Tag Archives: mitzvot

Ani Ma’amin / I Believe – Shemini Atzeret 5778

We are in difficult times. Wildfires. Hurricanes. A horrific mass shooting. A president who thrives on insults and can’t distinguish between Nazis and “fine people.”

I’m going to talk today about faith, about commitment to our spiritual tradition, in the context of challenging times. Ani Ma’amin. I believe.

Belief is a funny thing. My sense is that we don’t believe in too much today, do we? We like our distance, our cool, reserved, “let’s wait and see” stance.

How many of us believe so strongly in something that we can actually put ourselves into it bodily? How many of us fully invest ourselves in a cause, for example, that we’re actually out in the streets, marching? How many of us feel so strongly about our tradition that we commit to the actions of the tradition, rather than merely checking the “High Holiday” or “Yizkor” box?

There is really no greater figure on the Jewish bookshelf than Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, aka Rambam. He lived in the 12th century, primarily in Egypt, and wrote two major works: the Mishneh Torah, and the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed. These two works come at Judaism from two different perspectives. The Moreh Nevukhim is written for the skeptic, the one who has not yet bought into the idea of Judaism. It’s written to try to initiate the uninitiated; it presents the meaning of our rituals and customs and texts with an eye to inspiring connection. It is written in Judeo-Arabic, the language of the Jews of Egypt of the 12th century.

Spain - Cordoba - statue of the Jewish scholar Maimonides ...

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

The Mishneh Torah, on the other hand, is a halakhic guide. Its title means, literally, the second Torah, boldly titled to almost suggest that if you read this book, you would not need to read the original Torah. It’s for the already-convinced, the committed Jew who wants to know how to do Judaism properly. It’s for the one who throws his or her whole body and heart and mind into it. It’s written in beautiful, crisp medieval Hebrew, easily understandable to those who have studied our essential tongue.

Sitting next to each other on the shelf, what might this suggest about the Jews that Rambam knew in 12th-century Cairo? Certainly, the Mishneh Torah suggests that there were some Jews who were committed to halakhah and wanted to know more, wanted to know from a master interpreter of our tradition what exactly makes a sukkah kosher, or what Psalms to recite for Hallel. But the Moreh Nevukhim, The Guide for the Perplexed, suggests that there were many that were not yet ready to believe, not yet ready to commit.

Having just completed the odyssey of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays, I must say that I find it extraordinarily ironic that one of the best-known piyyutim (liturgical poems) of those days is “Vekhol Ma’aminim.” It includes a litany of statements about God that “all [of us] believe.” And yet, I know that in the sanctuary on those days, there are many who do not believe – do not buy into fundamental traditional understandings of our tradition, of Jewish theology, of the halakhic system, of mitzvot, and so forth. Many of us do not believe, even some of us who are singing along.

Whenever we say the word “amen,” we are saying, I am in a state of faith with you. I believe.

But tefillah, prayer, is not a portrait of what is; it is a vision of what could be. So it’s certainly possible to be in a state of faith that tefillah helps us along the path to building that vision. And that’s certainly where I am.

I believe in the power of Judaism to change your life. I believe in the richness of wisdom that is found in our ancient texts. I believe in the holy spark that may be found in all people, and in all of God’s creation. I believe in the power of that force that flows around and through us that we refer to as the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, to change us and to change the world.

Maybe that makes me an outlier. But it puts me in good company.

A few years back, Elie Wiesel was featured at a performance at the 92nd St. Y in New York. He told a story about how his mother, who came from a well-known family of Vizhnitzer Hasidim, brought him on one Shabbat in 1943 to the court of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. Elie was 15, and although rumors had reached his home town, Sighet, Romania, about what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Poland, nobody knew for certain.

Elie Wiesel: 1928-2016

Also there on that Shabbat was a nephew of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, a young man who had been in Nazi-occupied Poland, but managed to find his way back Vizhnitz, in the Ukraine. The Hasidim there that Shabbat pressed him for information, but he would not say a thing. He simply could not tell them what he had likely seen: the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen, SS mobile killing squads, rail transports to death camps in cattle cars, and so on. On all these things, the young man was silent. Instead, he only sang. He sang the words of Ani Ma’amin, Maimonides’ fundamental statement of faith in the coming of the mashiah. But embedded in the words, and in the melody, was the message that they needed to maintain faith despite the coming cataclysm:

(You can hear the recording of Elie Wiesel singing this song by clicking here.)

