Tag Archives: community

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

Wait! You might want to read the first two items in the series before you read this one:

Increase the Love: Ani / The Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

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Remember the movie Avatar, from 2009? It was about a tribe known as the Na’vi, who worship an invisible-yet-omnipotent god named Eywa, and draw their support from a gigantic tree. If it did not occur to you when you saw it that the writers were drawing on some aspects of Jewish tradition, let me explain: “navi” is Hebrew for “prophet,” Eywa is a simple rearrangement of Yahweh, the ancient name of our one, true God, and the Hometree is a likely reference to the “Etz Hayyim,” the “Tree of Life,” i.e. the Torah. Na’vi society is marked by interconnectedness, with Eywa and with each other through the Hometree. What makes their society seem so seductive is the deep, mystical connection that they all share with all living things in their world, plant and animal – a kind of universal, communal love.

Pandora-HomeTree

We do not generally think of Judaism as a religion of love. That is a theme that, it seems, is usually left to Christians, who often tout the idea that “Jesus loves you.” Nonetheless, those of you who were here for Rosh Hashanah certainly know that love is actually a foundational principle in Judaism, promoted by none other than Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of the Talmudic period.

We in the Jewish world could benefit from a greater emphasis on love. That is why the overarching theme of these High Holidays has been ahavah / love – because one of our primary goals today should be to increase the love in this world. We spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah about love of self, and on the second day about love of family.

And I hope that by the time this sermon cycle is complete, you will feel the same way. Love will be our theme for 5779, and I am hoping that you will find this theme emerge in the various ways that we at Beth Shalom approach Judaism.

Here is another piece of Jewish wisdom that I want you to have in your list of go-to, pithy Jewish statements on love. It is found in every siddur / prayerbook, right up front. You’ll find it in your Mahzor Lev Shalem on p. 35, and also in the High Holiday Guide on p. 5. It’s known as Mitzvat HaBorei, and it is a unique kind of blessing created by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century creator of Lurianic Kabbalah, a branch of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Luria said that we should begin every day by saying the following:

הריני מקבל עלי מצוות הבורא: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

Hareini meqabbel alai mitzvat haborei: Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha.

I hereby take upon myself the mitzvah / commandment of my Creator: love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, says Rabbi Luria, we should start every day not only by expressing our gratitude to God for waking up healthy and capable (which is the first thing that happens in every morning service at Beth Shalom, every day of the year), but also by remembering our love for the people around us. In fact, this is so essential that Rabbi Luria’s framing suggests that this love is kind of encoded into us. God’s primary reason for creating the world, you might say, is so that we might love our neighbors.

And we say that before we emphasize the requirement to love God, which is in the Shema. So what is the message? We need to love each other before we experience Divine love. Not just our family members, mind you, but our neighbors.

Continuing the theme from Rosh Hashanah, Maimonides’ concentric circles of responsibility continue to radiate outward; today we are going to talk about love of community. That’a a loosely-defined word, of course, but since we are in Mr. Rogers’ hometown, let’s go with his definition: the people in your neighborhood.

Let’s face it, folks: this is probably the hardest type of love. We can learn to love ourselves. Love of our families is kind of a given. Love of the world in general (which we will discuss tomorrow) might be easier in the abstract. But loving the people in your neighborhood, with whom you might fundamentally disagree about important, personal issues? People with whom you most likely occasionally argue with over taxes or city services or synagogue budgets? People who might drive you nuts because they throw their leaves in your yard or fail to shovel the snow off the sidewalk in front of their houses? Can you love the jerk who clearly could have let you take a Pittsburgh left but didn’t? That’s hard.

I want you to consider, for a moment, a Pittsburgher whom you may have heard of, named Bill Strickland. He is probably best known among the Jews for being a driving force in founding the Akko Center for Arts and Technology (“A-CAT”), a career-training center for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs in northern Israel.

(We will be visiting A-CAT on Beth Shalom’s trip to Israel, which departs Oct. 28th. I am leading this trip, and 25 members of our neighborhood will be joining us.)

But what Bill is best known for is creating the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, which began with a school in the disadvantaged neighborhood in which he grew up on the north side of Pittsburgh, and has now expanded to similar schools around the country and in a few international locations as well.

Bill tells his story in a TED Talk, which I highly recommend that you watch some time in 5779:

His odyssey began in high school, where he was on his way to failing out, and he met a teacher who taught him how to make pottery. This teacher cared about Bill, and Bill soon discovered that learning how to throw pots gave him something to latch onto, something that made him proud of himself. His schoolwork improved enough for him to get into the University of Pittsburgh, and while he was still an undergraduate there, he launched a vision that would take him decades to build.

His vision was this: if you demonstrate to kids in poor neighborhoods that you care about them – create for them a learning environment that is well-appointed and respectful, with teachers that show their appreciation – then those kids will respond by working harder, pursuing careers, and generally becoming productive members of society. He started by creating the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, an after-school program to teach children in Manchester about pottery, but continued to build until his programs, primarily focused on job training, now reach thousands of people, adults and children, giving them a range of skills they need to make it in today’s world. In Bill’s own words:

My view is that if you want to involve yourself in the life of people who have been given up on, you have to look like the solution and not the problem. As you can see, [the center I built in Pittsburgh] has a fountain in the courtyard. And the reason it has a fountain in the courtyard is I wanted one and I had the checkbook, so I bought one and put it there… [I was] on the board of the Carnegie Museum. At a reception in their courtyard, I noticed that they had a fountain because they think that the people who go to the museum deserve a fountain. Well, I think that welfare mothers and at-risk kids and ex-steel workers deserve a fountain in their life. And so the first thing that you see in my center in the springtime is water that greets you — water is life and water is human possibility — and it sets an attitude and expectation about how you feel about people before you ever give them a speech. So, from that fountain I built this building.

