Tag Archives: qedushah

Find the Holy Moments – Aharei Mot-Qedoshim 5777

What does it mean to be holy? (Take a moment to answer that question for yourself.)

What we read this morning, parashat Aharei Mot – Qedoshim, is entirely about holiness. In addition to the Yom Kippur rituals of the Kohen Gadol (in Aharei Mot), there is also the passage of Qedoshim which is known as the Holiness Code: for example, the instruction not to put a stumbling block before the blind, the commandments not to defraud others or withhold the wages of your employees, the imperative to leave some of your produce for the poor. But most of all, there is my favorite line in the whole Torah (Lev. 19:2): Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Holiness is an alien concept to us today. We are living in a very concrete world. Thanks to technology, industrialization, the scientific method, and all the ways that we have squelched the mystery out of our daily existence, everything is quantifiable. Everything is measured. Explanations regarding how everything works can be easily found. There is very little room left for the unseen; very few cracks through which the light – the Divine light – can enter our lives.

blog-contemplation

And our understanding of Judaism has been likewise quantified, analyzed, researched. What was an organic folk tradition has, for at least a century and a half, become another field of academic study. This is the tradition from which the Conservative movement emerged; the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was founded by American congregations led by rabbis trained, for the most part, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where I studied to become first a cantor and then a rabbi.

The modern movements that we know today, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodoxy, all emerged from the intellectual ferment of 19th-century Germany, and particularly the approach to Jewish studies known as “Das Wissenschaft des Judentums,” literally, the science of Judaism. It used the tools of rigorous academic inquiry to analyze Jewish texts, history, rituals, laws, and customs. And it appealed to the newly-emancipated, newly-educated Jewish elite of Western Europe, who sought to be Germans on the street and Jews in the home. And its scholarly appeal soon reached across the Atlantic to take root here in America. Congregation Beth Shalom and synagogues like this all across North America grew out of this modern, scholarly approach.

I am about to admit something big. Actually, huge.

I love the history of the Conservative movement. I love the scientific, historical approach to Judaism, the style of teaching and relating to our tradition that views everything on a time line. I love the approach that values the original context of every piece of our unfolding tradition.

But I think that as a guiding principle for the Jewish people in the 21st century, it no longer resonates.

Why? Because it is possible to know a lot but feel little. We may be able to speak authoritatively about our ancient texts, or about the development and structure of our liturgy, or why the eating of qitniyot on Passover / Pesah is permissible even for Ashkenazim, and still not have an emotional connection to our heritage. It is possible to invest yourself in the meaning of the siddur or the humash, and still only hold it at arm’s length, rather than in your heart.

Rabbinical school does not teach you how to be a rabbi. What I have learned in my 10 years in the pulpit is to connect through feeling, through finding ourselves in our ancient texts, through emotional rather than academic engagement. What they failed to teach me at the Seminary is that Judaism is a coin with the emotional on one side and the scholarly on the other. Judaism cannot be relevant without both sides.

What we need to embrace is the decidedly anti-scientific concept of the holy moment.

Why do many synagogues today have difficulty filling the pews? Because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in famous speech to the members of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1953, we have become more concerned with the technical aspects of the execution of the service than with the Godliness, the holiness therein. We are very worried about getting it right:

There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray.  There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?

This is all in service of God, my friends. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about the recitation of words or the singing or chanting. It’s about communication – with ourselves, with each other, with the Divine. It’s about baring our vulnerability. It’s about sincere pleas for mercy and justice and salvation. This is a holy pursuit. It’s not about the how, it’s about the why.  The how matters, but only inasmuch as it is meant to get us to the why. What we do in a Jewish context is a means to an end.

And we live in a time in which the why, the meaning of the words and the rituals and how they are supposed to make us feel and influence our behavior, is the most important thing. Maybe that wasn’t so important to my parents or grandparents. But it’s important to me, living here in 5777 (also known as 2017).

Why do we count the omer? Why do we recite the Shema (other than because it says to do so in the Shema itself)? Why must we avoid using dairy implements for meat meals? We have a million such whys. You might be able to think of many yourself right now.

