Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! – Seeking the Why – Rosh HaShanah Day 2 5782

Shalom! Before you proceed, you might want to read the first installment in the “Make it Meaningful!” series, from the first day of Rosh HaShanah 5782.

I’m starting our discussion today with a simple, highly unscientific poll. Now I want you to be honest:

  1. Raise your hand if you feel that your Jewish education (Hebrew school, day school, or something else) was sufficient for your contemporary needs?
  2. Raise your hand if you wish you had learned more about your tradition and spiritual heritage?
  3. Raise your hand if you really have no clue what this is all about.

Well, I have some good news for you: it’s never too late. And I am going to make the case for  why you should want to learn more.

And the bottom line is this: because understanding what we do and why we do it as Jews will fill your life with meaning. 

Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” Yesterday, we spoke about how gathering, and in particular on this Rosh HaShanah as we oh-so-gradually emerge from the pandemic, is meaningful to us. Today, we continue the discussion with finding meaning in learning.

But first, a brief correction from last year’s High Holidays sermons. Some of you may recall that, exactly one year ago according to the Jewish calendar, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I told the following story, which I am going to retell right now to refresh your memory:

There is a classic rabbinic story about the mother who is teaching her son how to make a meatloaf for their Rosh Hashanah lunch. After mixing the ground beef and onion and egg and breadcrumbs and spices, she rolls up the loaf, chops the ends off and throws them away, and places it in the meatloaf pan.

The son notices that she has chopped off the ends, and, concerned about unnecessary food waste in a world in which climate change and sustainability are paramount, asks his mother why she throws the ends away.

“I don’t know,” she says. That’s how my mother, your grandmother did it.

They call the grandmother to ask. She says, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.”

They call the great-grandmother to ask. She is not well; she is weak, and can barely talk. “Why did I chop the ends off?” she asks, reflecting deep into the recesses of her mind. “Why did I chop the ends off? Because the pan was too small.” 

Now, at lunch after services on that day, it was pointed out to me – well, actually, I was mocked – by members of my family because, they said, I screwed up the joke. It should have been brisket, they said, not meatloaf, because of course meatloaf can be shaped into whatever shape you want, whereas if the brisket does not fit in the pan, you’re stuck.

Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s only the Jews whose family members criticize each other for telling a joke wrong, I actually think that it’s funnier if it’s meatloaf, precisely for the reason that it could be shaped, and yet they continued to slice off the ends. But hey, what do I know? I’m a vegetarian! I haven’t eaten either brisket or meatloaf in more than three decades.

I used the story to make a point about minhag, custom, that it is the customs of Jewish life, which enrich our lives as we hand them down from generation to generation. But, in a seemingly-magical feat of rabbinic re-interpretation (don’t try this at home!), I am going to take the very same joke today in another direction. 

There is another angle to the story: it’s that the mother and the grandmother are only going through the motions. They do not even know why they are chopping the ends off the meat. They don’t even really seem to have thought about it. And therein lies an important message:

It’s the reason why we do something, rather than the actual thing that we do, that makes a particular custom meaningful. And in order to really understand and appreciate Jewish life, in order to gain the insight and wisdom and thereby improve ourselves through Jewish engagement, we have to know those reasons. 

Perhaps one of the most depressing moments I have had as a rabbi occurred at my previous synagogue on Long Island, ironically at our annual Comedy Night. It took place on a Saturday evening after Shabbat ended, and the cantor and I had led havdalah before the comedy program, and then we left the havdalah set – the wine, the multi-wicked candle, the spice box – on the bimah. So when the first comedian came up to do his set, he looks at the ritual paraphernalia, picks up the bottle of Manischewitz, and, trying to be funny, says, “I’m not Jewish; I don’t know anything about your traditions.” Somebody in the crowd, most likely a member of the congregation responded by saying, “Neither do we.” 

People laughed. But my heart sank, and although I’m sure there was a little bit of hyperbole in the sarcastic retort from the audience, the kernel of truth embedded therein reminded me of my mission as a rabbi: to teach what we do, why we do it, and how it improves your life.

For example, consider two of the most common Jewish things you do: holding a seder on the first two nights of Pesaḥ and fasting on Yom Kippur. Most likely, if I asked you why you did those things, you would probably say, “To celebrate our freedom from slavery,” and, “To afflict our souls in helping to atone for our sins.” And those would be good answers.

But if I asked, why does our tradition hold daily prayer services three times a day? Why can’t you spend money on Shabbat? Why do we have two loaves of challah on Friday night and sprinkle them with salt before we take a bite? Many of us would have to check with Rabbi Google to come up with answers. Now please believe me when I say that if you do not know the answers to these questions, or many others about why Jews do what we do, there is nothing wrong with you! You are welcome and belong here.

It’s just that the “whys” behind these traditions were not necessarily taught in Hebrew school, or maybe you missed that day because of soccer practice, or your family did not observe them.  Or your family could not afford Hebrew School and shamefully no effort was made to help bridge the financial gap. Really, I barely knew what Shavuot was until I was in my 30s. And Shemini Atzeret? Fugettaboutit!

I have long been a proponent of an incremental entry, or re-entry into Judaism: that while we as a community affiliated with the Conservative movement uphold the whole kit and caboodle of Jewish life, the entire collection of 613 mitzvot / holy opportunities, the way in is clearly not to try to grab everything at once. Rather, if you intend to step up your Jewish game, you should do it a little bit at a time: Say the blessing and light candles on Friday night before sundown, paired with a moment of quiet contemplation as you separate yourself from the chaos of a busy week. Or spend a few moments to say the words of the Shema, just the first line if that’s what you know, before going to sleep, as you reflect on the day.

And why would you want to do that?

Because engaging in Jewish life – observing mitzvot, coming regularly to synagogue, keeping kashrut, setting Shabbat aside as a holy day – can improve your life, your community, and your world. While I would be hard-pressed to make the case that eating brisket, or meatloaf, can do this, I can assure you that the Jewish framework for living certainly does.

But you should not take my word for it. In order to understand this, you’ll have to learn the why.

First of all, you should know that there is a lot of “going through the motions” throughout the Jewish world. There are plenty of Jewish people who are doing Jewish things, even though they may not understand the reasoning behind them or derive any meaning from them. In fact, the Talmud (Pesahim 50b) teaches that learning Torah and the performance of a mitzvah for its own sake is more valuable than doing it for some kind of reward.

דְּאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: לְעוֹלָם יַעֲסוֹק אָדָם בְּתוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ, שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ בָּא לִשְׁמָהּ

… As Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if one does so not for their own sake, as it is through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.

The 13th-century Catalan commentator, Rabbi Menahem Meiri, writes that the one who performs mitzvot for a reward is acting out of fear, and the one who is doing so for its own sake is acting out of love, and love is surely a nobler motivation.

There are plenty of us in the Jewish world who are engaging with Judaism for less-than-ideal reasons: fear, guilt, or out of a sense of duty to one’s parents or grandparents, or without any clear sense of why at all.

Every person’s path to and with Torah is different, and all paths to and with Torah are valid. But if, says the Meiri, you can get to a place where you’re doing it out of love – for Torah, for our tradition, for our community, for yourself, for the world, for God, however you understand God – harei zeh meshubbaḥ. That is worthy of praise.

So how do you get to that place? As the Talmud suggests, the more you do something, like seeking to understand our tradition, or regular tefillah / prayer, or setting aside time to observe Shabbat with family and friends, the more likely you are to see how doing so creates more love in this world. 

But let’s face it: life gets in the way. We are all busy. Tefillah takes time. You might think you need Saturdays to go shopping or mow the grass or respond to work emails that you didn’t get to during the week. It can be hard to carve out time to do Jewish, let alone explore the question of why we should.

So that is why I am going to propose the following: add a little regular Jewish learning to your life. And I’m talking specifically here about Jewish text. Let me tell you why you should do this.

Because this tradition is yours, because it can help improve your life, and most importantly, because you can.

Once upon a time, Jewish text was impenetrable if you had not studied rabbinic Hebrew for years. And Hebrew schools did not have the time or the energy to teach that, so they focused on holidays and lifecycles and prayers and songs. But the real foundation for Jewish life is the Jewish bookshelf, and that was only the domain of the scholars, men with long beards. 

We failed to teach that foundation. We failed to demonstrate not only the rich, scholarly basis for why we do what we do, and the pleasure of arguing over the meaning of our texts and discovering how they can help us be better humans today. 

But we are now living in a period of great democratization of Jewish wisdom. With a few keystrokes, you can learn Torah! Talmud! Midrash! Halakhah / Jewish law! Mussar / ethics! And so forth. All in perfectly readable and in some cases interpreted English! Sefaria.com is probably the best source, available wherever you have access to the Internet, but there are other sources as well. There are podcasts and blogs and Daf Yomi study groups and all sorts of paths into our tradition.

The stunning wealth of information available today is, at least in this case, a blessing! But you might need some help, and that’s what I am here for.  This is what Rabbi Goodman, our interim Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, is here for.  This is what Rabbi Freedman, head of our Joint Jewish Education Program (J-JEP) is here for. Rabbi Shugerman, our new Director of Development, is also happy to help.

We are all happy to help guide you through the Jewish bookshelf. We offer many opportunities, through Derekh in particular, to get in touch with our ancient texts, which, once you dig into them, can glow with the contemporary shine of personal meaning today, but are grounded in the weightiness of ancient authority.

And what kind of things might you learn? I’m so glad you asked!

Here are just a few of the things that we have covered in various sessions at Beth Shalom in the past year: 

  • We learned how to manage our anger, and why silence is key to wisdom from one of our greatest thinkers, Maimonides.
Maimonides, from the statue in Cordoba
  • We learned that giving tzedaqah is “psycho-effective,” that is, it not only benefits the receiver in a physical way, but also helps the giver understand that we should all be less attached to our own possessions and moreso to our own spiritual relationships, from 18th-century Rabbis Hayyim Vital and Jonathan Eybeschutz. 
  • We have discussed the importance of speaking up in the face of corruption, and of pursuing justice over material things, from our ancient prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel.
  • We have explored our need for gratitude for what we have, from the Mishnah.
  • We have learned that the essential goal of prayer is not an empty recitation of words in an ancient language, but rather an opportunity for self-judgment. That is exactly the meaning of the word, tefillah.

George Bernard Shaw is purported to have said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  It is adults who can truly appreciate how awesome and rich our people’s wisdom is. So you might have missed these things in Hebrew school. But the good news is, as Benjamin Franklin said, “The doors of wisdom are never shut.” We put a lot of emphasis on teaching children, who are not wired to appreciate the complexity of our tradition, and not enough emphasis on initiating adults into the most important mitzvah, the most essential holy opportunity of Jewish life: finding meaningful guidance in our texts. 

One of the great challenges that we face as Americans is what I see over and over as a crisis of guidance. We hold in front of us the principle of freedom, and understand that to mean that everybody is entitled to make their own choices, with no judgment from others allowed. And the challenge that I see, particularly in younger people, is that we are rudderless. We may be taught how to prepare for a career, but we are not taught how to shape our relationships, to live as part of a community, to think about how our actions affect the greater good.

And that is what our tradition offers – guidance on how to be better people, how to improve ourselves and our world. “When I pray,” said Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”

Perhaps one of the most tragic things we have experienced over the last year-and-a-half of pandemic has been the resistance by some to effective public health measures such as wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Our tradition, and the framework of mitzvot, is essentially about commitment to one another and to society, of being aware of the common good and pursuing it. 

The essential meaning of living inside the Jewish framework of mitzvot is understanding that we do not function solely as individuals, that we are not merely in this to pursue only our own whims and fantasies, but rather to see ourselves in relationship to the others around us, to act on and elevate the qedushah / holiness in those relationships.

Our actions, our words have meaning; our connection with and respect for others has meaning. And when we seek that meaning through learning and living our tradition, we create a better life for ourselves, with happier, healthier relationships with all the people around us.

