Tag Archives: mitzvah

Holy Adhesion (Mitzvah, Part 2 of 2) – Behar 5776

I went back to school last week. More accurately, I went to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly – the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. I of course saw many old friends and colleagues, and we caught each other up on our lives and work, our successes and challenges and so forth.

And of course, what do rabbis do when they get together? Why, play poker and smoke cigars, of course!

They learn. Actually, in an ideal world, that’s what all Jews should do when they get together: Pirqei Avot tells us (3:3) that when two people meet and exchange divrei Torah (words of Jewish learning), the Shekhinah, God’s presence, hovers between them. (And I don’t know about you, but I could use a lot more Shekhinah in my life.)

You see, it’s not just 12-year-olds preparing to become bar / bat mitzvah that learn the words of Jewish tradition. On the contrary: the highest ideal in Judaism is lifelong learning. Why? Because study leads to action, and the lessons of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us from across the ages.

Some of you may know that there was a movement in the first half of the 20th century to eliminate bar mitzvah at age 13 from Jewish life, and replace it with confirmation at age 16. (I’m told that Rodef Shalom Congregation stood by that policy deep into the 20th century (one of the current members of Beth Shalom is, in fact, the first person to have celebrated a bar mitzvah at 13 at Rodef Shalom.) And there was a good reason for it: a 16-year-old is better equipped to approach learning with more sophistication and nuance, and more ready to be launched into the Jewish world as an adult. There is a certain wisdom in delaying the major life-cycle event marking the transition from childhood to adulthood to a time when the candidate has a better sense of his/her relation to our tradition and to the world. (Plug: we will be celebrating the conclusion of our confirmation class in two weeks on the first day of Shavuot, Sunday, June 12th. Be there!)

But the larger point is that Jewish adulthood is not merely about receiving the traditions and mitzvot of Jewish life, but also about striving to understanding why Jewish tradition is relevant to us and how it frames our lives in holiness. I continue to answer that question for myself every day. It’s an ongoing project for me, and one that I hope you will join with me in furthering.

An essential part of that picture, of course, is Torah study. Not “the Torah,” the Five Books of Moses found on the scroll we just returned to the aron haqodesh, the ark, but “Torah” – the collective writings and brain power that yielded two millennia of commentary, interpretation, re-interpretation, and so forth; the halakhic codes, the midrashim, the liturgy, the poetry, even the music that comprise the entire Jewish body of text-based learning and transmission of our heritage from generation to generation.

We are still part of that transmission. We are each links in the chain that connects us back to Mt. Sinai, and the celebration of a bat mitzvah is merely a reminder that we continue to fashion the links that follow us.

I spoke last week about re-envisioning the idea of mitzvah as “holy opportunity.” This is, of course, an essential concept on a day that we celebrate the stepping forward of a young member of our qehillah, our community, into a complete, sacred relationship with the 613 mitzvot of Jewish tradition. The fulfillment of each mitzvah, which has been traditionally understood to be a commandment from God, is a potential gift to yourself and others, an opportunity to elevate our individual selves and the collective community by performing a traditional action. Examples are wearing a tallit, lighting Shabbat candles, sanctifying the holidays with family meals and abstaining from mundane activities, honoring your parents, and so forth.

So it happens that while I was at the convention, between cigars and counting my poker winnings, one of the learning sessions that I attended spoke exactly to that point. It was taught by Dr. Eitan Fishbane, a professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Fishbane’s research area is Jewish mysticism and Hasidic thought, and this particular session was (serendipitously) about the concept of mitzvah as described by a couple of medieval rabbis.

And one of these rabbis, a pre-Hasidic commentator from the turn of the 17th century known as (curiously) the Sh”lah (that’s an abbreviation for Shenei Luhot Haberit, suggests that every mitzvah has greater meaning than the action itself; mitzvot have a higher goal – the goal of devequt, cleaving to God.

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Devequt is one of those mystical words that is hard to translate. While it literally suggests “adhesion,” as in, what glue or tape does. (The modern Hebrew word for glue is deveq.) But the image is a mystical one rather than physical. By acting on those holy opportunities, by taking the metaphysical gifts presented before us at the appropriate time, we are cleaving to the Divine, and thereby bathed in God’s love and light. Devequt is a kind of emotional journey attached to the physical fulfillment of mitzvot, and an essential piece of the Hasidic, kabbalistic understanding of Judaism. It’s an elevated state that we all strive for.

So, for example, let’s consider the mitzvah of the shemittah year, the sabbatical year identified in Parashat Behar today. The idea is that every seventh year in the land of Israel, the ground is left uncultivated. You can eat what grows naturally, from last year’s seeds, but otherwise you cannot till and tend the land and the plants.