It’s not enough to answer those whys by saying, “Because it says so in the Torah,” or, “Because we have always done this.” It’s definitely not enough to say, “I don’t know, but I do it anyway.” It’s not enough to respond this way, even though all of those are legitimate answers in Jewish tradition.

Why do we do what we do, as Jews? Because that is how we become holy people. And every person here in this room could use a little extra holiness. Even the diehard skeptics among us.

Counting the omer, for example, gives us a framework through which we connect freedom with Torah. As we rise from 1 to 49, counting off daily for seven weeks, we anticipate the spiritual fulfillment given at Mt. Sinai. We heighten our expectation; we count our blessings; we look forward to ascending yet another rung of self-improvement, of learning, of yearning. Imagine adding an extra moment of holiness to your evening for seven whole weeks! That’s why we count the omer.

20170508_121405_resized

Two years ago, around this time, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a moving essay in which he identified the paradigm shift through which we are all living with respect to how we understand ourselves and our purpose on this Earth. He points to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as having been a public theologian, among others in the middle of the 20th century, and how the era of such thought leaders has passed:

Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against. All of that went away over the past generation or two…

These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.

The difficulty to which Brooks points is that while our great public sages have set like the sun, we have filled that space with Big Data: knowing everything about everything. Concreteness. There’s an app for that. We have much knowledge, but little wisdom. And hence Brooks says that there is a real hunger for change in this regard:

“People are ready to talk a little less about how to do things and to talk a little more about why ultimately they are doing them.”

We have an answer to the why. And that answer is holiness. The answer can be found in every holy moment that we encounter. And we have to broadcast that message at every opportunity.

And here’s the really good news: the fact that we are all sitting here, on a day when we celebrate the stepping up of a young man into the big leagues of Jewish tradition, indicates that there is still an interest in, and a forum for engaging with holiness. Our tradition offers wisdom. It offers mystery. It offers connection. As we said at our Passover tables a month ago, in Aramaic, kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Come and devour those brief moments of holiness, when the cracks in our reinforced walls of knowledge let in the Divine light.

This synagogue, and others like it stretching back for 2,000 years, have been places where our people have come to seek connection. We have to make sure that it’s not only about the how, but about the why. We need purpose. We need meaning. We need to find the holy moments in our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/6/2017.)

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons

Be a Sanctuary – Terumah 5777

I was in Baltimore last week, at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. It was an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, to learn from each, to share best practices, to daven together and sing together and break bread together.

Perhaps my favorite session from the three-day convention was when we gathered in small groups to share our favorite texts from the Jewish bookshelf. In my group, we had some great pieces, including the classic line about this Jewish month: משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה – Mishenikhnas Adar marbim besimhah – From the time that we enter the month of Adar, our joy increases (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 29a) It’s a statement not only of the joy of Purim (and Lord knows this world needs a little more joy!), but also how the absence of joy makes us appreciate it that much more.

Another colleague spoke about a different piece from the Talmud (Yoma 35b), one that we recently learned as a group at Beth Shalom’s Sulam for Emerging Leaders seminar, about how the great sage Hillel doesn’t have enough money to get into the ancient beit midrash on Friday afternoon to learn the words of our tradition, so he climbs up on the roof and tries to listen through the skylight, and then it snows, and they find him buried in 4 feet of snow on the roof, and light a fire on Shabbat to save him, a gross violation of Shabbat. But the rabbis acknowledge that somebody who wanted so desperately to learn should not have been excluded from the beit midrash, and therefore deserved to have the Shabbat violated on his account.

Good material, indeed.

The piece of text that I cited as my favorite is the one that just keeps coming back to me, over and over, as what you might call a central theme of my work as a rabbi. It’s from Parashat Qedoshim, which we will not read until May.

