Tag Archives: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

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.

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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.

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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.)

 

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Be an Upstander – Shemot 5777

You know the old joke about how I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out? There is a related Jewish story. It’s an old fable about two brothers (Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, JPS 1973, pp. 77-78):

One brother had a wife and children, the other did not. They lived together in one house – happy, quiet, and satisfied with the portions which they inherited from their father. Together they worked the fields with the sweat of their brows.

And the harvest came. The brothers bound their sheaves and brought them to the threshing floor. There they divided the crops of the field in two parts equally between them, and left them.

That night, the brother who had no family lay on his bed and thought: I am alone, but my brother has a wife and children. Why should my share be equal to his? And he rose from his bed, went stealthily out into the threshing floor, took from the stalks of his own sheaf, and added them to the sheaf of his brother.

That same night, the other brother turned to his wife and said: “It is not right that we have divided the crop into two equal parts, one for me and one for my brother. He is alone and has no other joy or happiness, only the yield of the field. Therefore, come with me, my wife, and we will secretly take from our share and add to his.” And they did so.

In the morning, the brothers went out into the threshing floor, and they wondered that the sheaves were still equal. Each one decided to himself to investigate. During the night each one rose from his bed to repeat his deed. And they met each other in the threshing floor, each with his sheaves in his arms. Thus the mystery was explained. The brothers embraced, and kissed each other.

And the Lord looked with favor on this threshing floor where the two brothers conceived their good thoughts… and the children of Israel chose it for the site of their Holy Temple.

An Israeli variant is about two other brothers who lived on a nearby hill, and did exactly the opposite: each stole from the other in the middle of the night. And that was where the Israelis chose to build the Knesset. (#Rimshot!)

I have become very concerned about the state of our society. I think that something that we have lost is a tangible sense of togetherness. On the contrary: the level of mistrust seems to me higher than it has been in my lifetime. And a related contemporary challenge about which I am particularly concerned is the lack of civility in our public discourse.

On Monday, as part of Community Day School‘s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the themes invoked was the principle of being an “upstander.” To be an upstander means, according to the website of the educational and professional development organization Facing History and Ourselves:

“A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.”

This word was just added to the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016.

Given our history and our tradition, we Jews have a special obligation to be upstanders: to speak out against that which we know is wrong, to intervene on behalf of those who are being persecuted, to call out hatred and racism and anti-Semitism when we see it.

Martin Luther King Day is always an opportunity for us to recall that Jews were there when the civil rights movement in this country was forged. It is a reminder that one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walked with Dr. King on the latter’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Afterwards, Rabbi Heschel declared, “I felt as though my legs were praying.”

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They are wearing leis given by a Hawaiian group. (AP Photo)

When Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King, the level of mistrust in America was also quite high. Society was changing. The established orders were being upended. People who had been historically oppressed were throwing off their yoke.

And people were angry. The civil rights movement inspired many Americans, including many Jewish volunteers, to do some really wonderful, holy work. But it also caused many others to behave badly in public, to scream and burn and even murder to try to prevent change.

In 1965, there was no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. So people actually had to confront each other in person. Not so today.

One can hardly read an article of any sort on the Internet without being assaulted by a blast of name-calling, hyperbolic accusations, and general disregard for others. And whether we are participating in these troll-fests or not, even those of us who read the comments sections on popular news sites are somehow metaphorically guilty of standing idly by the blood of our neighbors (from Parashat Qedoshim, Leviticus 19:16).

The relative anonymity of the online environment makes it far easier for us to cut each other down, to trade insults, to grandstand with impunity. And our online behavior is ultimately reflected in our feelings for one another offline.

We read this morning about how the new pharaoh “did not know Yosef.” (אשר לא ידע את יוסף – Ex. 1:8) Rashi points to a disagreement in the Talmud between Rav and Shemuel about whether this was, in fact, a new king or not. And if it was, in fact, the old king, then suddenly he was pretending not to know Yosef.

It is perfectly normal, perfectly human, and definitely Jewish to disagree with each other. And it is completely appropriate for us to stand up for the principles in which we believe. But a functional society depends on our willingness to be able to disagree with each other and continue to talk to each other and work with each other. We are, as I have mentioned in this space before, faced by many contemporary challenges; we will never solve them by demeaning each other.

And, indeed, we cannot be like the pharaoh who pretended not to know Yosef. We cannot pretend not to know our fellow Americans. We cannot dismiss the people with whom we disagree, as if their feelings and opinions cancel our ability to perceive any and all traces of decency.

