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Everyone Has a Story – Shavuot Day 2 / Yizkor, 5778

Shavuot is kind of a funny festival. It’s one of the least well-known, mostly because it usually falls after Hebrew schools have concluded for the year. It doesn’t really have all the tactile and gustatory experiences of Sukkot and Pesah, say, or the fun-loving, child-centered holidays of Hanukkah and Purim, or the gravitas of the High Holidays. I don’t think it’s even as familiar as Tu Bishvat, which is not actually a holiday at all.

And yet the story that Shavuot tells is so central to what it means to be Jewish – the celebration of the gift of Torah, and everything that flows from it. Shavuot is the story of the ongoing revelation of our tradition, of how we continue to receive and reinterpret ancient wisdom for our time. As such, it should be the central pillar of the Jewish year, the one holiday that unites everything else we do with our most essential spiritual journey, our lifelong quest for understanding ourselves and our world.

OK, and there’s also cheesecake.

Two weeks ago, we laid to rest a long-time member of Beth Shalom, Ruth Lessing. She was a few months shy of a full century when she passed away.

Whenever I perform a funeral, I meet with the immediate family of the deceased to get the full story: who they were, what they enjoyed doing, what they took pride in, their successes and failures, and so forth. With Ruth, this process was not so easy: she had one son who lived in Wisconsin, and was on hospice care when his mother died; he himself passed away a few days later. So I had to rely on a couple of more distant relatives here in Pittsburgh, and they told me what they knew: they gave me as much of Ruth’s story as they could. Getting that information was not so easy. I eventually heard about Ruth’s parents in Germany, who bribed a whole range of officials to get five of their seven children out of Germany prior to the Sho’ah, but who ultimately perished, along with Ruth’s younger brother, at the hands of the Nazis.

But it reminded me of an essential piece of who we are: that each of us has a story.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem

One of the poems included in our Yizkor (memorial service) booklet is “Lekhol Ish Yesh Shem / Everyone Has a Name.” It was written by the Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984), usually referred to as Zelda:

(Note: Hebrew is a gendered language. Please understand that while Zelda wrote entirely in the masculine, it can be read as “he” or “she”; I have modified the translation to reflect this.)

לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו אלוהים
ונתנו לו אביו ואמו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו
ונתן לו האריג
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו ההרים
ונתנו לו כתליו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו המזלות
ונתנו לו שכניו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חטאיו
ונתנה לו כמיהתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו שונאיו
ונתנה לו אהבתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חגיו
ונתנה לו מלאכתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו עונות השנה
ונתן לו עיוורונו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו הים
ונתן לו מותו
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to her by her parents
Everyone has a name
given to her by her stature and the way she smiles
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to her by her walls
Everyone has a name
given to her by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to her by her longing
Everyone has a name
given to her by her enemies
and given to him by his love
Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to her by her work
Everyone has a name
given to her by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea
and given to her by her death.
(Translated from Hebrew by Marcia Falk, quoted from “Generations of the Holocaust” by Bergmann and Jugovy)
Zelda stamp

Zelda

Our name is our story; captured within those few words, you might say, is all that we stand for as individuals: our likes and dislikes, our deeds and misdeeds, our family connections, our obligations and characteristics and quirks and reputations.

We live in an increasingly dehumanizing world, one in which our individual stories are less and less relevant to all that we do. I am increasingly concerned that, given the way things are moving, we shall all soon be reduced to a pile of numbers. The new algorithms that suck up our information like water, predicting our behaviors, knowing which product we will buy and which candidate we will vote for even before we have thought about it, are sapping our free will. It’s more than a little creepy, and quite alarming. We will soon have no secrets, nothing that is hidden from the rest of the world. Maybe that’s already the case.

Not long after the news broke about Cambridge Analytica, the election research firm that scooped up personal data on 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge and in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, the New York Times ran a few analysis pieces about the information that Facebook and Google and other big data companies collect and use. The author had downloaded and reviewed all the information. Facebook’s data amounted to 650 megabytes, including all of his Facebook activity (likes, shares, posts, etc.), all of this friends’ contact info, including addresses and phone numbers, and a list of all the companies and organizations that had requested his information for the purposes of advertising on the site. (BTW, I downloaded my own Facebook data after reading this article, and among this latter list was none other than Congregation Beth Shalom, which has purchased a few targeted ads on the site.)