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem

Be holy, because I, your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

If there is one thing that I want every person that I encounter in my work as a rabbi, Jewish, non-Jewish, whatever, to know and understand, it is that we all have the potential to seek qedushah / holiness, to raise the holiness quotient in this very broken world. That joy, learning, synagogues, prayer, singing, bar mitzvah, communal engagement, etc. are all attempts to infuse our lives with holiness, and to remind us that we should zealously seek holiness in all our relationships, and to remind us that there is a spark of the Divine within every single human being.

That is what our tradition is for. That is the lesson that Judaism brings to the world. All the rest, to borrow from another classic piece of text, is commentary. And every other elaboration, every other story or custom or law from our tradition, somehow relates back to that fundamental bottom line of qedushah.

Our bar mitzvah spoke a little earlier about the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that our ancestors used while wandering in the desert to perform the sacrifices commanded by God. Building the mishkan, it seems, was the Israelites’ initial path to qedushah. Right up front, before all the layers upon layers of detail that the Torah gives in order to build this glorified tent, there is a statement about the reason that God commands them to build it:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם

Ve’asu li miqdash, veshakhanti betokham.

Make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)

Build this sanctuary, says the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, and I’ll come and actually take up residence among you.

iu[1]

Moshe must be thinking, “What? After taking 2,000,000 enslaved people out of Egypt with no army, THIS is what you want me to do?” And the Torah devotes almost as much time and space to describing the mishkan as it does to telling the tale of the Exodus.

But there is a reason for it: this sanctuary is the source of holiness. It was not enough merely to take themselves out of the house of bondage, but rather to seek something higher – to be in holy relationship. And that required building a fancy dwelling-place for God, a place from which Divine blessing and guidance and reassurance and strength would emanate.

Every day, we need to remind ourselves that we draw that strength from the depth and breadth of our tradition, and that ultimately the mishkan, that ancient sanctuary, becomes a metaphor for the dwelling of God’s holy presence among and within us. Just as our bar mitzvah said, courtesy of the Malbim, we each need to build that sanctuary in our hearts.

Every morning at the convention, there were multiple tefillah / prayer options. There was, of course, the “traditional” service, more or less what we do in the weekday morning service here at Beth Shalom. Then there were two non-traditional options: a meditation service and a singing service, where virtually all parts were sung to niggunim. And one morning there was a service led by our colleague Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie in the style of his experimental, floating NYC congregation, LAB/SHUL. It was a vastly abbreviated service, with words projected on a screen, snippets of ordinary weekday tefillot, mixed in with other songs and chants drawn from our tradition.

These are the things the RA is doing now to help Conservative rabbis expand their sources of inspiration for tefillah / prayer: This is where we are today, since there is a disconnect between our traditional form of tefillah and where most Jews are today, a disconnect that mandates our re-imagining how we access God and our tradition. I did meditate one day, but on other days I went to the singing services, and a melody that was repeated endlessly became, it seemed, the unofficial anthem of the convention, drawing on the sanctuary theme of Terumah:

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary

Pure and holy, tried and true

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living

Sanctuary for You.

One could read “Ve’asu li miqdash” as, “Build a sanctuary for Me,” which is the traditional reading, or you could read it along the lines of the Malbim: “Turn me into a sanctuary.” Make of me a holy vessel. Make me a vehicle for delivering qedushah to the world.

And there is even more. A little later in Terumah, we read the following (Lev. 25:22):

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you from above the cover, from between the two keruvim [i.e. cherubim, depictions of angels] that are on top of the Ark of the Pact, all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

Picture this for a minute. This is a great visual. Look up there, above the aron ha-qodesh. You’ll see the wings of the keruvim, reaching to each other backwards over the top of the Ark of the Covenant.

20170303_165008

Right between the wings of the keruvim. That’s where God will meet us and speak to us. That’s the originating point for all the qedushah that comes to us. That is the point of emanation.

But since the mishkan has not been in use for 3,000 years, all we have left is the portable, metaphorical sanctuary within ourselves. And that we have to build.

We have to create the space. We have to stretch ourselves upward and forward like keruvim / angels, so that our wings touch. It’s not so easy to make that magical place where God will dwell within and without us.