My challenge to you on this Rosh Hashanah is to seek meaning. Don’t be a Jew by default.  That is no longer good enough in our modern American context. Seek the “why.” Discover the meaning in Jewish life by learning. Doing so will open up whole new worlds of understanding for you that will help you be a better person, offer guidance at crucial moments, and raise the qedushah around you.

Reach out to me or my colleagues here at Beth Shalom.  We will set you on the path.  But we will also help you take it slow. Set a goal of learning one thing – just one – in the coming year about Judaism that you did not understand: Why we pray, why we read the Torah out loud, why we say berakhot before we eat or drink, why we continue to lament the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago, even if we are not expecting it to be rebuilt, and so forth.

And then, when you have learned that one thing, learn another. You’ll be glad you did. Seek the why. Make it meaningful!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Rosh HaShanah Day 2, 9/8/2021.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! Gathering – Rosh HaShanah Day 1 5782

First thing, before we go any further: let’s have a moment of gratitude for being able to gather once again. I know that for many of us, this is the first time you have been in this sanctuary for perhaps two years. Probably for many of us as well, this might be the largest gathering you have experienced for almost as much time.*

You’re OK! It’s all good! Take it all in. Let’s say sheheḥeyyanu to acknowledge how awesome this is:

ברוך אתה ה’ א-להינו מלך העולם, שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

Barukh Attah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, sheheḥeyyanu, veqiyyemanu, vehigi’anu lazeman hazeh.

Praised are You, God, for giving us life, sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this extraordinarily holy moment.

Second, I think we need to acknowledge that, even though some of us are here in the Sanctuary, many more are still not, because we are still not free from pandemic anxiety. Even as we gather at this moment, we continue to pray for a time when we can do so without any concern for our health and safety.

I’ll be talking today about what it means to gather as Jews. But first, a brief introduction to this year’s High Holiday theme: Make it Meaningful!

***

When I went to Israel for the first time in the summer of 1987 on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, I had a very good friend named Josh Kosoy. We were singing buddies – he wrote songs and played guitar quite well, and I helped sing and harmonize. Josh was from Houston, and although we were both entering 12th grade, he had already been through rehab for drug addiction, so he was a sort of fascinating character to me in that his life had been so challenged in a way that mine had not. 

And he looked the part, too. When we visited the Dead Sea with our group, as we were getting off the bus, two plainclothes Israeli policemen pulled Josh and me to the side and searched us for drugs, paying much more attention to Josh. There were none, of course, but I’ll never forget THAT.

At one point during the summer, Josh adopted a stray kitten that had found its way into our dorm. For several days the kitten and Josh were inseparable. Then one morning, Josh awoke to find the kitten lying on his belly, dead. We were all very upset by the loss of this cute kitten, who had wandered into our lives only to leave abruptly. We gave the cat a very moving funeral.

In retrospect, the story reminds me of the end of the book of Jonah, which we will read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, in which Jonah feels compassion for a dead squash plant. When he expresses remorse, God rebukes Jonah for caring so deeply for a plant, after failing to have compassion for the people of Nineveh. God, of course, having created both the squash and the Ninevese, correctly framed Jonah’s earlier failure: how could Jonah have felt more for the dead plant than for people?

What made this tiny, homeless cat meaningful to us? It was that it had become part of our lives, part of our story. It had given us partnership, a few hours of cuddly enjoyment. It was a living thing that Josh could care for above and beyond his own needs; make him feel protective and needed and responsible for this life. It gave him, at least for a couple days, a special sense of purpose. And then it was gone.

One of the themes to which I regularly return is how engagement with Jewish life can bring us meaning. My mission as your rabbi is to ensure that Judaism is meaningful to you, that your involvement is never merely “checking the box,” or a mere reflex, or something that you do just to please your parents or grandparents or because you feel guilty. Practicing Judaism actually helps you improve your life, your community, and the world. And the key to making that happen is to find the meaning.

But it’s not like meaning just wanders in, like a stray kitten. Rather, you have to make it happen. To borrow an idea from physics, you have to put a little work into the system, some activation energy. If you just let Yom Kippur go by, or Pesaḥ, or Ḥanukkah or Sukkot or Shavuot or Tish’ah BeAv or your nephew’s berit millah or your friend’s wedding without framing it properly, you will not benefit from the experience.

Yes, I know that is hard, particularly if you do not have the tools with which to frame things Jewishly. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: [stage whisper] that’s why I’m here! I can give you those tools. And not just me: all the people that work here at Beth Shalom. That’s why we are here: to help you make Judaism meaningful. We offer ideas and activities and programs and discussions all the time to help you frame your life with meaning.

And that is what we will be talking about over these High Holidays. Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” By which I mean, don’t let life go by without paying attention, without putting it all in Jewish perspective, without putting in the activation energy that is the catalyst for change in yourself and the world. That is what our tradition is for. And we are going to look at this idea of making it meaningful through four perspectives:

  • Gathering (today)
  • Finding the Why (Rosh HaShanah Day 2)
  • Engaging With Israel (Kol Nidrei) 
  • Framing Holy Moments (Yom Kippur day)

What I hope you will come away with is new ideas on how our tradition can fill your life with meaning, so that you can improve your outlook and reap the benefits of a purposeful life, and that we as a community and really the whole world may also be improved through your engagement with Judaism.

I reconnected with my friend Josh when I moved to Houston in 1996, back in my engineering days. Almost coincidentally, he was part of a group of friends who were running a ragtag theater troupe with which I had become involved. 

I left Houston in the spring of 1999, returned to Israel for a while, and then ended up in cantorial school in New York. Sadly, Josh die three years later, a victim of his own internal struggles. Reflecting on his tragic life and death, I understand that the meaning embedded in our friendship was, of course, much deeper than what we had with that poor kitten. But the process was the same: time and energy invested in friendship, in singing and traveling together, in being harassed by police together, and all the little experiences and moments that make for the depth in relationships. 

Embedded within those moments, in the interstices of life, we find meaning.

***

I do not think that our ancestors thought too deeply about meaning in being Jewish. They did not have to: Judaism was the scaffolding of their lives. The lifecycle events, the holidays, the laws and customs and foods and all sorts of boundaries. They lived and breathed Judaism, knowing that they were different from their non-Jewish neighbors, but, like the fish who does not see the water, Jewish living was simply the fabric of their lives. It was not “religion,” in the distant, Protestant sense with which we understand it here in America. Rather, being a Jew was to live with Judaism as the spiritual wrapped up in the mundane, while keeping in step with the calendar of our tradition. It’s what made them a people, distinct from the others around them, and connected to each other.

That is not true for us. We can choose to be here or not. We can choose to open the siddur / prayerbook, to belong to a synagogue, to give tzedaqah, to avoid ḥametz on Pesaḥ, and so forth. Or not. Many, many of us have opted out, and of course I find that very sad. That is the great irony of contemporary America: on the one hand, we live here more freely than at any other time in Jewish history, but we also have the freedom to not be Jewish.

But I think the reason that so many Jews have opted out of Judaism is because they were unable to find Jewish engagement meaningful. I cannot count the number of people who tell me about how their grandmother used to make the most wonderful Shabbat and holiday dinners, and how they were so special, but then when grandma died, that custom, which was so meaningful for the whole family, just went away. I cannot count the number of people who remember going to synagogue regularly as a child with their family on Shabbat mornings, but do not bring their own children to shul.

Where did that meaning go? Was it merely eclipsed by pressure to achieve at school or work, social media, travel soccer leagues, stress over government dysfunction and a worldwide pandemic and a myriad other things? Did we check it at the door at Ellis Island? Have we somehow forgotten about the power of Jewish life? 

I do not know. But I will tell you this: we need it. We need meaning. And most of us are probably searching for it in the wrong places.

We need meaning because, unlike our ancestors who swam in a Jewish sea, we have no framework. We have been burdened with the curse of infinite choice. Paper or plastic? Whitening, breath-freshening, cavity-preventing, enamel-restoring, or tartar-fighting toothpaste? Harvard or Yale or CMU or Pitt? Squirrel Hill or Shadyside or Lawrenceville? Brand-name or generic? We are constantly barraged with choices, choices which wear us down, but also have us always second-guessing ourselves. Did I make the right choice?

And ultimately, many of those choices are meaningless, in the Big Picture. But we spend so much energy on them that if we do not have a framework to our lives, guideposts to help us along, most of us just blindly stumble from thing to thing, not framing our direction in a way that is helpful, letting the world act on us without individually acting within the world. This is likely a contributing factor to the epidemics of anxiety, depression, addiction and the like that plague our society.

Not that Judaism is a 100% foolproof cure for all those ills. But there is no question that when one gains spiritual satisfaction from a traditional framework, the positive benefits tend to push some of those other things out of the way.

One of the primary ways in which we derive meaning from our tradition is through gathering. From the moment in Bereshit / Genesis when God takes a piece of Adam’s rib to create Eve, saying, לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ – Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado – It is not good for this person to be alone, we understand that the fundamental building block of meaning is relationship with others.  

And so we gather. 

***

At the center of virtually every Jewish custom is gathering. We of course gather for tefillah / prayer, as we are doing right now. We gather for holiday meals, particularly on Shabbat and Rosh HaShanah and on Pesaḥ. We gather for lifecycle events – weddings, baby namings, beritot millah (ritual circumcisions), benei mitzvah, funerals, and so forth. We gather to learn and to celebrate. We also love to gather institutionally – there is never a shortage of Jewish organizations, with a palette of alphabet-soup abbreviations: JCC, JAA, JCRC, JFedPGH, JJEP, CDS, USCJ, URJ, HIAS, AJC, and on and on. We are the only people who love gathering so much that the presidents of our organizations have a meta-organization: The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

And we do that gathering pretty well. Yes, I know we like to complain about our organizations and our gatherings, but that only demonstrates how much we care about gathering. The author and consultant Priya Parker, in her book The Art of Gathering, although not herself Jewish, praises the Jews for our gathering talents. In teaching what she calls, “good gathering,” Ms. Parker invokes the “Passover Principle”: that before anyone convenes or participates in any type of gathering, we should ask ourselves, “Why is this gathering different from all my other gatherings?” 

What is it that makes for good gathering? What makes gathering meaningful? Intentionality. Gathering for a specific purpose. This year in particular, following our gradual (and, I hope, ongoing) emergence from the pandemic, our intentionality is a low-hanging fruit. Remember when we said “Sheheeyanu” a few minutes ago? That simple ritual, a well-known berakhah, helped us bring these High Holidays into focus: We are grateful merely for the ability to gather once again.

Intentionality is the key to good gathering. And we have our own word for that: kavvanah. No Jewish gathering, or ritual of any kind, should be lacking in kavvanah. It is the glue that holds our words together, that unites our hearts, minds, mouths, and hands. You may think that tefillah / prayer is a jumble of words in an ancient language which you do not understand, and without kavvanah it is exactly that. But if we have prepared ourselves properly to gather, with kavvanah, with intention, then tefillah becomes not just a jumble, but an opportunity – to check in with ourselves, to take inventory, to meditate, to breathe, to attempt to feel the qedushah / holiness in the air around us and in our lives, to remember the others in our midst and our connection with and obligations to them.

And as far as Ms. Parker’s guidance is concerned, many of the other things we do as Jews are great gathering principles. We have been preparing for these Ten Days of Teshuvah for at least a month, by blowing shofar and reciting Psalm 27 every morning, and over the past nine days as we have recited Seliot, prayers asking for forgiveness, every day. And virtually every Jewish holiday requires preparation, Pesaḥ being perhaps the most physically extensive.

And Ms. Parker also highlights an idea that I think we also do quite well: that the best kinds of gathering transport us to a temporary alternative world.

