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High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! – Highlighting the Holy Moments – Yom Kippur Day / Yizkor 5782

Before reading this sermon, which is the fourth and final installment in the “Make it Meaningful!” High Holiday 5782 series, you might want to read the first three: Gathering (Rosh HaShanah Day 1), Seeking the Why (Rosh HaShanah Day 2, and Engaging With Israel (Kol Nidre).

As is standard in many workplaces today, I have occasional performance reviews, and I am grateful to all of you for giving me a very positive review this past spring. There were, however, a few minor complaints – no big surprise for a community of Jews, of course; I would have been really surprised if there were NO complaints. 

But one such complaint was that I speak too often about items in Jewish law like kashrut, Shabbat, tefillah, and so forth. I am sure that some of you have heard or read my series of sermons about the fundamentals of Judaism, called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” I am committed to the idea that the essential pieces of Jewish living are good for us. So thank you for noticing. 

It reminds me of the apocryphal story about the rabbi who is applying for a position at a synagogue, and when the president picks him up at the airport, she starts asking pointed questions about the sermon the rabbi will give on Shabbat.

“Well,” says the rabbi, “I thought I would speak about the value of Shabbat.”

“I don’t know, Rabbi,” says the president. “Many of our folks work in retail – they all have to open their stores after Shabbat services.”

“OK, so then maybe I’ll speak about the importance of keeping kosher.”

“Not such a great idea, Rabbi. One of our major donors is the largest shellfish distributor in the whole state.”

“Well then,” says the rabbi, “What do YOU think I should talk about?”

“You know, Rabbi,” says the president, “something Jewish.”

But of course, I hope you will understand that advocating for Jewish law and customs and learning and tefillah / prayer is exactly what rabbis do! A rabbi, you may recall, is not a priest; the word “rav” in Hebrew literally means “teacher.” My job is to teach you about being Jewish and doing Jewish – you as individuals and as a community.

However, my approach to teaching Judaism is that I want your Jewish engagement to be meaningful! I want you to feel something, to feel a connection, to “use” Jewish life and learning as a way of improving yourself and your world! Even though I am clearly on the cheerleading team for Torah and mitzvot, I am decidedly not in favor of merely fulfilling a mitzvah for the sake of checking a box. That is why our High Holiday theme for this year is, “Make it Meaningful!”

I believe firmly that the real reason to practice Judaism – keeping Shabbat, kashrut, daily tefillah / prayer, digging into our ancient texts – is that they can fill our lives with meaning, that these things create a lens that will help you see the world a little clearer, that they will help bring the important things into focus, that they will teach you how to highlight the qedushah / holiness in your life and in your relationships with the people around you.

Most of us feel that being Jewish is important to our identities; the most recent Pew Research Center study of American Jews showed that about three-quarters of us agree that being Jewish is very or somewhat important to us. Most of us are quite proud to be Jewish. 

So that is good news! But here’s the less-than-stellar news: most of those folks who agree that being Jewish is important do not feel that doing traditional Jewish things is essential to being Jewish. When asked about the essential parts of being Jewish, only 15% (about one in 7) say that observing halakhah / Jewish law is important. By comparison, 76% (three-quarters) cite “Remembering the Holocaust” as essential to being Jewish.

Now, I know that re-interpreting what it means to be Jewish is all the rage right now, and I certainly do not want to throw shade at that idea. I am, however, concerned that, when the vast majority of Jews do not see learning about and practicing Judaism as being an essential aspect to being Jewish, we may be in an unsustainable situation.  

In order to actually pass on Judaism to your children and grandchildren, something which I know many of you are interested in doing, you have to “do” Jewish. You can’t just “be.”  

And yes, “doing” Jewish can take on many forms. It need not look like what Judaism looks like in black-hat Brooklyn, say, or what it looked like to our great-grandparents. But without the practice of Judaism, with only our sense of pride in being Jewish, we will have no basis for why living Jewishly is meaningful, and without meaning, our children and grandchildren will only be puzzled by their Jewish identity.