אני מאמין
באמונה שלמה
בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה
עם כל זה אחכה לו
בכל יום שיבוא

Ani ma-amin
Be-emunah shelemah
Bevi-at hamashiah
Ve-af al pi sheyitmahmeah
Im kol zeh ahakeh lo
B
ekhol yom sheyavo

I believe
With perfect faith
In the coming of the mashiah (the anointed one)
And although he tarries
Nonetheless, I wait for him
Every day, that he may come

What did the Jews of Vizhnitz and Elie Wiesel learn that Shabbat? That whatever unspeakable horrors lay in front of them, they would survive. That whatever fate was awaiting them at the hands of their oppressors, that some of them would make it to the other side. That there would be Jews at some future time, Jews who would be on this Earth to greet the arriving mashiah. That even though there are dark times ahead, that they would eventually pass.

There is always hope for the future. Our tradition teaches us to be patient, and to look past the current darkness to the better days ahead. Ani ma’amin. I believe.

To be sure, Elie Wiesel lost his faith; he chronicles that moment in his first book, Night, his account of the Shoah, when he arrives at Auschwitz and is hustled out of the cattle car, and an SS officer points to the flames coming from the crematorium and screams, Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those flames? (Yes, we did see the flames.) Over there-that’s where you’re going to be taken. That’s your grave, over there.And in that moment, reports Wiesel, he loses his faith. A God that could have allowed such a thing did not deserve his reverence. His faith, he says, was consumed in those flames.

At some point, later in life, he found Judaism again. But anybody who survived the camps had to struggle with belief. I had a congregant back on Long Island who, late in life, authored an account of her own Shoah story. It was particularly striking to me that, in the book, she conceded that, while she raised a family in Jewish tradition, and her children and grandchildren were believers, she could not find the same belief within herself.

And yet, it is that belief that enabled some to survive. It is that sense of “Ani ma-amin,” I believe, that has given our people hope for millennia, through destruction and exile and Crusades and Inquisition and expulsion and genocide.

I believe that we are here today because of our belief.

Because we will be here forever, if we all just reach a little deeper, if we all just put a little more of ourselves into learning our tradition, into acting on our tradition, in keeping the holy opportunities, the mitzvot of our tradition in front of us. If we let go of some of that cool reserve, if we put ourselves bodily into our rituals and customs bodily, if we pray with fervor, if we reach higher to keep the mitzvot, if we yearn to reach past the perplexity to seek answers, to act on that belief, we will survive whatever challenges we face.

Ani ma-amin. I believe. And I’ll wait, and continue to daven every day, until we get to the other side.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shemini Atzeret, Thursday, 10/12/2017.)

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Filed under Festivals, Sermons

4 Whys #2: Why Do We Need Mitzvot? – Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5777

I spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in broad terms about why we need Judaism.

Today, the question is, “Why do we need the opportunities for holiness known as mitzvot?” What impact does observance of mitzvot potentially have on our lives? This is the 2nd of 4 topics on the “Whys” of Judaism.

As some of you know, I have spoken a few times over the past year on this subject, and one of the last times I spoke about mitzvot, I suggested that we translate that word not as “obligations” or “commandments,” as it has been traditionally understood, but rather, as “holy opportunities.”

There are, of course, 613 traditional mitzvot. I remember learning this in Hebrew school a LONG time ago: there is a midrash out there that suggests that 613 is the number of seeds in a pomegranate, which was the fruit in the Garden of Eden, the one on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Havvah ate from. (The Torah does not specify a fruit; Christians have long believed it to be an apple.)

pomegranate health benefits in many tales pomegranate fruit called a

613 is a big number. But the reality is that we fulfill many of these holy opportunities with ease. That you are sitting here listening to me indicates that you are in fact performing several mitzvot right now: engaging in Talmud Torah, the study of the traditional texts of Jewish life; daily prayer (including reciting the Shema and Amidah); many of us are wearing tallitot; most of us will be celebrating the holiday with a festive meal in a little while (if the rabbi ever stops talking…).