To go back for a moment to something I mentioned earlier: our lives are not saturated in Judaism like those of our ancestors. We live in multiple worlds, but most of the time we are just Americans, fully integrated into the society around us. The water in which we swim is American culture. So when we take that opportunity to do something Jewish – perform a ritual, go to a synagogue service, enjoy a festive holiday meal, learn a piece of Talmud, and so forth – we are actually doing exactly what Ms. Parker suggests. We set up a kavvanah, an intention; we speak a foreign language, we don special paraphernalia, we use unique choreography, we eat particular foods, we perform certain, curious customs.

You are sitting right now in one corner of this temporary, alternative world. And sure, it does not feel so strange to most of us, because some of us have been doing this all our lives. But think of how unique and powerful this world might seem to others who have not yet experienced it. And consider how fortunate you are to have been given this holy opportunity, by virtue of birth, or by having joined the Jewish people.

And think of how awesome it is that all of us are experiencing this holy moment together, right now. And particularly after a year and a half of isolation, of added anxiety and distance and loneliness. Consider how wonderful it is to gather right now at this moment, even as the pandemic is still not done with us. Consider how meaningful it is to be a part of this community, to be a part of this qehillah qedoshah, this holy congregation.

So here is a brief prayer for this holy moment of gathering, full of meaning:

Modim ananu lakh. Grateful are we to You, God, for endowing human beings with the tools to engage with physics, chemistry, and biology, and the wisdom and ability to manipulate our world, to produce vaccines which have enabled us to gather today. Thank You for giving us the ability to connect with one another, to share stories and celebrations and grief, which help us through our days. Thank You for the gift of family and friends and community, for which we are so grateful as we support each other through these long months of separation. Thank You for the gift of prayer and the framework of tradition, which have enabled us to open our hearts and lend structure to our lives. 

How fortunate are we to have these gifts!

I hope that, as we move forward from this point, that we continue to be grateful not only for being in each others’ presence, but also for the Jewish framework that we have received to help bring meaning to that gathering.

We’ll talk more tomorrow about how digging deep into the Jewish bookshelf can further fill your life with meaning.

Next in the 5782 High Holiday series:
Rosh HaShanah, Day 2: Make it Meaningful! Seeking the Why

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh HaShanah 5782, September 7, 2021.)

* On the day this sermon was delivered, during a period in which the Delta variant had caused a significant local spike in infections, about 300 people gathered in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom, a room that seats about 1600 people. All who were allowed into the Sanctuary were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and all were required to wear masks for the entire time that they were there.

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Gather. Customize. Listen. (Minhag) – Rosh Hashanah 5781, Day 2

There is a classic rabbinic story about the mother who is teaching her son how to make a meatloaf for their Rosh Hashanah lunch. After mixing the ground beef and onion and egg and breadcrumbs and spices, she rolls up the loaf, chops the ends off and throws them away, and places it in the meatloaf pan.

The son notices that she has chopped off the ends, and, concerned about unnecessary food waste in a world where climate change and sustainability are paramount, asks his mother why she throws the ends away.

“I don’t know,” she says. That’s how my mother, your grandmother did it.

They call the grandmother to ask. She says, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.”

They call the great-grandmother to ask. She is not well; she is weak, and can barely talk. “Why did I chop the ends off?” she asks, reflecting deep into the recesses of her mind. “Why did I chop the ends off? Because the pan was too small.” 

***

We are a people who are committed to tradition. “Tradition!” calls Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a word that captures a whole lot of things in three short syllables.

Our theme for these High Holidays is “Back to Basics.” Yesterday, we spoke about the ongoing value of halakhah, usually translated as “Jewish law,” although that is at best an approximation. More accurately, halakhah is “the way to walk through life while acting on the imperative to be holy people.” In particular, we spoke about the Conservative movement’s role in conserving halakhah by occupying the central area between tradition and change. 

But another essential aspect of tradition, and indeed a basic feature of Jewish life, is the area of Jewish behaviors that are not halakhah, not based in Jewish law from the Torah or Talmud, but rather in the area of minhag, custom. Customs are not mandatory, and can in fact be easily changed, but stripped of customs, Judaism is not recognizable. Medieval rabbis, when describing ancient minhagim that did not rise to the level of halakhah, would say, “Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu.” Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.

Part II. Minhag / Custom

Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.

So what are these minhagim / customs? Some, like the wearing of a kippah or the recitation of kaddish while in mourning are so ubiquitous and so long-standing that they seem like they should be halakhah. Some are instantly recognizable as symbols of the richness of Jewish life, like braiding hallah or singing songs at Shabbat dinner. Some are deeply personal and spiritual, like immersing in the mikveh before Yom Kippur (something which I am going to deeply miss this year, because I am not convinced that I can do it safely). Some are family things, like that special dish (meatloaf, maybe?) that your grandmother made for holiday meals, and some are regional, like the Persian-Jewish custom of whipping each other with scallions while singing Dayyenu.

Melodies. Clothes. Foods, Ritual objects. Holiday practices. Many of these things fall into the area of minhag, and it is the minhagim / customs of Jewish life that make Judaism interesting. Think of it this way: you have to wear clothes in public. If you do not, you are violating the law (and risk being arrested). But the law does not dictate the color of your clothes, or whether you wear a tie or a hat or a dress, or who designed the clothes. The variety and palette of clothing options are what allow us to express either our individuality or our commitment to a group, on a sliding scale therein, and this variety is what makes clothing appealing.

Some minhagim are ubiquitous throughout the Jewish world, and some are particular to a family or a small town in Poland or a region of North Africa. 

These minhagim are in our hands.

They are in our hands in the sense that we can carry them and give them to our children and grandchildren. They are in our hands in the sense that we can acknowledge the power of minhagim only if we act on them. They are in our hands in the sense that it is up to us to choose to continue them or not.

How many of us occasionally think about something our parents or grandparents used to do that we do not? How many of us have discovered our grandfather’s tallit, for example, and wistfully recalled playing under its folds and fringes, but would never consider taking our own grandchildren to synagogue to do the same? How many of us have tried to recall the tasty dishes of past Passovers (in my house, for example, it’s my Grandma Rosie’s stuffed cabbage recipe, which my mother affectionately describes as a “patshke,” a messy bother, that may not survive to my children’s generation), or the familiar holiday melodies that we cannot quite remember, or that game that we used to play with cousins on Rosh Hashanah, but we haven’t done so in years because everybody lives so far apart now? 

One of the things that we continue to lose, generation after generation in America, is what Brandeis Jewish studies professor emerita Sylvia Barack Fishman has identified as the “thick relationship” with Jewish life. You know, the fact that there used to be something like 12 kosher butchers on Murray Avenue, and how at one time all your neighbors were Jewish. You knew where everybody was on the first day of the month of Tishrei, because who didn’t go to shul on Rosh Hashanah? And you knew that a certain product in the grocery store was kosher because, as my father has told me about his own mother’s shopping habits, “everybody else was buying it.”

Murrau Avenue, Squirrel Hill, 1932

We have clearly lost that sense of “thickness,” that constant connection and reinforcement of Jewishness in America, even here in the shtetl of Squirrel Hill. There are many sociological factors in play here, and these things are far too complex to discuss here.

But the greater point is this: it is the customs of Jewish life that give it its ongoing appeal from generation to generation, and we let go of them at our own peril. So as much as halakhah is foundational to what we do, so too is the varied tapestry of minhag that seasons our Jewishness. And we need that thickness, that rich range of customs to ensure that Judaism continues to enrich our lives and our world. We need to be in the thick of it, in thick relationship with Jewish life, culture, ritual, and of course custom.

So how do we do this, given that our world has changed so dramatically in the past few decades? I am going to suggest three actions that are rooted in Jewish minhag:

You know how cool businesses have one word names? I’m going to give each of these ideas a cool name. Imagine them written in a simple, bold typeface, with a period at the end.

Gather.

Gathering as a family, gathering with friends, gathering as a community in a Jewish context – this is the most fundamental Jewish minhag. Yes, gathering is a little fraught right now, but we are still doing it, even if this virtual connection is somewhat tenuous and woefully unsatisfying. And I assure you that when this whole pandemic is over, we will surely gather once again.

For this to work, however, gathering in this sense needs a Jewish ritual to frame it. Gather for Shabbat meals. Gather for a brief havdalah candle-lighting with cocktails. Gather for services via Zoom at Beth Shalom (and some day, bimherah beyameinu, speedily in our days, we will be able to gather again for services in person on a large scale). Gather for singing niggunim, which we have done both virtually and in-person.

And a subset of gathering is tefillah, prayer, although not in the way you might think.

Look, I know that synagogue services are not for everybody; they are something of an acquired taste. I know that if you do not read Hebrew, or if the melodies are unfamiliar, or if you just cannot quite stomach classical descriptions of God (yeah, BTW, I can’t either. Let’s talk!), if those things do not work for you, then tefillah does not work.

Also, I know that Jewish prayer takes a long time. Even on a weekday, in a Zoom service that is traditionally complete yet also short and to the point, I spend about 70 minutes in prayer. That’s actually a significant chunk of my day. 

But let’s face it: despite our halakhic obligations, tefillah, that is, the recitation of liturgy in an ancient language that we do not understand is not really why we gather in synagogues. OK, so your friends will NOT believe you if you tell them your rabbi said this, but let me be clear about this: Fulfilling our obligation for daily prayer might be the nominal reason why we have synagogue services, but there are a host of implicit reasons for gathering in synagogue that have nothing to do with halakhah: among them, seeing your friends, meeting new people, learning, schmoozing, eating, comforting those who mourn, celebrating lifecycle events, etc., etc.

Ladies and gentlemen, even during these COVID-19 times, we have strong daily minyanim, every morning and every evening, and even without breakfast, or the opportunity to walk up and down kibitzing in the chapel (not mentioning any names here, but this is a long-standing Jewish minhag), we are still gathering, because it is just so powerful. 

Next: Customize.

Creatively redesign your Jewish practice; that is, making new customs. 

We gave you tools in the High Holiday Guide to hold a Rosh Hashanah seder, wherein before you start eating in earnest, you spend a few minutes discussing symbols of the holiday season, like a fish head (so you should be like the head of the year and not the tail), or beets (a Hebrew pun that plays on the word for beet, seleq, sounding like the word for to scatter one’s enemies).

But you can also be creative on Pesah: there are online tools for making your own haggadah, so go for it.

And Sukkot is a wonderful holiday for creativity – build a sukkah and make it your own!

I’m guessing that there is not enough singing in your life right now. Make a songbook to share with your family. Who cares if you’re all tone deaf! Seek out new melodies; there are plenty of resources for this online.

Finally, Listen.

The third action that you can take is to pay attention. There are so many ways of connecting to Judaism and Jewish life right now, in addition to synagogue offerings: websites, blogs, podcasts, social media, and so forth and so on. It is so easy not to pay attention, because we have so many things vying for our eyeballs. But you should fight this inclination: Instead of tuning out, tune in by curating. Listen by creating a bookmark folder on your browser of favorite go-to Jewish sites: One for ideas about Jewish religion, one for your favorite rabbi’s blog (you should definitely bookmark themodernrabbi.com), one for your favorite Jewish news source, etc. 

But make it your custom to put some daily effort into finding out what’s going on in the Jewish world. As you have heard me say before, it’s not assimilation or intermarriage which are threats to the Jewish future; it’s indifference. Listen. Make paying attention your minhag.

The kosher butchers of Murray Avenue are not coming back; they will not be able to compete with Costco. But you can create the thick relationship of Jewish life in your own home. Gather, customize, listen. That is the secret “minhagic,” not halakhic, key to living a Jewish life. Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu – our parents’ customs are in our hands. And so too are our own customs. 

I am hoping that I or somebody else in my family will someday come up with a vegetarian version of my Grandma Rosie’s stuffed cabbage. And I look forward to hearing about your innovations as well, as we gather and listen to one another. 

Shanah tovah.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/20/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Halakhah / Reach Higher – Rosh Hashanah 5781, Day 1

OK, so let’s face it: we are missing right now the most valuable thing that synagogues offer: the opportunity to meet in person, to sing together with your community, to rub elbows at kiddush as you crowd around the last remaining slices of lox. We are missing the glue that holds us all together, the social capital that the synagogue experience is all about.

