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Watermelons and Seeds: Yitro 5781

A technique that my children learned in school about writing is the concept of “watermelon ideas” and “seed ideas.” (They did not teach me this when I was in elementary school.)

A “watermelon idea” is a big, general plot point without which the story will not make sense or hold together: “Alice takes a magical trip to Wonderland,” or “The rebels fight back against Darth Vader and the Empire.” Seed ideas are details that, if omitted, will not throw the whole story off: “While she is only a few inches tall, Alice receives advice from a curious caterpillar who is sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah,” or, “Luke learns Jedi techniques from a small, frog-like creature named Yoda.” Big concepts vs. small details. You can see why the watermelon and seeds analogy is useful and easy to understand.

The powerful moment that we read this morning in Parashat Yitro is the Sinai encounter between Israel and God. This is one big, huge watermelon sitting there in the middle of Shemot / Exodus.

Dr. Martin Buber, one of the greatest modern Jewish philosophers, saw in the Sinai moment a Big Idea that was really just a bunch of little ideas. Akin to his understanding of God as being immediately present and unconditionally in touch with us at all times, the Mt. Sinai moment is an attempt to dramatize the infinitesimal communications with the Divine presence that we constantly have. In his monumental work, I and Thou, he wrote:

The mighty revelations to which the religions appeal are like in being with the quiet revelations that are to be found everywhere and at all times. The mighty revelations which stand at the beginning of great communities and at the turning-point of an age are nothing but the eternal revelation. But the revelation does not pour itself into the world through him who receives it as through a funnel; it comes to him and seizes his whole elemental being in all its particular nature, and fuses with it. 

Martin Buber

Buber’s point is that the Mt. Sinai moment is really NOT a watermelon, as the Torah describes; it is a myriad of seeds which are always with us.

Meanwhile, Buber’s colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, takes the Sinai moment in a different direction. “For Rosenzweig,” wrote my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman, “The content of revelation is simply the fact of revelation, God’s entering into a unique relationship with Israel.” (Sacred Fragments, p. 23). In other words, this is a watermelon with no particular seeds, but its existence is essential to us.

Contemporary philosophy aside, our traditional understanding is that there are 613 seeds in this watermelon (not just the Top Ten identified in Yitro. There is a midrash that suggests that the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden was, of course, a pomegranate, since pomegranates have 613 seeds. I have never been able to actually confirm this figure, but it seems totally reasonable.)

And really, each of those mitzvot is only a starting point. But they have a shared intent: to lead us to a heightened awareness of each other, to highlight the holiness in all of our relationships, such that we are all pursuing the common good together

As you may know, that is how I understand the halakhic system. We fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah not just because it says so, but rather because that system creates a framework of holiness, through which we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

But let’s face it: the Torah is not just ONE watermelon. It’s lots of ‘em! And then there are other gourds: squash! Cucumbers! An occasional pumpkin!

OK, so at this point I have clearly beaten this metaphor to death. 

But the point is this: the Torah, meaning the Five Books of Moses, and Torah in its larger sense, that is, all of the teaching on the Jewish bookshelf, has its big ideas and its details. 

For example:

Watermelon: Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as we read this morning. (Shemot / Exodus 20:8)

Seeds: (Well, really there are 39 sub-gourds for this one.) Do not kindle a fire on Shabbat; do have a joyous Shabbat meal with family

Watermelon: Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)

Seeds: Give tzedaqah to charities that feed the hungry and house the homeless.

We could clearly play this game for a while. But I want to take this metaphor in a slightly different direction.

Watermelon: Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirqei Avot 2:5)

Seeds: You should belong to a synagogue and show up from time to time – not only to fulfill the mitzvah of prayer, but also to schmooze with friends, to welcome guests, to comfort the bereaved, and a whole bunch of other seeds.

And let’s face it: one of the biggest ideas of Jewish life is community. Qehillah. You may remember it as one of the three essential principles that I began my rabbinic journey with here at Beth Shalom five-and-a-half years ago. We are a communal people. Judaism is fundamentally a tradition that revolves around community. You cannot be Jewish alone. You might say that it is both an explicit message of the words of Torah, and an implicit message of the Sinai moment.

One of the biggest challenges that we have faced in this pandemic world is that we cannot gather. We cannot rub elbows over kiddush. We cannot meet new people while strolling through the halls of Beth Shalom, or waiting to pick up our kids after JJEP, or interacting with each other at a talk or a service or even at a shiv’ah house.

This is something that is really huge, that we are all missing right now. None of the various online platforms are satisfying substitutes for the chance encounters, the opportunities to make somebody else’s day with a well-chosen word, the simple pleasure of being around others, that make up the spectrum of human interaction. I feel this dissatisfaction on a daily basis. I feel this need. And I would not even really describe myself as a “people person.” (I’m more of an old-dusty-book person, truth be told.)