Seems like an obscure concept, right? Especially to sophisticated urbanites like ourselves, who do not cultivate any significant amount of land, and even if we own patches of lawn do not really grow food for our own sustenance.

And yet, there are deeper meanings here, found in the mitzvah of shemittah, of not working your fields every seventh year.

One is the sense of respect for the land, for Creation. Just as we humans get a break from everyday business every seventh day, so too does the Earth get a break every seventh year. This heightens our relationship with what has been trusted to us for only a short time. But of course, for our agricultural ancestors, that must have been a very anxious year indeed. Today, we are mostly insulated from the vagaries of subsistence farming.

File:Barley field-2007-02-22(large).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The Slonimer Rebbe regards shemittah as a challenge of faith and trust. By letting the land go untended for a year, we train ourselves to have some faith that we will still be provided for, that the Divine forces of nature will make sure that we will not go hungry. Unlike in the other corners of our lives, when more work, more development, yields greater profit, with the sabbatical year the reverse is true. Refraining from that development yields a spiritual harvest that brings us back to God. That is devequt. Our human experience is heightened by our trusting relationship with Creation, and we are drawn closer to the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

Shemittah (sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee, when all the land that has been sold is returned to its original owner) may seem irrelevant to us today. But they help us cleave to God. They increase our sensitivity to the land, to society, and to our individual spiritual needs. We all benefit. And so we are elevated personally and collectively.

And with a little bit of study and reinterpretation of the curious laws of the Torah, we can be drawn closer in holiness through the performance of any mitzvah, the big ones and the small ones.

We need to strive for that devequt. We need to reach higher, however we understand God, or God’s role in our lives. And the mitzvot are a framework of holy opportunities to do exactly that.

In a rather well-known episode, the early 20th-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was asked if he was putting on tefillin every morning, a particularly holy opportunity found in our tradition. “Not yet,” said Herr Rosenzweig. Not yet, because he was still on a journey, or because he was not ready, or because he had not found the motivation to act, or because he was afraid it would mess up his hair. We do not know why.

Franz Rosenzweig | Great Thoughts Treasury

But we all have that sense of “not yet” about us. We just have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, so that we may strive for devequt, cleaving to God. That will ultimately bring our relationship with Judaism and the mitzvot, those holy opportunities, into focus.



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/28/16.)



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Choice vs. Obligation: How Might We Relate to Judaism Today? (Mitzvah, Part 1 of 2)- Emor 5776

I had a couple of very relevant conversations last week surrounding Judaism and choice.

The first was at Community Day School this past Monday morning. I was there for what seemed to me a very curious thing: to promote the wearing of tefillin. Now this might seem totally normal – after all, I promote Jewish observance every day of my life. I in fact promote that particular mitzvah quite often during our weekday morning minyan – when there are men who enter to worship and do not have tefillin, I offer it to them. They rarely take me up on the offer, and I do not push. There is, it seems, something particularly alien about putting on tefillin for those for whom it is not a regular mitzvah.

And just to be clear, the mitzvah of tefillin is on par with all of the other positive, time-bound mitzvot, like the observance of Shabbat, wearing a tallit, sitting in the sukkah, eating matzah and maror on the first nights of Pesah, studying Torah, daily prayer, etc. There is nothing that distinguishes this one as compared with any other particular mitzvot – that is, it is just as valid, and still applies to Jewish adults.

Opinions Vary on Women and Tefillin Question

But what was challenging for me about this discussion was not the promotion of a mitzvah, but rather the assumption that it is a choice for post-benei-mitzvah kids in a Jewish day school whether or not to wear them, particularly while it is not a choice for them to fulfill the mitzvah of daily prayer.

Now, it is not my intent to criticize CDS – I think that they are doing a wonderful job endowing our children with Jewish learning. My intent is to examine where we are today as Jews, a subject that many of you know is exceedingly important to me.

The second conversation was here at the Religious Services Committee meeting on Thursday evening. Among the topics discussed that evening was the question of whether women in our congregation be required to wear kippah, tallit, and tefillin during our services. Now, I do not need to go into the halakhic / Jewish law issues surrounding this question – we’ll save that for another day. (Suffice it so say that it is a very interesting question, but of course we know that traditionally women have not been considered “obligated” to wear these ritual items, but the Conservative movement has said that they may take them upon themselves if they desire.)

