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The Sinkholes of Grief and the Ponds of Hope – Toledot 5779

If you have been to the area around the Dead Sea in the last few years, you may have noticed a relatively new phenomenon: large sink-holes have appeared close to the current shoreline. Our guide told us that there are as many as 6,000 of them.

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As our Beth Shalom group was on the bus this past Tuesday, headed from Jerusalem to Masada, we saw many such sink-holes. They are the result of the Dead Sea’s rate of evaporation, abetted by the rate of consumption of water by both Israel and Jordan. Areas from which the water has receded have underground pockets of salts, and when it rains, fresh water dissolves those salts, leaving empty holes under the exposed area, and then the ground above collapses. There is an area near Ein Gedi where the road actually collapsed into a sink-hole. Israeli transportation engineers anticipated it and built a bypass before it collapsed, and are apparently monitoring the rest of the road for similar problems.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are celebrating today that a young woman has come into direct relationship with the mitzvot of Jewish life. As she stood here today and demonstrated her entry into Jewish adulthood by being called to the Torah in the presence of her family, friends, and community, we are all filled with joy and pride. The cycle of life continues.

But we are also still in sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period following burial, and our community is still grieving today, and we must acknowledge that. Even though sheloshim is a less-intense time than shiv’ah, many of us are nonetheless still wrought with emotion.

Something has become quite clear to me in the past two weeks, and that is that we all respond to grief differently.

Some respond by wailing.

Some respond in anger.

Some respond in panic.

Some respond by clamming up.

Some respond by calling out.

Some respond by pointing fingers.

Some respond with a call to action, and some retreat.

Some of us fell into sink-holes two weeks ago, and have not yet emerged. And some of us are still waiting on the loose ground on top, not knowing when it will collapse. Some of us have already crawled out onto safe, stable land.

Our responses vary with our personalities, of course. Parashat Toledot, which Elana taught us something about earlier, details ways in which Ya’aqov and Esav are quite different: Ya’aqov is mild-mannered; he likes to cook, to hang around in the tent. He’s something of a homebody, his mother’s son. He is reasoned and strategic, and willing to deceive to get his way.

His brother Esav, meanwhile, is described in almost brutish terms; he is a hunter who likes meat, he’s covered with hair, he is impulsive. Esav is favored by their father Yitzhaq. With Esav, what you see is what you get. Elsewhere, the Torah reveals to us traits of other main characters: Moshe is a strong leader who has anger management issues; Abraham is a gracious and faithful host who argues with God; Sarah is brave and tenacious, but laughs at the wrong time; Aaron is holy and speaks well, yet he acquiesces when he should stand up strong.

These characters are templates for humanity; we see in ourselves, and in the palette of human expression, many of these personality features. And many of them are present in how we have responded to the attack of two weeks ago.

The Jewish mourning customs are the best around for managing grief, however it is expressed, because they acknowledge that our responses to grief reflect our personalities. One of the customs of shiv’ah is that, when visiting avelim, mourners, in their homes, we do not address them directly; we wait for the bereaved person to speak first. That way, we give space for the avelim to do what’s best for them. If they want to talk, they talk. If they want to sit there in silence, then we let them do that, and sit by patiently. If they want to cry, they cry. If they want comfort, we hold them tight. If they want to be alone, we leave them alone. It is within that framework of allowing the avel to fashion his or her own response to grief that we acknowledge their humanity.

I want to share with you a piece of wisdom that Rabbi Yolkut at Congregation Poale Zedeck brought to his community last Shabbat. It’s from the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative 16th-century codification of Jewish law.

Last week, we visited the synagogue and beit midrash / study hall of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the primary author of the Shulhan Arukh, in the northern city of Tzfat. In his portion of the book, Rabbi Karo documents the Sephardic practice of his time. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, living contemporaneously in Poland, inserted into Rabbi Karo’s text clarifications when the Ashkenazic practice differed with Karo’s. Rabbi Isserles, known by his acronym, the Rama, had been working on a similar codification, but Rabbi Karo beat him to publication.

In the context of laws about mourning, the Shulhan Arukh addresses the question about whether or not one may cry on Shabbat. Shabbat is, of course, a day on which we are happy; we gather with friends and family to celebrate, to eat festive meals, to sing joyful songs. Those who are in shiv’ah generally do not mourn publicly on Shabbat by wearing torn clothing or sitting on a low seat or receiving guests in their homes. But is it permissible to cry? The Rama says the following: (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim רפח:ב)

If it brings one pleasure to cry on Shabbat, such that the sorrow may be lifted from his heart, then one may cry.

Crying in pain may bring you pleasure, and we give space to the avel to cry as necessary on Shabbat. I’m thinking here of Rosey Grier singing on the classic children’s album from 1972, Free to Be You and Me:

It’s alright to cry
Crying gets the sad out of you
It’s alright to cry
It might make you feel better

Raindrops from your eyes
Washing all the mad out of you
Raindrops from your eyes
It’s gonna make you feel better

How many of us have felt really wounded, and found that a good cry made at least some of the pain go away? That has certainly happened to me, and perhaps the Rama as well.

