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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Ephemeral Joy and the Bond of Life – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5780

The end of Pesah is, to me, always quite anti-climactic. We put the Passover dishes away, toss out foodstuffs that we would never consider eating during the rest of the year, and then life sort of shambles on as normal, as if these eight obsessively, gastronomically limited days were a brief lull. This year, of course, the usual lull will linger longer

My attention was recently captivated by an interview I heard on public radio, on the show On Being with Krista Tippett. She spoke with author and poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of English at Indiana University. He said something that struck me for its paradoxical insight: that human joy is intimately tied to the operating principle that we are mortal. Let me just share with you how he put it:

… Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about — that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment… 

The connection between the dying and the joy…  is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] … if you and I know we’re each in the process, [of dying], there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible…

… [J]oy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, everything becomes luminous. And I love that mycelium, forest metaphor, that there’s this thing connecting us. And among [that] is that we have this common experience — many common experiences, but a really foundational one is that we are not here forever.

And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.” So that’s sort of how I think about it.

Tippett:

But joy is — our capacity for joy, despite and through that, the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.

Gay:

Totally… [I]t is joy by which the labor that will make the life that I want, possible. So it is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.

***

These are exceptionally prophetic words, which, like words of Torah, we can only hear and interpret in our current context. The interview was recorded in July of 2019, however, long before COVID-19 was a thing.

Matters of life and death are shared between all of us. I think what Ross Gay is trying to say is that we all carry with us the potential to create joy, to increase happiness in this world, and we also all share the fact that we are going to die. So the potential for joyful living is predicated by the fact that we need it – that in all human relationships there is an implicit shared imperative to foster joy, since our time on Earth is limited.

The first thought that occurred to me as I was listening to this interview was, What a dreadful idea! How can reminding myself of my mortality possibly bring joy?

And then upon second thought, Wait a minute! He’s right. I share that with every other human on the planet. We may speak different languages, have absolutely orthogonal political outlooks, practice different religions, and so forth. But for every single one of us, the clock is ticking. It’s a jumping-off point for every relationship.

Death is, as Krista Tippett suggests, the great leveler, and arguably a cause for joy. And particularly when we lose somebody, it is the motivator for remembering to live. That is precisely the reason we mourn, the reason we say the Mourners’ Qaddish, which is not at all about death – to remember to live, to remember that, in our limited time, we must bring joy.

As I was listening to this a few weeks back, I was making breakfast for my family, whole-grain waffles with maple syrup, a joyful Sunday-morning move, and of course I was not thinking about dying. (I miss waffles. Only one more day of Pesah!)

But living, truly living, is in the joy that we bring to others – by preparing and sharing food with them, for example. And by talking. And by hugging. And by being there in times of need. And by being there for the happy times. And sometimes just by being present, or even present from a distance.

Because, when we are gone, we can no longer really create joy.

My teacher, Rabbeinu (“our teacher”) Neil Gillman, in his 1997 work, The Death of Death, points out that it is death that makes us fully human. “Death,” he says,” is not punishment for disobedience, but rather the inevitable result of the full flowering of our humanity.” He cites the Creation story from Bereshit / Genesis of Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden, as launching human-ness in its complete form; Adam and Eve were in some sense required to understand their mortality before they could be considered fully formed. He cites Martin Buber’s interpretation of the Gan Eden story as an act of compassion on humans by God, avoiding subjecting them to “aeons of suffering.” 

But life, thank God, is not merely suffering. It is all-encompassing, and in remembering to live, we also remember to seek pleasure and company and good times and love. And what makes the joy ultimately overpower the suffering is that we know that our time is fleeting.

We all carry with us a certain number of memories of people who are now gone. We all carry with us what made them who they were. And we remember them when we act in their memory, when we carry on with life, when we bring joy to ourselves and others.

Something that I am trying to do during this pandemic is to be positive. Yes, I think you know by now that I am an optimist. But I have been trying to draw on that well of optimism now more than ever. 

