away. There are many more online resources for learning and participating – we have to promote them more. And so forth.
  3. We have to be willing to make hard choices about what we offer as a synagogue. If any of our activities are not reaching a critical mass of people, we have to reconsider what we do. Even as we sally forth into the digital age, people will always need synagogues as gathering places; we just have to find the hooks that will bring more in, and we have to make sure that those programs are connective, resonant, and worthwhile. Business as usual in most synagogues means the business of the last century. We have to constantly re-envision what we do, and that’s hard, but it must be done.

Those are just a few thoughts. The new paradigm will surely contain Judaism; it will be up to us what that Judaism looks like. Let’s have those conversations now, and prepare for the future.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, Jan. 30, 2016.)

Categories
Sermons

Bosons, Kafka, and God – Shemot 5776

I tend to follow with great interest any news that comes out about particle physics, mostly because I am fascinated by things which we cannot see, yet are fundamental to understanding our world. But also, I love the theoretical aspects of math and physics that speak to the great theological questions that continue to pester us, even as we discover ever more about Creation. Subatomic particles always bring me back to God.

There was a piece of news two weeks ago from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider, a 27-km circular particle accelerator 100 meters underground outside of Geneva, was the international research facility that demonstrated the existence of the elusive Higgs boson in 2012. Without getting too technical, the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle whose existence had been predicted more than 50 years ago by a British theoretical physicist named Peter Higgs, but since the theory indicated that it would decay in a ten-sextillionth (10^-22 or 0.0000000000000000000001) of a second, it would be very hard to demonstrate that it exists. However, as a key particle in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, proving its existence was extremely important to scientists in the field. The Large Hadron Collider, at a cost of about $10 billion, was built largely (!) to pursue the mysterious Higgs; finding it would effectively “prove” the Standard Model and thus allow many physicists to sleep comfortably at night.

Large Hadron Collider Makes Comeback After Two-Year Hiatus - Modern ...
The Large Hadron Collider

Scientists were so confident in 2013 that they had witnessed the presence of the Higgs in the data obtained from the LHC that they took the accelerator out of service for two years to do some repair work. It came back on line in 2015, and just a few weeks ago, scientists working at CERN went public with a new discovery: yet another, newly-discovered, as-yet-unnamed and -untheorized mystery particle, perhaps a cousin to the Higgs.

What is captivating about all this to me is that in 2013, everything seemed hunky-dory in the field of physics. Big questions were answered. Great theories were proven. Some have referred to the Higgs boson as “the God particle,” because the idea was that once it was discovered, all questions would be laid to rest.

But that did not happen; not all questions were answered. Apparently, the Standard Model predicts many things about matter, but there are others to which there are no answers. (They are too far beyond the scope of this derashah for me to explain.) But that is what makes it interesting.

Are we getting closer to unlocking all of the secrets that God’s Creation has for us? Or is it possible that each door unlocked will lead to another door, which is still locked, and will require many more years and billions of dollars to unlock?

In my first year at Cornell, I read a short story by Franz Kafka called Before the Law. In it, an unidentified man comes from the country to seek the law, and is met by a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper refuses to let the man through the gate toward the law, but tells him that after the first gate is another gate with another gatekeeper and after that another and another, and each gate is even harder to enter. The man spends his entire life trying to gain access. At the end of his life, as the man is dying, the gatekeeper reveals that the gate was created only for him, and it will now be permanently closed. The man has failed.

When I think of the high-level and extraordinarily expensive research that must be surmounted in order to get answers to truly fundamental questions, I think of Kafka’s series of gates that are nearly inaccessible, and each one is harder to enter. And that, of course, brings me back to God.

Kafka, of course, was Jewish, and grew up in a household that knew Judaism; his father was a shohet (kosher butcher). Although he never wrote about Judaism explicitly in his work, this story to me sounds very Jewish. The man strives for entry to the law (i.e. the Torah) for his entire life, but never succeeds; we too strive to live the ideals and mitzvot of Judaism, and we always miss the mark. Part of the drama of the High Holidays is the acknowledgment that each of us has failed in one way or another; each of us is flawed.

kafka statue in this part of town i came upon a unique statue of kafka ...
Statue of Franz Kafka in Prague

But the series of increasingly challenging gates speaks to me of the way that I approach God. God is not provable by any theory or evidence, and that’s OK. God can live comfortably alongside the so-called God particle, the Big Bang, evolution, and so forth, because that is not the way God works. Does knowing where we come from and how subatomic particles behave answer the really important questions, like, “How do I find meaning in my life?” or “How do I make responsible choices in my interpersonal relationships?” No.