Google and Facebook know a lot more about you than your parents do. Even, by the way, if you do not have a Google account: these companies create files for people that are connected to others who do have accounts. They may not know your name, but they know a lot of things about you, and they assume that some day that info will be useful. Google owns the text of this sermon, by the way; in my own Google drive, there are nearly 6 gigabytes of writings and photos and videos and sermon ideas just sitting there waiting to be delivered.

Your genome, by the way, is small by comparison. Your DNA, the chromosomes found in each of the cells in your body, effectively what makes you you account for about 750 megabytes; it can be further reduced to the essential variations that differentiate individual humans from each other, is maybe only about 125 megabytes, depending on the method of storage.

DNA

But that’s not a story. We are not the sum of our data points, or our clicks or our lists of friends or where we purchased groceries. We are not a set of ones and zeros, or even patterns of genetic nucleotides. We have souls. We have journeys. We have lives. We have names. Everyone has a name, which is shorthand for the life we have lived.

You cannot capture love in a digital file. You cannot describe the palette of human creativity, or the full range of human feelings, or the complexity of interpersonal relations. You cannot record the thrill of watching your daughter perform on stage, or the joy of meaningful conversation, or the exultant abandon of group singing around a campfire. A computer would have no reason to argue with another computer over the meaning of a verse in the Torah, or a Talmudic sugya. Microprocessors do not mourn their parents.

What makes us people, what gives us our names, is the full complement of human experiences that we acquire over years of living. It is learning to walk, and failing at dating. It is hiking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, tasting the most fabulous dessert you’ve ever had. It is staying up all night to write a term paper and getting a mediocre grade. It is scoring the winning point and losing a beloved partner.

I must say that I am slightly concerned over the bold new future, in which companies will reduce us to a pile of numbers, but I am not THAT concerned, because we will always have our souls. Nobody can take that away from you.

And nobody can take away the souls of those whom we have known and lost. We carry them all with us. We carry their names. And we carry their stories.

Lekhol ish yesh shem. Each of us has a name, and each of us has a story.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 5/21/2018.)

 

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Remaining Human – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5777

One of the major themes I presented during my series of High Holiday sermons is that the point of fulfilling mitzvot, of “doing Jewish,” if you will, is to connect those holy opportunities with our lives, to bring meaning to who we are and how we live today.

Along those lines, what does building and “dwelling” in the sukkah teach us? That life is uncertain. That even after the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, after having been through the process of repairing our relationships with each other and with God, that we are still vulnerable. That although we might be inclined to look around ourselves and say, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. I’ve got another year in front of me. 5777 is looking pretty good,” that we should not forget that things could change. The story is not yet over.

In my mind, I always strongly associate Sukkot with the sights / sounds / smells of fall: trees aflame in color, winds to herald the winter chill, the scent of dead leaves and damp sod. Sukkot is the end of the holiday cycle, and it suggest frailty. Everything comes to an end, chants the latter half of Tishrei. And yet, it’s a joyous time – zeman simhateinu, the season of our joy, as it is called in our liturgy. This is hehag, THE festival.

I recently read an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, in which he reminds us of the need to remember to sanctify life as we sail into the future.

This is not the future of the Jetsons or Star Trek, but rather the future in which artificial intelligence eventually puts everybody out of work. Consider the fact that right here in Pittsburgh, even as we speak, there are driver-less cars prowling the hilly streets for the ride-sharing service Uber. It is only a matter of time before millions of people who drive for a living – cabbies and truckers and bus drivers and railway engineers – will be unnecessary and hence lose their jobs. It will not end there.

https://images.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.borgenmagazine.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2015%2F05%2FBig_Data_Development1.jpg&f=1

Rabbi Sacks points to a trio of futurist authors, who suggest not only that we will soon enough have automated surgeons and teachers and journalists and attorneys, but that the future will belong not to those who can capture our hearts, but those who control our data. “Google, Amazon and Facebook,” he says, “already know us better than we know ourselves. People will eventually turn to them for advice not only on what to buy but on what to be. Humans will have become strings of genomes, little more than super-algorithms.”  Think, The Matrix. The system will only get out of us what it needs based on our numbers.