In 1996, he was awarded the very prestigious MacArthur Genius Fellowship award.

I met Mr. Strickland a few months back at the Pursuer of Peace dinner at Rodef Shalom, and he is every bit as warm and genuine as he appears in his TED Talk. I remember thinking at the time, this is a man who has found a solution to one of the most challenging, intractable problems of our society. I’m shaking the hand of a true inspiration. How powerful is that? Better than meeting just about any celebrity.

Because what he did was truly an act of love, paid forward from the love shown to him by his first pottery teacher. Bill could have taken the opportunity before him by earning his degree at Pitt and headed off into the world to make a good living in business or law or medicine or finance, and never even consider looking through the rear-view mirror to the blighted neighborhood in which he grew up.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, he did exactly the opposite. And that was truly an act of ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha, loving your neighbor as yourself. And what he created continues to give back, to radiate love within the community.

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So how do we act on this love of your neighbor? How do we create a community based on love with people whom we may not necessarily like, or even know?

Most of us think of Judaism as a tradition of law. In fact, many of us understand that our relationship with God is based on our fulfillment of halakhah, which is usually translated as “Jewish law,” although a more accurate translation is “going” or “walking.” That is, halakhah is how we walk through life – including the obligations not only to keep Shabbat or kashrut / dietary laws, but also keeping the responsibility to tzedaqah / charity, or to learn the words of our tradition, or to teach our children how to be people, as we discussed on Rosh Hashanah.

How does a tradition of laws guide us to be better people? How does it help shape our interactions with others to benefit the community?

Well, some of our mitzvot, our holy opportunities, are directly about helping others: giving tzedaqah, that is, performing righteous acts, is an obvious one. But did you know that our tradition requires you to build a railing on your roof (if you have a flat roof that people walk on) to prevent people from falling off? How about the obligation to use fair weights and measures in the marketplace? What about the obligation to bury an unclaimed corpse, the highest form of hesed / loving-kindness? Did you know its against our law to withhold earnings from a day laborer lest they go home empty-handed?

By the way, my very favorite mitzvah in the entire Torah is this: If you find your enemy’s ox or donkey in your yard, you must return it! (Exodus 23:4) Think of how ironic and yet essential that particular opportunity is: the person who might very well be inclined to kill you – his is the one whose donkey the Torah tells you to return. Now, probably most of our neighbors do not own donkeys, but the same would be true with your enemy’s wallet or cellphone. Think about that: the Torah expressly protects your enemy’s possessions.

Maimonides, at the end of his famous text, Guide for the Perplexed, insists that the fulfillment of mitzvot, the meticulous attention to halakhah / Jewish law are not, in fact, the ultimate objective. Rather, these things are the means to an end. The line of intent that the 613 mitzvot form is meant to be extrapolated, such that we go beyond the letter of the law, lifnim mishurat hadin, in rabbinic-speak, to do those things for others that are not mandated by the Torah, but rather are the right things to be done. So, while it is a mitzvah to honor your parents and to give tzedaqah, it is an extrapolation, for example, to volunteer your time at a homeless shelter, or to build gardens in impoverished neighborhoods so that people in food deserts can get some good produce.

And yet, I think that the way we live today has made it even harder to connect in a way that enables us to build an interdependent community, one in which we support each other in love. Although more wired than ever, from my perspective we are, ironically, living more isolated lives. The challenges here are great, but, I think, not insurmountable.

Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (my rabbinic and cantorial alma mater) and a scholar of American Judaism, recently wrote a trenchant article on the role that our tradition can play in the revitalization of community in America.  The article is entitled, “Are We Witnessing the End of Enlightenment?” His opening observation is that the current moment seems to be characterized by a “wholesale retreat from values of human dignity, thoughtful rationality and tolerance of difference—values that Jews, most other Americans, and many individuals and peoples around the world, have long held dear.” He points to suspected culprits like technology that is moving faster than our interpersonal relationships can keep pace with, globalization that is causing rapid economic upheaval, and the various forms of anxiety caused by the Information Age.

It seems undeniable… that all is not well in 21st century North America at the apex of Enlightenment. Social theorists have long worried that the breakdown of traditional communities and roles would cast many of us adrift in multiple ways, and it seems that that in fact has occurred.

The challenge that we have as contemporary Jews is how we take our traditional values and apply them in a way that works today. The entire world is struggling with the challenges posed by modernity; at least we the Jews have our traditional framework to hold onto.

Our ancient wisdom, Eisen says, which we continue to study and and act upon – gives us guidance today, to wit, “concrete laws governing daily human interaction.” He cites the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (that is, Parashat Qedoshim, my bar mitzvah parashah) and Maimonides as proponents of societal transformation through traditional Jewish behaviors.