So what remains? That is the subject of this High Holiday sermon series for the new year of 5781: the essentials. The social shell of shul (say that ten times fast) has been stripped away, and what is left is, well, Judaism. It’s back to basics, folks.

Instead of dwelling on what we do NOT have at this time, I have been trying to lean into what we do have: Jewish tradition, that is, law, custom, values and story. While a synagogue thrives as a beit kenesset, a house of gathering, the synagogue also plays a role as the symbolic center of what we do in our homes as well. 

My central function as a rabbi is not to run services. It is not to give eulogies at funerals or give a charge to a bat mitzvah, although these are clearly things that I do. Rather, I see my role as a rabbi is to inspire you while using the words and history and customs of Jewish life and tradition, and to be as creative as possible, so that you will actually perk up your ears and listen. While the shofar’s job is to wake you up, my job is to get your attention now that you’re awake, so that you might go out into the world and act.

And these six months of pandemic isolation have been difficult for all of us. In the wake of so much sickness and death, unemployment and economic devastation, our collective emotional health is not good. Statistics are telling us that more of us are experiencing anxiety and depression than before, that one in four young people are experiencing suicidal ideation. And then there is everything else going on in the world: the public clashes over racism, the anxiety surrounding the coming national election, hurricane season, devastating, record-setting wildfires out west, and so forth.

We need something to hold onto, emotionally and spiritually. We need basic, foundational principles that will firm up the earth beneath our feet. And that is why this series of sermons features the essential pieces of what it means to be Jewish today. 

The framework I will be following for the four sermons of High Holidays 5781 is: Halakhah / Jewish law, Minhag / Jewish custom, Jewish values, and the Jewish story. Here are the basics.

***

Part 1 – Halakhah

Over the summer, I read for the first time a wonderful novel: Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, a staple of contemporary African literature that captures the disintegration of traditional Igbo society in Nigeria under British colonialism in the 19th century. The title of the book, as you may know, comes from a poem by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats, and indeed Achebe, were convinced that human beings cannot successfully maintain traditional ways in the face of a new construct. In Achebe’s novel, the Igbo’s way of life is upended when the British colonizers demean their customs and beliefs and kill or jail those who speak out against them. The rich sphere of Igbo tradition and hierarchy was no match for the invaders’ firepower and courts and prisons.

We the Jews are trying to maintain our own traditions while balancing lives that bear little resemblance to those of our ancestors. We have been doing this for 2,000 years, but in particular since the French Revolution in 1789, when Napoleon granted citizenship to the Jews of France, the struggle between tradition and modernity began in earnest. When Jews were allowed to live among their non-Jewish neighbors and attend their schools and universities and mingle in non-Jewish society, they were faced with the question of, “How do I maintain my Jewishness while also joining the wider society?”  

And we continue to face this question today. Let’s face it: many of us have given up the struggle. We all have relatives and Jewish friends who no longer belong to synagogues, who no longer participate in Jewish life. And the pandemic has, I know, only exacerbated this situation.

But you’re still here. The very fact that you are participating in this service right now is a strong indicator that you have not yet given up. And that has everything to do with the resilience of the Conservative movement, the ideological center of American Jewish life. Perhaps defying Yeats and Achebe, the center can hold! Let me explain.

 Judaism has many, many features. Law, customs, stories, values, practices, wisdom, rabbinic argument, and so forth. But the essential feature of Judaism is doing. Yes, belief is important, but it actually takes a back seat to behavior. And there is real wisdom in that: simply being Jewish will not pass Judaism on to the next generation. So too thinking Jewish thoughts. Only doing Jewish will keep the flame of Judaism alive.

And since our subject is “Back to Basics,” what are those essential Jewish actions?

It all comes down to halakhah. That is a word that is often translated as “Jewish law,” although that is an inadequate translation. Halakhah is, as many of you know, derived from the Hebrew verb, “Lalekhet,” to go. It is the way we go through life as we pursue being holy, an analog of the Chinese philosophy of Tao, the Way. A better definition of halakhah is “the way to walk through life while acting on the imperative to be holy people.” 

And we still need halakhah. Trust me on this: our world is more fragmented than ever. The information age has not made us smarter, nor more interconnected in a meaningful way. On the contrary: social media has enabled us to divide more easily, to always see ourselves in opposition. Ever tried to follow an argument in a Facebook thread?

Halakhah is how we connect to other people and to God. We have a need to be connected to each other right now through low-tech, traditional means. We need traditional structures for communal support. We need guideposts to assist us in making good choices. And the best way to do that is to engage with Judaism’s traditions, to walk through life in the way that our ancestors have handed down to us. And we can still do that without compromising our contemporary existence.

Yes, halakhah has many intricacies, and applies to all facets of our lives, from how we eat to how we speak to how we interact with others. But the most essential aspects of halakhah are those that enable us to frame our lives in qedushah, holiness. And the most enduring, regular features of halakhah, the three that are most beneficial, are Shabbat, kashrut / mindful eating, and tefillah / prayer.

  1. Tefillah: I spend at least an hour in prayer every day. It not only connects me to my community, it also connects me to myself. I wrap myself in tallit and tefillin every morning, and I am energized by being literally swaddled in our tradition, and asking myself the hard questions as I start my day: Who am I? What is my life? What are the acts of hesed / lovingkindness I perform every day? My life is enriched by these self-reflective moments. 

    And, yes, there are days when my mouth utters the words but my mind wanders, allowing mental space and time for reflection, which are also healthy and stimulate my creativity. 

    Whether you do it every day or just a few times a year, tefillah is an essential Jewish act.
  1. Kashrut: Mindful eating. You are what you eat. Paying attention to what we eat, to the lines drawn in Creation, to the limits set on our behavior, ensures that our sensitivity to what we have been given by God and how we should respect it rises dramatically. 

    We have so much choice, and it is killing us. Not every option is a good one. Furthermore, making good choices about what I put into my mouth also reminds me that what I say, i.e. what I do with my mouth when I am not eating, must be just as holy. Kashrut.
  1. Shabbat: Respect yourself; respect your neighbor; respect the world. You need a day off, a separation from all of the craziness of the week. Shabbat helps me tune out the anxiety, reconnect with family, reconnect with myself. Those magical 25 hours are a gift that restore the soul. Take that break every week; you need it.

Three things – a simple halakhic formula for improving your life and our world.

Those are the fundamentals. But what about the ideological center of Jewish life? How does our being affiliated with Conservative Judaism help us act on these imperatives?

In 1950, the Conservative movement made the halakhic decision that if you lived too far to walk to the synagogue on Shabbat, that it was better that you should drive than (a) stay at home or (b) be so ashamed of driving on Shabbat that you have to park three blocks away. The whole raison d’etre of the Conservative movement was to enable traditional Jews, many of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants, to adhere to halakhah while living as proud, integrated Americans. The intent was and still is to conserve halakhah by occupying the central area between tradition and change. That is a principle that has held now for more than a century. 

The fact that you are participating in this service right now, in this virtual space, is the best example of why you, and the Jewish world, need the Conservative movement. At the beginning of the pandemic, way back in March, synagogues all over the world shut down for in-person services. Most Orthodox congregations could not meet for services at all. Most Reform congregations do not have daily services. So the overwhelming majority of synagogues that continued meeting for daily tefillah / prayer were Conservative-affiliated. And Conservative rabbis paved the way for a halakhically-acceptable way of conducting these services online, to both protect the health of our participants and still make it possible for people to grasp the daily framework of Jewish tradition that is tefillah, Jewish prayer, to enable folks to get that daily jolt of energy and mindfulness that tefillah gives.

One of the hallmarks of my own approach to halakhah, and the one that I think is most important for our community, is that I acknowledge that we have a range of practices within our own congregation: some folks who are very traditional, and some who are not at all. And I do not believe in shaming anybody for what they do or do not do in a Jewish framework, but I do want you to reach higher. 

Your commitment to halakhah, to engaging in the traditional way of living Jewishly, will be paid back to you in the form of more sanctified relationships, a better sense of self, and a healthier world. We at Beth Shalom strive to give you the space and the tools you need to reach higher. That is why we still do many things the traditional way; that is why we adhere to halakhic principles surrounding Shabbat, kashrut, and tefillah.

We in Conservative Judaism have held the center of American Jewish life for more than a century. Despite Yeats’ assertion that the center cannot hold, we are still here, providing a space for tefillah, a means of pursuing the benefits of a life lived in a halakhic context while accounting for how substantially the world has changed since the creation of the halakhic system.

And you know what? We need this, now more than ever. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to be part of a congregation that does not offer live services for their people on this day. You are here because you need this, because we need this; this virtual gathering space, a testament to the strength of the idea of “Tradition and Change,” is a sign of the vitality of the Conservative movement, and the ongoing value of halakhah, the way that we go.

The center must hold. We are it. The world needs tradition, and the Jewish world needs the flexibility of Conservative Judaism.

Tomorrow, we will talk about the rich palette of minhag, customs which illuminate and flavor Jewish life.

Shanah Tovah! A healthier 5781 to all.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5781, 9/19/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Kavvanot

Today the World is Pregnant

Hayom harat olam. Today the world is pregnant, as we will recite six times on Saturday and Sunday. Not the traditional translation, I know, but a more accurate one. The world is pregnant with a new year, one upon which we will place our hopes and our dreams.

As I scramble with last-minute Rosh Hashanah preparation, I am placing a whole lot of pressure on 5781 to be a better year. And as all parents know, you cannot force your children to be better; you can only love them and nurture them and provide the environment in which you hope they will thrive.

That environment is the one that we create. If we want an environment of health, we have to create that. If we want happiness, we must work to make others happy. If we want truth and justice and fair treatment for all people, we need to foster that atmosphere in the neighborhoods and cities and nations in which we live.

So yes, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate God’s coronation with the sounding of a horn and music and liturgy of depth and grandeur. But we must also focus on working harder, even in the diminished capacity in which we find ourselves, to nurture 5781 and greet her in a way that reflects our highest values. Hayom harat olam.

Join me at all of Congregation Beth Shalom’s services at https://zoom.us/j/896828166. Schedules and much more information may be found at https://bethshalompgh.org/high-holidays-5781/.

שנה טובה / Shanah tovah! A happy new year to you.

(BTW, the photo above was taken by Jim Busis, publisher of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. The sock at the end was an experiment – it actually makes it much more difficult to blow.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

(This is the second in the “All of This Belongs to You” series of High Holiday sermons. You may want to read the first before this one: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever)

While I was in Philadelphia with my Israeli son this summer, we stumbled across an exhibit of Marvel characters and memorabilia at the Franklin Institute. And I thought, OK, it’s wonderful that Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, a nice Jewish boy from New York, created these characters and this universe and the tremendous wealth of entertainment value that they have all produced, but a museum exhibit? Really?

Now you may know that I am not the most avid consumer of pop culture. I have no clue who Lizzo is. But something that this exhibit made me suddenly aware of was the great power and cachet that the very idea of superheroes has today. On some level, we all wish that we had some superheroes today. Since we’re entering the year 5780, that means we’re back in the ’80s, people! Here’s an appropriate musical cue:

Consider the milieu in which the first contemporary superheroes emerged. American Jewish kids, children of immigrants from Europe, hatched the first comic-book based superheroes because the Jews needed them. Hitler was murdering our people in Europe; Jews in America and elsewhere seemed powerless to convince their governments to stop the transport of Jews to camps, to halt the Nazi death machine. They needed help, help which they did not have. Help which was greater than any government or law-enforcement agency.

And so Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman in 1933. And Bob Kane (Kahn) and Bill Finger created Batman in 1938. And Joe (Hymie) Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America in 1941. And so forth. These, and many others, were the fantasy heroes who would save the Jews.