The antidote to this particularly dire vision is our ongoing commitment to recalling the sanctity of human life. We can never be reduced to numbers if we are reminded of our fundamental humanity.

Although the coming technological change is unprecedented in its scope, there is no question that Judaism has managed such change historically. I spoke on Yom Kippur about Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s choosing Yavneh over Jerusalem, that is, learning Torah over sacrificing animals. RYBZ chose to move forward, to choose Torah – words – over the barbaric practice of offering rams and sheep up to God on a fiery altar. In addition to progressing from the Bronze Age to the Information Age, we have managed expulsions and slaughters, dispersions and forced conversions. We have survived assimilation and secularism. We made it through the disco years and decades of questionable taste.

We know how to handle change.

But the future will require the acknowledgment that no matter how much Big Data knows about us and can convince us to behave this way or that, that we continue to learn and teach, to seek holiness in our relationships with each other, to elevate ourselves through our traditions. The futurists, says Rabbi Sacks, point to a new form of idol-worship for today, and citing a verse from Psalms, he says:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human’s hands.” When technology becomes idolatry it ceases to be life-enhancing and becomes soul-destroying. The moment humans value things, however intelligent, over people, they embark on the road to ruin.

So what does this have to do with Sukkot, Rabbi?

This is why this festival is so essential. Actually, let me expand to the entire month of Tishrei. Rabbi Sacks wrote about the essential concern of Rosh Hashanah as being the creation of humans in the image of God. It is this Godliness, with which our humanity is imbued, that leads us to seek forgiveness from each other during the first half of the month of Tishrei, and to celebrate with each other, even as we are reminded of our essential vulnerability, in the second half.

Sukkot is tactile. It’s not a heady holiday like Yom Kippur. It involves building, and marching around with greenery, and slapping willow branches against the ground with all your might in climactic ecstasy with the conclusion of this festival (join us tomorrow morning for Hoshana Rabbah if you want to find out what THAT’s all about). And then we conclude with singing and dancing with the Torah in joyous abandon. This is a physical journey much more so than an emotional one.

One of the pleasures of Sukkot is sukkah-hopping – going to friends’ sukkot to hang around, to schmooze, to eat, to spend quality time with each other. A good friend of mine, a former congregant in New York, is convinced that Sukkot is the secret weapon in the Jewish arsenal of re-engaging disaffected American Jews. He has a grand scheme to put free, easy-to-build sukkot in the hands of people who would otherwise not buy one, with the only condition that they use it during the holiday. This festival brings people together, he reasons. It is joyous and fun and builds community and connection. If more Jews participated in the mitzvah of leshev basukkah, he figures, then we have a better shot at rebuilding our connection to Judaism.

He has asked to remain anonymous, but he donated four such sukkot to this community this year, and so there were four more families celebrating in their own sukkot in Pittsburgh in 5777. Maybe next year we’ll get even a few more.

The Slonimer Rebbe taught that Yom Kippur appeals to the middah (attribute) of yir’ah, of fear of God, but the middah for Sukkot is ahavah, love. The two balance each other out, and so the month of Tishrei includes equal measures of yir’ah and ahavah. But let’s face it: in simply counting the number of people in the room, far more Jews are motivated by yir’ah to show up on Yom Kippur. Couldn’t we use a little more ahavah in Jewish life?

Our goal as Jews is to avoid living in the dystopian future of The Matrix; we cannot become subjects to our technology. We have to continue to be human, to live in the here and now, to worship only the God of Abraham and Sarah. Ritual binds us to reality, and qal vahomer, all the more so on Sukkot, when the rituals are all so physical.  These holy opportunities are all the ways that we maintain our connections to the physicality of Creation, to God, and to each other. This is how we maintain our humanity, the sacredness of life in all of its loving, fearful, vulnerable glory.

So while the future may be filled with robots and data, and may be more and more dehumanizing, the antidote might be found by peering through the sekhakh (the greenery on the roof of the sukkah) in order to see the stars, while we dine and socialize in those frail booths, and feel the ahavah, the love of this holiday. Hag sameah!
~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/21/2016.)

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