We in the Conservative movement, who balance tradition and change, are exceptionally well-placed to assist this transformation, and Dr. Eisen envisions more such communities. He suggests that we build communities marked by “face-to-face relations,” shared experiences, shared celebrations and shared grief, and we endeavor to affirm all members of the community as valued and needed. These communities “teach via experience that differences of politics and generation need not stand in the way of cooperation and mutual respect… [enabling us to] work in the larger, ever-contentious world.”

In short, we need communities based on love. And furthermore, when you consider that today fewer and fewer Americans belong to organizations of any kind, religious or otherwise, our synagogues still stand for building an interconnected society. Our berit, our covenant, helps us to stand against the isolation of the contemporary American landscape; we lead in partnership and dialogue.

We know what it means to go through life with a community of capital-M Meaning, and face up to illness and death with the support of such a community. The deep satisfaction of singing “etz hayyim hi” (“it is a tree of life”) as we return the Torah to the ark is not just a function of the music, or the power of shared voices. The words conjure up gratitude at the life that Torah makes possible for us. We cannot imagine living without this Torah. We gratefully choose to walk these paths of peace again and again.

What is the foundational principle of a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community like this one? It is love. Love of our neighbors, love of family, love of self.

We need, our society needs strong communal centers that give back to the community. Our future as Americans depends on the sustainable future of this synagogue. Because here, we teach Mitzvat haBorei every single day: It is our daily obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves.

And that is why we need, as a synagogue, to tackle our future strategically. That is why we are currently engaged in United Synagogue’s SULAM for Strategic Planners program, and are working on our strategic plan (did you fill out the survey??). That is why we are working on building solar panels on our roof, to emphasize both physical and environmental sustainability. That is why we in the past year we joined the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, enabling us to be in partnership with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations all over Western Pennsylvania. That is why we are taking journeys to Israel and to the scene of the civil rights struggle in the South. That is why we are here in times of joy and times of grief, in prayerful moments and social moments. That is why we continue to rethink what we do and how we do it.

That is a vision of love of community: ensuring the ongoing strength and viability of not only Congregation Beth Shalom, but all the houses of faith in our neighborhood, so that we all can continue to function in bringing people together in this ever-more-disconnected world.

Now is the time to integrate, to cooperate, to reach out, to walk the paths of peace, to recall that we are all connected through our Etz Hayyim / Tree of Life, to prevent further unraveling of community. That is the daily imperative that we invoke when we recall Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Mitzvat HaBorei, the essential obligation of our creator: love your neighbor as yourself.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur evening, 9/18/2018.)

 

The final installment:

Increase the Love: Ha’Olam / The World – Yom Kippur 5779

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

 

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

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Standing Together – Yitro 5777

There are days, maybe once a week, when I feel like, “Ah. That was a good day. I accomplished a lot. I engaged with lots of people. I taught some Torah. I helped move this institution forward.”

There are days when I feel like, “Wow. I spent the whole day in meetings and handling logistics and didn’t get anything of significance done. Ouch.”

On the whole, I would say, I feel pretty good about the direction of Beth Shalom, about my work here, about our trajectory as a community. We are building slowly, making connections between people, reaching members and non-members in new and different ways, perhaps raising the bar of qedushah, holiness, in the context of our community.

Every now and then, it’s a good idea to count your successes and acknowledge challenges. Among the successes, I would count the following:

  • Our membership has grown by more than 10% in the past year and a half
  • We have already raised over $700,000 in pledges from members
  • We are halfway through the SULAM for Emerging Leaders program, training 14 members of the community for greater effectiveness as lay leaders
  • We are about to embark on a congregational learning process and re-envisioning of our tefillah, our services, in an attempt to make sure that our tefillah offerings meet our goals in that regard
  • The Shababababa and Shabbat Haverim services, which happened again last night, regularly draw 120 or more participants for joyous family davening in two services and a laid-back Shabbat dinner
  • Our other youth tefillah offerings have been improved dramatically, thanks to the hard work of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz
  • JJEP and the ELC are bursting with kids, energy, and innovation
  • We are launching the Derekh program this summer with a Jewish learning retreat aimed at young adults that will be held in August, and we received a $5000 grant from the Federation’s SteelTree program to run it
  • We have just established a team of volunteers to take responsibility for the sifrei Torah – where they are, to what parashah they are rolled, etc.
  • We are training new gabbaim
  • After more than a year of work and consideration, we are just about to put out a new version of the Benei Mitzvah Handbook with revised policies and information
  • We now have a streamlined, contemporary mission statement

And there are more. I think we can cautiously say that things are going well.

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But of course there are also challenges. In particular, there are many things that we just haven’t gotten to yet, perhaps because nobody has stepped forward to help make them happen:

  • We still have no social action committee
  • We still have not been able to plan a congregational trip to Israel
  • We still have no official greeting team
  • There are still daily services when we lack coverage and/or a minyan of attendees
  • Our signage in the building is still, at best, confusing, and I continue to hear reports from people who have difficulty finding their way into the building
  • We are far from implementing an Earth-friendly policy to guide us in use, reuse and recycling in the building

Anybody who would like to help us take on these challenges is welcome!

But in addition to these programming needs, there is a special kind of challenge that we face, a more thorny difficulty that often afflicts synagogues, and that is disagreement.