And there was even precedent for this in Jewish folktales of the middle ages: the golem, a mythical defender of the Jews fashioned out of clay, most famously put into action by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Leib ben Bezalel, in the 16th century. As some versions of the story go, the clay form would come to life when the Maharal would inscribe the letters of alef-mem-tav, emet, the Hebrew word for “truth,” into its forehead, and then would return to a clay mass when the alef was removed, leaving the word met, dead, in its place.

So it seems that the alef was the animating letter, the one that held the power, the silent letter that carries far more than its own linguistic weight.

And it is the same alef that begins the Hebrew word for love: ahavah. And it is also the same letter with which God speaks to the Israelites en masse at Mt. Sinai, opening the words of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, with the silent alef of the word Anokhi, I, the letter that speaks volumes without making a sound.

If I were a Jewish superhero, I would certainly wear an alef on my chest.

***

If you were here yesterday, you know that our theme for 5780 is, “All of This Belongs to You.” Now that the American-Jewish project of assimilation has run its course, the outstanding question is, “How might we reclaim our tradition for the needs of American Jews today?”

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.

My appeal to you today is as follows: be a Jewish superhero! Proud, committed, open, willing to go the extra distance, maybe even bend the rules a bit to get the job done; not limited by convention – the Jewish world needs you!  

The folks who attend services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah are the more committed folks – the ones who are more likely to show up for synagogue events, who are more likely to participate in many of the aspects of Jewish life, to be more engaged.

So I am going to make the pitch to you to stand up for a new American Judaism – to be the superheroes who will forge that path of the Jewish future, the one that maintains and modernizes our heritage and highlights it for generations to come.  

We need a Beth Shalom, a Conservative movement, an American Judaism that reflects who we are and how we live right now. Yes, to some extent Judaism tells us how to live. But we must acknowledge that today, people relate very differently to Judaism, and to religion in general. While at one time, religion was an organizing principle that helped create a society in which you could trust people whom you did not know, our data-saturated and secular law-infused age has, to some, made this type of organizing principle unnecessary.

But that does not mean that Judaism is irrelevant. Quite the contrary! I think that the numbers of high-profile criminals with Jewish names that have floated across our screens in the past few years are only a symptom of what we have lost along the way to complete assimilation.

You have probably heard me say that Judaism, Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish learning offer us real value: they help make us better people and help build a better world. 

If only more Jews were to learn and live Jewish values! If only more Jews were to seek out and engage with Jewish practices – halakhah, learning the words of the Jewish bookshelf, and so forth – then perhaps, just perhaps we would not have had the likes of Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Cohen, Jeffrey Epstein. 

If more Jews knew their heritage and engaged with it, then maybe we would have a better chance of truly repairing the world.

So that is where you come in.

I recently heard a wonderful interview (On Being with Krista Tippett) with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a well-known Reform rabbi and author. He told the following story about the time he gave a tour of his synagogue’s sanctuary to children in the pre-school, and they theorized about what might be behind the curtain in the aron hakodesh, the ark:

One kid, obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university, opined that behind that curtain was absolutely nothing. Another kid, less imaginative, thought it had a Jewish holy thing in there. A third kid, obviously a devotee of American game show television subculture, guessed that behind that curtain was a brand new car.

And the fourth kid said “No, you’re all wrong. Next week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there would be a giant mirror.” From a four-year-old. Somehow, that little soul knew that through looking at the words of sacred scripture, he would encounter himself in a new and heightened and revealing way.

Torah, by which I mean not just the scrolls behind the curtain but all of accumulated learning and commentary and argument and behaviors it has yielded over the last three millennia, is not an old, dusty collection of obscure literature. It is us. It is a reflection of who we are and how we live. It is an assessment of our lives, an opportunity to consider who we are and how we can improve ourselves.

It IS a mirror.

But when we truly pay attention, when we embrace and commit ourselves to learning the wisdom of our tradition, we see who we are. It is a mirror that reflects not our outsides, but our insides.

And, truth be told, not everybody wants to stand in front of that kind of mirror. We do not want to be judged. We usually do not want to have to think too deeply about our own shortcomings.

But I want you stand before that mirror and think, How can I infuse my life with just a little more qedushah, more holiness? How can I teach Torah through my words, through my consumption choices, through my philanthropic donations? How can I bring a little more Torah to the world in how I interact with all the people around me? How can the awareness of myself and the world that Torah brings me shed a little more light on us all? 

Can I imagine myself with a giant, red alef on my chest, bringing my whole self into the synagogue, and then out into the world, armed with Torah? Heck – we already have the cape…

And the answer is, yes. Yes you can. You are going to be the alef.

And as a Jewish superhero, you’re going to need a mission. You know, “Fighting for truth, justice, and the American way!” Or “Here I come to save the day!” And here it is: Positive Judaism.

I have recently read a book that provides a blueprint for how to do that. It’s called The Happiness Prayer, by Rabbi Evan Moffic, who is a Reform rabbi who leads Congregation Solel, in Chicago. The premise of the book is that, drawing on the principles of positive psychology, Judaism can be a force for good in our lives and the world. I’m not going to go deep into the background on positive psychology – you can feel free to do that on your own time. 

Rabbi Moffic derives the principles of “Positive Judaism” from a well-known passage in the Talmud that he calls, “The Happiness Prayer.” It goes like this:

אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוכֵל פֵּרותֵיהֶם בָּעולָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לו לָעולָם הַבָּא. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם. וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. וְהַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית. וְהַכְנָסַת אורְחִים. וּבִקּוּר חולִים. וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה. וּלְוָיַת הַמֵּת. וְעִיּוּן תפילה. וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו. וְתַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם:

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit in this world and continue to yield fruit in the World to Come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; arriving at the beit midrash / house of study early–morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah outweighs them all.

This prayer appears in many traditional siddurim / prayerbooks, and it is based on passages found in the Talmud (Mishnah Peah 1:1, BT Shabbat 127a). 

Rabbi Moffic universalizes the language somewhat while preserving the prayer’s original intent. He interprets them as follows:

כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם / Honor those who gave you life.
גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind
הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning
הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life
בִקּוּר חולִים / Be there when others need you
הַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה / Celebrate good times
לְוָיַת הַמֵּת / Support yourself and others during times of loss
עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention
הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive
תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit

Now, this is a really fabulous template for finding happiness in Judaism, but I really do not have time to explain each of these. You might want to check out Rabbi Moffic’s book. But among these ten items, I think the most important ones are as follows:

גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind

Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty, says the bumper sticker. Well, yeah. (They do not have to be random or senseless.) Find ways to do good works for others and for society, because that is how we make this world a better place while endowing our own lives with a sense of meaning. The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explained that suffering is the root of kindness – understanding that we all suffer in one way or another, this suffering is always an opportunity to provide comfort through deeds of kindness. That, says Levinas, is God’s vector in the world; we become God’s hands.

הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning

An 80-year-long monumental study of life satisfaction began at Harvard University in 1938. One of the study’s key findings was that the happiest people were the ones who pursued and shared wisdom, which they attained through a lifetime of learning: from travel, from classes, from new experiences, from other people. The Jewish value of learning is not just about the Beit Midrash, the traditional study hall, but also that as we walk through life, we should always strive to acquire more knowledge, more wisdom, more experience. 

הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life

One of the major challenges that we face as a society is isolation. Thanks to our newfangled digital devices, it is possible for us to feel connected even when we are not. I’m not judging our use of technology, but I think there are reasons to be concerned. The antidote to this isolation is to reach out to others any way you can. Perhaps the most powerful connector in Jewish life is the Shabbat meal at home, or a festive meal in the Sukkah, and we should all be hosting more of them and inviting more people. But gathering in synagogue is also a powerful tool. I am especially grateful that Beth Shalom is attracting many new members nowadays, and that is due to your talent at hakhnasat orehim. But there is always room to grow – to reach out to somebody else, to get to know someone whom you do not. The power of community is found in the sharing of stories and experiences. By this time next year you I hope for you to count how many times and how many people you’ve hosted, and take stock of the ways in which these instances impacted and enriched your life.  

הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive

Related to the challenge of isolation is the fact that all of what we learn about the world through online platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. – is curated to do one thing: keep your eyeballs on that platform as long as possible. And so these platforms are constantly putting in front of you items that they already know you love. The difficulty here is that the algorithms are effectively constantly telling us, “You’re right,” continuously affirming our perspective. How much harder, then, is it for us to excuse the people around us for viewing the world in a way we feel is 100% wrong? And how much easier is it, then, to dig in our heels, even when doing so pushes us apart?

One of the most essential things that we should be thinking about, as we consider the brokenness of the world, is how to bring people together. And the key to doing so, to repairing the world, ladies and gentlemen, is forgiveness. And that does not mean overlooking the misdeeds of others who have treated you badly; it means reaching deep within yourself to find the intestinal fortitude to let go of the animosity and the desire for revenge. 

Forgiveness, says Rabbi Moffic, is actually a form of revenge – “a favor we do ourselves because it releases the energies we would have expended in feeling hurt and aggrieved.” Letting go of the anger we hold onto can be tremendously liberating. I have seen this happen.

עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention

You all know that I pray regularly, and that daily prayer brings real value to my life. And it can bring real value to yours as well, if you commit to it. However, tefillah / prayer is simply not one of those things that you can enter lightly. You really have to be intentional about it, and that is hard. In fact, it does not necessarily get easier the more you do it. But once you get the rhythm, the choreography, the themes, the language, it allows you to access yourself in a way that is unlike any other. It’s like yoga for your head and heart, soothing your soul and sensitizing you to the others around you. You cannot be a part of a minyan, a quorum of ten, without the others in the room, and that is by design. That magic combination of doing something good for your soul, reflecting quietly, reciting ancient words of tradition from a place of humility, and doing it in fellowship with others is healthy for your body, your mind, and your community.

תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit.

As a Jewish superhero, you have to be committed to the prime directive of the Jews, and that is to spread light in a too-dark world. And the way to do this is to know and understand the range of wisdom found on the Jewish bookshelf, and to use it to locate that mirror that Rabbi Kushner described. Our ancient wisdom is our stock-in-trade, the Jewish gift to the world. And you need to know more of it, so that you can bring out the best in yourself and in others. Pirqei Avot (6:1) teaches that the one who learns Torah for its own sake is clothed in humility, reverence, and modesty, and is slow to insult. If only more of us carried those qualities with us at all times!

***
Those are the pieces of the Happiness Prayer that I find most appealing, but you should not take my word for it. If you are going to be a Jewish Superhero, if you’re going to help create the Judaism of the 21st century, to help us reclaim our spiritual heritage, you are going to have to investigate some of this for yourself.

So find a big alef, whether physical or metaphorical, and pin it to your chest. Without the alef, we are met / dead. With the alef, we are emet / truth.

You are the alef. You are the superhero. All of this belongs to you! Now go out and make it happen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 10/1/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

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High Holidays Sermons

All of This Belongs to You: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Some of you may know that I am a big fan of the old comedy troupe from England, Monty Python, and spent (or arguably wasted) a good chunk of my adolescence memorizing some of their routines. 

There is a scene in their classic 1975 movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” when a feudal lord is preparing his son’s wedding, and is trying to explain to his adult son the importance of marrying the young woman that the father has chosen, because her father owns a lot of property. The son, who does not seem to care for property or farming or being a feudal lord, is completely disinterested. He only wants to sing, and the father is intent on stopping him from doing so, so that he can focus on the wedding.

At one point, the father gestures to the window dramatically, as if to survey all of his fields, and says, “One day, lad, all this will be yours.”

The son, regarding the window, says, “What, the curtains?”

The young man does not see the huge tracts of land that his father wants to bestow upon him. He does not see the legacy he is poised to inherit. He would rather just sing.

****

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in Jewish history. We are witnesses to the one of the most dramatic changes in Jewish life that has ever occurred. Let me explain.