What emerged during the conversation is the question of those men who come to weekday morning minyanim and wear a tallit, but no tefillin, to which they are clearly obligated under Jewish law. Generally, we do not force anybody to do anything. So if we were to insist that women were to put on these ritual items, we would have to insist that these men do as well.

The question upon which I am focused is not tefillin, per se, but the idea of choice. Because the way that Judaism has traditionally been understood, we do not really have a choice. God has placed the mitzvot in front of us (613, as you may know, although this is a debatable figure), and it is our obligation to fulfill them. “Kol asher dibber YHWH na’aseh ve-nishma,” said our ancestors back in Parashat Mispatim. “Everything that God has spoken we will do and we will obey.” (Ex. 24:7) That’s what the covenant, the berit, with God is all about. God gives us good things – rain, abundant harvests, fertile livestock, etc. – and we perform the mitzvot. (Why do we call circumcision a berit millah? Because millah / circumcision is the sign of that covenant, that berit with Avraham, Yitzhaq, and Ya’aqov and every Israelite who came after them.)

The traditional way of thinking in Jewish life is that if we choose not to fulfill our side of the covenant, God’s expectations of us, we have clearly transgressed.

Now, it is DEFINITELY NOT my intent to make anybody feel guilty about what they do or do not do. I don’t believe in guilt – it’s not a part of my religion.

Nonetheless, I think we do need to feel out this concept of choice. We are not living, after all, in the second century CE, when the early rabbis were codifying these principles, or even the 19th century, when the modern movements (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) are beginning to crystallize. Today we are in a very different place, both in our relationship to Jewish tradition, and the wider society’s relationship to religion. And, as we all know, the Jews are just like everybody else, only more so.

So the question comes down to this: Do we, in fact, feel “obligated” to the mitzvot of Jewish life? Do we feel compelled to fulfill our end of that berit, that covenant? Can we even understand God in such a way that makes the whole idea of berit work?

I have been a lifelong Conservative Jew, and mitzvot such as tefillin have never been presented as optional. On the contrary, it was clear that although many Conservative Jews clearly did not keep kashrut or Shabbat in a traditional way, there was always the expectation that, at least in the synagogue and other public Jewish contexts, the communal standard of observance was higher. To this day, of course, we mandate that food served in the building is kosher, that tefillot are recited thrice daily, that hilkhot Shabbat, the laws of Shabbat observance, are observed, and so forth. In short, we offer an environment in which it is clearly possible to fulfill the mitzvot. And we encourage people to do so, regardless of what they do once they leave.

When I was a camper at Camp Ramah, an arm of the Conservative movement, boys who were post-benei mitzvah were required to wear tefillin at morning services. There was no choice. I did not mind this – as you may imagine, I’ve always enjoyed putting on tefillin. It is likely that not everybody was where I was.

But when I was not at camp, I only rarely put on tefillin as a teenager, and only when I was at a weekday morning service, which happened perhaps three times in high school (the morning of Purim, since I was a regular megillah reader).

Let’s face it: the highest value in American society today is choice. Have you purchased any toothpaste lately? While it used to be that there were about four toothpastes available to the American consumer, today there must be hundreds. What could possibly justify so many choices?

I once heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA describe America as, “Choice on steroids.” And all that choice has transmogrified our brains. We expect it in all corners of our lives.

Is this good for the Jews? When we have seemingly infinite choice, isn’t it natural to assume that we will have it in our relationship with Judaism as well? Ours is not really a tradition of choice. It is a tradition of mitzvah, of commandment.

The reality, of course, is that we have choice in Judaism, and I don’t merely mean davening at Rodef Shalom, Beth Shalom, or Poalei Zedek. There was a brief period in American Jewish life when converts to Judaism were referred to by the politically-correct-sounding, “Jews by choice.” But today we have to acknowledge that we are ALL Jews by choice, even those of us born to a Jewish mother and steeped in tradition.

So how, then, may we understand mitzvah? This is a particularly relevant question today, when we celebrate a member of our community becoming bar mitzvah, i. e. one who is now endowed with the opportunity for complete spiritual fulfillment of the 613 mitzvot of Jewish life.

There is no question in my mind that the mitzvot are an obligation; some rabbinic writings refer to them as a “yoke,” (ol malkut shamayim – the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, the Empire of God). The very word mitzvah means commandment – something that God has effectively ordered us to do. But these are all alienating terms. Perhaps those of us in the know should refer to the mitzvah as a holy opportunity.

