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High Holidays Sermons

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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Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

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

Categories
Sermons

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.)

 

Categories
Kavvanot Yizkor

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.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

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.)

Categories
Sermons

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.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

A Night of Yearning – Kol Nidrei 5776

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

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

“I vont to go to India.”

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

“I vont to go to India.”

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

“Dats OK,” Goldie says.

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

“Fine,” she says.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

الموضوع: أشواقنــا ؟

But that’s not so easy.

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

It is a unique day for many reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

One Jewish Boy’s Story and Three Qofs – Day 1 Rosh Hashanah 5776

Shanah tovah! It’s truly a pleasure and an honor to stand before you here today. I am truly feeling at this moment the spirit of “Hayom Harat Olam.” Today the world is born. It’s a new world for me and Judy and the kids. We are overjoyed to be here in Pittsburgh.

I am going to start off in a sort of unorthodox way (which is completely OK, ‘cause I’m not an Orthodox rabbi…). We all need to get to know each other, and there is only one of me and whole lot of you, so I am hoping that you are willing to cut me some slack, at least for the first few years.

So in pursuit of getting to know each other, I’m going to tell you a story. A true story. But first, I have to lay something out for you that you might find a little unpleasant, an important fact about me that I have hidden from you up until right now:

I know next to nothing about sports. More to the point, I know virtually nothing about the Pittsburgh teams. What I do know, I know about baseball, and most of that is from the late 1970s, when I was collecting baseball cards. (The good news is that 1979 was my first summer at a sleepaway camp, and I remember the Pirates of that year, the summer of “We Are Family,” the gay ‘90s caps. But other than that and a vague notion of who Roberto Clemente was, I’ve got nothin’.)

Prior to consulting with Rabbi Google two weeks ago, I couldn’t name a single Steelers quarterback. And the Penguins? As they say in Brooklyn, fagettaboutit.

So we’re all going to have work a little harder to get to know each other. I’ll try to become familiar with the current teams, but I must admit that I have a pretty long to-do list right now, so I’m not optimistic. Meanwhile, we’re going to have to work with other material. So now that that is out of the way, let me tell you a story.  The story of a boy and 3 qofs*.

Once upon a time there was a Jewish boy, who lived in a small town in the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts. He and his family were very committed to their Conservative synagogue, which was 20 miles away from their home. They spent a lot of time on the road, driving back and forth to synagogue for Hebrew school, for Shabbat morning services, for special events and speakers and classes and semahot and so forth.

This boy loved his synagogue community. He felt very much an integral part of it, and after his bar mitzvah continued in Hebrew High School, read Torah regularly, led services regularly, helped build and decorate the sukkah, led Junior congregation, was a music teacher in the Hebrew school, and so forth. He went to Israel during the summer before his senior year in high school, and felt even more strongly connected to his people.

And then something happened. He left to go to university to study engineering. And he did not have the same qesher*, the same connection with the other Jewish students he met there. He drifted away from them, and away from his qehillah*, his Jewish community, and away from Jewish life. (Ironically, in this time, he also became a vegetarian, mostly because he could not get kosher meat.)

But then something stranger happened: he went even further away from home to go to graduate school, also in engineering, at a huge university in a far-away place, where  there were only a handful of Jewish people like him. And he discovered that he needed qehillah, community, and that he needed qesher, personal connection. And so he re-entered Jewish life.

Eventually, this 20-something engineer had to find a job. So he did. And meanwhile, he maintained his connection / qesher, and joined a community / qehillah or two. He taught Hebrew school again, led a Jewish youth group, sang in a synagogue choir, read more Torah, and even learned to lead parts of High Holiday services. And went to work, where he helped build things. Big things: chemical plants, refineries, and parts thereof. But something was missing.

One Sukkot, our young Jewish man, now almost finished with his 20s, was sitting in his cantor’s sukkah. And the cantor said something like this: “Look, I know you don’t love your work as an engineer. And I know you love Judaism and love to sing. Why don’t you consider going to cantorial school?”