Knowing God and understanding the laws of physics are fundamentally different questions. But they are equally challenging in a way that highlights the impossibility of ever arriving at the conclusion. Just as understanding subatomic particles will be an infinite task, so too will our understanding of God.

God is elusive, and sometimes the more we uncover, the more we see that there is even more to know. And yet, we continue to strive for holiness, to seek God wherever Godliness might be found.

Some of us look at those who are deeper and more rigorous in our observance of religious tradition and think, “That guy – he must understand Judaism and God. He’s got it all figured out.” But you’ll have to trust me when I say, it doesn’t quite work that way. We all continue to seek, no matter where we are on the spectrum of Jewish knowledge or traditional practice. And we all return to the same fundamental questions, for which there will never be complete answers. And the whole array of Torah and our tradition remains before us to dig into along our journeys.

And this brings me back to Parashat Shemot, and in particular a passage that has captivated me since childhood. It comes from the episode with the burning bush (Ex. 3:13-14):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָאֱ-לֹהִים, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם, אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ, מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.  יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.

Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” (New JPS)

Call me Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, says God. “I am what I am.” We might expect this from Popeye, but not from God.

What does it mean? What does it tell us about who or what God is, about the nature of the Divine? Is God merely ducking the question, knowing that in 5776 / 2016 we’d still be asking?

The great Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdychiv (Ukraine, 1740-1809) reads this as future tense, “I will be what I will be.”  It is as if God is saying, don’t try to pin me down; you cannot fully understand me, and the same will be true effectively forever.

I suppose what was always the most fascinating thing about this line is the translation itself. When I was in Hebrew school, I was taught that “ehyeh” is future tense – I will be – and therefore goes with R. Levi Yitzhaq.

But actually, Hebrew grammar freaks like me know that although modern Hebrew has a tense structure that accords with European languages (past, present, and future), ancient Hebrew does not actually work that way. The Hebrew of the Torah, if you can believe this, has no tense! It has only moods. Those moods are perfect and imperfect. Perfect refers to actions which have been completed; imperfect refers to things that have not yet been completed. Both of these moods can refer to actions in the past, present, or future; although mood can sometimes suggest tense, tense is not intrinsic to the mood.

Ehyeh” is imperfect. It is an incompleteness, past, present, or future. It might suggest “This is what I am right now, but I will be something different in the future,” or “This is what I will begin to be when we get there.” It could even suggest, “This is what I was being, but I have since changed.”

Ehyeh asher ehyeh” is a layer of incompleteness on top of incompleteness. It says, “Not only have I not completed who I am right now, but even in the future I will not have even begun to be established.” It’s like Churchill’s statement on the Soviet Union: it was (perfect mood, BTW) “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

God is in an imperfect mood. God is not complete. God is still, even today, fashioning God’s self.

This is an imperfect world, and there is much work to do before we achieve perfection of any kind. Maybe it will never arrive, but we first must acknowledge this. That’s the meaning of “Ehyeh.”

Back to the Times story on the exciting, new boson, cousin to the God particle, the Higgs: the reporter who covered this revelation described the discovery of the Higgs as “not the end of physics,” but rather, “the end of the beginning.” This research is in the imperfect mood. Just as physicists will continue to dig deeper to find more answers, and even more unanswered questions, so too will we continue to attempt to enter one gate after another in search of God, in our quest for Torah, in our journey to ourselves. Kafka and the Higgs boson suggest that this search will never be over; our task is to keep looking.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2016.)

Categories
Sermons

We Need Each Other – Vayhi 5776

I mentioned last week that I was in Tzefat on my last day in Israel. After walking meditatively through that city’s famous cemetery and visiting the graves of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the AR”I, Elohi Rabbi Yitzhaq, the godly Rabbi Isaac), creator of Lurianic Kabbalah, and Rabbi Shelomo Halevi Alqabetz, the payyetan / liturgical poet who composed Lekha Dodi, I walked further up the hill into the center of the city.