And, merely by NOT doing a bunch of stuff right now (killing, stealing, eating the wrong animals, spending money on a Yom Tov), you are fulfilling mitzvot without even lifting a finger.

So kol hakavod!

But I think it’s time that we raise the bar in our community with respect to mitzvot. And let me tell you why:

We need more qedushah / holiness in our lives.

Forms of that Hebrew word, that qof-dalet-shin root (qadosh / qiddush / qaddish), are found on virtually every page of the mahzor that you are holding; would that they appeared on every page of our lives!

I think of qedushah / holiness as the collection of special moments that we all have. Remember that Jews sanctify time, not space or people or things. Holiness comes from setting apart a moment in time, a realization that a particular vignette in your life is incredibly special or unique, so special or unique that it you might think of it as a could have been a Heavenly gift.

So what is a holy moment? Please name one. Shout it out:

  • Birth of a child / wedding / bar mitzvah, etc.
  • Falling in love (OK, so for many of us “falling in love” is/was a very LOONG moment…)
  • Seeing a rainbow
  • Learning something so wonderful that your synapses fire at once and your brain nearly explodes
  • Achieving an objective (work, family, relationship)
  • Making a connection with yourself or another
  • Making a connection with your heritage or tradition (including the land of Israel)
  • Hearing really awesome, wonderful news, etc.

(For any such moment that fills you with awe and gratitude, it is always appropriate to recite “Shehehiyyanu” – the blessing we recite to be grateful for allowing us to reach this moment.)

Now there are many among us, and certainly many more in the larger Jewish world, for whom performance of mitzvot is something that comes naturally. I think that the challenge for most of us today, then, is not really the performance of mitzvot, per se. Rather, it is to connect mitzvot to qedushah. Not just the action, but its intrinsic meaning and value as well.

Most of us have probably never even considered that while you went to synagogue or sat in the sukkah or ate matzah at the seder or donned a tallit or got called up for an aliyah or gave tzedaqah that these things were somehow related to holiness – you might have just thought of them as, these are things that my family does, and I do too. No deeper meaning than that.

I never thought about these things too deeply in my youth.

And for those of us who did not grow up in the context of fulfilling mitzvot, you might wonder how any of this stuff might impact your life.

But how might these actions, ritual or otherwise, raise your qedushah quotient? How might they infuse your life with holiness? Why do we need them?

Fundamentally, every mitzvah comes down to this: relationships. Relationships with others, with our spouses, with ourselves, with our parents and siblings and children, with our community, with our world, and of course with God.

Let me give you a few examples. I spoke yesterday about kashrut, and how it sensitizes us to all creatures and the world around us by drawing lines. So let’s consider a curious set of holy opportunities from the Torah with which most of us are unfamiliar. They are a set of four or five laws relating to agriculture.

OK, so who here is a farmer? Not a gardener, but a farmer.

I suspected as much. Well, depending on how far back we go in Jewish history, most of our ancestors were subsistence farmers. Their fortunes were ruled by the seasons, the rains, the climate, the quality of their soil, and so forth. Why does the Torah describe Israel in several places as “Eretz zavat halav udvash” / “a land flowing with milk and honey”? Because milk and honey were symbols of agricultural bounty, and this was really, REALLY important to people who lived in the desert 3,000 years ago. In fact, virtually all of the references to Israel in the Torah contain some statement regarding the fertility of the land and the fruits and vegetables and livestock that thrive there.

So given that context, it’s easy to understand why the following laws were explicitly mentioned by the rabbis of the Talmud (Yevamot CHAPTER 4) as being the essential laws that one must teach to a ger, a convert to Judaism (Vayyiqra…)

  1. Leqet – if you drop some produce while harvesting, you can’t pick it up
  2. Pe’ah – leave the corners of your fields unpicked
  3. Shikhehah – if you forget a sheaf of grain, you must leave it

Produce left behind is available for needy people to glean. These non-ritual mitzvot / holy opportunities do not mean so much to us today, since we are not farmers. We can’t really fulfill them.

Or can we?

Judaism has always been subject to changing times. That is, mitzvot that we cannot fulfill in the way that was originally intended are adapted. E.g., the daily Amidah replaces the daily sacrifices in the Temple.