The young man had never thought about that. But after lots of reflection, he began to think that it might address the problem of “something missing.” So, taking stock of his life, he took the next appropriate step: he moved to Israel, to the desert town of Arad, to clear his head, to learn Hebrew, and to reflect, just as the Israelite prophets always did in the Judean hills.

After some contemplation, some hiking in the desert, and a whole lot of falafel, he realized that what was missing was qedushah, holiness, and so he decided to make qedushah a career. And he enrolled in cantorial school.

After 4 years of study he became a hazzan.  But he was reveling in the qedushah so much he decided to remain a few more at the Jewish Theological Seminary to become a rabbi as well.

And that is the story of how I came to stand before you today, this day on which the world was born. I am proud to say that I have built my rabbinate around these three qofs, these three ideas: qesher / connection, qehillah / community, and qedushah / holiness.  My greatest desire is to help others to find their paths into these three things, and with all the excitement and anticipation that comes with starting a new position, I hope to take these principles to a whole new level.

CCQ

Together, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to be partners. We are going to build that qehillah that brings qesher and qedushah to all who enter. And all the more so, we are going to reach out beyond these walls to bring all three of those things to those who don’t yet know they need them.

This won’t be easy. It will require love. Love of everybody. Love of all humanity.

It will also require resources, energy, and people.

And that’s where you come in. The first step is to build qesher between all of us. And we have to start with the fundamentals: the sharing of stories. I have just told you one of my stories, and I have many more to share .And each of you has many stories as well, stories that define who you are, that have the potential to connect you to everybody else here.

What makes a community function well, ladies and gentlemen, is that we feel interconnected. And one of my primary goals during my first year here is to build connections. Many of you are already connected to each other, I know. Even for three and four generations. But that’s not enough. We have to reach higher. If we are going to make this truly a qehillah qedoshah, a community bound together in holiness, a community that is so inspiring that others will want to join or participate in more fully, we have to be even more interconnected. We have to raise our qesher quotient, our QQ, if you will.

I have already begun this process. I have met with a few small groups already to get the ball rolling in raising that qesher quotient. Throughout this year, every single person in this room will be invited to a parlor meeting where you will meet me, I will meet you, and we’ll share some of ourselves as a group to further the goal of building qesher, of raising ourselves up in the context of community.

Some of the ideas that have surfaced at these meetings we are already putting into place. Many of you attended the instrumental service that I led here with several musical partners a few Friday evenings ago. More than 200 of us learned some new melodies, sang joyously, and considered the Jewish value of compassion; it was really quite moving. We will be doing that again on October 23rd, and ideally every fourth Friday night of the month thereafter. We will be having more Shabbat dinners as well, paired with upbeat, Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat services. We will step up our social action activities. And there will be more.

Another new vehicle for building qesher is the New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, which we will be hosting in coming months for those that have recently joined our congregation. On that day we will incorporate our newest members by giving each of them the opportunity to hold a sefer Torah, visibly demonstrating how we can all take hold of our tradition. Judaism is not something that the rabbi does for you; it’s yours to take hold of, and we will be finding ways to lower the bar to participation.

And we are launching yet another new, engaging way to connect. We don’t even have a name for it yet, but we will be reaching out beyond the synagogue walls to host a series of discussions in people’s homes, led by a group of ideally ten members with whom I will be personally working. So it goes like this: I meet with my ten scholar/facilitators, discuss a Jewish topic with them, and then they go off to discussions hosted by some of you in your living room to discuss the same material. The goal is to engage far more people, some of whom may not even be members of Beth Shalom, in making Jewish values and text relevant to who we are today. (If you have an idea for what to call this, or if you want to lead or host, please let me know!)

The true holiness to be found in synagogues, in being here today, is not in the celebration of an ancient ritual, of the welcoming of 5776, of the opening of the Book of Life. Those things are all important, but they are not the essential reasons that we are gathered here today.