Not that disagreement is bad! On the contrary, it is healthy and normal. In fact, one might make the case that it is due to disagreement that we are still here as Jews. You see, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, they effectively began the process of “democratizing” Judaism – no more would the priesthood and the Sanhedrin hold all the power. Study and prayer, more personal routes to God and tradition, became the central communal features of Judaism.

But what allowed Judaism to endure and enabled it to survive to this very day, is the ability to maintain civil disagreement.

An oft-quoted Talmudic example of this comes from the two major schools of rabbinic opinion, those of the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Yet, despite the fact that their followers disagreed on many points of law and practice, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 14a). They maintained a sense of community and togetherness in the face of argument.

Disagreement is fundamental to who we are. But disagreement can be healthy or destructive, and I am more concerned about the latter.

We read in Pirqei Avot (5:19) about the mahloqet leshem shamayim – a controversy for the sake of heaven. The disagreement which furthers the goals of community, connection and qedushah / holiness is a Divine argument that will last forever. The dispute that seeks to self-aggrandize or consolidate power or disrupt the community is NOT leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. This is the destructive form of disagreement.

One of my most beloved teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us that synagogue politics are good. They indicate a thriving organization that consists of engaged members who care. The absence of political disagreements, the shul in which everybody agrees about everything, he said, is a dying shul.

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I have been here now a year and a half. During the first year or so, I was aware of very little in the way of disagreements with my style or my choices or my halakhic opinions. There’s a name for that grace period that new rabbis are usually afforded: the honeymoon.

But now the honeymoon is over.  And just as in any marriage it’s not a bad thing.  It just signals the start of getting down to brass tacks, the sharper points of living in holy matrimony.

So I have to confess something at this point – something which I have not owned up to until now: I am not perfect. (My wife liked that line best.) While I try very hard indeed to make sure that I am serving this community as best I can, I have occasionally let myself and others down. And that is hard, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist – I want things to be right.

And yet, as the old maxim goes, you cannot please all the people all the time. And that also applies to rabbis.

It even applies, by the way, to our greatest teacher. Moshe Rabbeinu, you might say, was at the peak of his career in Parashat Yitro. He ascends Mt. Sinai to confer face-to-face with the Qodesh Barukh Hu, and takes dictation, beginning with the Aseret HaDibberot / Ten Utterances (usually referred to as the “Ten Commandments”).

And yet, Moshe fails. What happens while he’s up on the mountain, acquiring a radiant glow in the presence of God? The people doubt him. They worry. They think he’s never coming back. “This Moshe guy,” they say, “we don’t know where he went!” (Ex. 32:1, roughly). And then they build an idol. So not only has Moshe failed to deliver the monotheistic goods, but he also fails so badly that the Israelites actually do the opposite of what Moshe is about to teach them when he comes down the mountain.

And, to make matters worse, when he finds out, Moshe loses his cool. He “goes ballistic” as he smashes the tablets.

I am certain that many of us have had that Molten Calf moment, when we think things are going so well, and then everything seems to come crashing down around us. I find this passage consoling when facing my own moments of doubt.

After a year and a half of progress, I feel that together we have made Beth Shalom a more inclusive environment, a more friendly and civil place. And we have accomplished many community-building initiatives.

And yet, we still have to avoid getting sucked into that Molten Calf dynamic as a congregation. We have to agree to disagree respectfully when there are complex political issues. We have to work together to prevent rumors and anxiety from dragging us down, and instead focus on seeking the greater benefit to the community. We have to continue to work together, understanding that none of us is perfect, that we will occasionally fail to meet our objectives, that although the overall trajectory has been positive, there will sometimes be temporary setbacks.

Rather than smashing the tablets, we have to instead do what we did this morning as we read the Aseret HaDibberot: stand together as a community in solidarity, as if gathered at Mt. Sinai.

There will be contentious issues in committees and on the Board level. There will be arguments over finances. There will be personality clashes between members. And I might occasionally make a decision with which you disagree, or fail to meet your expectations. At these moments especially, we must give each other the benefit of the doubt and trust in good intentions.

These are the challenges that keep rabbis up at night. But we will face them all together, and as long as we keep before us the sense of community, connection, and qedushah, we will continue to build.  It is in remembering what unites us that we will find the holiness of our intentions, illuminating the respectful way forward as we stand together.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/19/2017.)

 

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A Yizkor Thought: The Wind Telephone – Yom Kippur 5777

As we recall our loved ones who have passed from this world, I’d like to share a brief story I heard recently on Public Radio International’s program, “This American Life.”

It comes from the town of Otsuchi, nearly 600 km north of Tokyo, which was devastated by the tsunami in 2011; many there died, over 400 are still classified as “missing.” In this town, a local man built a phone booth in his garden, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, so he could “speak” to the relatives he lost in the storm. He called it the “Wind Telephone.” It’s an old-fashioned sort of booth, with a black, rotary phone inside that’s not connected to anything. But this man, Itaru Sasaki, would sit in the booth and speak to his dead relatives.

Soon, word got out that this was a kind of magic phone. Other people came to sit and speak with their deceased family members. They dial the phone, and talk. Mr. Sasaki’s phone became a national phenomenon.

