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Measuring Ourselves – Behar-Behuqqotai 5777

There is a classic Hasidic story about Reb Zusya of Anapol:

As he lay on his death bed, Reb Zusya trembled with fear. His students asked him why he was afraid. Reb Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Avraham Avinu, or Sarah Imeinu, or Moshe Rabbeinu / Moses our Teacher?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?'”

reb zusya of anapol

The final resting place of Reb Zusya of Anapol

How do we understand ourselves? That is, when we take those rare moments of reflection, how do we measure our emotions, our choices, our relationships? How do we judge ourselves?

Now of course I’m not talking about the tangibles. I’m not concerned with what you do for a living, or how much money you earn, or how many children you have or what kind of car you drive, although we for sure know that there are people who measure themselves according to those things. And let’s face it: those are easy things to measure.

What’s much harder is the internals, the intangibles. How do we understand who we are and why we behave the way we do? How do we evaluate whether we have made the right choices? Not so easy, or so measurable.

One possibility is that we measure ourselves based on the range of our life experiences. Who were the people in our lives whom we trusted, who taught us many useful ideas and skills? Who were the people that served as role models? What are the thoughts and principles that we have acquired that drive our choices, that sanctify our relationships?

For many of us, that will include our parents. It might also include teachers whom we remember fondly, or neighbors, or public figures, or authors. It would probably include some of the things that they taught us, the sayings and phrases that they gave us that come to the fore when we need them.

Those learned principles will certainly also include the lessons learned the hard way – the time that a good friend engaged in risky behavior that landed him in the hospital; the colleague who continued dating the person that was clearly wrong for her, and eventually was devastated when the relationship ended.

We hear these voices and we draw on them when we need them – to evaluate ourselves, to check our behavior, to  judge our choices.

I recall once being on a highway during my previous life in Houston, when suddenly there was a downpour that suggested Parashat Noah. Suddenly, I couldn’t see a thing, even though the wipers were on full blast. And then, out of nowhere, I heard my mother’s voice: “Get off the road!” she said, firmly. And I did. My safety, my mother said, was more important than whatever I was headed to.

We take the most salient things that stick in our heads, the pieces of wisdom that we accumulate as we go through life, and we refashion them for our own purposes, to be our measuring-sticks as we move through life. We pull them out, usually sub-consciously, when we need to re-examine that framework, to chart our course through life, to make decisions. They are all part of the glue that holds our lives together as we continue on our own personal journey.

We measure ourselves through the lens of past experiences and our reactions to them.

***

Now the interesting thing here is that Jewish prayer, tefillah, is a kind of model for this very phenomenon.

You may have heard me say that the essence of tefillah, of Jewish prayer, is self-judgment. Prayer is not just mumbling curious words in an ancient language – it has a structure, themes, choreography, history, customs, tradition, laws, etc. And the Hebrew word for “to pray,” lehitpallel, is actually a reflexive verb, meaning that you do it to yourself. The relatively obscure root, פלל (p-l-l), actually means “to judge.” So when we rise to lehitpallel, we are standing in judgment of ourselves.

And tefillah, prayer, is meant to be a text upon which we meditate when we stand in judgment. It is the Jewish mantra. And it is filled with the most resonant, the most appealing bits of Jewish text. Let me explain:

Everything in the siddur was assembled from previously-existing words and phrases, mostly from the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. It’s almost like a quilt made from recycled cloth: these phrases were selected from various textual sources and re-fashioned to suit the needs of the composer. These composers lived throughout the last 2,000 years in different places around the Jewish world; some we know, and some we do not. But all of them abided by the simple rule that these quilts are stitched together from the ancient sources. (A few  things, like the three paragraphs of the Shema, are direct quotes from the Torah, and were therefore not composed specifically for prayer, but most of the siddur is not like that.)

This quilt is warm, reassuring. The swatches of material repurposed for regular use bring together ancient wisdom and the gravitas of generations of Jews, who clung to them through the centuries and across continents, through pogroms and triumphs, through forced expulsions and Zionist yearnings.

There were, in today’s haftarah / prophetic reading, a bunch of these nuggets that have been recycled throughout our liturgical tradition:

בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּה’; וְהָיָה ה’, מִבְטַחוֹ

Barukh hagever asher yivtah badonai, vehayah Adonai mivtaho.

Blessed is the one who trusts in God, for God will be his stronghold. (Jeremiah 17:7)

This line appears in two places: in Birkat Hamazon, the “grace after meals,” and also in a section at the end of the weekday morning service called Qedusha deSidra.

וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל-מַיִם

Vehayah ke-etz shatul al mayim

[God shall be] like a tree planted upon the water (17:8)

This is quoted in the piyyut (liturgical poem) called “Geshem” (“Rain”), recited on Shemini Atzeret in the fall, anticipating the beginning of the rainy season in Israel.