With every potential fulfillment of a mitzvah, with every available holy choice, we have the opportunity to raise our own personal holiness quotient. When you wrap yourself up in a tallit, when you bind the words of the Shema to your arm and your head, when you place a mezuzah on your door frame, when you avoid certain foods or avoid spending money on Shabbat or have a holiday meal with family, you raise your holiness quotient. Whenever you take an opportunity to fulfill a traditional ritual, you elevate yourself and your community just a little bit.

Here are five possible reasons for continuing to take those holy opportunities. Perhaps one of them speaks to you.

  1. Mitzvah. Berit / covenant. The traditional conception of obligation.
  2. Tradition. My ancestors have done this for millennia. Perhaps I should too.
  3. Boundaries. Healthy living requires limits.
  4. Physicality. We need daily reminders of being Jewish to connect us to our tradition, and physical acts (eating, wrapping tefillin, etc.) are the best reminders.
  5. Qedushah .It makes you feel holy.

Ultimately, even though it’s not a choice, many of us perceive it to be. But it’s the right choice, the set of choices our people have been making for perhaps as long as 2,000 years. And maybe, just maybe the reason we are still here, thousands of years after the Roman Empire, the Babylonians Empire, the Persian Empire, even the Ottoman Empire (OK, so it’s only been a century since that one fell), is because we have continued to pursue this path of holiness, because we have continued to make the holy choice when it has been presented to us, to act on those sacred opportunities. The Empire of God, malkhut shamayim, is still here.

(To read part 2 in this series on the concept of mitzvah, click here.)


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/21/2016.)


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The Holiness of Being Together – Qedoshim 5776

Last weekend, my family and I were on the first annual Beth Shalom Family Retreat, which was targeted at member families that will be celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah in the coming year or two (that is, with children in the 5th and 6th grade). Altogether, we were 49 people: eleven families (including my own), plus JJEP Director Liron Lipinsky, Youth Director Yasha Rayzberg, and JLine Director Carolyn Gerecht, on loan from the JCC, which also supported the trip with a generous Partner in Teen Engagement grant.

From Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, we were together. We held Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh services together. We dined together. We played together, sang together, went for a nature walk in the woods together, recited the Amidah for Shabbat minhah under a lean-to in the rain together, learned Torah and discussed mitzvot and parenting and the future of Judaism together, and so forth. And, not only this, but we also managed to find some moments of down-time, doing nothing but hanging around and schmoozing and enjoying each other’s company. (We were at Camp Guyasuta, a Boy Scout camp just over the Highland Park Bridge.)

As far as I can tell, it has been a very long time since Beth Shalom has done something like this, if ever. The goals of this retreat were as follows:

  • To connect benei mitzvah families to each other and to their synagogue by creating opportunities to engage with Jewish life together
  • To discuss issues important to families surrounding bat and bar mitzvah, like the meaning of mitzvah, and how we might understand Judaism in relation to our lives today
  • To reinforce the sense that Jewish learning goes on in formal and informal settings
  • To create a sense of continuity in Jewish education before and after benei mitzvah
  • To promote post-benei mitzvah opportunities for Jewish learning, particularly JLine
  • To give the participants a traditional Shabbat experience
  • To expose them to Jewish learning in age cohorts as well as inter-generational
  • To break down social boundaries between children in day school and those in supplementary religious school (about half of our families were JJEP, and half were CDS)

And, of course, the overarching goal amidst all of this was for everybody to come away thinking, “That was awesome.” To create positive memories of Jewish involvement, of Shabbat, of Beth Shalom, and so forth.

And I think that we achieved all of those goals.

Perhaps one of the most telling pieces of feedback that we received, when we solicited the participants for reactions to the weekend, was that it was a pleasure for these families to spend time together, in simple surroundings, not watching the clock (well, they weren’t, but I can assure you that we, the staff, were), enjoying the qedushah, holiness of Shabbat, and the time that we spent together.

Parashat Qedoshim, which is really one of my handful of favorite parashiyyot (and not just because it happens to be my bar mitzvah parashah), is notable for many reasons. It features a portion of the book of Leviticus known as “the Holiness Code,” an echo of the Decalogue, aka the Ten Commandments. But the mitzvot included here are more about interpersonal holiness then the Decalogue (i.e. 10 commandments) . While the passage in Exodus speaks of the big commandments, not killing, stealing, coveting, etc., stated in the cold abstract, the Holiness Code tends to speak about mitzvot in the context of human relationships.

Just a few examples: judging people fairly (Lev. 19:15), not bearing a grudge (19:18), leaving portions of one’s field and produce for the poor among us (19:9-10). And while the Decalogue says simply, Lo tignov / do not steal (Ex. 20:13), Parashat Qedoshim says, Lo ta’ashoq et rai’akha, do not defraud your fellow; do not commit robbery, and do not keep the wages of a day laborer overnight. (Lev. 19:14), all forms of theft, but continually referring back to the other.