The most important reason that we are together today is community. We are here to be with each other, to be a part of something big, to connect with our heritage. To grasp our tradition.

Because let’s face it, people. We need this. Not Rosh Hashanah. Not “shul,” per se. Not the wonderful lunch that you’re going to have in an hour or so. But each other. Together, we make part of a whole, a connection with our past, our ancestors, our tradition, our Torah. And you can’t find that on your smartphone. You can’t buy it on Amazon. You can’t get it with vanilla syrup and steamed milk at Starbucks.

The holiness to be found in connection and community can only be acquired right here, with your fellow Jews.

As we celebrate the start of 5776, as we begin this 10-day journey of cleansing, of spiritual inventory-taking and ultimately atonement, we should take note of each other. We are all here together at this moment, but that does not mean that when we leave this room that we are no longer inter-connected. On the contrary – we will share these bonds when we leave the building as well. And even if many of us do not see each other for a whole year, until we gather again for the beginning of the year 5777 (whoa…), we will continue to be connected to each other, and ideally to draw more of us into our qehillah circle.

I am very much looking forward to hearing your stories: what it means for you to be Jewish, what powerful Jewish experiences you have had, how you see yourself connected to Beth Shalom or the Pittsburgh Jewish community or the entire Jewish world, and, most importantly, what action items might inspire you to help us build an even more engaged, more vibrant community.

At our Selihot evening discussion last week, we spoke about understanding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as being about spiritual yearning, about the closeness of God at this time and our desire for a revelatory encounter with God.

Just after we heard the shofar this morning, we chanted the line (Ps. 89:16):

אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם, יֹדְעֵי תְרוּעָה; ה’, בְּאוֹר-פָּנֶיךָ יְהַלֵּכוּן

Ashrei ha’am yode’ei teru’ah, Adonai be’or panekha yehalekhun.

Joyous are the people who know the calling of the shofar; Adonai, they walk by the light of Your presence.

Why are we joyous for having swooned to the sound of the shofar? The Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sudilkov, a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov who lived in the latter half of the 18th century, saw this line as being essential to the entire enterprise of Rosh Hashanah.

He taught (in his work Degel Mahaneh Efraim), that the sound of the shofar breaks open our awareness on these days, opening us up to our penimiut, our true spiritual inwardness. And inside these depths, buried within our mundane reality, we find the radiance of God’s holy name, glowing within us.

We are the yode’ei teru’ah, those who intimately know the shofar’s call. And this deep familiarity inspires us to seek that encounter, that breaking of the external to get to the light hidden within, to reach the Divine spark found within each of us. That is what happens when we hear the sound of the shofar.

But you can’t do that at home, alone; you can only do it with your community. The shofar unites us on this day to uncover that internal radiance. This verse describes us all in both plural and singular:

Ashrei ha’am = Happy is the nation (singular, i.e. one people)

Yode’ei teru’ah = Those who know the shofar’s call (plural, i.e. individuals)

American culture highlights the power of “one,” of the individual; our tradition speaks to the power of “us.” What makes the shofar moment work is that we are all together, that we stand together, joined as one nation, one “am,” to listen for that sound that opens us up. We share this together as individuals, personally connected to one another, and also as a community. This is the qedushah found in that moment of shofar.

It’s a new year. It’s 5776. And we are all going to get to know each other. We are going to seek those holy moments together. We are going to open up together. We are going to pray together, to sing together, to weep together, to dance, to celebrate, to learn, to share stories, to eat, and on and on. We are going to break open those tough, exterior shells to get to the inner radiance that we share. That is how we will build qesher / personal connection and qehillah / community; the qedushah / holiness will follow in spades.