Do you remember Abe Salem, alav hashalom / May peace be upon him? Abe was a key figure in this congregation, the Ritual Director, Torah reader and service leader for nearly a quarter-century. He was a survivor who spoke a barely-understandable patois of Yiddish and English, told nearly- unbelievable stories, like how he had once personally received a pistol from David Ben Gurion, and how in 1939, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, he was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp because the Russians suspected him to be a spy.

Abe is gone. He passed away two years ago at the age of 97. Zikhrono livrakhah. May his memory be for a blessing.

Ladies and gentlemen, the texture of the Jewish world is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when synagogues were run by scrappy survivors like Abe. Gone are the Old World sensibilities which drove the community of the past. Gone are the classic bubbies, who devoted their lives to cooking and doling out often-unwanted advice. Gone are many of the institutions that sustained Jewish life: the kosher butchers and bakers that once populated Murray Ave., the daily Yiddish papers. Gone are the Bundists, the Hebraists, the proto-Zionist veterans who left their comfortable lives in America to go serve in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. 

All that is left is us, ladies and gentlemen. We are the inheritors of our millennia-old tradition. And we are woefully ill-equipped to inherit it.

Because the top of the agenda for our parents and grandparents was assimilation. It was to be American. It was to fit in, not to stick out, not to be a greenhorn. When my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Pinia Reyzl Bronstein, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, at age 8, speaking not a word of English, she decided that she was going to acquire a perfect American accent, and she quit speaking Yiddish. And when she was raising my mother and her siblings on the North Shore of Boston, they would go to the neighbors’ apartment when they wanted to eat clams, like Americans; she would not dare cook them in her own kitchen while her mother, my great-grandmother Hannah was alive; after she was gone, kashrut disappeared as well.

My grandmother was not so moved by her Jewish heritage. She may as well have left that back in her shtetl, in what is today Ukraine. She knew that to be an American meant that she did not need to keep kosher or to fast on Tish’ah Be’Av.

Did you know that it was not uncommon for American Jews to celebrate Christmas in the first half of the 20th century? Families had trees and even hosted Christmas dinners: 

“In his 1958 study of second-generation immigrant Reform Jews on Chicago’s South Side, clinical psychologist and rabbi Milton Matz revealed that in the second generation parents often agreed that a Jewish child might need a Christmas tree to “hyphenate the contradiction between his Americanism and his Jewish ethnicism.” (Rabbi Joshua Plaut, myjewishlearning.com)

In subsequent generations, parents realized that there might be a contradiction here, and today there are very few Jews who celebrate Christmas. But no matter: the project of assimilation was deeply entrenched.

And in the course of this great project, what did we lose? I’ll tell you:

  • We lost the deep knowledge and familiarity with Jewish living. 
  • We lost the sense of the synagogue as an extension of our living rooms. 
  • We lost the sense of love and appreciation for the text of our tradition, the value of prayer and indeed the value of having a regular prayer practice. 
  • We lost the sense of deep interconnectedness and interdependence within our community. 
  • We lost the sense of the extended family as the essential unit. 
  • We lost almost all of the close neighborhoods in which the people knew and trusted each other and the businesses that depended on proximity. 
  • We have reduced our Judaism to lip-service: many of us declare proudly that we are Jewish without knowing what exactly our tradition teaches us.

It is undeniable that we have also gained: we gained more freedom, more independence. We moved out of cramped, urban environments into leafy, roomy suburbs. We gained entree into all quarters of American society, including into the exclusive clubs and law firms and echelons of government. And still, despite current trends, obvious signs of anti-Semitism are the exception rather than the norm.

Get ready, folks; I am about to do something I almost never do: use a sports analogy:

We are witnesses to the greatest Jewish hand-off play ever. What do I mean?

The American Jewish project of assimilation has run its course. We are done. We are as American as every other immigrant group.

And I am in fact concerned. But I am also hopeful.

Why? Because the receivers of that heritage, that handed-off football, are reclaiming it. Our parents and grandparents carried it for some time, and now it will be ours. Not mine; not the rabbis and the historians and the Judaic Studies professors, but ours as a community.

****

As you probably know about me by now, my primary goal is not only to teach Judaism, but to make the case for why you need it. I’m not so convinced that everybody in the room is on board. Because, if you were, you would be here more often! You may find this hard to believe, but we almost never fill the sanctuary on Shabbat morning even though there are only 1600 seats. 

But my intent is not to make you feel guilty. It’s rather to inspire you to to be a student of your own heritage, work harder and, to reach a little higher in giving shape to your spirituality, to dip maybe a second toe into the water of Jewish life beyond the lifecycle events of baby namings, ritual circumcisions, benei mitzvah, marriage and death. Because doing so will ultimately be repaid to you in ways that you may not yet appreciate.

Nobody had to make this case a half-century ago. Why? Because the Jews were just showing up.

Today is different. The Jews do not just show up. A piece of conventional wisdom says that Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish. Today, Jews come to synagogue to feel Jewish. We are fully-assimilated Americans. When I feel the need to “get my Jew on,” I go to synagogue. Maybe.

Over these days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I am going to give you reasons to show up, to find meaning, to enrich your life and your relationships and to improve the world through Jewish life, learning, and ritual. Now that the project of assimilation is complete, we can, and we must reclaim what is ours, and take our wisdom to make our lives and our world better. All of this belongs to you – now take that football and run with it.

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.


Perhaps one of the greatest and best-known stories in the Talmud (found in tractate Bava Metzia 59b) is that of the Tanur Shel Akhnai, the oven of Akhnai. It’s about an argument that some rabbis are having about whether the Tanur shel Akhnai is kosher. The halakhic particulars of the oven do not matter, but what does matter is that one rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, believes the oven is kosher, and so, apparently does God. But all the other rabbis disagree.

On that day, R. Eliezer answered all the answers on Earth (i.e. the halakhic objections) and they did not accept it from him. He said, “If the law is as I say, that carob tree will prove it”; the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. 
The other rabbis said: “We do not allow proof from a carob tree.” 
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, the river will prove it”; the river flowed in reverse direction.
They said: “We do not allow proof from a river.”…
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, a voice from Heaven will prove it”; a heavenly voice [i.e. God’s] said, “Why do you disagree with R. Eliezer, who is correct in every way?” 
R. Yehoshua stood on his feet and said, “Lo bashamayim hi.” “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12)…
R. Natan met Eliyahu haNavi and said to him, “What did the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One do?” Eliyahu said to him: “God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.” 

What does this story teach us? For one thing, that the tradition is ours. We received some initial, Divine communications, however they came down to us, and thereafter, we took the tradition and made it our own. And ultimately, we make the tradition. It belongs to us.  We interpret it in each generation as we carry it.

It belongs to us because the tradition of Jewish learning and teaching across the ages is unique in the world. Our “religion” (and I use that in quotes because it is an inadequate term) is not only arcane rituals and mumbling ancient words in synagogue, but rather as much about the body of wisdom called “Torah,” which we continue to learn.

It belongs to us because we all understand and relate to the concept of God differently: some of us understand God as a law-giving being; some of us understand God as a force in nature that works in and around us; some of us understand God as the human imperative to do good for others in this world, and the theological palette is truly limitless. And all of these conceptions of God belong to us as well.

It belongs to us because there is no single right answer on virtually anything in Jewish life. There is no single way to be Jewish. There is no single, correct answer for most questions in Jewish law. We have no pope; there is no single commentator who has a monopoly on interpreting our tradition. Torah, our textual basis is flexible enough to tolerate a wide range of understandings. 

And how do we make it ours today? By re-interpreting once again. By taking the football and running with it.

By acting on the ways that our tradition brings us value today. Here are some examples:

Our tradition teaches us how to be a family: Dine together, particularly on Shabbat. Express gratitude together, with the words of our tradition as well as your own words. Come to Beth Shalom, where we have services and activities for the whole family.

Our tradition teaches us how to be good parents: Bless your children and hold them tight, like each of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs did. Guide them with the wisdom that our ancestors gave us. Teach them the values of derekh eretz / treating others with respect, hesed / acts of lovingkindness, and hakarat hatov / recognition of the good that we have been given. 

Our tradition teaches us how to be good citizens: Seek to understand the people around us; do not swindle or deceive others, do not curse the deaf or put obstacles in front of the blind; share our wisdom and our joy with our fellow human beings, and greet everybody with sever panim yafot / a pleasant face.

Our tradition teaches us how to be an authentic person: Act on the statement of the sage Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

Our tradition teaches us how to maintain holiness in all our relationships: Remember that every person on this Earth has within them a spark of the Divine, a modicum of holiness. Never forget that. Strive to seek the holiness in each other in all your dealings, whether in business or in encounters with strangers or in matters of the heart.

And the ritual aspects of Judaism support all of those things. That is why we have them. That is why what we do in the Conservative movement is an excellent approach to being Jewish: we maintain our traditions while acknowledging that the world has changed and we must change incrementally along with it. 

Why do we do what we do?

Because tefillah / prayer gets us in touch with ourselves and sensitizes us to the world around us.

Because observing Shabbat allows us the physical and emotional space to let go of our anxiety and just live in the moment, not swept up in commerce or politics or work.

Because kashrut / the dietary laws remind us on a daily basis of our responsibility not to cross certain lines in God’s Creation. We were not given this world so we can abuse it. And not only that, but it’s worth remembering that what comes out of our mouths should be as pure as what goes in.

Because qehillah / community provides the framework of support that we all need, in times of grief and joy, mourning and depression and celebration and hanging out and schmoozing, and everything in-between. And all the more so in the past year, in the context of what happened a few blocks away from here on the 18th day of Heshvan in the past year. We were there for each other.

Because Talmud Torah / Jewish learning teaches us that all of these things are found on the Jewish bookshelf in abundance. It’s all there, ladies and gentlemen. You just have to reach out and grab it.

I know. You’re thinking, there is so much to Judaism, and I’m so busy, and Beth Shalom offers so many portals into Jewish life. Where can I possibly start? 

Here’s an easy one: host a Shabbat dinner. Look, you’re going to be eating dinner on Friday night anyway – just make it a wee bit more special. I am happy to help you out with home rituals if you need. Invite guests. Enjoy! Then do it again. 

Then consider an online study group – Derekh, our targeted programming arm, is now coordinating them via Zoom. Or drop into Rabbi Jeremy’s Talmud class, or my Lunch and Learn. Stop by the monthly Shabbat morning Discussion service, where we get into the “whys” of what we do. The bar is not as high as you think.

***

Ladies and gentlemen, every time the Torah is put away, we sing, Ki leqah tov natati lakhem, torati al ta’azovu. For I [God] have given you a good heritage; do not forsake My Torah.

We sympathize with the young man in the Holy Grail, who only wants to sing. But we need to see the land, not just the curtains. And we need to dedicate ourselves to that property, the rich heritage of which we are the inheritors, even as we sing.

We take the tradition that our ancestors received at Mount Sinai, and we are still fashioning it to suit our needs today. We continue to make an ancient tradition new. We continue to make it ours. Lo bashamayim hi – it is not in the heavens. It’s down here with us, it’s fourth down and three yards to go. Take the hand-off.

All of this belongs to you. As they say in the Talmud as an invitation into the text: Ta shema. Come and learn.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/30/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

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High Holidays Video

All Of This Belongs To You – High Holidays 5780

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High Holidays Sermons

Increase the Love: Ani / the Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Some of you know that I come from a family for whom musical theater is understood to be the height of artistic expression. (My wife is a former member of Actors Equity, having toured with Phantom of the Opera for 2.5 years.)

But even before I met her, I was always in love with the stage and musicals. You probably do not know this about me, but I can, in fact, sing every note and every lyric of Fiddler on the Roof. When I was 2 or 3, I had a well-worn vinyl copy of the Zero Mostel soundtrack that I used to play on my kiddie turntable. It was scratchy and skipped, but I was hooked.