So how do we do that? How do we build that inner sanctuary? How do we infuse our lives and the lives of all others around us with holiness?

By heightening our awareness. By listening. By acting on the Jewish values drawn from our tradition: being grateful, humble, compassionate, loving, joyous, greeting everybody with a cheerful face, dedicating ourselves to ridding this world of all forms of persecution, oppression, hatred, bigotry, and fear.

By dedicating ourselves to our community.

By making Jewish ritual our own, so that we can use it to access those moments of qedushah.

By reinforcing the message of radical inclusion into our midst.

By protecting the unprotected.

By seeking peace.

By being sanctuaries. And by offering sanctuary where needed.

By singing together:

Turn yourself into a sanctuary. Make a space for holiness within you and around you.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/4/2017.)

3 Comments

Filed under Sermons

Standing Together – Yitro 5777

There are days, maybe once a week, when I feel like, “Ah. That was a good day. I accomplished a lot. I engaged with lots of people. I taught some Torah. I helped move this institution forward.”

There are days when I feel like, “Wow. I spent the whole day in meetings and handling logistics and didn’t get anything of significance done. Ouch.”

On the whole, I would say, I feel pretty good about the direction of Beth Shalom, about my work here, about our trajectory as a community. We are building slowly, making connections between people, reaching members and non-members in new and different ways, perhaps raising the bar of qedushah, holiness, in the context of our community.

Every now and then, it’s a good idea to count your successes and acknowledge challenges. Among the successes, I would count the following:

  • Our membership has grown by more than 10% in the past year and a half
  • We have already raised over $700,000 in pledges from members
  • We are halfway through the SULAM for Emerging Leaders program, training 14 members of the community for greater effectiveness as lay leaders
  • We are about to embark on a congregational learning process and re-envisioning of our tefillah, our services, in an attempt to make sure that our tefillah offerings meet our goals in that regard
  • The Shababababa and Shabbat Haverim services, which happened again last night, regularly draw 120 or more participants for joyous family davening in two services and a laid-back Shabbat dinner
  • Our other youth tefillah offerings have been improved dramatically, thanks to the hard work of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz
  • JJEP and the ELC are bursting with kids, energy, and innovation
  • We are launching the Derekh program this summer with a Jewish learning retreat aimed at young adults that will be held in August, and we received a $5000 grant from the Federation’s SteelTree program to run it
  • We have just established a team of volunteers to take responsibility for the sifrei Torah – where they are, to what parashah they are rolled, etc.
  • We are training new gabbaim
  • After more than a year of work and consideration, we are just about to put out a new version of the Benei Mitzvah Handbook with revised policies and information
  • We now have a streamlined, contemporary mission statement

And there are more. I think we can cautiously say that things are going well.

tefillin-hands-jjep

But of course there are also challenges. In particular, there are many things that we just haven’t gotten to yet, perhaps because nobody has stepped forward to help make them happen:

  • We still have no social action committee
  • We still have not been able to plan a congregational trip to Israel
  • We still have no official greeting team
  • There are still daily services when we lack coverage and/or a minyan of attendees
  • Our signage in the building is still, at best, confusing, and I continue to hear reports from people who have difficulty finding their way into the building
  • We are far from implementing an Earth-friendly policy to guide us in use, reuse and recycling in the building

Anybody who would like to help us take on these challenges is welcome!

But in addition to these programming needs, there is a special kind of challenge that we face, a more thorny difficulty that often afflicts synagogues, and that is disagreement.

Not that disagreement is bad! On the contrary, it is healthy and normal. In fact, one might make the case that it is due to disagreement that we are still here as Jews. You see, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, they effectively began the process of “democratizing” Judaism – no more would the priesthood and the Sanhedrin hold all the power. Study and prayer, more personal routes to God and tradition, became the central communal features of Judaism.

But what allowed Judaism to endure and enabled it to survive to this very day, is the ability to maintain civil disagreement.