בֹּחֵן כְּלָיוֹת

Bohen kelayot

[God is] the one who searches the heart (lit. checks the kidneys) (17:10)

This image of God appears in a piyyut for High Holidays, Vekhol Ma’aminim (“And all believe…”).

וְלָתֵת לְאִישׁ כִּדְרָכָו, כִּפְרִי מַעֲלָלָיו

Velatet le-ish kidrakhav, kifri ma’alalav.

… to give to every person according to his ways, to each the fruit of his doings. (17:10)

An adapted version of this appears in the standard funeral liturgy, in the section recited after burial called “Tzidduq HaDin,” the justification of the decree.

רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה וְאֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה:  כִּי תְהִלָּתִי, אָתָּה

Refa-eni Adonai ve-erafe, hoshi’eini ve-ivashe’ah, ki tehilati attah.

Heal me, God, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for you are my praise. (17:14)

This is found in the weekday Amidah, recited three times a day, except that the language we recite has been pluralized (i.e. “Heal us, God, and we shall be healed…”).

What is the lesson here?

One of the beautiful things about Jewish practice, about living our lives in Jewish time, is that we benefit from a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. Our textual sources, our collective body of knowledge, has enabled us as a people to see farther, as Sir Isaac Newton put it, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

shoulders of giants

When you walk into a synagogue and pick up a siddur, whether you know the history and development of the material therein, whether you can read Hebrew or not or know the melodies, you can rely on the fact that what is contained within is tested by time and filled with the best bits of Jewish tradition. You may not agree with it all (and I certainly struggle with some things in our liturgy), but at least you know that it is a genuine product of generations, and that all you have to do is pick it up to stand on their shoulders.

lev shalem

And, pulling back the lens, this very Jewish idea can infuse our entire lives with holiness. Just as the siddur / prayerbook, the Jewish mantra, is based on the most inspiring pieces of ancient text, just as the vehicle for self-judgment is a quilt of the wisdom of our ancestors, so too do we understand ourselves by peeking through the lens of the lessons we have gleaned from our most important teachers, the people who have personally given us their lessons. So too do we measure our lives by drawing upon all of the most powerful pieces of wisdom handed to us by others.

The lessons that we draw from our educators, parents, and friends help us to measure ourselves. We stand on their shoulders and thrive on their wisdom to give us clearer vision about who we are, about how we relate to others.

And that is what we do throughout our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/20/2017.)

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Positive Judaism – Noah 5777

Those of you who have been to the melaveh-malkah-in-the-sukkah that my family and I have hosted for the last couple of years know that I love folk music. Way back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I saw Pete Seeger perform. Just a tall, gangly guy with a banjo. He was not young then, but he was magical. Mr. Seeger had the amazing ability to ask the audience to sing along with him, and they would do so in four-part harmony. Magic.

My physical chemistry professor, a man whom I still think of to this day as the most boring person on Earth, was seated a row in front of me to my left. He nodded off during the concert, and I felt a certain satisfaction in that my opinion of him was confirmed.

When Pete Seeger died nearly three years ago at the age of 94, his obituary in the New York Times chronicled all the political turmoil of his life: protests of his concerts by members of the John Birch Society, his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and so forth. But that obit concluded with a striking statement of Mr. Seeger’s personal take on life. “The key to the future of the world,” he said, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

I have said on multiple occasions in this space that I am an optimist: on Israel, on the Jewish future, on life in general. Those of you who were here on the High Holidays may recall that I mentioned that the Judaism we need to emphasize, if we want our children and grandchildren to embrace it, is positive Judaism. By that I mean that we have to give them Jewish experiences that are affirming: being welcomed warmly into a Jewish community, having prayer experiences that make one feel transformed and invigorated, having affirmative interactions with Jewish institutions, interacting with clergy and communities that validate who we are and why we are here, that are not judgmental, that do not draw lines to exclude people.

Now, if you know a little about the history of contemporary movements in Judaism, you might know that the Conservative movement’s origins are in a group of scholars in the mid-19th century known as the “Positive-Historical School.”

The Reform movement emerged in the early 19th century in the German-speaking lands as a congregational movement led by rabbis who wanted to reform Judaism – to make it possible for Jews to live like Germans on the street and Jews in the home.

At the Reform conference in 1845, Rabbi Abraham Geiger and other early reformers were advocating for German to be the sole language of Jewish prayer. A more traditional reformer, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel and his allies argued that Hebrew was the language of the Jews, and should always be the language of prayer. In less than a decade, Rabbi Frankel & Co. launched the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, the original home of the Positive-Historical School: “positive” because they affirmed the binding nature of halakhah / Jewish law, and “historical” because they embraced the critical, scientific approach for understanding how Judaism developed over millennia, a philosophical stance which the Orthodoxy of the time opposed vigorously.