Japanese society is extraordinarily reserved; the Japanese are not inclined to talk with others about painful things. And what this Wind Telephone allowed people to do was to pour out their hearts, alone, in view of the ocean that destroyed their lives, and in some sense “speak” to those whom they missed so much.

A recent documentary about the phone on Japanese state television captured some of the conversations:

One man says, “If my voice can reach you, please listen to what I have to say….”

Another: “Come back fast, wherever you are. I hope you are alive.”

One writes in the guest book: “Where are you, mother? I’m sorry I was not a good child. I miss you.”

A woman brings her grandchildren: “Hi, Grandpa. How are you? I’ll be in 4th grade next year. Grandma is fine too.”

An older man, a farmer, says: “Nobuyuki, is Mom with you? Sorry to ask this, but take care of her, and Grandma and Grandpa too. I’ll be back.”

It’s heartbreaking. You can feel the grief of their words, hear the pain of loss and devastation echoing in this booth as it sits alone in the wind.

As Jews, we remember those whom we have lost in multiple ways – we light candles, we recite qaddish, and we gather four times per year for the ceremony of Yizkor. Most of our rituals associated with mourning and remembering are communal; as with much of Jewish life, we do these things together, as a community. The gathering of our people in the synagogue is our Wind Telephone; the community itself functions as the conduit through which we remember, through which we grieve.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 5777, 10/12/2016.)

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4 Whys #3: Why Do We Need Congregation Beth Shalom? – Kol Nidrei 5777

This is the third installment in a four-part series, “The Whys of Judaism.” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we discussed “Why do we need Judaism?” On the second day, it was “Why do we need the holy opportunities known as mitzvot?” It might be a good idea to read those posts before reading this one.

***

Today’s why: Why do we need Congregation Beth Shalom?

How many of us in this room grew up as members of the Beth Shalom community? Raise your hands.

This congregation has had an impact on many, many people, and has been an anchor of Squirrel Hill for just shy of a century. 2017 promises to be a very exciting year for Beth Shalom, and we are all fortunate to be a part of it. Judy and I feel extraordinarily lucky and grateful to be here with you at this time, and looking back over the past year, over 5776, we have seen wonderful growth and excitement. We are very happy to be with Beth Shalom as we begin the next hundred years.

Actually, some of us in the room may not appreciate what it means to be a part of a thriving community; not all synagogues are thriving. Yes, I know that some of us here look back to a time when the membership of this congregation was twice what it is today. But unlike most synagogues, this one is growing. We gained over 50 new member families over the past year, which is truly outstanding. And I’m confident that we will continue to grow and I will share with you why.

beth-shalom-exterior

But let’s face it: times are tough for membership-based organizations of any kind, and even tougher for religious institutions. People are wary of institutions. We are less loyal today. We are less likely to pay for things that do not necessarily give us some kind of immediate gratification. And of course, secularism is on the rise; you may be aware that the fastest-growing religious group in America is “None.”

And so the synagogue, if it is going to sustain its membership model, must demonstrate its immediate value.

Just a week and a half ago, there was a story on the front page of the NY Times Business section about a new development in Japan for what we Jews might call “unaffiliated” Buddhists. It’s a service provided by Amazon to order a Buddhist priest for rituals. You point and click, and the priest comes to you. Not bad, eh?  You know, Rent-a-Rabbi / Buy-a-Buddha.

The problem is that nobody is a Buddhist for just a half-hour once a year when they need a memorial service on the anniversary of the death of a departed loved one (which, BTW, is called in Japanese, “yahrzeit”).

Similarly, you cannot really be Jewish for a few hours a year either. And that is one primary reason for the existence of synagogues. We are not part-time Jews, flipping on the Jewish switch when you are saying qaddish or standing under the wedding huppah; we are Jewish throughout our lives.

And that’s why we need synagogues. The synagogue is not just valuable, it’s vital, and not just for the reasons that immediately come to mind:

  1. We offer a sense of qehillah, community. I spoke about this extensively last year, so I’ll just briefly remind you that our society has very few gathering places today. The synagogue is one place where you can rub elbows with other members of your community in real time, where you can belong. And that’s not only rare, but also priceless.
  2. We are a full-service organization for the entire Jewish lifecycle. We are here for you from, as they say, cradle to grave. We are here not only to offer support in times of need, but we offer resources to help you be Jewish and to be a better person at every stage of your life.
  3. Something that Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA said, which I find quite striking, which is that the synagogue is the only place that teaches you how to be a family. We are all about relationships. We are multi-generational, and we offer a rare framework in which it is possible to spend time together as a family, to learn together, and to discuss together our relationships in the context of holidays, lifecycle events, learning, services, and so forth. We create a space for true inter-connectedness in a way that few other organizations can.And here are just a few ways we do that: our Early Learning Center; our children’s services; Shababababa, which attracts 100 or more people once a month for a Friday night service; the Kiddush Club creates a space on Shabbat after services where families can hang out together; the pre-Benei Mitzvah Retreat, which we will be an annual event; and on and on.

But here is the reason that we really need Beth Shalom: that this congregation is the laboratory where we will strive to create the Jewish Future with a capital F here in Squirrel Hill.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I made the case for why we need Judaism, that is, because it can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. And we need a place where we can do those things; that place is Beth Shalom.