On the contrary, says the Torah. Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Lev. 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. Even if they believe things that you find absolutely odious. The Torah clearly does not say, love your neighbor as yourself, but only if she thinks like you do. We, the Jews, must lead by example; we must continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.

I offer you the following piece from the Talmud for your consideration:

ת”ר: לא יסקל אדם מרשותו לרה”ר. מעשה באדם אחד שהיה מסקל מרשותו לרה”ר, ומצאו חסיד אחד, אמר לו: ריקה, מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך! לגלג עליו. לימים נצרך למכור שדהו, והיה מהלך באותו רה”ר ונכשל באותן אבנים, אמר: יפה אמר לי אותו חסיד מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך.

Our rabbis taught: “A person should not throw stones from his property into public grounds.

It happened that one man was throwing stones from his property into the public domain. A pious man passed by and said to him, “Foolish one, why are you throwing stones from property that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?”

The man laughed at him. As time went by he had to sell his field and when he was walking on those public grounds, stumbled over his own stones.

He then exclaimed, “That pious man was right when he said to me, “Why are you throwing stones from ground that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?” (Bava Qamma 50b)

We have to work hard to protect not only our physical public spaces, but our political, social, spiritual, and emotional public spaces as well. Throwing insults and epithets as a form of discourse into the online cloud is like tossing rocks into the street. We’re all going to eventually trip over them.

If we truly want to be upstanders, we must work hard to rekindle our civility. We cannot allow differences of opinion to fragment our democracy. We have to build a temple to love and compassion in that metaphysical public space. We have to remember and invoke our shared values.

That does not mean we have to agree. That does not mean that we have to tolerate hatred, bigotry, intolerance, or shaming of any kind. But it does mean that we have to speak nicely to each other, and occasionally give our produce up for the benefit of the other, so that we may build that temple.

 

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/21/2017.)

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Time to Unplug – Vayaqhel 5776

This past Shabbat (March 4-5) was the annual National Day of Unplugging, a program coordinated by Reboot, a Jewish organization which “affirms the value of Jewish traditions and creates new ways for people to make them their own.” Thousands of people all over the world, Jews and others, pledged to “unplug” for this Shabbat, for the reasons identified on the event’s website:

We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones… chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of “silence” that our earphones create…

The National Day of Unplugging… is an outgrowth of The Sabbath Manifesto, an adaption of our ancestors’ ritual of carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones.

I love this. Of course, I and my family unplug every Shabbat, and we understand and appreciate the value in doing so. In fact, I must say that I look forward to my 25 hours of being present – my attention is not threatened by digital intrusions; my mind and my body are in the same place at the same time for all of Shabbat. It’s a whole day of mindfulness.

Although the National Day of Unplugging takes place on the first Shabbat in March, it is serendipitous that on this Shabbat we read Parashat Vayaqhel. Vayaqhel is notable not only for detailing the construction of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary used to perform sacrifices by the Israelites in the desert), but also because it opens with a re-statement about the importance of Shabbat. In fact, the very first word, vayaqhel, which is related to the word qehillah, congregation, suggest that Moshe “convokes” the whole Israelite community to make this announcement about Shabbat.

Some commentators point out that the unusual use of this term here is not a coincidence.

Rabbinic tradition suggests that this reminder to keep Shabbat was given to the people on the day after Yom Kippur. It is a time when the Israelites are seeking healing and teshuvah / repentance following the great transgression of the molten calf. These two things, Shabbat and the mishkan, that sanctuary and holy gathering place, were the primary vehicles for healing after they indulged in idolatry.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Noah Hayyim Berezovsky, writes in his commentary Netivot Shalom that this healing in the wake of the molten calf is essential to understanding the role of Shabbat in our lives. We come at Shabbat from two different directions, he says, the direction of “zakhor” and of “shamor,” referencing the two imperatives that appear in the two different versions of the Decalogue, Ex. 20:8 (zakhor = “remember the Sabbath” and Deut. 5:12 (shamor = “keep the Sabbath”).

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(A midrash tells us that these words differ in the two tellings of the Decalogue because although God said one thing, it was heard at the same moment as both zakhor and shamor. Hence the line in the Friday evening liturgical poem Lekha Dodi: Shamor vezakhor bedibbur ehad – God said “shamor” and “zakhor” in one utterance.)