So one way of translating these principles is into our own money; our salary is our produce, and thus we should leave a certain amount for the poor. Maybe some of you donate each time there’s a food drive, or to the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. Those are surely appropriate ways for us to make these ancient, agricultural, holy opportunities our own.

But let’s think even deeper than that. This is not just about money or food – it’s about responsibility for people in need, and it’s about keeping the needy in mind as you go about your work. When a subsistence farmer is harvesting, it must be very, very hard indeed to overlook good produce. Think about it: as you are working your way through the grapevine, say, you are expected to actually leave (according to the Mishnah, tractate Pe’ah) a portion of the field unharvested. And if a grape cluster slips out of your hand, you can’t pick it up. And certain perfectly good clusters are simply un-harvestable. That could be lots and lots of profit, and perhaps even the margin between survival and starvation for your family. But you have to focus your energy on leaving those clusters for others, on denying yourself. That takes real work.

And, all the while, you have to maintain a sense of gratitude, even while you give up on valuable produce that you might otherwise consider rightfully yours. Not so easy, right?

The message is clear: as we move through our lives, we have to be constantly, consistently responsible for others: aware of our neighbors, vigilant regarding the greater societal good. And just as there are multiple mitzvot embedded within the larger framework of feeding the hungry, so too do we have the obligation to support the multiple organization that help those in need get access to food, clothing, shelter, health care.

(I am happy to note that a number of North American synagogues have “adopted” refugees from Syria; we could do that here as well. To do so would fulfill number of mitzvot.)

Taken even a step further, the Talmud elsewhere suggests the following about charitable giving: “The salt of wealth is charity (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 66b).” That is, we maintain our own wealth by diminishing it through acts of kindness. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (my rabbinic and cantorial alma mater, reads this as follows:

“The Torah warns the farmer in his state of self-satisfaction that God cares as much for the gleaners as for the reapers. The well-off are but divine instruments for alleviating human suffering.”

In other words, we all have the potential to be agents of God.

So just as kashrut sensitizes us to Creation and thereby encourages respect for our world and for all the creatures in it, giving from our produce and bank accounts makes us holy vessels.

And that brings me to what is, I think, the most essential set of mitzvot, and the ones that we most need today: those surrounding the most essential gift that Judaism has given the world, and that is Shabbat.

Yes, it’s true: we invented the 7-day week. And you might say that Shabbat is as much about action as it is about inaction.

The fourth commandment of the “Top Ten” is the longest of them all: “Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho.”  Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. And then it goes on for a while.  And you know why?  Because it is the most important social innovation in the Torah.  The ancient Israelites pioneered a concept that no society before it had developed: a day off.  Yes, yes, it’s also important not to murder and to honor your parents, but other societies already knew that.  The Shabbat, at the time that it was given to us, was apparently unique.

In his critique of contemporary Judaism and Jewish institutions called Nothing Sacred, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff points to the Shabbat as the natural response of an enslaved people who had been set free.  Think of it this way: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  They gain their freedom.  They know that they still have to work, but on more reasonable terms. So they negotiate themselves one day off out of every seven.  Not bad, right?

It is the most revolutionary concept of the ancient world, and holds sway over much of the Earth’s population today: the idea of sanctifying time by setting it apart from the rest of the week.  God gives the Israelites a weekly vacation.  The Apostle Paul, who fashions Christianity, and Muhammad, who creates Islam, dispose of many parts of the Jewish template that they draw on, but they keep the Shabbat.  It is progressive, puts humanity first, and difficult to argue against.

And so, as the pace of our world has quickened, as our days have become so packed that we are living 24/7, the human need has grown to take back a day. We need Shabbat. We need to run 24/6.

There are great personal benefits to shutting down for one day every week, to keeping the craziness of the world at bay, to limiting your exposure to technology, stepping off the hamster wheel of shopping and schlepping and generally worrying about all the things that occupy the other six days.

Every now and then a news story crosses my desk about the various ways in which Americans are over-stressed, over-burdened, under-slept, and on information overload. The one that caught my eye just a few weeks back was about college “blackout” culture.

In a New York Times op-ed piece by Ashton Katherine Carrick, a senior student at UNC Chapel Hill, a current trend seems to be deliberately drinking oneself into a stupor to help alleviate stress. College students, it seems, are under such pressure to perform, to go-g0-g0 all week long that drinking to blackout seems perfectly acceptable.