Many of us have very nostalgic notions about Fiddler, as if it accurately captures a world that was. In fact, Fiddler, when it came out in the early ’60s, was already indulging in a romanticization of the shtetl.

You may recall that in Fiddler, Tevye’s daughters come to him, contrary to his expectations, to tell him who they are going to marry. They want to marry people they love.

“Love,” says Tevye. “It’s the new style.”

Because, at least according to Fiddler, that’s just not how they did it in the old world. Tevye then goes on to ask his wife, “Do you love me?”, a question that had apparently never been addressed in their household before.

A challenge that we face in contemporary Judaism is that most of us have come to believe that while Christianity teaches love, Judaism is about action and justice. That feeling has no place in the Jewish religious context.

That is frankly ridiculous.

Over these High Holidays, I will be speaking about love, because I think that the most important thing we can do right now, at this very moment, is to increase the love.

I have created a little mnemonic structure for the four sermons over these days; I hope you will all be here to hear the complete cycle:

אהבה
אני
המשפחה
ביחד
העולם

Ahavah (love) =
Ani / I;
Hamishpahah / the family;
Beyahad / together (i.e. community);
Ha’olam / the world.

That is today’s focus: the I. The Ani. And over the remainder of these High Holidays, we will expand outward from the Ani to love of family, love of community, and love of the world. (אהבה).

Before we talk about love of self, I need to explain why love is this year’s theme.

We are living in a time of great challenges to our society. I think that we are seeing a breakdown on multiple levels of inter-connectedness, of social capital, of ability to talk to each other. That has something to do with our retreat into our own individual electronic bubbles with the aid of social media, and a good deal to do with the political rifts that are quite evident today.

One of those factors is, frankly, selfishness. We are, for the most part, all looking out for ourselves. Not enough of us are concerned about the common good. In the last half-century, we have seen the rise of the “Me” generation, of “looking out for number one.” “Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko.

Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently published a book about our current situation entitled, The Common Good. Reich presents many examples of how we have lost the sense of working toward the common good.

From a macro perspective, consider the following: Frank Abrams, the CEO of Standard Oil of New Jersey, said the following in 1951:

“The job of management is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly affected interest groups… stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.” Reich claims that at one time, CEOs were “corporate statesmen” who felt responsible for the common good of the nation.

In contrast, consider Martin Shkreli, the young executive who arbitrarily raised the price of a necessary drug from $13 a pill to $750 overnight. Although widely execrated and eventually convicted on an unrelated charge, Shkreli was legally permitted to make this move, and those who needed the drug (and those of us who pay into the insurance system) suffered.

I am sure that we can think of many ways in which we have lost the sense of connection to and responsibility for each other. In many places in America, people do not even know their neighbors. (Here in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, we are, of course, bucking the trend somewhat, although how close are we to those around us?)

How can we expect to thrive in such an environment, where we’re all looking out for number one, where we are all lone actors, independent and isolated? How can a sense of the common good even exist?

The antidote to this disconnection is to Increase the love. If there is one thing we need more of in this world, it’s love. If there is one thing that a synagogue, that Judaism should stand for, it’s love.

ahavah

Now, you may not have heard that in Hebrew school. Judaism has often seemed cold: rabbinic tradition is fond of throwing up barriers, of drawing lines, of delineating clear boundaries. This is kosher; that is not. You can do this on Shabbat; you cannot do that. No emotion; just law.

When you dig a little deeper, however,  you will see that ahavah / love is invoked over and over in our rituals, in our texts. In other words, Tevye was wrong! Love is not the new style. Love is actually the old style.

Just a few examples:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha.

Love your fellow person as yourself. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)

Rabbi Aqiva (Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 30b) calls this a “kelal gadol baTorah” – literally, a great principle, that is, an essential, foundational idea upon which all of Torah is based. We will certainly be discussing this more over the next few days.

Rabbinic tradition actually thinks of Torah, in its greater sense, as the manifestation of God’s love for us. And, of course, when we recite the Shema itself, what is the first word of the second line?

וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶך

Ve-ahavta et Adonai Elohekha bekhol levavekha, uvkhol nafshekha, uvkhol me’odekha.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:5)

And some of us might speak of Ahavat Yisrael, love of fellow Jews, and Ahavat Torah, love of Torah, as being essential values.

But, pulling back the lens, love is what has to drive us, not only as Jews, but as members of a wider society that is really in crisis mode. Love is the basis of community; it causes us to work for the greater good; it enhances our lives and our relationships.

To understand the meaning of love in the Jewish way, we have to put the statement “Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha” in its proper context. That verse (Lev. 19:18) is found in a part of Vayiqra / Leviticus that focuses on the essential mitzvot between people. Among them we find the obligations to honor your parents (Vayiqra 19:3), to leave some of your produce to the needy (19:9-10), show deference to the elderly (19:32), treat the stranger among you with respect (19:33-34), use honest weights and measures in your business dealings (19:35), and so forth.

Love is essentially a matter of being in relationship with the people around you in a way that benefits the common good. The Torah does not care if you dislike the person with whom you have an exchange in the marketplace; you still have an obligation not to swindle him or her. The covenant of love requires us, on some level, to maintain a system of trust and responsibility with all people, even our enemies.

Our tradition wants – no, requires us to look beyond ourselves, wants us to reach out to others.

And you know what? You cannot love others until you love yourself. Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, says the verse. Because love is an all-encompassing thing: it flows from God, with whom we are in relationship, and flows into all of our relationships, including that with ourselves.

But there is a tension here. Consider the following story from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a), a classic conundrum:

שנים שהיו מהלכין בדרך וביד אחד מהן קיתון של מים אם שותין שניהם מתים ואם שותה אחד מהן מגיע לישוב דרש בן פטורא מוטב שישתו שניהם וימותו ואל יראה אחד מהם במיתתו של חבירו עד שבא ר’ עקיבא ולימד וחי אחיך עמך חייך קודמים לחיי חבירך

If two people were walking on a desolate path and there was a jug of water in the possession of one of them, and the situation was such that if both drink from the jug, both will die, as there is not enough water, but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area, there is a dispute as to the halakha. Ben Petura taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. This was the accepted opinion until Rabbi Aqiva came and taught that the verse states: “And your brother shall live with you,” indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other.

The Talmud is wrestling with the question of whether your love for your neighbor outweighs your love for yourself? Ben Petura says yes, and this love will lead you to die along with your buddy. But Rabbi Aqiva says no: your life takes precedence.

The reality, of course, is that we must balance these two inclinations. Virtually every situation involving other people dwells in the greys. The challenge therein is reflected in this well-known Hasidic story, from Rabbi Simhah Bunim of Przysucha, in central Poland. Rabbi Simhah Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one was written, in Hebrew: Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: “Va-anokhi afar ve-efer”—“And I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.

We are all faced with the constant dilemma of, am I the most important thing in my world, or should I place others above me? The great sage Hillel said, Im ein ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who am I? Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi mah ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I? (Pirqei Avot 1:13). Is the world created for my sake? Or am I but dust and ashes?

Maimonides actually draws circles to illustrate this point in his discussion of tzedaqah, the giving of charity. What does the word tzedaqah mean? Literally, it means “righteousness.” By taking care of those around us with material donations, we are acting righteously; we are acting out of love. You are at the center of every circle. You are the starting point for love of everybody else. You (singular) have to come first. We cannot love others until we love ourselves. If, as Rambam says, there are concentric circles of caring, where do they all start?

How do we love ourselves? Is it through…

  •     Exercise
  •     “Pampering”
  •     Vacation
  •     Buying stuff
  •     Personal time / alone time

I would argue that, while most of these are good things, they are not necessarily self-love. All of these things, perhaps with the exception of alone time, are physical. And it makes sense that we would consider these things first: material things are always easier to understand, to grab hold of than spiritual things.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz tells the following tale: A fisherman caught a large pike, and said to himself, “This is wonderful! I’ll take it to the Baron; he loves pike.” The fish is thinking, “Oh, good! There is some hope for me yet.” The fisherman brings it to the Baron’s manor, to the kitchen. The cooks ooh and aah over the fish, chattering about how much the Baron loves pike. The fish is getting woozy, but this sounds hopeful.

So they summon the Baron to the kitchen, and upon seeing the large pike, he says, “Cut off the tail, cut off the head, and slit it this way.” With his last breath, the fish cries out in great despair, “Why did you lie? You don’t love pike, you love yourself!”

We are awash in stuff, and in ways to amuse and distract ourselves. What we really need to do is to nourish the spirit. And I have some good news for you: one of the ways to do this is to do what you are doing right now, that is setting aside time for matters of the spirit. Meditation. Reading inspirational material. Spending time pondering the grandeur of Creation. Introspection. Considering philosophy and ethics. Giving yourself space to grieve. Making a point to be grateful. I would hazard a guess that most of us are not doing enough of these things.

There are two major traditional Jewish ways of doing this: through tefillah, prayer, and limmud, learning our ancient Jewish texts.

Most of us think that tefillah / prayer is “talking to God.” I would argue that actually tefillah is primarily talking to yourself. Not that we hope God doesn’t hear, of course, but the actual Hebrew word, lehitpallel, means, “to judge oneself.” (BTW, it does not mean, “reciting obscure words in an ancient language that I don’t understand.”)

When we are doing tefillah (praying is really just an inadequate translation), we are actually standing in judgment of ourselves. If you’re doing it right, particularly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you should be taking stock of yourself, doing a personal inventory.

It is an opportunity to “check in” with ourselves, something that most of us rarely do. It is also a way of ensuring that every day, you take a moment to offer some words of gratitude: gratitude for what you have, gratitude for the fact that all (or most) of your body parts still function, gratitude that the Earth continues to bring forth food and rain and daily wonders.

And, by the way, nobody cares if you don’t know the Hebrew words, or when to bow, or cover your eyes. For sure God doesn’t care. Use the words that come to you. Or don’t use any words at all.

The other major vehicle in Jewish life is learning. Many of you have already learned something today about Judaism: that our tradition highlights love as an essential value.

But Judaism’s richness in learning is practically limitless. Many of you have heard me sing the praises of the Jewish bookshelf; its wisdom, once unlocked, can give you the tools not only to love yourself, but also to love your neighbor and the rest of the world. It is our tradition that reminds us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to build peace in this world.

It is our tradition that reminds us to be responsible for the strangers among us. The Talmud says that this principle is invoked 36 times, i.e. double חי / hai. You should love the stranger in your midst enough for two lifetimes.

And it’s not just cracking open a volume of Talmud or a siddur / prayerbook that teaches us to love ourselves. It is also in regular Jewish practice.

Kashrut / dietary laws teach us about taking care that what goes into our mouths is as important as what comes out. Yom Kippur teaches us to be responsible for our behavior. Shabbat teaches us to set aside time to just be present.

(You know, one possible way of loving yourself might be to turn your smartphone off for the 25 hours of Shabbat. Might be worth trying – it’s not so hard. Trust me – I do it every week. And it’s great.)

How do we love ourselves? By finding balance between the material and the spiritual. By learning the value of reaching out to others. By scouring our internals to find the areas that need work. By making sure that we are self-aware enough to separate our needs from our wants and to make sure that our choices are our own and not those of others.

The Hebrew word for “I,” ani, begins with the same letter as “ahavah” / “love”, with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the alef.

But there is something curious about that letter. Unlike any letter in English, the alef is silent. So the word ani starts from a place of silence, an infinitesimally small place. You might think of that place of silence as your very core, that place from which Maimonides’ concentric circles of caring emanate.

That silent alef embedded within each of us is the point from which all love emanates. In order to increase the love, we have to find that alef, to find the love within ourselves and embrace it.

Shanah tovah!