We, the Conservative movement, emerged from the Positive-Historical School. Yeah, I know, it’s not such a great title.

But, to quote Rav Kook, “הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש.” “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified. Together, they shall become torches that shall illuminate Zion.”

For more than a century, we in the theological center of Jewish life have been called “Conservative,” mostly because in changing Judaism for contemporary times, we have moved conservatively. The siddur that you hold is very similar to a traditional siddur; only a very few can readily identify how it is different.

And we have never lost our positive, historical roots. But we have to understand those words differently in the 21st century.

To be positive today, we have to be open. Open to change, open to new ideas, open to new members of the community whom we may have traditionally excluded. We have to be open to the principle that what goes on inside this prayer space reflects how we live outside; that is, that women and men are treated equally with respect to Jewish law; that we consider how the ways we live differently today affect our relationship to tradition.

We have to make sure that we do not merely force our children to memorize ancient words in a strange language, but that we teach them the underlying values of tefillah. We have to ensure that whatever we do here, it’s not just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” but because it’s meaningful and brings us closer to God, closer to ourselves, and fills our lives with kedushah, holiness.

A good example of what it means to be positively Jewish is in a part of the service that very few of us hear, and yet it is such an essential statement of who we are as contemporary Jews.

Take a moment to open your siddur (Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s most recent Sabbath/Festival prayerbook) to p. 103. You’ll see on this page and the one that follows a series of 14 berakhot, blessings. We recited them at 9:01 this morning, and we recite them every single morning here at Beth Shalom. They are known as “birkhot hashahar,” the morning berakhot.

There are two patterns that might be discerned here. For the eleven of them (the first and then the fifth through the 14th) they follow the trajectory of how one begins the day: the rooster crows (are there any roosters in Squirrel Hill?) at dawn, then you open your eyes, get dressed, and go on about your morning routine. All of these eleven come from one passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) as things you should say as you start each day.

But the second, third, and fourth berakhot do not match the pattern. They say the following:

Praised are You, God, who made me in the Divine image.

… who made me free.

… who made me a Jew.

Now, anybody who has some familiarity with a traditional siddur knows that that’s not how these berakhot are worded. Rather, they are phrased in the negative, based on the language found elsewhere in the Talmud (Menahot 43b). In contemporary Orthodox siddurim you’ll find:

… who has not made me a gentile.

… who has not made me a slave.

… who has not made me a woman.

These berakhot were designed to acknowledge in ascending order the different levels of commandedness: classically speaking, free, adult male Jews were obligated to 613 mitzvot; slaves in Jewish homes were obligated to somewhat less than that, and gentiles are obligated to very few mitzvot (some say seven – as reported in today’s parashah).

Now, there is an obvious difficulty with the third berakhah; in traditional prayer books, women say “she-asani kirtzono,” “… who has made me according to His will.” And there is another difficulty: the Talmud does not say “… who has not made be a gentile,” but DOES say, “who has made me a Jew.”

farsi-birkhot-hashahar

Endings of these berakhot with Farsi translation, prepared for a Persian siddur. This order differs slightly from that found in Lev Shalem, although it is the same as that found in older Conservative siddurim.

So in 1946, with the publication of Rabbi Morris Silverman’s venerable “Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook,” which was found in the pews of virtually all Conservative synagogues until the 1980s, the language of those berakhot was changed to reflect who we are, rather than who we are not. Rabbi Silverman “positivized” all three, based on the positive formulation of she’asani Yisrael, and other positively-formulated variants of these berakhot used in various places and times throughout the last 2,000 years. We still use them today.

Leaving aside the problem of insulting most of humanity, I think the greater good of emending these berakhot is the statement of positivity. We should begin each day by saying, I am proud to be a free Jewish person, made in the image of God. I am exhilarated by the prospect of beginning my day by acting on the positive relationships suggested by those statements.

And not only that, but I also read another message about liturgical change here. While there are certain key elements of the siddur that have remained fixed for nearly two millennia, there are far more specifics that were in flux for many centuries, until the printing press arrived in the 15th century and caused standardization across vast swathes of the Jewish world. Prior to that, there was much more creativity in tefillah. (Another two points for history.)

The message is, “We have the power to make our Judaism positive. We can embrace the optimism. We can look into our future and see that change will yield positive benefits to how we connect Judaism with who we are, and thus ensure the future of our tradition.”  

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to be free, to have the imprint of divinity on my spirit, to be an inheritor of our two millennia of tradition. I love all those things, and I say them proudly every morning.

Having a positive approach to Judaism, not throwing up walls and dividing people, is an attitudinal shift that is good for the Jews. To paraphrase Pete Seeger, the key to the future of our people, and maybe the world as well, is finding the positive stories and letting them be known.

Shabbat shalom!

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