And the effect is that these statements in Qedoshim are much more human. They are about the people we love, the people we work with or employ, the people who live next door, the people we encounter in the marketplace or gleaning sheaves of wheat in the field. The mitzvot of the Holiness Code are as much about the people as they are about the actions.

When I read this parashah, I think about society. I think about making a human environment in which people understand and appreciate the others around them, and about how we see ourselves through the lens that focuses on the other.

The reason that retreats work well is because they take us all out of our regular environment, the context of all the craziness and busy-ness that fills our lives: sports leagues, playdates, homework, texting, ballet lessons, saxophone lessons, math lessons, cleaning, shopping, fixing the house, and so forth. Because all 49 of us were in such close quarters, with limited options and no appointments and no constant interruption, we were simply able to enjoy Shabbat, and each other’s company. Adults schmoozed while kids played nearby. It was blissful. And then there were s’mores.

What you can easily create in a 40-hour retreat that is much harder to create in, say, the synagogue, is the sense of togetherness. This is a good feeling, one to which we used to be accustomed. Today, the sense of togetherness often seems quaint, because each of us is so wrapped up in doing our own thing, getting through our own to-do list, dealing with our own problems.

We are living in a zealously independent age. Unlike our ancestors, most of whom lived in poor, cramped environments in which (a) you had to depend on others for help, and (b) you could not avoid sharing space and food and life with other people. Today we live far more comfortable and isolated lives. If we want to shut ourselves off from others, we can. Given the digital innovations of today, it’s not hard to go through life without actually speaking to anybody, let alone relying on them for all manner of assistance.

We are all, in the words of sociologist Robert Putnam, bowling alone. There are more single people today, on a percentage basis, than there have ever been in history. There are fewer bridge games and adult softball leagues. All forms of civic engagement are down, from voting to going to club meetings to, of course, membership in synagogues and churches. The “social capital” (Putnam’s term) that once infused American life, drawing people together, has diminished dramatically in the past half-century, and nobody knows why.

But qedushah, holiness, flows not only from our relationship with God, but also through our relationships with each other. Why do we require minyan, a quorum of 10 people for services and for weddings? Why do we build synagogues (batei kenesset, houses of gathering) for group prayer and learning and socializing? Why do we call 13-year-olds to the Torah in front of the entire community? Why do we have rituals to mark any lifecycle event in synagogues?  Why do we publicly mark the passing of our beloved friends and relatives multiple times a year as a community with Yizkor? Because community is the essence of what it means to be Jewish. And our sense of qedushah flows through that gathering together.

Togetherness yields holiness. And we need more of both.

So how do we achieve togetherness? We have to make room for it in multiple dimensions: time, space, in our minds and hearts.  We have to set aside a piece of our lives to be with other people.

Convincing ten families to come with us on this retreat was the hard part; people had to accept that they would be giving up a whole lot of other things to commit to this. But when they came to the end, the participants appreciated the value of setting aside that time for the pursuit of holiness in being together.

Communicating with friends and family with your electronic devices does not satisfy this need for togetherness. Texting, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, etc. may keep you informed (perhaps too much so!), but they do not create the feeling that human contact creates. And they certainly do not allow us to be fully present, enjoying personal moments with others.

You have heard me speak many times over the last nine months in various ways about re-thinking what we do here at Beth Shalom, re-orienting our relationship with Judaism to be more engaging, more connective. The retreat is just one way of doing this. I think we need more retreats, organized by cohort: empty nesters, families with young children, seniors, singles, and so forth. But we also need to create other opportunities for people to gather and satisfy that human need for togetherness: the trip to Israel, the social action project, the discussion group for parents, the kosher wine tasting night, and so forth.

We have grown accustomed to “Jewish” being something that we do when in the synagogue. But it’s not at all. On the contrary: Judaism should infuse our lives with holiness. Not just for the few minutes that we are gathered here. Not just for the six-and-a-half hours per week that our children spend in Hebrew school. Not just for the moments that we celebrate or grieve at lifecycle events.

Rather, every interaction we have with friends, family, strangers, loved ones should be marked by a reminder that our relationships are holy, that God expects us to uphold that holiness with everybody. And that is the whole point of the Holiness Code of Parashat Qedoshim. And it is also the whole point of seeking qedushah / holiness through togetherness. And that’s why we took a retreat last weekend.

I hope you’ll be on the next one. Shabbat shalom!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/14/2016.)

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