Of course, we can imagine that the results of such heavy drinking can be disastrous on many fronts. But what has brought our young people to this place? Remember that these are the gentle, sweet teens whom we launched from our homes only a few years earlier. Did we set them up for this behavior under our own roofs? Did we create the expectation that every cranny of their lives must be programmed? Did we facilitate the imperative, abetted by university admissions offices, that high school students have a ridiculous number of extra-curricular activities, that they must simultaneously be first cello and captain of the soccer team and editor of the school newspaper and on the starting lineup of the debate team all at the same time?

Where has the downtime gone?

Could it be the constant invasion of our privacy, courtesy of the digital devices that we now all think of as rechargeable extensions of our bodies? Could it be that downtime has been pushed out of our lives by screentime that regularly amounts to 11 hours a day?

I don’t know. But I do know that we are desperately in need of menuhah, of rest.

Quarter Rest

Shabbat, not blacking out, is that much-needed break. We need more than what an hour or two per week of embarrassing, drunken behavior might provide – we need a full day of separation. This very progressive concept – the idea of a quarter-moon festival that mandates a day off from regular toil – is just as necessary today as it was to our ancestors, who had just come forth from slavery to freedom.

But even more than that, Shabbat is there to open our eyes – to make us more aware of the people around us by sitting with them and dining and drinking (not too much!) and discussing and learning and praying and playing. This is a day that sensitizes us to Creation, to each other, to society. Shabbat helps us see beyond ourselves.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as a “palace in time.” Not a physical place wherein we can enter, but an opportunity every seventh day to wipe the slate clean, to elevate ourselves through holiness, to restore our souls. You don’t need to wait for Yom Kippur to be restored; you have that opportunity every seventh day!

And let’s face it: if we the Jews can benefit from shutting down and tuning in every seventh day, so can the rest of our society. The world needs Shabbat. And so do you.

And if you are not yet accustomed to the rhythm of Shabbat, of that 25-hour pause (that refreshes), I have one simple place to start: Friday night dinner. Bring your family, your friends together for Friday night dinner. Make that sacred time. You won’t regret it!

I also just want to make note of two things:

  1. The National Day of Unplugging. March 3-4, 2017 – an opportunity to observe Shabbat in solidarity with people all over the world. Sponsored by the Sabbath Manifesto.
  2. Our own, in-house, Walk-to-Shul Shabbat, coming to Beth Shalom this spring as a cornerstone to our new wellness initiative. We’ll be coordinating walking groups to Beth Shalom on that day. Watch for more info.

****

Shabbat is just the jewel in the crown; it is one gift of many.

Why do we need the actions, the holy opportunities that Judaism provides? Because they will help us be better people, better parents, better children, better friends, better members of society; they will restore our souls and make us less anxious and more present. Take advantage of them!

On Yom Kippur we will talk about two more whys: why we need this synagogue, and why we need to recommit ourselves to learning all the wisdom of the Jewish bookshelf.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/4/2016.)

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Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

Renewing Our Relationship With Judaism -Ki Tetse 5776

I am always captivated by passages in the Torah that list laws, because they give us some insight into what our ancestors valued. Today’s parashah was especially rich with such laws, and among them some of my favorites:

  • returning your neighbor’s donkey
  • not abusing an employee
  • leaving some of your harvest for the needy
  • not taking chicks from the nest while the mother is there
  • stoning to death a disobedient son
  • stoning to death a newlywed woman in whom “the tokens of her virginity” were not found

Wait a minute – back up.  I’m sorry about those last two.

And, in some sense, so is Rabbinic Judaism.  Yes, those are in the Torah, but we have never actually stoned anybody to death (thank God!). In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud went to great lengths to show that the applicability of these laws is so limited that they could never actually be carried out.

Fortunately, we do not practice the religion of the ancient Israelites. Judaism is not the literal application of the laws as written in the Torah.  Rather, Jewish law has been codified by our sages who interpreted the Torah in subsequent centuries.  In other words we practice rabbinic Judaism, which is much more reasonable.

Given the issues surrounding some of the laws described in the Torah, there is a debate in rabbinic literature that continues to this day: Do the mitzvot have some internal value, or moral worth, or are they simply commandments that we must follow without searching for any higher message?