Let’s face it – our options for being joyful right now are somewhat limited, particularly if we live alone. And the entirety of the festival of Pesah, the festival of freedom, the festival of spring, the major holiday that kicks off the cycle of the Jewish year, has had a kind of pall over it. We have not been able to visit with family; we have not been able to exchange hugs and share food and stories with many people with whom we would ordinarily do so.

And yet, we also know that this will come to an end, and when it does, I know we will all be truly joyful.

But I think we have also been given a sort of gift by the pandemic, and that is a glimpse of our own mortality, and that reminder that death makes us human. We are all bound together in life – those of us who are still breathing, and those of us whom we remember on days like these. 

Because, as we will say in a few minutes when I recite the El Male Rahamim prayer, utzror bitzror hahayyim et nishmoteihem. May the souls of those whom we recall today be bound up in the tzeror hahayyim, the bond of life. You will also see a variant form of this written as an abbreviation on some Jewish gravestones, in the form of an acronym: תנצב”ה, which stands for “Tehi nishmatah/nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim .” May her/his soul be bound up in the bond of life. 

We are intimately connected, living and dead, through this bond of life. And although the dead do not give us joy, they certainly give us life through that connection, which enables us to go on seeking and giving joy to others.

And qal vahomer,  all the more so in this time of an afflicted world, we remember not only those who gave us life, but also those who died or are dying at the hands of this vicious virus, which does not discriminate with respect to age, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We are reminded that we are all in this together – as Jews, as American citizens, and as human beings, interconnected with all others around the world. 

On this day of Yizkor, of calling to mind those whom we have lost, we must acknowledge our condition: that our lives are ephemeral, and that the joy that we share with others in the brief time that we have been granted is invaluable. We sink or swim not as individuals, but as a community, as a society, as a world.

We are deeply interconnected, mournful and joyful and distant and close all at the same time, all together, bound in that bond of life that makes us human, that calls us back to our shared mortality.

May we all be bound together in that tzeror hahayyim. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, eighth day of Pesah 5780, 4/16/2020.)

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Joy and Grief – Eighth Day of Pesah, 5777

As I was preparing for the first few days of Pesah, I happened upon a thought-provoking piece of commentary in the Rabbinical Assembly haggadah, Feast of Freedom. It was a quote from the venerable Hertz humash (Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text English Translation and Commentary, edited by Dr. J H Hertz, 2nd ed., p. 397) about what set the Israelites apart from the Egyptians. The source of our ancestors’ faith was the Tree of Life (Etz Hayyim), while the Egyptians emphasized the cult of death:

When we compare the Egyptian attitude towards death with that of the Torah, we see in the latter what appears to be a deliberate aim to wean the Israelites from Egyptian superstition. On the one hand, there is not a word concerning reward and punishment in the Hereafter; on the other hand, there is rigorous proscription of all magic and sorcery, of sacrificing to the dead, as well as every form of alleged intercourse with the world of spirits. Israel’s faith is a religion of life, not of death; a religion that declares man’s [sic] humanity to man as the most acceptable form of adoration of the One God.

The Torah sets up the expectation that we should dwell on life, not on death; that what counts is not what comes next, but what happens here on Earth. We do not, as the ancient Egyptians did, bury people with all their material possessions in array around them. On the contrary, we expect that we will take nothing with us when we leave this life.

And, unlike certain parts of Christianity, our goal is not to behave well in this world so that we may enjoy the next. Our goal is to live a good life right now because that is good for ourselves and good for those around us to do so.

Of course, Judaism has its own framework for mourning. Consider these things: many Jews who are not so rigorous with respect to many of the daily aspects of Jewish practice (kashrut / dietary laws, Shabbat, Talmud Torah / studying the texts of our tradition, etc.) are suddenly very traditional in the context of death and bereavement. People who do not show up for Sukkot or Shavuot will come to say the Mourner’s Qaddish on a Tuesday evening for yahrzeit. As may be obvious today, the Yizkor service still draws a crowd. (I’m told that there was a time in New York’s Garment District when there were back-to-back Yizkor services all day long on the last Yom Tov / festival day, so people in the neighborhood could pop in and then go right back to work.)