Here are a few examples of the fundamentals of doing Jewish:

  • Holy eating, also known as keeping kosher or kashrut, is meaningful because it reminds us of our role in the world “to till and to tend,” as the second Creation story in Bereshit / Genesis puts it. When we premise our consumption upon God’s expectation of us to live sustainably in cooperation with the Earth, we have a better chance of handing an unspoiled world to our children and grandchildren.
  • Putting on tefillin on a daily basis is meaningful because it reminds us on a daily basis of the need to connect our hearts and minds with our hands. Would that more of us could be mindful of how our actions affect others and our world! Physical rituals such as tefillin help reinforce our daily mindfulness with a tangible action.
  • Learning the words of our ancient texts – which you can easily do -is meaningful because it teaches us how to be better people, how to improve our lives and our community by understanding ourselves and the holiness embedded in all our relationships. Plus, there is the added bonus of keeping our minds flexible and engaged, something that the medical establishment certainly recommends as we get older.
  • Singing Jewish music, liturgical or otherwise, is meaningful because it brings joy to a world that could really use a whole lot more joy. Sometimes melody can express our deepest emotions, particularly when words alone fail us.

And here is something that we perhaps take for granted, and yet in which many of us participate in greater numbers than most mitzvot: lifecycle events.

Yes, you know what I’m talking about: those things that mark our lives as we saunter through: berit milah (you all know that by the Yiddish term “bris”, but I don’t speak Yiddish! I’m a Zionist – I speak Hebrew), baby-naming, bat mitzvah / bar mitzvah, wedding, pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born), funeral and mourning. Some might add confirmation in there, and of course some might add graduation from medical school as well.

And it is wonderful that so many of us are still doing these lifecycle events. Perhaps more so than most Jewish rituals, people still show up, at least to honor and celebrate with the family. Even during the depths of the pandemic, when travel was nearly impossible, people came to lifecycle events in droves: we had benei mitzvah services here at Beth Shalom that attracted well-wishers from Japan and South Africa and France and England and Israel and Thailand and Australia and probably a bunch of places I’m not even aware of. Berit milah, weddings, funerals, shiv’ah – all continue to bring in family members and friends from far and wide.

And that too, is wonderful. The power of the framework of Jewish lifecycle rituals is great. What is more meaningful to us than celebrating a newborn baby, dancing joyously with newlyweds, or mourning the loss of somebody we loved?

One of the greatest features of living a Jewish life is acknowledging holy moments. We actually have a berakhah, a blessing for that, one which you all know well. It’s the same berakhah – Sheheḥeyyanu – that I have been urging you to recite upon your first opportunity to return to the synagogue space after months of isolation. 

We mark our holy moments, not only with a berakhah, not only with ritual, not only by gathering with friends and family and sharing a meal and good times, but with meaning.

Think back for a moment to an especially meaningful lifecycle event for you. Was it your bat mitzvah? Your wedding? Confirmation? A dear friend’s funeral? (I’m guessing it wasn’t your own bris!)

What made it meaningful? Was it the people there? The words of Torah offered by the rabbi? The food?

Maybe all of these things. But also, perhaps what made it most meaningful was the sense of perspective. The feelings surrounding what it took to, as with the the berakhah, vehiggi’anu lazeman hazeh – to arrive to this moment, the feeling of the ancient hand-off play that we keep playing as Jews, from generation to generation.

Two different young people who recently became bat / bar mitzvah here at Beth Shalom asked me, not long before the ceremony itself, effectively, “Why am I doing this?” It seems that this question had not been answered along the way, perhaps lost in the shuffle of preparation, maybe further obscured by the pandemic. 

Now, I suppose I could have said, “Because it says so in the Mishnah,” but that would not have been an effective answer. “Because your parents want you to,” is also not really satisfactory.