Read the second installment: Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779, 9/10/2018.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

רשע: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present – Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2

How many of us have experienced information whiplash this year? Not just information overload, which I think many of us have managed to live with in the past decade or so, but the sense of having our emotions pulled one way or another by current events, only to be pulled another direction a day or two later? I love coffee, but I had to dramatically reduce my consumption of caffeine this past year to cut down on my anxiety regarding the state of the world. Who would have thought there would be Nazis marching with rifles and helmets in Virginia? Who would have thought that a foreign power would try to manipulate elections?

I think it’s essential that we keep some perspective about the world, and not let events of the present moment throw us too far off the path of forward progress. Yes, the present may be disorienting, but we must try to put everything into proper perspective.

Recap: These four sermons are about our past, present, and future, as seen through the eyes of the famous “Four Children” of Pesah. Yesterday, we spoke about the wise child as being the one who sees past, present, and future.

Today, we’re going to talk about the רשע (rasha), the wicked child. What does the wicked child see? Only the present. It’s all about me, right now.

That cannot be us. Us Jews. We have to think broader than that. And if there is anything that our tradition teaches, it is this: we cannot be the wicked child. We have to see beyond the present moment.

Teaching the Four Sons in the 21st Century | My Jewish ...

Operating system vs. App

I recently heard an appealing image in the podcast, Judaism Unbound (if you don’t know what a podcast is, please ask your grandchildren). Many of us today are carrying smartphones around, and there are two overarching software features to a smartphone: the operating system and the apps. The operating system (OS) is the environment that you see when you turn the system on: the screen where you see all the things you can possibly do. It’s the wizard behind the screen that is making everything function, all the bells and whistles that your smartphone features. You turn it on, and the OS is working. It makes everything go, connects everything together.

The apps (applications) are individual programs that do a specific task. You open one to check and send email. You open a different one to see if it’s going to rain. You open another to see when your next appointment is. Another will help you find a restaurant with vegetarian options for dinner. You get the idea – specific tasks.

The operating system is like your house; it provides space and structure and utilities. The apps are items in the house that do certain things: the blender, the bookcase, the shower.

So the Judaism Unbound hosts have been tossing around the idea of whether Judaism is an operating system or an app. Traditionally speaking, of course, the rabbis who created what we know as Judaism during the Talmudic period (i.e. the 1st through 5th centuries CE), thought of Judaism as the operating system.

Ours is a tradition that has something to say about all facets of our lives: not only how we interact with God or what we eat, but how we speak to each other, how we maintain our physical health, how we learn, how we interact with our relatives and neighbors, how we create a just society, even how we make love. As they taught us to say in Hebrew school (not that we really understood this so well), Judaism is not a religion; it’s a way of life.

And that is the way we have conceived of our tradition for two thousand years.

But we are living in a time, say some, in which fewer of us are thinking about Judaism as an operating system, but rather as an app. That is, when you want it or need it, you open the app. You come to the synagogue. You celebrate a lifecycle event. You speak to a rabbi about a personal issue. And then when you’re done, you’re on to the next app, and you close Judaism until the next time you need it.

That may very well be the case for some of us. Let’s face it – many of us are not even opening the Judaism app at all. Only about half of the Jews in America make an appearance in synagogue on Yom Kippur, but that’s only one measure; most likely far fewer are connecting to the wisdom on the Jewish bookshelf in any substantial way; few are supporting Jewish charities; few find spiritual value in the traditional offerings of Judaism. I would not be totally surprised if, on an average Shabbat morning, there are more American Jews in yoga studios than in synagogues.

Leaving Judaism aside for the moment, the challenge that we are facing as a society is what you might call “application-based thinking.” All the information that is flying at us all the time, all of the constant distraction, is forcing us to compartmentalize our lives in a way that is not only unhealthy for us as individuals, but also as a society. We are moving so fast, trying to accomplish so many things, that we’ve lost sight of the big picture. We are focusing on the moment, on the task at hand without questioning how this particular task fits into the grand scheme.

As an example, I will freely concede that I have become addicted to my own mobile phone. Except for the 25 hours of Shabbat every week, which in my household is a sacred technology-free time, during the rest of the week, like many of you, I compulsively check my text messages, my Facebook notifications, my Twitter and Instagram feeds, my two email accounts, my WhatsApp, and of course the New York Times and the Post-Gazette.

And yet, I am amazed at the numbers of people I see coming into the synagogue, ostensibly to spend a moment doing something holy, who cannot put their phones down on Shabbat and holidays, even for an hour that they are sitting in the pews, even when we ask them to do so.

smartphones

Ladies and gentlemen, if all we see and consider is what is on the screen for a few moments, that is our inner wicked child taking over. That is living only in the present.

Another example: I’m going to tread very lightly here, but let’s return for a moment to American politics. What is afflicting our system is not necessarily the personalities involved, but rather the imperative to seek short-term political victories over long-lasting policy decisions that benefit us as a society. Sound-bites and insults have become the norm of political discourse, and few politicians, let alone voters, are willing to think too far beyond that.

We have reached a point where few can even entertain, let alone articulate, the position of the other side, and in such a situation, nothing can be accomplished that will further the project of building this country. I fear a future of languishing – of neglect of infrastructure, of failure to confront the devastating consequences of the phenomena that are gnawing at our citizenry: not enough rehab beds for opioid addicts, the outrageous cost of health care, the stagnation of wages for half of America.

True leadership in our body politic requires the long view, of past and future at the same time.

Let’s face it: the present is an illusion. There is no present at all. Dr. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard social psychologist, has said in his TED Talk, The Psychology of Your Future Self, The present is merely a wall, a kind of mehitzah (divider between men and women in some traditional synagogues), if you will, between the past and the future. Who we are at any given moment is just one point of data along a shifting continuum; nobody in this room is finished growing, developing, changing. It does not matter if you are 19 or 90. We’re all still moving forward into the next iteration of ourselves.

And just as politicians and the news media focus only on the “now,” so too are we, the citizens, not taking the long view; we are thinking only about ourselves, in this moment: how will this impact me right now? That is not how a healthy society functions. We’re all in it together.  Ultimately, what affects our neighbors affects us.

The רשע, the wicked child sees only the present, because there is nothing more important in their world than themselves.

When are we the wicked children?

  •     When we see suffering in this world, and we look away.
  •     When we put metaphorical stumbling blocks before the blind – that is, those who are blind to the consequences of their choices.
  •     When we withdraw from the community.
  •     When we put the value of saying yes over doing the right thing.
  •     When we seek financial gain in place of the sanctity of our interpersonal relationships.

I do not have time to give examples of each of these, but I am sure that we can all think of times when we have made the wrong choice, the one that highlights ourselves over the greater good. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we might even see examples of this in our behavior every single day.

So how might we get beyond the present? How might we find our way into the long view?

Ladies and gentlemen, I encountered a wonderful idea in Rabbi Alan Lew’s book about the high holidays, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, generally my go-to source for inspiration at this time of year. (I rarely recommend books in this way, but if you need some high  holiday inspiration, you might want to invest in this book. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read about Judaism.) Rabbi Lew has a talent for infusing his Jewish commentary with ideas drawn from the Buddhist tradition of meditation.

One of the names of Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikkaron, the day of remembrance. Traditionally, we understand this to mean that these days are days on which we remember God, and God remembers us. We ask to be remembered in the Book of Life for a good year. We try to remember the good deeds of the past year, and how we hope that these exceed our transgressions, which, with chagrin, we also remember.

Rabbi Lew reframes the idea of Yom HaZikkaron. Rather than remembrance, he says, we should refer to this day as the day of mindfulness. That on these days, we should be mindful of time, of where we have been and where we are going, and mutual awareness between us and the Qadosh Barukh Hu:

“If God were not aware of us, this whole pageant of teshuvah and forgiveness wouldn’t make much sense. Who would there be to return to? How could we ever be forgiven if there weren’t an awareness out there that knew precisely what we have done and how we feel about it now? And if Rosh Hashanah did not provide us with the perspective of heaven – with the opportunity to see ourselves with perfect clarity as if from the outside – how would we ever achieve this kind of clarity? How would we ever manage to get far enough outside ourselves to see ourselves accurately?” (p. 137)

Mindfulness, which some have translated into Hebrew as “Eranut,” drawn from the word ער, er, awake, is, of course, one of the portals of Derekh. It is an entry point to Judaism, an area in which we at Beth Shalom are now offering innovative activities for you. (E.g. meditation once per month on Shabbat mornings at 9 AM, starting in November.)

One traditional understanding in Judaism that may be help us to not be the wicked child, to see beyond the present, is the idea of the yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, which are usually translated as “the good inclination” and “the evil inclination.” But a more accurate traditional understanding of the yetzer hatov is, “the inclination to selflessness,” and the yetzer hara as “the inclination to selfishness.”

When we live only in the present moment, we are governed by our yetzer hara, the inclination to selfishness. On the other hand, when we successfully think about past and future, about lessons learned and potential consequences, about ancient and modern wisdom, we are being governed by our yetzer hatov, the inclination to selflessness. When we realize how our lives are intertwined with our community, how our fate is bound up with that of our fellow citizens, that is the yetzer hatov acting. That is when we see beyond the present moment, when we see the past and the future, and the betterment of others around us.

Hands Reaching Out Related Keywords & Suggestions - Hands ...

I am inclined to think that our knowledge and awareness of God on these days is reflected in a more practical way in our awareness of the individuals and society around us.

Now, that’s not an easy thing to do. But Judaism provides direction.

One of those things that help to bring out the yetzer hatov is tefillah / Jewish prayer. Prayer is a kind of mental training, similar to meditation or yoga. It is entering a mode of focus, of reciting an ancient formula that connects our hearts and minds to our hands and mouths. I love the meditative aspects of tefillah; that is one reason that I ask you to engage in some moments of silence and create some internal space to strive to hear the still, small voice of the Divine during the Amidah prayer – we want to give everybody in this room the opportunity to find that meditative focal point. If you feel unable to connect with the words on the written page, listen to that inner voice as your guide.

After prayer, the second thing of primary value in our tradition is Jewish text learning. “When I pray, I speak to God,” said Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “When I study, God speaks to me.”

Think, for example, about the internal struggle reflected in the words of Hillel found in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And If I am only for myself, what am I?” Those words from the Mishnah are more than 1800 years old. And yet they continue to echo in the challenge that we each face as we continue the daily struggle between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, the inclinations to selflessness vs. selfishness.

To get to the best gems of rabbinic literature, you have to be open to reading and discussing the words of our tradition.

Even if you are ambivalent about traditional theology, or the idea of “organized religion” (You call this “organized”?!), the words of our tradition will speak to you, because they are not about God, per se. They are about humanity, about intellectual stimulation, about making this world a better place, about self-improvement. These words are about you, and about us.

In 2007 when I was completing rabbinical school and applying for jobs, I had an interview with a team from a large west coast congregation. Toward the end of the interview, they asked me the following:

“A congregant comes to you and says, ‘Rabbi, I feel as though I really need some spiritual engagement, but I work like a dog and I just can’t make it to synagogue on Shabbat. I need to go to the beach.’ What do you say to that person, Rabbi?”

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I explained that, after trying unsuccessfully to get this theoretical Shabbat beach-goer to a Talmud class or a discussion on theology, I concluded that the only solution is to say, “Well, you should know that God is also at the beach.”

 

I did not get the job.

But I think the answer is not to answer Mr. Beach Guy at all. When he comes to me to ask the question, I have to grab him at that moment, sit him down with Pirkei Avot or the beginning of Massekhet Berakhot, the first tractate of the Talmud, and start learning right then and there. That is, to give him the perspective on the depth and richness of our ancient collected wisdom, something that many of us somehow missed in Hebrew school.

I think that we have no choice but to force ourselves to see beyond the present; to recall the past and prepare for the future. We have to let the words of our tradition infuse our lives, to let them draw us out of the app and into the operating system.

While it may be obvious that none of us wants to be the רשע, the wicked child, it is sometimes a lot harder for us to see beyond the present. But that is exactly what we need to do.

To read the next in the series, The Simple Child Sees Only the Past, click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5778, 9/22/2017.)