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.
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.)