Rather, I said the following: “Because you are the next link in a chain that stretches back thousands of years. You are the inheritor of a rich and valuable collection of wisdom and traditions that has crossed continents and centuries, and survived empires and attempted genocide. This ceremony, when you are called to the Torah as bar/bat mitzvah in the synagogue, in the presence of your family, friends, and community, is a signifier of the fact that you are now carrying the Jewish flame, holding it aloft to illuminate the world as our people have always done and will continue to do. We are handing this tradition to you, and now it is your turn to take care of it, cherish it, continue to deepen your understanding of it, and then pass it along to your children and grandchildren.”

They were speechless, perhaps because it had not yet been presented that way.

We should never take for granted that everybody involved in the holy moment of a lifecycle event appreciates the meaning embedded therein. That is why I am going to offer a pro tip for making your Jewish involvement even more meaningful, and this is something that comes from the author and consultant Priya Parker, who I mentioned on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, when we spoke about the meaning and power of gathering. Ms. Parker’s essential tip for making gathering meaningful is to prepare in advance. And yes, of course that means the food and the chairs and the guest list. But more than that, prepare the content. 

Give your attendees an assignment. For a wedding, for example, you could have them write out messages to the bride and groom to be displayed as part of the ḥuppah, or at the reception. For a baby-naming, have your participants do a little research into their own Hebrew name, to share at lunch. For shiv’ah, you could ask people who did not speak at the funeral to prepare in advance three sentences that describe the deceased, or even (as was fashionable a few years back) a six-word-eulogy.

And similar things can be done for holiday observances: have invitees to your sukkah bring an item that tells a story about their Jewish journey. Before lighting the Hanukkah candles, have everybody gathered around give an example of a way that they feel they have personally cast some light in this world. For Pesaḥ, have each participant prepare in advance a piece of the Exodus story to tell in their own words. And so forth. Your creativity only makes doing Jewish things that much more holy and special, and reinforces that sense of being a link in an eternal chain.

The more meaning we derive from these holy moments, the more powerfully connected we are to our history and culture and tradition, and the stronger the link in that generational chain.

It is the holy moments which frame our lives with meaning, give us structure and support, and help us through the tough times together. Ideally, they reflect our values, teach our wisdom, and connect us with our past and our future. Don’t let them slip by without trying to make them more than just gathering for dinner.

“Make it Meaningful!” conclusion:

I hope that over these High Holidays I have given you a few things to think about regarding making meaning in Jewish life: through gathering, through digging deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to understand the backstory, through engaging with Israel, and through framing holy moments.

It is worth putting a fine point on the message by reminding us all that merely “being Jewish” is unsustainable; it will not last another generation here in America, land of freedom and infinite choice. Rather, if you want your children and grandchildren to be links in the ancient chain, you have to “do Jewish” with them, and frame it properly. Teach them to love our tradition the way you do; show them how meaningful it can be by doing. Frame it with intentionality and love. And of course you can always reach out to me for guidance. It would be my pleasure and privilege to provide support on your journey. That is what I am here for.

Yizkor

And one final, related note before we move on to the Yizkor service.

Since Adar of 5780, also known as March of 2020, we have been subject to a worldwide pandemic that has, in many ways, turned our lives upside-down. The 3-year-olds in our ELC only know a world in which everybody is wearing masks in public; children have suffered from the failure of some schools to provide adequate schooling; in addition to the loss of so many loved ones and the suffering of those with long-Covid symptoms, there is evidence of so much more malfeasance in our society – addiction, abuse in all forms, and so forth, and the economic toll has been devastating.

Even if somehow we were all miraculously vaccinated tomorrow, there would still be so much pain – evictions, homelessness, joblessness, anxiety, and so much suffering.

A young man I know recently lost his father, from whom he had been estranged for a number of years. As you can imagine, he was filled with various types of regrets; his grief was palpable.