Yes, there are other synagogues nearby, but I am absolutely certain at this point that Beth Shalom is poised to become the center of traditional, and yet fully contemporary Jewish life and learning in Western Pennsylvania.  I know this is a lofty statement. Please bear with me as I explain.

****

Some of you have heard me reference many times the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews from 2013. That data has been a goldmine. Among the valuable revelations that the study gave us were that virtually all of us (94%) are proud to be Jewish. That may not have been historically true, in days when garden-variety anti-Semitism and the stigma of being an immigrant pressured our parents and grandparents to assimilate as quickly as possible.

Another fascinating piece of data is that most of us, around 72% believe in God, however we might understand what it means to “believe in God.”

These two data points alone suggest the need for synagogues, wherein Jews can gather to exercise their pride in Judaism and their relationship with qedushah / holiness.

I was recently struck by an idea, promoted by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie on a podcast of Judaism Unbound (http://www.judaismunbound.com, Episode 29), that the synagogue can be not only a laboratory for spirituality, but should be infused with creativity somewhat like an art studio.

Beth Shalom has the potential to become that creative studio for Judaism in this neighborhood.

I have a vision to entirely re-think what it means to be a synagogue. To make that vision a reality will require change, and a bit of risk, and a vote of confidence from you, the congregation.

I have said before in this space: the Beth Shalom of the future cannot be the Beth Shalom of the past. We have to change our model.

Here’s why: What motivated our parents and grandparents to build huge edifices like this was intimately tied to a specific point in time, in the middle of the 20th century, when Jews were finally “making it” in America, gradually being welcomed into the wider society. The Jews were movin’ on up.

And in the wake of the Shoah, the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel, there was a certain pride that American Jews took in boldly identifying with Jewish national struggles and aspirations. So they paid their dues to institutions, many institutions, built big buildings, and assimilated into American culture. For the most part, they relegated their Judaism to Friday night or Saturday morning, expected the rabbi and cantor to live Jewishly on their behalf, and from Saturday afternoon until the next Friday dispensed with many of the old-world trappings that Jewish practice demands.

Our children have none of these motivations. They have nothing to prove about their Jewishness. They live in a world where identity is fluid, which is at the same time as liberating as it is lonely and bewildering. They feel that they have little need for or interest in institutions. They did not grow up trying to “fit in” as Americans, because there is no question on that front. They have never known a world without Israel, and I am saddened that many of them have learned to squelch their Jewishness on college campuses, lest they be tagged as pro-Zionist, a dirty word in some quarters.

Whereas in the past, synagogues could depend on hooks like High Holiday tickets and the bar/bat mitzvah process to prop up our membership rolls, that  model is mostly gone. So we have to do something to make a positive change. We have to give our children a legacy that they will rise to meet. To recall the challenge of today that I identified on Rosh Hashanah, we have to find a way to make them care.

The vision of Beth Shalom’s future will be to cultivate within all who enter a sense of what it means to be positively Jewish. Not reflexively Jewish, as most of us have historically been.   In other words, when you can be anything you want, we have to convince you of the value of wanting to do Jewish and to do it here.

To demonstrate that our tradition enriches your life, and that the synagogue is the place where you can share it with others, where you can learn to act, collectively and as individuals on  Jewish values. That is what we need to do.

How do we do this? By creating positive Jewish experiences. Jewish involvement that is meaningful. Jewish experiences that are contemporary. That are thoughtful and multi-layered. That include women and men and gay and straight and transgender as equals. That acknowledge that not all Jews are white, or know some Yiddish. That face the reality that many of us are now married to people who are not yet Jewish, and that we must reach out to all people in our midst. That open new doors, new portals to all.

The future of this congregation will be built on the framework of the past, but with a commitment to reach people that the current model is not reaching.

How do we reach all of those people? We have to create a set of programming that is awesome, that is so well-done, presented by a top-shelf lineup of speakers and artists and presenters of all sorts, people who will show us the richness of what Judaism has to offer.

So we are embarking at this very moment on a great challenge indeed, one that will, in fact, re-envision the synagogue for this century. A team of members of this congregation, plus our Executive Director Rob Menes and I have crafted a road map for the future of Beth Shalom. It’s called Derekh, literally, the way. (Derakheha darkhei noam, vekhol netivoteha shalom. The Torah’s ways are of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.)

Derekh will feature five portals of entry, five ways in which people can become involved in Jewish life:

  1. Jewish learning.
  2. Hesed / Acts of lovingkindness
  3. Israel
  4. Culture
  5. Mindfulness

The cornerstone of the operation, the first portal of Jewish learning will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, which will be a new twist on an ancient Jewish place. As you may recall from when I described this last year at this time, the synagogue was classically a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, and also a beit midrash, a house of study.

Today, the beit midrash is a place for the handful of Jews who are  highly Jewishly knowledgeable: rabbis, rabbinical students, Talmud scholars and the like. But I want to create, here at Beth Shalom, a new kind of beit midrash: one that is open and flexible and accessible to all. It will also be designed to reach not just members of Beth Shalom, but to bring in people from across the Pittsburgh community. This Open Community Beit Midrash will feature programming for a range of skill levels and interests from the curious- but-intimidated to the insatiable scholar.  And it will feature guest speakers and visiting scholars that are on the avant-garde of Jewish learning from across the spectrum.