But of course there is a reason for it. Grief requires a framework. It’s a powerful motivator to reach out: to tradition, to ritual, to customs that our ancestors have practiced for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

And yet, one might make the case that the larger framework of this day is still that Tree of Life: we read the Torah today, we recited words of gratitude and praise and acknowledgment of the holiness of this day, and all of that is about life, not death or mourning.

redwood stump

Here is a relevant question for this day, for this moment:

Today is a Yom Tov, literally, a “good day.” It is a festival celebrating a joyous moment in our national story. And yet it is also a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, who have departed from this world. Is this a day to rejoice, or to grieve? Can we be happy today? Can we recall with sadness those who have left this world?

As Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, our Director of Youth Tefillah, is fond of saying, it’s a “both-and.” We are joyful, and we grieve. And, of course, our entire reality incorporates happy and sad moments, and everything else on the spectrum of human emotion. Sometimes these emotions bump right up against each other. That’s how life goes.

Even within the context of bereavement, we remember our departed loved ones with both sadness AND joy. We miss the good moments AND the painful moments that we shared. (I always remind families that humorous stories about the deceased are completely appropriate at a funeral; the laughter helps us to work through our grief.)

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, the founder of the Bratzlaver hasidic movement, is somewhat famous for emphasizing the joy in life. If you have been in Israel lately, and you happened to be in a public place where an outrageously-decorated van with huge speakers on top suddenly pulled up, and a bunch of guys in tye-dye shirts and peyes (sidecurls) jumped out and started dancing around to the music, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Those are the Bratzlavers. One of Rabbi Nahman’s most famous quotes is:

מצווה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimhah tamid.

It is a great mitzvah to be joyful all the time.

Now of course, that’s ridiculous. Nobody can be always happy. You cannot even force yourself to do so. Even though the Mishnah advises us (Pirqei Avot 1:15) to greet everybody with “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance, we occasionally have to smile with gritted teeth.

There was a fascinating article in the New Yorker last summer about happiness. It was about the Aristotelian theory of happiness and how research into the human genome suggests that this approach to happiness is more effective than hedonism, that is, pursuing physical pleasure for its own sake.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, [Aristotle] described the idea of eudaemonic happiness, which said, essentially, that happiness was not merely a feeling, or a golden promise, but a practice. ‘It’s living in a way that fulfills our purpose,’ [said] Helen Morales, a classicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara…

The researchers determined that the expression of some genes was affected by our moods, and specifically that misery and loneliness were likely to yield negative health effects. So they tested for the expression of these genes in people who pursued either hedonistic or eudaemonic happiness, and found that only Aristotle’s way was the true way to stave off the expression of the undesirable genes.

Aristotle2

The study indicated that people high in eudaemonic happiness were more likely to show the opposite gene profile of those suffering from social isolation: inflammation was down, while antiviral response was up.

Hedonistic happiness yielded nothing.

So how do we achieve that eudaemonic happiness? What is the magic formula to living a healthy life?

For Aristotle, it required a combination of rationality and arete—a kind of virtue, although that concept has since been polluted by Christian moralizing. “It did mean goodness, but it was also about pursuing excellence,” Morales told [the author]. “For Usain Bolt, some of the training it takes to be a great athlete is not pleasurable, but fulfilling your purpose as a great runner brings happiness.” Fredrickson, meanwhile, believes that a key facet of eudaemonia is connection. “It refers to those aspects of well-being that transcend immediate self-gratification and connect people to something larger,” she said.

In other words, connection, community, and qedushah / holiness, the magic formula that the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life offers us. Eudaemonic happiness comes from living within the framework of our tradition, which emphasizes life over death, of meaningful joy derived from the holy opportunities offered here at Beth Shalom in the context of Jewish practice and wisdom.

Jewish life gives us purpose; it is a practice that inherently brings us happiness and health. The joy comes from that framework, from pursuing connection, community, and qedushah / holiness.

