Tag Archives: Rosh Hashanah

4 Whys #1: Why be Jewish? – Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5777

Take a moment to think about why you are here today.

Are you here because you could not imagine being anywhere else on the first day of Rosh Hashanah?

Are you here because you are energized by the themes of the High Holidays? About sin and repentance and the Book of Life? About God’s sovereignty in this world? About remembering our texts and tradition?

Are you here because of guilt?

Are you here for the first time, because you want to check it out?

Are you here because the moving melodies of the High Holiday liturgy always transport you to a unique spiritual zone?

Are you not sure why you’re here?

Why Values Based Communication?

This year, 5777, the theme of my sermons for of these days, these Yamim Nora’im, these days of awesomeness, is “Why?” The Four Whys, actually. And I’m going to attempt something that is in fact a wee bit bold. You might even call it (to use the lofty French term), “khutzpadik.”

I am going to try to answer a question that you may not have thought too deeply about, but which, I think, is an essential question of our time:

Why be Jewish? Why do we need Judaism?

And, to be even more specific, the question is more accurately not about “being Jewish,” which many of us can do quite easily by default, but rather, “Why DO Jewish?” Why be a part of a Jewish community? Why engage with Jewish life and learning? Why commit yourself to an ancient tradition that might seem sometimes charmingly irrelevant, and at other times downright oppressive?

This is the first why, and perhaps the biggest of the four.

The questions of “Why be Jewish”  has not always been a feature of Jewish life. Most of our ancestors did not have the luxury of asking. But today, we need to address this head-on.

Not too long ago, I saw a TED talk featuring a television producer named Andrew Stanton. Mr. Stanton said something that I found particularly relevant about the way we engage with anything today.

We are constantly bombarded with various sponsored messages: buy this, eat here, do that, make yourself thinner, happier, healthier, etc. This barrage causes some of us to want to retreat to within a protective shell, to tune out the noise.

As one who makes his living trying to get people to pay attention to his work, what Mr. Stanton said really struck me: “Make me care.” We are all equipped today with a dispassionate outer shell; not much breaks through. In order to be heard you have to find the hook that connects to the soul beneath.

I want to make you care about being Jewish, and about living a Jewish life. I want you to tune into that voice that comes from within, calling you to something greater.

We here in congregations like Beth Shalom are firmly engaged with the rest of the world. And let’s face it: some of the things we know and feel contradict some ideas found in traditional Judaism. We know, for example, that the universe came into being 14.5 billion years ago, not 5777 years ago today. Traditional Judaism does not count women and men as equals. The theology espoused in the Torah is woefully simplistic.

Even the Jewish values that we learn from our tradition: expressing gratitude, respect for others, responsibility for the Earth, honoring your elders, visiting the sick, redeeming captives, seeking justice for all people, and so on. Aren’t these simply human values? Why do we need Jewish text to teach us these things?

For sure, a handful of us are convinced of the value of Jewish tradition. But the vast majority of us are not.

Beginning right now, and stretching over the four sermons between now and Yom Kippur, I will be making the case for Judaism in four general areas, going from the macro “why” to the micro “why”:

RH day 1: Why we need Judaism (in general)  

RH day 2: Why we need mitzvot / Shabbat

Kol Nidrei: Why we need Beth Shalom?

Yom Kippur morning: Why we need Torah

These are the Four Whys.

So without further ado: Why do we need Judaism?

I recently heard Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in LA retell a good story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest luminaries of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel meets a Jewish fellow who tells him that he does not need to go to synagogue or otherwise participate in Jewish rituals. “I’m basically a good guy. I treat my family well, my friends well, I take care of people,” he says. “I don’t need Judaism.”

Rabbi Heschel responds by saying, “Gee, I envy you. I often say things that I regret. I don’t feel like I am generous enough with my time and my money. I wish I were a better parent and colleague and friend. I wish I were more like you.”

Who do you think has a better understanding for why we need Judaism?

I am going to make the case for how personally meaningful our tradition is, and how it can improve your life by making you feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious, more satisfied, and improve your relationships, your family life, and your inner peace.

In short, the answer to “Why be Jewish?” that may be recited while standing on one foot is, “Because drawing on Jewish knowledge and Jewish living will yield tangible benefits to your life.”