And, to that end, I am going to suggest a small “action item,” one that I hope will help us in the building of qesher and qehillah on Yom Kippur: Wear a white outfit. I know that some of you  already do this, and I will obviously be wearing white. But the tradition of wearing white on YK is not just for the rabbi and cantor. It’s for everybody! It’s a symbol of purity: the purity of the soul that we seek as individuals and as a community during these ten days of teshuvah, of repentance. Yes, I know that the custom is to dress in nice clothes for synagogue. But don’t worry about that so much! YK is not about your nicest, cleanest suit! It’s about your nicest, cleanest soul. It does not have to be a kittel or a robe – anything white will do. I hope that some of you will join me in participating in this symbolic gesture next Wednesday, and that it will connect more of us to each other and our tradition as we raise the bar of community and qedushah.

Shanah tovah!

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/14/2015.)

Categories
Sermons

United We Stand (Against the Yetser Hara) – Ki Tetse 5775

I was asked a very important question last week at kiddush. So important, in fact, that it became the basis of today’s derashah.

I’ll come back to the question itself, but first, let me give you the context. Those of you who were here last week may recall that I spoke about the future, about building this community, about tradition and change (and particularly the “change” part of that equation). I suggested three basic principles for moving forward:

  • to ask good questions about why we do what we do, and not to accept “Because we’ve always done it that way!” as an answer;
  • to be open, that is, open to new people coming in and joining us, and even to seeking them out to invite them in; and
  • to think in terms of the relationships that we build here as a community, rather than merely programmatically.

Many of you responded favorably to the ideas that I presented, and I am happy about that. (If you were not here, please note that you can read the sermon on my blog: themodernrabbi.com, but please note that it’s always better live!)

At kiddush afterwards, a couple of members pulled me aside and asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Rabbi what are you going to do to heal the rifts between members of the congregation?” To unpack this question a bit, I will have to assume that it was precipitated by the sermon – that is, “OK, it’s nice to talk about change and building community. But in order to do so, we must first be able to get along with each other. What are you going to do about that?”

One of the foundations of the very idea of a kehillah, a congregation, is that we have some commonalities. We must at the very least get along with each other, but we should also have some principles to which we all agree. In our case here at Beth Shalom, some of those principles are the guiding values of Conservative Judaism: a positive, historical approach to halakhah and Jewish life; an acceptance of contemporary authority in our Jewish choices; a commitment to egalitarianism, the idea that women and men are understood to be equal with respect to Jewish law and ritual; a willingness to engage with modernity and not isolate ourselves, to make choices and changes that are respectful of tradition and yet sensitive to where we are and who we are today.

But let’s face it: even if we agree on these values, that does not mean that we all agree about everything. In fact, as one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us, the synagogue in which everybody agrees about everything and there are no political divisions is a dying shul.

There is a classic story that I am sure some of you know and love, the one about the congregation where they can’t agree whether to stand or sit during the Shema. Half stand, half sit, and they are arguing with each other in a particularly non-decorous manner. They resolve to go to find the oldest living member of the congregation, Mr. Goldberg, to find out what the original custom was. He is in an assisted living facility, lying in bed, and a group of congregants descends on him.

“Mr. Goldberg,” says a stander, “It was always the tradition to stand during Shema, right?”

Goldberg says nothing, seems to stare off into space.

“Mr. Goldberg,” says a sitter, “We always sat for Shema, correct?”

Goldberg still does not react.

The synagogue president comes forward. “Mr. Goldberg, you have to help us. Right now, half are standing, half are sitting, and all are yelling at each other.”

Goldberg’s face lights up. He raises his hand with a flourish. “That’s the tradition!” he says.

Disagreement has been the Jewish tradition for at least two millennia; it is the basis of most discussions in the Talmud. In fact, you might make the case that it is exactly Judaism’s tradition of diversity of opinion which has enabled us to survive for these thousands of years, since the Romans destroyed the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Had we not moved from a tradition of hierarchical, regimented, centralized sacrificial worship during Temple times to the more democratic mode of teaching, learning, and personal fulfillment of ritual, we may have simply disappeared when the center was destroyed. But we are still here, and where are the Romans?