According to the Slonimer Rebbe, zakhor, remember the Sabbath, speaks of the things that we do to make Shabbat, emphasizing how we bring light and qedushah / holiness into the world through our actions – luxurious family meals, gathering with our qehillah at synagogue and at friends’ homes, prayer that reflects the grandeur of the day, singing joyously, reflecting on our lives, being in the moment.

Shamor, keep the Sabbath, meanwhile, speaks of the things we are forbidden to do, the forms of melakhah / “work” from which we abstain on Shabbat. In order not to work, to avoid melakhah, you must plan ahead and prepare so that you can be free to enjoy the 25 hours of peace, rest, and all the positive aspects of Shabbat. Abstaining from melakhah keeps in check our everyday desires and impulses to manipulate the world.

The two-sided imperative of zakhor/remember and shamor/keep the Shabbat is therefore as much about our lofty, cerebral ideals, as it is the earthly concerns. To do Shabbat right, we must be invested properly in both realms.

So although the Shabbat commandment is just a few lines at the beginning, and the rest of the parashah is dedicated to the mishkan, the importance of the former greatly outweighs the latter. Shabbat is where it’s at – particularly when you consider the fact that the mishkan (and the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem) have been out of the picture for 2000 years, but Shabbat comes around every seven days. Shabbat is a sign to us for all times – Ot hi le’olam (Ex. 31:17, which we read in Parashat Ki Tissa last week, and which we say multiple times when we chant Veshamru). It will forever be our sanctuary.

We just have to take advantage of that sanctuary. We have to pause. We have to unplug. We need to refresh. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat “a palace in time.” The doors to the palace are open every weekend – we only need to walk right in. We have no need for a fancy altar; we have the Shabbat. Forever.

And yet, as the electronic gears of the Information Age continue to spin faster and faster, as we grow more connected to the devices that make our lives and society go, we need the peace that the observance of Shabbat offers even more.

How many of us find that we are constantly tied to work? That we never have a respite from the constant barrage of stuff, digital or otherwise, coming at us? How many of us dream of the possibility of stepping off the hamster wheel for a few moments? And yet, ironically, we feel all out of sorts when we are disconnected?

Shabbat is an opportunity. For 25 hours every week, we can turn it all off, and live comfortably and happily in the moment with family and friends, untroubled by text messages and WhatsApp and Instagram and what-have-you. It’s a time to be exactly where you are, soaking up the light and the qedushah. It is an opportunity to be unburdened of all of our earthly concerns, a moment of stillness, a time to scan ourselves for where we are holding tension, to inventory our heads to let go of the never-ending to-do list, and to focus on the higher things, to aspire to the Divine, to consider what really matters. It is a retreat from the minutiae of the week.  Shabbat is our sanctuary.

To enter that sanctuary, all you have to do is make this day special. And what really makes my Shabbat feel holy is that disconnection from the digital infrastructure and connection to everything that is right in front of me.

Yes, there are the 39 categories of melakhah, those traditionally forbidden types of “work.” For the record, it is definitely not clear that the use of electronic devices fits into any of those categories, and we will surely talk about that another day.

But even if using your smartphone does not belong in any category of melakhah, there is a greater principle at work here, and that takes us back to zakhor and shamor.

To make this day holy, set apart from the rest of the week, we have to leave aside those things that are “inyanei hol,” mundane matters: bills, scheduling weekday activities, packing for a trip, reading shopping circulars and so forth are all things which take our minds out of Shabbat. In that same category, I think, are most things that you might read or do online. They take us out of the here and now. They cause us to travel outside of the eruv in our heads.

And let’s face it: this requires a certain amount of focus. It requires a commitment to look past those mundane things/ inyanei hol, to get to the really important stuff: spending time with family and friends, enjoying the here and now, learning some words from our tradition.

And hence the National Day of Unplugging. On their website, you can order a mini “sleeping bag” for your phone, and an app that shuts it down for Shabbat. The idea is to get people to try it. Just once.

... YOUR SABBATH MANIFESTO CELL PHONE SLEEPING BAG « Sabbath Manifesto

And so can you. You don’t have to wait for next March to unplug. Choose a Shabbat to try it out. I’m here to talk you through it if you need guidance. I can even hook you up with other families in our midst who do unplug regularly so that you have the support of your qehillah in real time and space.

You can choose to sanctify your life, improve your relationships, lighten your mood and generally feel less stressed by setting aside those 25 hours every seven days.

Try it. Because we need it.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/5/2016.)

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