Believe it or not, text-based Jewish learning is now fashionable in Israel, and not just for men in black hats. Former Member of Knesset Dr. Ruth Calderon founded one such house of study in Tel Aviv called Alma, and it has brought many Israelis, people who may otherwise have no connection to what we think of as Jewish life, to study Talmud and other Jewish texts.

And there is something of a renaissance in this area going on in America too. Mechon Hadar, founded by one of my rabbinical school classmates, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, is a center of contemporary Jewish learning in New York that has produced a wonderful range of classes and workshops and podcasts, with people coming from all over to study there, and others (like me) taking advantage of their materials online. Sefaria is a web-based platform that enables people to share Jewish resources – texts, translations, study materials – so that anybody with a computer has easy access to our tradition.

And we can be the contemporary center for Jewish life and learning right here.

But while the center of Derekh will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, there will be so much more:

The Hesed portal, through which we will step up our commitment to deeds of lovingkindness, featuring a range of social action activities, including awareness-raising, partnering with the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and Repair the World, for example.

The Israel portal, including regular trips, greater involvement with the Carmiel-Misgav partnership, Skype sessions between our teens and theirs.

The Culture portal: artists, films, musicians, maybe a studio space in this building for an artist-in-residence.  Just as nations are strengthened by arts and culture, so too will this portal strengthen us.

And the Mindfulness portal: Yoga, meditation, new approaches to the Jewish spiritual experience.

The goal is for Beth Shalom to be the primary resource for spiritual growth in the community, the lynchpin in generating a renaissance in Jewish life in our little shtetl. We need an infusion of exciting, meaningful programming here, and Derekh will provide that and more.

That’s our vision. That’s what will guarantee our future as a congregation.

We will need new staff to do what I’d like us to do. We’ll need to reconfigure spaces. And of course we will need to raise funds. This project, which will be significant and transformative not only for Beth Shalom, but also for the whole community, will depend on raising our endowment significantly.

So along those lines, please know that we will be in touch with you – by mail, but hopefully also in person – about contributing to Beth Shalom’s future.

We hope – we urge you to take hold of this opportunity to participate in this campaign, to consider a meaningful gift that will ensure that the Beth Shalom of the next 100 years will be more meaningful, more connective, more essential than the last 100. Beth Shalom has been here for you for nearly a century; now Beth Shalom needs you.

Why do we need this congregation? Because it will guarantee a strong, traditional, yet egalitarian and progressive Jewish anchor in this community for the next century. Because it will continue to support and nourish our subsequent generations. Because it will continue to enrich your life through community, lifelong Jewish learning, and spiritual growth. Because our lives need more qedushah, more holiness.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Kol Nidrei, October 11, 2016.)

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The Holiness of Being Together – Qedoshim 5776

Last weekend, my family and I were on the first annual Beth Shalom Family Retreat, which was targeted at member families that will be celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah in the coming year or two (that is, with children in the 5th and 6th grade). Altogether, we were 49 people: eleven families (including my own), plus JJEP Director Liron Lipinsky, Youth Director Yasha Rayzberg, and JLine Director Carolyn Gerecht, on loan from the JCC, which also supported the trip with a generous Partner in Teen Engagement grant.

From Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, we were together. We held Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh services together. We dined together. We played together, sang together, went for a nature walk in the woods together, recited the Amidah for Shabbat minhah under a lean-to in the rain together, learned Torah and discussed mitzvot and parenting and the future of Judaism together, and so forth. And, not only this, but we also managed to find some moments of down-time, doing nothing but hanging around and schmoozing and enjoying each other’s company. (We were at Camp Guyasuta, a Boy Scout camp just over the Highland Park Bridge.)

As far as I can tell, it has been a very long time since Beth Shalom has done something like this, if ever. The goals of this retreat were as follows:

  • To connect benei mitzvah families to each other and to their synagogue by creating opportunities to engage with Jewish life together
  • To discuss issues important to families surrounding bat and bar mitzvah, like the meaning of mitzvah, and how we might understand Judaism in relation to our lives today
  • To reinforce the sense that Jewish learning goes on in formal and informal settings
  • To create a sense of continuity in Jewish education before and after benei mitzvah
  • To promote post-benei mitzvah opportunities for Jewish learning, particularly JLine
  • To give the participants a traditional Shabbat experience
  • To expose them to Jewish learning in age cohorts as well as inter-generational
  • To break down social boundaries between children in day school and those in supplementary religious school (about half of our families were JJEP, and half were CDS)

And, of course, the overarching goal amidst all of this was for everybody to come away thinking, “That was awesome.” To create positive memories of Jewish involvement, of Shabbat, of Beth Shalom, and so forth.

And I think that we achieved all of those goals.

Perhaps one of the most telling pieces of feedback that we received, when we solicited the participants for reactions to the weekend, was that it was a pleasure for these families to spend time together, in simple surroundings, not watching the clock (well, they weren’t, but I can assure you that we, the staff, were), enjoying the qedushah, holiness of Shabbat, and the time that we spent together.