Maimonides (1135 – 1204 Spain -> Egypt) sees reason behind each commandment. For example, he believes that the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, shooing away the mother bird in order to take the chicks teaches us compassion for all of God’s creatures.

הכן מצות שילוח הקן מעוררת אותנו לתמיהה ...

In his seminal work of philosophy, Moreh Nevukhim, “Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonides connects the suffering of animals with the suffering of people:

“Since therefore the desire of procuring good food necessitates the killing of animals, the Law enjoins that this should be done as painlessly as possible…  [the suffering of animals] does not differ from that of man, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings…  If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow people!”

The mother hen and her chicks, says Rambam, are representative; the mitzvah applies equally to humans, if not literally, then figuratively.

But not everybody agrees with Rambam.

Ramban – Nachmanides (1194 -1270 Spain -> Israel) states clearly and unapologetically  that “The ruling on the mother bird is not based on the Almighty’s pity for the animal.”  To Ramban, this is merely one more decree, albeit one that does teach us to avoid cruelty.  No further conclusions may be drawn.

Elsewhere, Rashi (1040-1105 France) states in a commentary on a different passage that the reason one should not steal (e.g.) is not because it is “wrong” to steal; rather, because God commanded us not to steal.

There are modern commentators that come down on either side of this equation. But I must say that this rabbi is with Rambam. Our inner motivations in following Jewish law should be in line with our behavior. We do not merely fulfill mitzvot like so many sheep, but rather use them as a tool to bring greater holiness into our lives. Our goal in taking these holy opportunities is to extrapolate these commandments for the greater good.

It is therefore not enough merely to shoo the mother bird away before taking the chicks, but also a lesson about minimizing suffering for all of God’s creatures, no matter their size or significance, and even as we use some of them wisely to produce our food. And that message is as much reinforced by the mitzvot surrounding kashrut, holy eating, as it is by the obligation to return not only your neighbor’s donkey, but your enemy’s donkey as well.

***

You may be aware that Rosh Hashanah is a little more than two weeks away…

This is a time to reset the dials of our lives, or, to use more contemporary language, it’s time for a full system restore.

We tend to think of the High Holidays as being associated with the Book of Life (Besefer hayyim… nizakher venikatev… lehayyim tovim ulshalom), the extended metaphor of God’s weighing our souls. But I would like to offer a different perspective.

Perhaps we can dedicate this time not just to wiping the slate clean regarding our actions, but also our relationship with Judaism. Not merely a behavioral renewal, but rather a theological and ideological renewal

I’ll tell you what I mean:

In some ways, it is easier just to perform the rituals of Jewish life without thinking about them.

I remember so clearly the day back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on practical theology, and hearing education professor Dr. Steve Brown telling a roomful of future rabbis, cantors, and  educators-to-be that the language of hiyyuv, of obligation, does not speak to people today, so there is no point in trying to use it.  I recall feeling let down – like, what kind of Jewish world is this where nobody sees themselves as being obligated to anything?

I have since learned to take a more nuanced view. For many of us, our relationship with Judaism is based more on sociological motivations – history, cultural connections, the need for moral guidance in complicated times, the desire to “resonate” with our ancestors, and so forth, than it is with the traditional perspective of fulfilling obligations.

The challenge, however, will be to maintain our connection in the future, when that particular set of sociological conditions goes away. And that’s why we need to re-examine our relationship with our textual tradition now.

We relate easily to the narrative portions of the Torah, the stories of our ancestors (and their dysfunctional family) as our national myths, our history; we can learn from them; we can sometimes strive to interact with them (What would Moshe do? What’s troubling Rashi? etc.).

And it is particularly difficult to relate to the vast swathes of the Torah that are about irrelevant things, like the sacrificial cult in the Temple, which has not been active for nearly two millennia, and will likely never be re-established.

Somewhere in the middle, though, between narrative and sacrifices, are the lists of laws.  Here in the depths of Devarim, we find lots of them.  Some we like.  Some make us uncomfortable.  Thank God for the lens of rabbinic literature for helping us to understand that we do not ACTUALLY have to put anybody to death.  (Aside from the difficult moral quandaries that this would place us in, it would also not be so good for synagogue membership.)