Recalling those who gave us life, who brought us smiles and loved us and supported us and taught us and nourished us, that can be a joyous thing when it is part of our eudaemonic practice. Yes, it’s solemn. Yes, it’s a weighty matter. But it is, nonetheless, joyful.

Meaning. Purpose. That’s what ultimately makes us happy, and enables us to contend with grief. And that meaning must depend on our embracing today, to find meaning in our everyday interactions, to frame them in holiness, to seek out the opportunities to improve our relationships with others and with the world.

So yes, even as we recall those whom we have lost, we derive meaning and hence happiness in doing so. This is healthy and leads to better outcomes for all of us.

So yes, today is in fact a joyful day, one on which we allow ourselves space to grieve as well. It’s a “both-and.”

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, end of Pesah, 4/18/2017.)

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Festivals Sermons

Living Inside the Box – Sukkot 5776

A few years back, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic became the first American journalist to interview Fidel Castro in a long time.  At one point, Goldberg asked El Comandante if his battle with cancer had changed his opinion on the existence of God.  I suppose that Goldberg was thinking of the old maxim, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and supposing that even a hardened communist might begin to think about greater spiritual things in the context of serious illness. Castro replied, “Sorry, I’m still a dialectical materialist.”

In a radio interview about his talk with Castro, Goldberg assured listeners that if Castro were doing a standup routine for a Marxist audience, that would be simply hysterical.  Frankly, I’m not sure that I get it, as I must admit that I am not up on my communist jargon.

However, the story reminded me of something that I always used to tell the students in my Bar/Bat Mitzvah Workshop (back in Great Neck) when we arrived to the unit on theology: what you believe now may not apply next year, or in ten years, or in 50.  Our understanding of God, our interaction with the Divine changes as we change.  So you always have to stay open to new ideas, new evidence, and new theological approaches.

An ideologue like Castro may never depart his atheistic moorings.  But those of us who occasionally step into a house of worship, however we feel about it, will surely develop in our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu.  And that development can go many different directions, as long as we remain open.

That brings me to Sukkot.  The primary goal of this festival, I am sure, is to challenge our theology, to make us revisit our understanding of and relationship with God, and I am going to give you four pieces of evidence to support this claim, four themes of Sukkot:  Joy, service to God, the well, and the rituals of Sukkot.

1. Joy.  Simhah.  It is the most joyous festival of the year (Deut. 16:15: Vehayita akh sameah – you shall be overwhelmingly joyful), and the only one that will be celebrated after the mashiah comes, at least according to one tradition.

It is at times of great emotion that we are most open to theology, and look for deeper meanings. The cold, rational exterior of the everyday routine keeps us focused on the business of going about life: work, family, shopping, paying bills, and so forth.  During these times, God seldom penetrates our consciousness.

But at times of great joy, like holidays, weddings, benei mitzvah, beritot milah, and so forth, when family gathers to celebrate, we are likely to reflect on what we are thankful for, and the source of good things.  Likewise, at sad times, surrounding illness, death, or other types of loss, we tend to look to God or tradition for answers.

As such, Sukkot seems like a perfect time for spiritual reflection – gratitude for what we have, anticipation for the future, relief for having sought teshuvah / repentance on Yom Kippur.

2. Service to God.  This was the time of the heaviest sacrifice schedule in the Temple.  Far more than any other holiday, there were a total of 98 lambs and 70 bulls offered on the altar over the course of the seven days of the festival.  All of this sacrifice was surely thanksgiving for the harvest, the most joyous time of the year in any agrarian society.  But it also suggests that the spiritual pathways to God are especially open on this festival, that God is most receptive to us, and we to God.

As Jews, we sanctify time; I mentioned this on Yom Kippur.  The spiritual pathways that were open to our ancestors at this time must still be available, because even though we do not sacrifice animals like they did, we still sanctify this festival with prayer and rituals and joyous celebration. This is a week of abundant holiness.