A recent column by New York Times columnist David Brooks (if you have been paying attention, you surely know that I am fond of David Brooks), spoke about the rising incidence of estrangement from family members. I have encountered this regularly in my pastoral work, and it is one of a range of social ills to which Brooks points as evidence of what he calls the “psychological unraveling of America.” We are suffering in so many ways, and often we have no salve for our pain, no balm for the many sources of grief we all carry right now. Brooks cites the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, who said, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”

And we the Jews, of course, have an extra measure of pain – the pain that has been handed to us from our history, from expulsion and pogroms and Holocaust and terrorism and anti-Semitic attacks, one right here in our own neighborhood.

But the silver lining here is that, at least with one kind of pain – the pain that comes from the loss of beloved family members – that we do have a way of transforming that pain: we have the framework of Jewish ritual for grief and mourning, including the Yizkor prayers that we are about to recite. Not only do we have shiv’ah, when we offer comfort to the bereaved for the week after burial, but also sheloshim and a year of mourning and annual yahrzeit observances, and of course Yizkor. 

And all of these are means by which we transform our pain and grief through ritual. By doing traditional Jewish things, we have a mechanism which helps to ease the pain, helps to remember the deceased, helps to remind us all that they are still with us, if not bodily, then at least in spirit. 

If that is not an argument for meaning-making in Jewish life, I do not know what is. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur 5782, 9/16/2021.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

We Need More Ritual – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5779

A little more than a week ago, two days before Pesah, Rabbi Amy Bardack, a member of this congregation whom many of you know, walked into my office to sell me some hametz. Now, of course, you know how this works: members of the community sell their hametz to me, usually by filling out a form that declares the sale, and then I in turn sell their hametz, plus my own, plus all the hametz in this building, to somebody who is legally permitted to own it during Pesah, according to halakhah / Jewish law. (As you may know, it is not only forbidden to eat any form of the five species of hametz – wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye – during the eight days of Pesah, but also it is forbidden to own or benefit from it. And, by the way, if you do not sell your hametz or get rid of it all, and you own it during the holiday, then it may never be eaten by a Jewish person, ever.)

So the stakes are pretty high here, particularly for expensive items like single-malt Scotches, etc.

So most people fill out the form and send it in with a donation, and my assistant Audrey collates all the addresses and makes a list for our communications director Anthony.

But Rabbi Bardack did not merely send the form in, along with a donation for ma-ot hittin, providing for the needy in our community before the holiday. She felt she needed to make a complete ritual out of it, so she came to my office and made the exchange the old-fashioned way, face-to-face.

I asked her why it was so important to make the sale in person. She responded that she wanted to do it “right,” and that there was something particularly holy about performing a ritual in the traditional way.

Ritual, said Rabbi Bardack, gives us a moment of purity. No matter what kind of craziness might be going on in our lives, our work, our families, no matter what sort of political insanity is taking place on the national stage, no matter what sort of bloodshed might be taking place in the world, performing a ritual is a brief respite, an opportunity to feel holy, at least for a moment.

We all have the opportunity to push aside everything else for a moment of qedushah, of holiness. In fact, we have that opportunity multiple times every day. One tradition suggests that we should say 100 berakhot / blessings every day; you can almost fulfill that merely by reciting shaharit, minhah, and ma’ariv (the three regular daily services in Jewish life). But even if you cannot pray that much, you have opportunities to raise your HQ (holiness quotient) all day long: every time you eat something, for example, you can say a berakhah that will elevate your sandwich or snack food from the mundane to the divine. (The Talmud, in Berakhot 35a, tells us that eating food without saying a berakhah is something akin to theft.) Or every time you smell a fragrant plant or flower or tree. Or see a rainbow or a beautiful mountain. Or hear good news, or bad news. There are many such opportunities for holiness – they need not be relegated to Shabbat morning in the pews.