And the essence of our relationship with the Torah and Judaism is building those personal connections with the text; wrestling with it; agreeing and disagreeing with it, and so forth.

As the High Holidays approach, now is the time to consider how we might renew our covenant, and particularly here at Congregation Beth Shalom.

Judaism is as much about thinking and learning as it is about doing (i.e. prayer, saying qaddish, mitzvot, etc.). Ours is an intellectual tradition. In this season of return, perhaps we can consider returning to the foundational principles of the synagogue: that it should be not only a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, but also a beit midrash, a house of study. Let’s rededicate ourselves to learning about and redefining our relationships to Judaism through learning, discussing, and passing our textual heritage from generation to generation.

Along those lines, there are two things I want you to know about:

  1. I am starting up a learners’ service that will meet on one Shabbat morning per month, the second Shabbat morning of each month. I think that the entire community has the potential to benefit from learning more about tefillah / prayer. Due to various logistical considerations, it will not start until December. It will be primarily for beginners, but even veteran daveners will be able to learn as well.
  2. The other thing is that, in collaboration with a number of key members of the congregation, I have put together a concept for this community that will help transform Beth Shalom into that beit midrash in addition to being a beit tefillah. The concept is the Open Community Beit Midrash program at Beth Shalom. We will be approaching major donors with this concept as a part of the greater fundraising plan connected with our centennial year celebration. But the goal is to offer a whole new range of programming, the likes of which have not been seen in Squirrel Hill. The centerpiece will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, wherein all will be welcome to come and learn, regardless of their background, knowledge, experience, membership status, sexuality, whatever. This new arm of Beth Shalom has the potential to renew and reinvigorate not just this synagogue, but the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I’ll speak more about this concept on Yom Kippur itself, but I wanted to give you all a taste while we were on the subject of renewal.

Meanwhile, use these holidays to reconsider your commitment to our intellectual heritage.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/17/2016.)

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Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

There is an ancient Talmudic story of the rabbi who loves golf so much, that he simply cannot resist going out on Yom Kippur for a quick nine. So Musaf comes to an end, and he’s out the back door on the way to the golf course. He’s on the first hole, teeing off, and the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God) notices what the rabbi is up to. So God declares to the Heavenly Court, “Watch this!” And He causes a great wind to come up, just as the rabbi’s club is on the downswing, and it blows the ball right into the cup. A hole in one.

An angel asks God, “Why did you do that?” God smiles, and says, “Who can he tell?”

I do not shy away from theology. On the contrary: I think that we need to address God in prime time, because the only way we’ll get past the challenges to be found when discussing God is to tackle them head-on.

What are those challenges? What makes the concept of God so difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around?

  • It’s hard to believe in things we can’t see
  • The human origins of religion
  • The “challenge” of science
  • God does not control the weather, at least the way that the ancient people understood it
  • The difficulty of suffering / evil in the world (Shoah, Katrina, etc.)
  • The problem of gender

Now let’s deconstruct the joke. (I know – that’s the best way to kill a joke!)

Going back to the rabbi and the Yom Kippur golf miracle, what’s problematic about that story is that it is constructed of traditional notions of how we understand God: that is,

  • Sitting on a throne on high, presiding over a heavenly court of angels,
  • Micro-managing things that go on here on Earth,
  • Capable of creating strong winds and heavy rains.

But let’s face it: maybe God does not work like that: interceding directly in our lives to change people and/or things. And if God does not function that way, then perhaps all of what we have received as tradition in Judaism is therefore somehow missing the mark.

But we can, and should, strive to understand God differently. And yet, a key piece of our tradition that feeds into the challenge of contemporary theology is something we have encountered already twice today, the second paragraph of the Shema, drawn from Parashat Eqev. In particular, the following lines (it’s on p. 156 of your siddur also; Deut. 11:13-17):

יג וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.  יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ.  טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.  טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם.  יז וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’ נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

13. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 14. I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. 15. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. 16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

In other words, the Torah defines our covenant with God in binary terms: if we do the mitzvot, we get rain, and therefore good crops (remember that to our ancestors living in the Middle East, rain was essential for life). If, however, we do not uphold our end of the covenant, there will be no rain, and we will die. Binary. Either this or that. One or zero.