FROM SPAIN TO SAFED: THE LURIANIC KABBALAH
R. Luria, R. Alqabetz, R. Cordovero

If you’ve been there, you know that Tzefat consists mostly of little alleyways winding around the hill. It’s a maze – all the printed maps are wrong – and it is actually impossible to actually find your way through Tzefat unless you live there. You can really only stumble into the artists’ colony or the central business district.

At one point as I’m wandering, I had a brief encounter that caused me to think deeply about Jewish pluralism. I see a woman coming toward me who looks like a nun in a black habit. As she drew closer, I realized that this was not a nun, but a Jewish woman in a black robe that covered everything except her face. I was face-to-face with one of the very traditional women who have opted for the Jewish version of the Muslim burqa. (Technically, for those of us who are familiar with women’s dress codes in the Muslim world, it was really a chador, a full-length robe open only around the face, favored in Iran and Afghanistan. You can watch an investigative report about these women from Israeli television, in Hebrew, here.)

Now this is very troubling to me – in some ways, it is an affront to all that Judaism stands for, and particularly the egalitarian principles which Conservative Judaism has pioneered. (BTW, Orthodox and Haredi authorities in Israel have railed against the burqa women as well.)

But even while most rabbinic authorities have rejected the so-called “frumka,” some advocate gender-segregated buses, sidewalks, and even supermarkets in their neighborhoods. I am sure that many of us are aware of the battles that have taken place at the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex) over mixed-gender services and women’s services. (And if you have not been there lately, you should know about the Ezrat Yisrael area set aside for egalitarian services below Robinson’s Arch – it’s much nicer than the traditional area of the Kotel – quiet, serene, removed from the chaos and political hubbub nearby.)

But I suppose that the pluralist in me has to acknowledge that even while I disagree with these extreme forms of gender separation, and particularly the radical covering-up-ism taken on by a couple of hundred women in Israel, that these are also among the Jewish paths to God. While I think that there are security issues with anybody walking around in public with their face obscured (as with a true burqa), I suppose that women who choose to cover themselves up to avoid the wanton gazes of men have something of a leg to stand on.

If we are really committed to pluralism, we have to accept a wide range of Jewish behaviors in both directions. I do not judge members of this community who eat treyf or go shopping on Shabbat. I tolerate (well, actually I encourage) a wide range of understanding God. I have become aware that many more Jews are being cremated, which is a true affront to Jewish tradition on multiple levels. I try not to be annoyed when mobile phones ring in shul / synagogue on Shabbat.

We in the middle of the Jewish continuum have an obligation to love and accept all Jews who come our way, regardless of their choices. As a Conservative rabbi, I advocate for kashrut, Shabbat, and traditional Jewish burial, as well as halakhic change to account for a changed contemporary landscape.

On the other hand, however, perhaps pluralism must have its limits. Just as our upstanding, moderate Muslim colleagues repudiate the extremists in their midst, so too must we. We Jews should never tolerate murder or revenge in the name of Judaism. We should never tolerate the perversion of our teachings for radical purposes. (And, on a related note, we should distance ourselves from the behaviors of Jewish extremists caught on video at a recent wedding, celebrating the murder of 18-month-old Palestinian Ali Dawabshe and brandishing knives and guns.)

And really, as contradictory as this sounds, it’s hard for me to get past the feeling that women who cover themselves up so as to obscure their bodies to such an extent may be beyond the pale. The statement that they are making is that men have no control whatsoever. It makes sense to me that in a contemporary context, men should take as much responsibility as women in protecting human dignity and in respecting one another. If either men or women insist that it is only the woman’s duty to fend off inappropriate glances, to me it feels like pre-emptively blaming the victim.

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves here regarding what it means to be a Conservative Jew: like Orthodoxy, we understand halakhah / Jewish law to be valid and binding, but we account for modernity with conservative (i.e. minimal) changes within the halakhic system. We accept men and women as being equal under Jewish law. We accept the historical view of Judaism, understanding our tradition as having unfolded gradually in the context of many places and cultures, rather than having all been given in final form at Sinai. We accept contemporary understandings of the origins of the Torah and of God. These Conservative “changes” flow naturally from our tradition; they are not a break with it.