But I miss you. And I miss the yous, the yinz, whom I am not seeing, whom I do not even know. We have people every week who come to our online Shabbat services as visitors, and it kills me that I cannot personally greet you, shake your hand, engage with you briefly in meaningful conversation, give you a sense of what a convivial group of folks we are, and welcome you aboard our journey of learning and living Torah.

I miss the opportunities to raise the bar of holiness around me through the regular, personal interactions that make up our lives when we are not isolated from one another.

If the watermelon here is community, the seeds are the holy opportunities we have each day to make this world a better place through our own actions. And I am not speaking here specifically of tzedaqah, although of course that is important. I am, rather, talking about how we interact: about greeting others with a cheerful face (Pirqei Avot 1:15); about being ohev shalom verodef shalom, loving and pursuing peace (Pirqei Avot 1:12), about avoiding lashon hara, the evil tongue (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16-17).

Here’s a seed for you that could very easily be its own watermelon: Build a rail around your roof (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:8). We are responsible for the safety of others. I was thinking of this on Thursday as I took a night-time stroll around the neighborhood. I try to get outside every day for a walk – it helps with my sanity as well as my physical health; sometimes I don’t get out until late. And I would estimate that about a third of the property owners in our shtetl of Squirrel Hill had shoveled their sidewalks after the snow that came earlier in the week. This is not only a city ordinance, but also a law from the Torah: we respect each other’s safety. We build railings on our roofs so people do not fall off; by interpolation, we shovel snow and make sure that our sidewalks are not icy, so people do not fall. But we also are careful with how we drive, and the products we sell, and of course the masks that we wear right now so as not to cause physical harm to others. All of these are variants on the “rail” seed: it is up to us as individuals to make sure that others are safe.

What is a community, if not a group of people who are committed to all of the little ways in which we respect, protect, and honor one another? 

Hevreh, while the vaccine roll-out has been off to a rocky start, I am hopeful that as the production ramps up, as new vaccines come available, as the county and the state figure out how to do this correctly, we will return to normal. We will be able to interact with one another once again; we will be able to go to the grocery store without feeling anxious; we will gather and sing and talk normally in this building and everywhere else.

And we will once again be able to act on all of those opportunities for elevating the holiness around us, to emphasize the seeds as we rebuild the sense of community.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, 2/6/2021.)

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Rethinking Na’aseh veNishma: First Connect, Then Teach – Yitro 5780

Last week in this space, I spoke about my trip in January with Honeymoon Israel, a program which seeks to reach the least-connected Jews by providing a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel for couples in their first five years of marriage. The program is not about Israel, per se, but uses the visit to Israel primarily as a backdrop to discuss issues of Jewish peoplehood. I spoke also about a featured presenter on the trip, renowned Jewish educator Avraham Infeld, and discussed his framework of the “Five-Legged Table” of the supporting pillars of Jewish peoplehood. Those “legs” are:

  • Memory
  • Family
  • Mt. Sinai
  • Israel
  • Hebrew

What is at least initially missing from this list is an acknowledgment that , historically speaking, an essential statement of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people is the covenant of mitzvot, the opportunities for holiness that are the central framework of Jewish living and our relationship to God.

Framing that in the form of a question: Isn’t our responsibility as Conservative Jews, as those committed to halakhah / Jewish law and to conserving Jewish tradition, to teach Judaism as a religious tradition? How can we define membership in the Jewish people without the classical religious content?

You might say that the “Mt. Sinai” leg of Infeld’s table includes that. That is, when the Israelites stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, as we did symbolically today, and then they say, “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do and we will seek to understand (Ex. 24:7), that they were effectively saying that membership in the Jewish people mandates performance of the mitzvot first. That is, ours is a religious tradition, based on fulfilling the specific behaviors commanded by God. And there are certainly Jewish communities in which everybody is expected to toe the line, halakhically. Through much of our history, we have had a bit of a judgy streak – in the shtetl, to live among the Jews meant to live as Jews do, and if you did not, you were a threat to the fabric of Jewish society. In the Old World, keeping the mitzvot was also about personal security – you were safe with the Jews if you kept our ways. God and the community would protect you.

Avraham Infeld bellowed at the Honeymoon Israel participants that Judaism is not a religion, but a people. A family, as he puts it. He spoke of his own father, who was a proud atheist, but a committed Jew nonetheless. Some members of our Jewish family put on tefillin every morning. Some refrain from eating pork, but see no problem with ordering steak in non-kosher establishments. Some proudly walk down Murray Ave. on Yom Kippur eating bacon double-cheeseburgers. But all are Jews.