Parashat Qedoshim, which is really one of my handful of favorite parashiyyot (and not just because it happens to be my bar mitzvah parashah), is notable for many reasons. It features a portion of the book of Leviticus known as “the Holiness Code,” an echo of the Decalogue, aka the Ten Commandments. But the mitzvot included here are more about interpersonal holiness then the Decalogue (i.e. 10 commandments) . While the passage in Exodus speaks of the big commandments, not killing, stealing, coveting, etc., stated in the cold abstract, the Holiness Code tends to speak about mitzvot in the context of human relationships.

Just a few examples: judging people fairly (Lev. 19:15), not bearing a grudge (19:18), leaving portions of one’s field and produce for the poor among us (19:9-10). And while the Decalogue says simply, Lo tignov / do not steal (Ex. 20:13), Parashat Qedoshim says, Lo ta’ashoq et rai’akha, do not defraud your fellow; do not commit robbery, and do not keep the wages of a day laborer overnight. (Lev. 19:14), all forms of theft, but continually referring back to the other.

And the effect is that these statements in Qedoshim are much more human. They are about the people we love, the people we work with or employ, the people who live next door, the people we encounter in the marketplace or gleaning sheaves of wheat in the field. The mitzvot of the Holiness Code are as much about the people as they are about the actions.

When I read this parashah, I think about society. I think about making a human environment in which people understand and appreciate the others around them, and about how we see ourselves through the lens that focuses on the other.

The reason that retreats work well is because they take us all out of our regular environment, the context of all the craziness and busy-ness that fills our lives: sports leagues, playdates, homework, texting, ballet lessons, saxophone lessons, math lessons, cleaning, shopping, fixing the house, and so forth. Because all 49 of us were in such close quarters, with limited options and no appointments and no constant interruption, we were simply able to enjoy Shabbat, and each other’s company. Adults schmoozed while kids played nearby. It was blissful. And then there were s’mores.

What you can easily create in a 40-hour retreat that is much harder to create in, say, the synagogue, is the sense of togetherness. This is a good feeling, one to which we used to be accustomed. Today, the sense of togetherness often seems quaint, because each of us is so wrapped up in doing our own thing, getting through our own to-do list, dealing with our own problems.

We are living in a zealously independent age. Unlike our ancestors, most of whom lived in poor, cramped environments in which (a) you had to depend on others for help, and (b) you could not avoid sharing space and food and life with other people. Today we live far more comfortable and isolated lives. If we want to shut ourselves off from others, we can. Given the digital innovations of today, it’s not hard to go through life without actually speaking to anybody, let alone relying on them for all manner of assistance.

We are all, in the words of sociologist Robert Putnam, bowling alone. There are more single people today, on a percentage basis, than there have ever been in history. There are fewer bridge games and adult softball leagues. All forms of civic engagement are down, from voting to going to club meetings to, of course, membership in synagogues and churches. The “social capital” (Putnam’s term) that once infused American life, drawing people together, has diminished dramatically in the past half-century, and nobody knows why.

But qedushah, holiness, flows not only from our relationship with God, but also through our relationships with each other. Why do we require minyan, a quorum of 10 people for services and for weddings? Why do we build synagogues (batei kenesset, houses of gathering) for group prayer and learning and socializing? Why do we call 13-year-olds to the Torah in front of the entire community? Why do we have rituals to mark any lifecycle event in synagogues?  Why do we publicly mark the passing of our beloved friends and relatives multiple times a year as a community with Yizkor? Because community is the essence of what it means to be Jewish. And our sense of qedushah flows through that gathering together.

Togetherness yields holiness. And we need more of both.

So how do we achieve togetherness? We have to make room for it in multiple dimensions: time, space, in our minds and hearts.  We have to set aside a piece of our lives to be with other people.

Convincing ten families to come with us on this retreat was the hard part; people had to accept that they would be giving up a whole lot of other things to commit to this. But when they came to the end, the participants appreciated the value of setting aside that time for the pursuit of holiness in being together.

Communicating with friends and family with your electronic devices does not satisfy this need for togetherness. Texting, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, etc. may keep you informed (perhaps too much so!), but they do not create the feeling that human contact creates. And they certainly do not allow us to be fully present, enjoying personal moments with others.

You have heard me speak many times over the last nine months in various ways about re-thinking what we do here at Beth Shalom, re-orienting our relationship with Judaism to be more engaging, more connective. The retreat is just one way of doing this. I think we need more retreats, organized by cohort: empty nesters, families with young children, seniors, singles, and so forth. But we also need to create other opportunities for people to gather and satisfy that human need for togetherness: the trip to Israel, the social action project, the discussion group for parents, the kosher wine tasting night, and so forth.

We have grown accustomed to “Jewish” being something that we do when in the synagogue. But it’s not at all. On the contrary: Judaism should infuse our lives with holiness. Not just for the few minutes that we are gathered here. Not just for the six-and-a-half hours per week that our children spend in Hebrew school. Not just for the moments that we celebrate or grieve at lifecycle events.

Rather, every interaction we have with friends, family, strangers, loved ones should be marked by a reminder that our relationships are holy, that God expects us to uphold that holiness with everybody. And that is the whole point of the Holiness Code of Parashat Qedoshim. And it is also the whole point of seeking qedushah / holiness through togetherness. And that’s why we took a retreat last weekend.

I hope you’ll be on the next one. Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/14/2016.)

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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!”

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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.)

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