An oft-quoted Talmudic example of this comes from the two major schools of rabbinic opinion, those of the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Yet, despite the fact that their followers disagreed on many points of law and practice, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 14a). They maintained a sense of community and togetherness in the face of argument.

Disagreement is fundamental to who we are. But disagreement can be healthy or destructive, and I am more concerned about the latter.

We read in Pirqei Avot (5:19) about the mahloqet leshem shamayim – a controversy for the sake of heaven. The disagreement which furthers the goals of community, connection and qedushah / holiness is a Divine argument that will last forever. The dispute that seeks to self-aggrandize or consolidate power or disrupt the community is NOT leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. This is the destructive form of disagreement.

One of my most beloved teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us that synagogue politics are good. They indicate a thriving organization that consists of engaged members who care. The absence of political disagreements, the shul in which everybody agrees about everything, he said, is a dying shul.

20160620_095719_resized

I have been here now a year and a half. During the first year or so, I was aware of very little in the way of disagreements with my style or my choices or my halakhic opinions. There’s a name for that grace period that new rabbis are usually afforded: the honeymoon.

But now the honeymoon is over.  And just as in any marriage it’s not a bad thing.  It just signals the start of getting down to brass tacks, the sharper points of living in holy matrimony.

So I have to confess something at this point – something which I have not owned up to until now: I am not perfect. (My wife liked that line best.) While I try very hard indeed to make sure that I am serving this community as best I can, I have occasionally let myself and others down. And that is hard, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist – I want things to be right.

And yet, as the old maxim goes, you cannot please all the people all the time. And that also applies to rabbis.

It even applies, by the way, to our greatest teacher. Moshe Rabbeinu, you might say, was at the peak of his career in Parashat Yitro. He ascends Mt. Sinai to confer face-to-face with the Qodesh Barukh Hu, and takes dictation, beginning with the Aseret HaDibberot / Ten Utterances (usually referred to as the “Ten Commandments”).

And yet, Moshe fails. What happens while he’s up on the mountain, acquiring a radiant glow in the presence of God? The people doubt him. They worry. They think he’s never coming back. “This Moshe guy,” they say, “we don’t know where he went!” (Ex. 32:1, roughly). And then they build an idol. So not only has Moshe failed to deliver the monotheistic goods, but he also fails so badly that the Israelites actually do the opposite of what Moshe is about to teach them when he comes down the mountain.

And, to make matters worse, when he finds out, Moshe loses his cool. He “goes ballistic” as he smashes the tablets.

I am certain that many of us have had that Molten Calf moment, when we think things are going so well, and then everything seems to come crashing down around us. I find this passage consoling when facing my own moments of doubt.

After a year and a half of progress, I feel that together we have made Beth Shalom a more inclusive environment, a more friendly and civil place. And we have accomplished many community-building initiatives.

And yet, we still have to avoid getting sucked into that Molten Calf dynamic as a congregation. We have to agree to disagree respectfully when there are complex political issues. We have to work together to prevent rumors and anxiety from dragging us down, and instead focus on seeking the greater benefit to the community. We have to continue to work together, understanding that none of us is perfect, that we will occasionally fail to meet our objectives, that although the overall trajectory has been positive, there will sometimes be temporary setbacks.

Rather than smashing the tablets, we have to instead do what we did this morning as we read the Aseret HaDibberot: stand together as a community in solidarity, as if gathered at Mt. Sinai.

There will be contentious issues in committees and on the Board level. There will be arguments over finances. There will be personality clashes between members. And I might occasionally make a decision with which you disagree, or fail to meet your expectations. At these moments especially, we must give each other the benefit of the doubt and trust in good intentions.

These are the challenges that keep rabbis up at night. But we will face them all together, and as long as we keep before us the sense of community, connection, and qedushah, we will continue to build.  It is in remembering what unites us that we will find the holiness of our intentions, illuminating the respectful way forward as we stand together.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/19/2017.)

 

5 Comments

Filed under 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.)

3 Comments

Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

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.)

2 Comments

Filed under Sermons