There is a hopeful note about the sink-holes: some of them have trapped water that has run off the mountains, and are now little ponds surrounded by new growth, new trees and bushes and reeds. As you drive by, these look like little oases in the otherwise barren landscape. These ponds, unlike the water of the Dead Sea itself, have a salinity content that is apparently low enough for things to grow around them.

And you know what that looks like? It looks to me like hope. The rings of greenery in the desert around these new ponds are sort of like the proverbial cloud with the silver lining. if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors.

On our final day in Israel, we visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, what is effectively the Louvre of Israel. It’s a fantastic museum, ranging from antiquities to modern art; I can get my Kandinsky fix not far from the 10th-century Aleppo Codex, which is one of the two oldest existing Masoretic* manuscripts in the world; the volume was consulted by Maimonides himself in 12th-century Cairo. Among the items we saw together included synagogues and Judaica from all over the Jewish world, from China to Poland to Suriname. And I remembered that the cataclysm of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE did not bring Judaism and Jewish life to an end. Rather, it fundamentally changed it, and strengthened our tradition for the millennia of dispersion that lay ahead. And the Jews responded by carving ornate arks and covering with gold leaf in the 16th century in Italy, and crafting spice boxes in the shape of windmills in 18th-century Holland; by producing polished-silver Torah tikkim (that the Sephardic cabinet that houses a Torah) in India and illuminated Esther scrolls in Iran and bowls made of crystalline sugar for wedding celebrations in Afghanistan.

The richness of Jewish life continues even after tragic events. Just as our people responded to destruction and dispersion with artistic creativity and continuing to embrace the richness of Jewish life, so too will we. While there will always and forever be a before and after in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, I am certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the after will be even more vibrant.

But there is still grieving to be done, and we will continue to do so, each in our own way, even as we celebrate all the other joyous moments: benei mitzvah, weddings, births, holidays, and so forth. So please continue to give yourself space for that, even as we seek joy and pleasure. And if you can’t get out of your sink-hole, or you were on stable ground and you suddenly find yourself falling, please come see me or one of the other rabbis in the neighborhood. We are here to help, to listen, to give you the space to cry if necessary.

We will continue to grieve in all the ways that we do, and we will never forget those whom we lost. But we will emerge stronger together.

stronger together

Shabbat shalom.
* The Tiberian Masoretes were Jewish scholars living in the north of Israel in the 6th-9th centuries; they were responsible for, among other things, creating an authoritative, vocalized text of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex are the two existing texts that are closest to the original Masoretic manuscript.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/11/2018.)

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The Challenge Before Us – Shabbat HaHodesh 5778

I hope that, by now, you have heard about the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Community Study. (Beth Shalom members Evan Indianer and Bruce and Jane Rollman served on the committee that brought it to fruition, and most likely some of you were contacted in the survey.)

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There are some very important numbers in this study. Some of them might make some of us anxious. But I am actually inclined to read this study optimistically. There is a lot here to try to absorb. First, the challenges:

  1. There is a “hole” in our community.

The percentage of Jews in the 35-49 range, to some extent what would be the most active core of synagogue membership, is smaller than other age brackets. Only 17% of all Jews in the area fall into that category, which is less than the national average for age distribution. This may have something to do with people who moved away when the economy was weak, and never returned. (By comparison, 24% are in the 18-34 bracket, 31% are 50-64, and 28% are 65+.)

  1. A smaller percentage of Jews are living in Squirrel Hill.

Only 30% of Jewish individuals in the area live in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside combined. Almost as many live within the city limits of Pittsburgh (26%) but outside of these two neighborhoods. The challenge here is that most of the Jewish institutions and services are here. The overall population has grown, and Squirrel Hill’s Jewish population has grown as well. But while a plurality of Jews surely live in or near Squirrel Hill, fewer of the newcomers are moving into the traditionally Jewish neighborhoods.

  1. Only 19% of respondents pay dues to a “brick-and-mortar” institution like this one.

In 2002, about half (53%) of respondents said they belonged to a synagogue. In 2017, 35% said they did, although only 19% said they paid dues to synagogues like Beth Shalom. The others are affiliated with Chabad or other independent congregations, or claim membership in a synagogue but do not pay dues. In 2002 they did not subdivide that 53% number, so it’s impossible to know how many were dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues 15 years ago. But regardless, the number has to be significantly lower. This is certainly a challenge to our membership model.

So here is the good news:

  1. When asked about movement affiliation, more 18-34-year-olds (27%) identify as Conservative than any other group. That’s higher than Reform (24%), higher than Orthodox (12%). Higher even (and this is important) than “Just Jewish” or “Secular.” Based on the numbers, the Conservative movement seems to be doing better than everybody else among younger Jews.