Ritual gives us a moment of purity. We cannot control so many aspects of our lives. But we can be momentarily holy.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, recently opined that we need ritual. He describes playing a game called, “There should be a ritual for…”

There should be a ritual for when a felon has finished his sentence and is welcomed back whole into the community. There should be a ritual for when a family moves onto a street and the whole block throws a barbecue of welcome and membership. There should be a ritual for the kids in modern blended families, when they move in and join their lives together. There should be a ritual for when you move out of your house and everybody shares memories from the different rooms there.

He points to various religious rituals to make his case. Brooks, who is Jewish, also notes that the majority of rituals in Judaism involve a physical action: putting on tefillin, lighting candles, and so forth. And they help frame our days, our lives, with the sense of connection – to God, to community, to family, to others around us who also need that connection.

So great is our hunger for rituals that when we come upon one of the few remaining ones — weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras — we tend to overload them and turn them into expensive bloated versions of themselves.

Between these lavish exceptions, daily life goes unstructured, a passing flow of moments. This means we don’t do transitions well. Rituals often mark doorway moments, when we pass from one stage of life to another. They acknowledge that these passages are not just external changes but involve internal transformation.

Our society has become so informal, he suggests, that we have let old rituals go and not replaced them with new ones. We are therefore running a kind of “ritual deficit,” wherein we need to mark the holy moments of our lives, but we do not have the tools or even the framework in which to do so.

And that brings us back to today. Yes, this is the eighth day of Pesah, a holiday marked with a plethora of associated rituals: the cleaning, the hunt for hametz and the burning thereof, the aforementioned sale, the siyyum (learning a tractate of Talmud in order to celebrate and not fast on the day before), the seder and everything associated with it (lots of discrete sub-rituals there), services with special melodies for the festival, the recitation of Tal, and so forth. Loads of rituals. In fact, I am often surprised by the staying power of Pesah rituals. We had 80 or so people show up for the siyyum eight days ago, far more members of our community than are aware of, say, the 10th of Tevet or the 17th of Tammuz, other minor fast days. We know from our own survey data that virtually all the members of Beth Shalom attend a Pesah seder. This is a holiday that continues to draw us into ritual like no other.

And then there’s Yizkor, more properly referred to as Hazkarat Neshamot, the ritual of remembering the souls of those whom we have lost. This is, in fact, our first such public remembering since the 18th of Heshvan, just over six months ago. This is a ritual that is so deeply connected to who we are as Jews.

There is something very important here – not only the value of ritual in general, but in particular, the way that we grieve for those whom we have lost. We do death well. Memorials, remembrance. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around grieving for a lost loved one.

And, let’s face it: this is not the way our society is moving. Everything that happens in the world today is so viscerally current. It’s what scrolls by on our phone from one moment to the next. By the time one piece of news has hit the media, we barely have time to process it before we are on to the next item. We went in the last week or so from lamenting the burning of Notre Dame to mourning the murder of over 300 Catholic Sri Lankans.

But we take time to remember those whom we have lost. We have seven days (shiv’ah) surrounded by friends and family during the deepest days of grief; we have thirty days (sheloshim); we have a full year of mourning for parents. And then we have yahrzeit, an annual commemoration. And four times a year we have Hazkarat Neshamot (Yizkor). So many opportunities to remember. So much time in which to live with our grief, to recall those who gave us life, to hear their words echoing in our heads, to remember what they gave us, how they made us who we are.

David Brooks draws a fine point on it:

People can understand their lives’ meaning only if they step out of their immediate moment and see what came before them and what they will leave behind when they are gone.

It is through remembering those whom we lost that we draw out the meaning of our own lives. Why am I here, if not to live out and teach the values that my parents gave me? Why am I here, if not to strive to leave this world in a better state than it was when I entered it? Why am I here, if not to seek those moments of holiness, of purity, through ritual?

We need ritual. We need memory. We need meaning to fill out the whys of our lives.

Shabbat shalom, and hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning and the eighth day of Pesah, 4/27/2019.)