Many of these ideas are not welcome in some quarters of the Jewish world, and some of the sentiments and principles that emerge from those quarters I find objectionable. But there is still, at least for now, some mutual sense of belonging. We are all still Jews. And as I passed Geveret Burqa there in Tzefat, we shared what you might call a little pluralistic moment – an acknowledgment of the different ways of being Jewish, even if I am disappointed that she would take the Jewish value of tzeni’ut, modesty, to a rather absurd extent.

We concluded the first book of the Torah today, and as Bereshit drew to a close with the patriarch Ya’aqov on his deathbed, each of his sons received some parting words. These fatherly praises and admonitions speak to me of pluralism. For example:

Gen. 49:8 (re: Yehudah)

יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ–יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ

You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;

Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;

Your father’s sons shall bow low to you…

Gen. 49:5-6 (re: Shim’on and Levi)

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים–כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:  כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.

Simeon and Levi are a pair;

Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

Let not my person be included in their council,

Let not my being be counted in their assembly.

For when angry they slay men,

And when pleased they maim oxen.

At this stage, the Israelite nation is really only a family. Jacob is here driving home the point, at the end of his life and effectively the end of the family narrative, that our family has internal strife. Not only do we disagree with each other, we are sometimes openly hostile. Not too dissimilar today – our internecine struggles are effectively ancient.

And yet, despite the harsh words from Ya’aqov, Shim’on and Levi continue to be counted among the Israelites. Ya’aqov does not write them out of his will, or out of the family. I am from the tribe of Levi.

In some ways we still retain that sense of family. The Talmud (BT Shevuot 39a) tells us that:

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh

All of Israel is responsible for one another.

We are all dependent on one another, all connected. We have always thought of ourselves in this way. We even have our own term for our connectedness: kelal Yisrael. Loosely translated, it means, “All of us Israelites.”

We are kind of like a giant cousins’ club. Since the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Zionist movement, some have called this phenomenon “peoplehood.” One of the major results of this sense of peoplehood in modern times is the State of Israel; a more mild form is the pride that American Jews used to take in playing “Spot the Jew”: knowing that the Three Stooges and and Dinah Shore and Kirk Douglas were all Jewish. (Re: Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.)

But the Jewish world is much more fractured than it used to be. The landmark Pew Research Center study on American Jews from two years ago showed a religious hardening on the right and growing disengagement on the left, with a disappearing middle. I think it might be harder today for us to acknowledge that we are all connected, that our souls are bound together, that we have a shared destiny, common values, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I believe we are indeed still one people. We are all Jews, even if large fractions of the Jewish world do not accept other large fractions. The concept of kelal Yisrael still resonates. And certainly, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in some quarters of the world might serve to remind us all that those who hate us surely do not care about our divergent approaches to halakhah or whether or not we ordain female rabbis or call women to the Torah.

Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall ...
Women of the Wall.

Pluralism means that we should tolerate each other, acknowledge each other. We who proudly call women to the Torah will never agree with those who must walk and ride and shop in single-gender environments. Those of us who support the State of Israel with all our hearts will never understand our fellow Jews who protest its very existence. We do not have to agree, but we have to at least acknowledge each other as fellow members of the tribe. And I think that we are still doing that. We may be a dysfunctional family, but we are still a family.

We have to continue to work together, for the benefit of our extended cousins’ club. I very much hope that we will.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/26/2015.)

Categories
Sermons

Your Next Vacation – Vayyiggash 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home, for Yosef, is Egypt.

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

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

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

So go there. Soon.

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

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Kavvanot

Bringing Light: The Message of Hanukkah

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Categories
Kavvanot

The Dreamers Among Us – Vayyeshev 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Sermons

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

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

Logo Shape the Center: USCJ Convention 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ektzentri” means “eccentric.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medeba map of Jerusalem
The Medeba Map of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Sermons

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

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

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

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

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hevron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Sermons

Seeking Ourselves for the Greater Good – Lekh Lekha 5776

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה

Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’aynei hayeshua.

Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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