We may argue, or not see eye-to eye, or we may not even like each other. But it is essential, for the good of this congregation, the wider Jewish community, and the world at large that we treat each other respectfully, even as we disagree. In fact, it is an imperative of rabbinic Judaism to do so.

We learn in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a)

אלו דברים שאדם עושה אותם ואוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא, ואלו הן: כיבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והבאת שלום שבין אדם לחברו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in the world to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; and bringing peace between people; but the study of Torah outweighs them all.

Among the holiest tasks we can perform is to create peace bein adam lehavero, between each other. And that is something that we must all pursue.

Even greater than that, Parashat Ki Tetse speaks to the power of togetherness. The 20th-century Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, observed that there is one place in Ki Tetse where the text refers to the Israelites as going out to war as a troop (Heb: mahaneh; Deut. 23:10):

כִּי-תֵצֵא מַחֲנֶה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ,  וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע

When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on guard against anything untoward.

While it seems that the Torah is speaking about actual war, the kind fought over territory, Rabbi Berezovsky reads it not as a war between peoples, but the individual war that we all fight against the yetser hara, the evil inclination. So this becomes not an unholy battle with dangerous weapons and blood and death, but a holy battle for control of our souls. It is this battle that we are heading into as we round the halfway point of Elul in our ascent to the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance bracketed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In this battle for the soul, says the Slonimer Rebbe, we must go out together, united as a troop. We join for the purposes of restoring kedushah, holiness, to our lives. “By losing some of our own identity by subjecting it to the needs of the collective,” he writes, “we are given the hedge against the yetser hara.” He points out that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) suggests that the power of minyan, of a quorum of ten Jews for some ritual purposes, lies in the understanding that when ten of us gather together, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is there too.

In other words, the Torah is teaching us that united we stand (against the yetser hara), and divided we fall. This is a huge lesson for today, when we live in dramatically independent times.

united-we-stand-divided-we-fall-variation.jpg

It is this togetherness that enables us to be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. We are a communal people; we need a minyan to attain a particular level of kedushah. How much more so do we need togetherness to achieve kedushah as a community for all our endeavors, for all the things that synagogues do, from running a nursery school to tending to our cemetery to hosting cultural events to having individual conversations with each other in the parking lot. We have to maintain the level of kedushah in all of our activities.

To that end, I have introduced an overarching theme for the upcoming High Holidays: Connection, Community, and Kedushah, which we are representing graphically by the letters CCק. Yes, the holidays are a time to gather with family for meals (and fasting), to seek teshuvah / repentance, to hear some fabulous sermons, etc. But they are also about maintaining our personal connections with each other, gathering as a community, and seeking kedushah / holiness. And these are things that can only take place when we think of ourselves as a united troop, one in which we are connected to each other, giving up (as the Slonimer suggests) a little piece of our own personal independence for the sake of the greater good, the collective.

Now I know, some of you are thinking, “Oh, you naive rabbi. That all sounds so pat. But you really want me to be nice to so-and-so, that lousy (insert epithet here)?”

And the answer is, yes. Yes, you can. Actually, you have to, for the benefit of this congregation.

We are going to build. I am happy to report that I have heard from a number of people in the past two weeks that will be joining Beth Shalom as new members and re-joining veteran members, and that is wonderful. (Is anybody here right now that has just joined or is about to?) And so we will incorporate all of them into our kehillah kedoshah, and know that those of us who are new may not agree with those of us who have been here for a long time. And that’s OK, just as long as we treat each other with respect, in public and in private. We would not want to give the yetser hara a foothold.

Really, we’re not going to agree. And you don’t have to like everybody. But we all have to be civil and respectful to each other. Not doing so is NOT OK. Everybody here is welcome.

Remember that it is diversity of opinion that has enabled us to survive, along with our willingness to stick together. Let’s increase our diversity, and work together to continue to build.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/29/2015.)