... of july there wasn t one firework in the sky rain rain please go

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a student in one of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s theology courses, we were actually encouraged to challenge our understanding of how God works.

So we learned not only to address theology directly, but also to revisit our most fundamental assumptions about God, the Torah, and Jewish practice. And that is why the second paragraph of the Shema, the least-known part of the most-familiar prayer in the Jewish canon is particularly captivating to me.

There is almost something embarrassing about these lines, because we do not literally believe it. A common Sefaradi custom is that in congregations where every word is recited aloud, two verses in the middle of this paragraph are NEVER chanted audibly during services. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of Rabbi Gillman’s teachers at JTS and founder of what ultimately became the Reconstructionist movement, replaced that paragraph with another in his first Reconstructionist siddur.

But here’s the upshot: we are Yisrael – the people who struggle with God. And we can struggle with this theology. In fact, we have been doing it for two millennia. Here is just one example from the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7a), where the rabbis imagined Moshe Rabbeinu asking God about the eternal problem of why there is suffering in the world, even among those who follow the mitzvot:

אמר לפניו רבש”ע, מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו? יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו

Moshe asked before God, “Master of the Universe, why is there one righteous person enjoying prosperity and another righteous person afflicted with adversity? Why is there one wicked person enjoying prosperity and another wicked person afflicted with adversity?”

In other words, Moshe is asking God that, given the information that we see on a daily basis, this traditional theology is woefully inaccurate. And we all know this intuitively; committing oneself to mitzvot does not ward off terminal diseases; likewise, eating shrimp (e.g.) will not cause you to lose your livelihood; all the more so, it cannot be that if Hayyim eats shrimp, that Yankel loses his job. So the way the covenant is framed in Parashat Eqev cannot be accurate.

In what amounts to a conclusion to this passage, the rabbis merely throw up their hands and say, effectively, “Well, we do not really know how God works.”

דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו שנא’ (שמות לג, יט) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע”פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע”פ שאינו הגון

… R. Meir said (that God granted two of Moses’ requests and refused one.) As it is said,”I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. xxxiii. 19), i.e. although he may not be deserving; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ibid.), i.e. although he may not be deserving.

Not very satisfying, right?

And so we have continued to search as a people for answers to why this whole covenant thing is not so simple. And meanwhile, we continue reciting the second paragraph of the Shema, twice a day, evening and morning.

Amber waves of grain | Beautiful places | Pinterest

But perhaps one thing that Rabbi Gillman tried to teach us was that the search is as valuable as the answer; that the philosophical argument is really what sustains us. “I am a liturgical traditionalist,” he told us, “but not a literalist.” That is, unlike Rabbi Kaplan, he continues to recite the traditional words of tefillah, including the bit about mitzvot and rain, but re-interprets those words to suit his theology.

When the traditional text is uncomfortable, we do not toss it out; rather we seek a different way to understand God.

One way we can tackle the second paragraph of Shema is to consider our values as a society.

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,”

If we take the holy opportunities of tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, celebrating holidays and lifecycle events, kashrut, etc. seriously, and if we understand that fundamentally these activities are about maintaining and improving the sanctity in all of our relationships,

“… I will grant the rain for your land in season, …”

then we will sensitize ourselves to the everyday holiness to be found all around us, and we will make good choices that will support healthy living and good-neighborliness, yielding a better, more just, more equitable society. We will be bathed in the cleansing rain of respect, gratitude, humility, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them….”

Do not worship at the altars of greed, selfishness, materialism, anger, fear, or hatred,

“For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…”

because you will destroy yourselves in the resulting chaos. Your parched souls will lead you to an unpleasant end; while your cities will be swallowed by rising seas and the forces of terror and racism will overwhelm your democratic institutions.

****

What we learn from this forlorn paragraph of the Shema is that there are real consequences to our actions, even though they may not be what our ancestors thought they were. And we can understand God’s role in our world quite differently. When we make the holy choice, we improve our world collectively. God, however we envision or understand God, has fashioned our world in this way.

Not, “If you do X then you get Y,” not binary, not one or zero, but rather, the message is that we have to work to create a world in which God’s presence may be felt.

We all have that potential, as individuals and as a community. And that might be a better approach to understanding God.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2016.)

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