While I place myself firmly in the tefillin-every-morning crowd (and I of course want you all to join me there, when you are ready, of course, with a special invitation to those of us who identify as women), I certainly want us all to continue to be included in, and proudly identify as Jews, regardless of our relationship to the mitzvot.

From the World Wide Wrap at JJEP, February 2020

But there are many Jews for whom the very idea of identification with the Jewish community is fraught. There are many of us who have been turned away by our community. There are many who have felt judged, who have been subjected to intolerance, who were made to feel not welcome for various reasons. 

We have pushed people away. Yes, it’s true that some wandered off by themselves, uninspired, uninterested. But many were turned off by the very people who wanted them to stay, by those of us who insisted on drawing hard lines about who is in and who is out, about what was acceptable behavior for a Jew and what was unacceptable. 

Our role, as Conservative Jews in the vibrant center of the Jewish world is to build bridges. To build a bridge from peoplehood to religion and vice versa; to build a bridge from non-engagement to engagement; to connect Jews from different backgrounds and practices to one another. We inhabit a Jewish environment that can be secular and religious; where doubt can live alongside faith; where an academic Torah-as-human-literature can sidle up to Torah-as-history and not be rebuffed. 

When we say, as Rosh Hashanah begins, “Shalom, shalom, larahoq velaqarov, amar Adonai. (Isaiah 57:19),” we mean it. “Greetings, greetings to those who are far and those who are near, says God.” We have to be open to all who are close, and all those who place themselves beyond the outskirts of our community.

My work as a rabbi is to teach Judaism, to connect you, and everybody else, with the lessons of our text, our history, our culture, our rituals. And there are some who think that rabbis should teach to the top, to those who are committed, to the members of our community who are already steeped in Torah, who have already drunk the Talmudic Kool-Aid.

There is a time and a place for that. But whenever I can, I am also going to teach to the uninitiated, to invite in the ones who are she-einam yode’im lish’ol, who do not yet know how to ask. Because those are the people we need to reach.

So how do we do this?

It is easy for us to keep doing what we are doing, and not worry too much about the rest of the Jewish world, to assume that everybody knows what to do when they walk into a synagogue, to assume that our customs and wisdom, and indeed the supreme value of what we do are obvious to all. But they are not. I know this because I hear it all the time: it’s not so easy to enter Beth Shalom if you do not know where the door is, figuratively speaking.

So how do we invite in Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks while not scaring them off with our commitment to tradition? Although we know that our approach to tradition is decidedly modern, egalitarian, and inclusive, often those who are unaffiliated or who have been turned off by other Jews and Judaism in the past may not see that. How do we welcome them into our community in such a way that they stay?

And the answer is as follows: First connect, then teach.

And this is, you might say, orthogonal to the principle of “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do first, and then we will understand, which has been so essential to Jewish life for our entire history. The traditional model of teaching Jewish religious practice is to teach the mitzvah, the behavior first, with the intent that the understanding will follow.

But for many today, there has to be a preliminary step, and that step is connection. That is the Mt. Sinai moment. That is where God speaks to each of the individuals standing at Mt. Sinai. Anokhi Adonai Elohekha. “I am the Lord your God.” It’s the first Commandment of the Top Ten. And the “your” is singular! The first commandment is about individual relationship.

It is only after this relationship is established that the doing and the understanding can begin.

(Yes, I know that this image from the Sistine Chapel is God and Adam. But it is also a perfect image for the Sinai moment.)

First connect, then teach. The connection must precede Na’aseh venishma. That’s the element of Jewish peoplehood, of family, of Mt. Sinai.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are not going to compromise on the mitzvot part of the equation; we will uphold our standards of Jewish practice. What goes on at Beth Shalom will always be kosher, shomer Shabbat, and so forth.

But we also have to take the first commandment seriously, and read it as, “You’re a part of my family.” Whatever you may have experienced in the past, whether you were turned off by Jewish religious practice or felt judged for your choices or your parents denied you a Jewish education or whatever, you are welcome as a part of our family.

And, to go a step further, I want those who are Jewish-adjacent, i.e. not privileged to have been born Jewish or yet joined the Jewish people, but having the hutzpah to have married a Jew, to think of themselves as a part of our family as well.

A brief coda: I received an email this past week from one of the Honeymoon Israel participants that really made my week, a person who is married to somebody who is not Jewish, who had bad experiences with rabbis and Jewish organizations. And this person expressed gratitude for having been welcomed back, for feeling for the first time like one of the tribe. And I would now not be surprised to see this person cross my orbit again, this time open to learn, open to the idea of belonging, open to the idea of na’aseh venishma

First connect, then teach. Remember that when you are in the building, and as you saunter out as an ambassador for the type of Judaism we live.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/15/2020.)