3. The well.  At the end of the first day of Sukkot, the biggest party of the Israelite year was thrown.  It was called Simhat Beit Hashoevah, the celebration of drawing water from a certain well in Jerusalem, and is identified the Mishnah, Tractate Sukkah, where it says (5:1) that anybody who has not witnessed this ceremony has never seen true simhah, true rejoicing in his whole life.

This custom is long gone, of course, perhaps because we do not know where that well is, or what the purpose of the ceremony was.  But learning about it conjures up some kind of magical, mystical image of unabandoned celebration of a holy, essential act.  There are synagogues and other Jewish communities who have revived a form of this party today, generally by hosting musical events.

When I was in rabbinical school at JTS, I had a philosophy class on the newer modes of spirituality, and how they differ from the traditional Western concept of “religion.”  We discussed two major types of seekers today, the mountain climbers and the well-diggers.  Mountain climbers look outside for spiritual nourishment; they climb up to see what they can see.  Well-diggers look inside; they mine themselves for enlightenment.  In our canon, Moshe was a mountain-climber; Avraham was a well-digger. If Shavuot is the festival of mountain climbers, then Sukkot is the holiday for well-diggers.

Perhaps the celebration of the well suggests something particularly deep (ha ha!) about the nature of this festival.  At the same time that we receive great pleasure from the harvest, which is about material success, we are also celebrating having emerged from Yom Kippur cleansed of sin and rejuvenated, and we therefore must remember to also mine our own personal depths for the non-material elements of God’s favor.

The well ceremony is thus a kind of metaphor for our own internal wrangling with God.

4. Rituals.  Sukkot today is laden with curious rituals, some of which seem to be drawn from non-Israelite customs – waving four species around, living in temporary dwellings, beating willow branches against the ground, parading around asking to be saved.

Let’s check out the Torah’s reasoning for living in sukkot during this week (Lev. 23:42-43):

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

You shall live in sukkot (temporary structures) seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.

The commentators suggest that it is incumbent upon all of us to live in the Sukkah as much as possible, and that the Torah specifies “citizens” to make clear that it is for rich and poor alike, that nobody should feel like doing so is beneath them.

We “live” in the Sukkah to bring us back to the wilderness for just a moment.  And, as we all know, the wilderness is the place for visions of God: the burning bush, receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, Jacob’s angelic dreams, Ezekiel’s chariot and valley of dry bones, and so on. The Sukkah is a place to be open to communication from God.

IMG_2987

The commentator Rashbam says that this is precisely the time of the year, when the harvest has been gathered and we’re feeling flush, that we should vacate our homes and property to live in a simple hut.  Even though most of us are not farmers, the sukkah still reminds us that it is not through our own hands that we have obtained all of our material goods.

* * *

I have a colleague who posted a story on Ravnet (the email list for Conservative rabbis) about how he was approached after services on Rosh Hashanah by a congregant who told him that the services were not “spiritual.”  The rabbi fretted over this for a while, as I would do, and then discussed the matter with his wife, as I would also do.

The rabbi’s wife said, in essence, relax.  There are no spiritual services, only spiritual people.  A true partnership in congregational Judaism is when the clergy opens the door, and the laity walks through.  We can only meet you halfway; you must seek God as well.

And sometimes you need to shake up your surroundings a bit to, reconsider, rethink, and be inspired, to get our of your material house and into your spiritual hut.  You could call this concept, somewhat ironically, “living inside the box.”

Just about everyone except Fidel Castro has the potential for theological growth.  So leave your comfort zone for Sukkot.  Here is a multi-pronged approach to theological openness for the coming week:

  • Spend some time in a sukkah, and keep yourself open to new inspiration
  • Eat there with your family and friends, or alone – and take a moment to think about the blessing of food and nourishment.  Perhaps discuss what it took for the food to reach your table.
  • Read in the sukkah.  Take your favorite anthology of poetry or a book of Jewish short stories or a siddur.
  • Meditate on the themes of joy, service to God, and the spiritual well.
  • Sit alone in the sukkah and close your eyes and just “be.”

In this season of heightened spiritual energy you might get lucky and discover an open well that you had not noticed before.

Hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

First Day of Sukkot, 5776