    Pop study data

  2. In terms of involvement in Jewish life (participation in Jewish life: rituals, services, cultural activities, belonging to, donating to or volunteering for Jewish organizations), those who identify as Conservative have a fairly high rate of participation and commitment. About one-third of those in the “Immersed” category (that is, they are immersed in Jewish life on a daily/weekly basis) identify as Conservative (cf. 46% Orthodox, 15%  Reform). That is, I think, a relatively healthy statement regarding what we stand for.
  3. And here’s my favorite number, because it sings with opportunity. While 80% of “Immersed” Jews are studying Jewish text on a regular basis, very few outside of that category are learning anything from the Jewish bookshelf. (OK, so you might not consider that “good news.” It is, however, an indicator that the vast majority of Jews are alienated from the benefits that come from studying Jewish text. So all we have to do is somehow get their attention. This is an opportunity.)
  4. On a related note, only 44% of Conservative Jews have attended a Shabbat meal over the last year. For those of us who know and savor the Shabbat dining experience, this number too speaks of opportunity.

Now that I have assaulted you with data, the question that emerges is, “How does this information help us move forward?”

Well, I have some very good news.

First, this study comes at precisely the right time for Beth Shalom, because we are about to begin the process of strategic planning to come up with a vision for the next 3-5 years. The last time that we pursued such a process was ten years ago, and so now that we are on a healthy trajectory and with the centennial celebration behind us, it is time to consider how we move forward from this point. The process will be guided by the United Synagogue’s Sulam for Strategic Planners program, which is a systematic approach that includes data gathering, analysis, communicating various things to the community and producing a report, followed by an implementation phase. We will receive regular guidance from a United Synagogue Transformation Specialist, Aimee Close.

These data points will be extraordinarily helpful in the initial phase of the process, and will help us with getting a sense of the situation on the ground in preparation for making strategic decisions.

The other way that these numbers help us is that it looks like (א) the Conservative movement’s star may be on the rise, particularly among younger people, and (ב) there is plenty of room for growth in the Jewish learning department. Yes, regular tefillot / prayer services will continue to be an essential part of what we do. But we have to continue to expand our range of offerings beyond tefillah, to continue to re-envision what it means to be a synagogue. Aimee Close was positively impressed with the work we have already done with Derekh. Now we need to continue that work by trying to penetrate more deeply into those who think that synagogues are ONLY for services and benei mitzvah. These numbers are in some sense a validation of the direction in which we are moving, that is, to re-frame the Jewish conversation such that we focus on meaning, on connecting what we learn with how we live today, on fostering spiritual growth.

One final observation about the data.

A recent New York Times article on nutrition cited a study that seems to reveal that weight loss is dependent not on the quantity of calories consumed, but rather on the quality of those calories. The study found that

“…people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.”

That is, what you eat matters more than how much.

While this study is in itself quite interesting, it also has, I think, an interesting parallel in Jewish life. We all know that our tradition has 613 mitzvot. It’s a big number, and hard for many of us to wrap our brains around, let alone our lives.

We all know that there is a continuum among people in our community about what we practice – some of us are hitting a lot of those mitzvot, some fewer. Nonetheless, I hope that we should all be able to understand and appreciate that it is the quality of engagement with Jewish life that matters, not the quantity. Today, personal meaning matters more than merely doing for the sake of doing.

Less than a quarter (22%) of Conservative Jews feel that their “spiritual needs are met.” (That’s lower than Reform, BTW, and dramatically lower than Orthodox.) Getting more members of the community to a Friday night dinner or to a good, relevant study session may not lead more people to keep kosher or not use their smartphones on Shabbat. But it may help meet the spiritual needs of more of us by reinforcing:

  • The value of community
  • The value of a framework rooted in Jewish traditional practice and learning
  • The meaning that one can glean from that framework

If we can bring more of us to the Shabbat table, and more of us to the beit midrash, and do a better job of connecting those experiences to real Jewish learning, then I think we may have a better shot at meeting the spiritual needs of everybody. Quality over quantity.

In reading these data, I am not frustrated, but hopeful. Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/17/2018.)

* The Jewish obsession with counting ourselves dates back to the late 19th century. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations published a study of American Jews in 1880 (thanks to historian and Beth Shalom member Tammy Hepps for bringing this to my attention). A group of Russian-Jewish scholars created the Jewish Society for History and Ethnography, under the leadership of historian Simon Dubnow in 1908. This group pioneered the documentation of the Jews of Russia, their history and cultural contributions, and even sent the writer S. Ansky on an expedition throughout the Ukraine to collect information on the Jews of all the little towns therein. Since Dubnow and Ansky, and in particularly after the Shoah, we have been captivated by information about ourselves: how many of us there are, of course, but also what we are doing: our Jewish practices, our salaries, our ages, our membership in Jewish institutions, how many kids we’re having, etc.*

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