I’m going to warn you up front, however. To get these benefits, you have to put some effort in. Jewish living takes work. It takes time. But let me assure you: the time you put in will pay you back, and then some.

Before we go further, however, some things that I am not going to tell you:

  • I am not going to say that eating kosher food is healthier for you.
  • I am not going to say that keeping the Shabbat for 25 hours every week will give you a boost in your paycheck.
  • I am not going to tell you that making sure that your doorposts have properly-mounted, kosher mezuzot will keep your family safe from harm.

There are certainly people in the Jewish world who say those things. I’m not one of them.  Let’s dispense with superstition entirely and talk about meaning.

I think it is helpful to frame our discussion in terms of three major paths through Jewish life: ritual, action, and learning.

  1. Ritual

 

This is probably the most familiar area of Judaism, because it is what American synagogues have bet on. It includes tefillah / prayer, of course, but also holiday activities, including the observance of Shabbat, lifecycle events like berit millah / circumcision, weddings, and funerals. While ritual is an essential and often meaningful part of Jewish life, it is only a part of what Judaism offers.

Here are a few examples from the most popularly-observed Jewish rituals, and some perspective that makes them more relevant:

  • Lighting Hanukkah candles, for example, illuminates not only our windowsills but also our world; they remind us of the need for us to continue to spread light throughout the spiritually dark places all around us. And we know that our world needs more enlightenment.
  • Gathering family and friends to dine and tell the story of Pesah is not just about the food, nor is it merely about an ancient tale of taskmasters and slaves and a stubborn king. It is about the value of freedom and our obligation to seek out and eliminate oppression in all its forms.
  • Fasting on Yom Kippur is not an endurance test; it is an opportunity to cleanse your body, your mind, and your heart. It is a personal challenge that helps us to understand the mind-body connection, and to greater appreciate the creature comforts to which we are all accustomed. As your grandmother may have told you, there’s nothing wrong with suffering a little now and then.

Ritual requires context. The synagogue service, circumcision, eating particular foods, mourning rituals, etc. must be connected to the larger picture of Judaism. Ritual cannot stand alone; when we connect it to ourselves and our world, it can enrich our lives, enshrine moments in holiness, and provide a framework for expression that helps us celebrate, grieve, discover ourselves, and express a whole range of emotions.

All ritual is accompanied by liturgy: words that make the ritual complete. Without it, the ritual would fall flat; it would be left unmoored from its past and future. And just as important are the traditional melodies that accompany the words, that remind us of our own pasts, of our paths of learning and connection with our parents and teachers. Think of how powerful some of the words and  melodies that we have chanted today are; they are like wormholes in the time-space continuum that connect us to our ancestors.

Ritual replays for us the Jewish story, reminding us why we are here and what our responsibilities are to everybody around us.

  1. Action

This is the whole sphere of Jewish behaviors that are not explicitly tied to ritual. Examples include the dietary laws (kashrut), guidelines for how we speak to each other / Leshon HaRa, the obligation to repair this very broken world / Tikkun Olam, business ethics, and the moral code that ensures a just society (not murdering, honoring your parents, etc.). This area is much more far-ranging, and potentially rewarding, than most of us are aware of.

We all know, on some level, that action is a mandatory feature of Judaism. You may have heard that what differentiates Judaism from Christianity generally is that being a Christian requires faith, while being Jewish requires action.

The underlying value of Jewish actions is that they improve ourselves and our world. We may not always understand the value of a particular non-ritual action, but after doing something over and over, its internal wisdom is revealed.

Let’s take, for example, kashrut, the Jewish dietary principles. You may ask, “Why, Rabbi, if God created the shrimp, am I not permitted to eat it?” Or, “Pork has fewer calories than beef. Shouldn’t I eat more pork?” How can avoiding cheeseburgers possibly improve this world?

One possible answer is this:

In their excellent introduction to our tradition, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point to the following interpretation of kashrut (from Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Shemini, #7):

The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?

You might think that kashrut is about food, but I would counter that kashrut is about maintaining the sanctity of life through boundaries. And this is becoming ever so much more important in the Information Age, when all the boundaries are melting away before our eyes. Eating is such an essential part of our lives that our understanding the limits in consumption easily transfers to other aspects of our relationship with all creatures.

We’ll speak about action a little bit more tomorrow.

  1. Learning

This is probably the area that has been the least-emphasized in contemporary Jewish life, but in my opinion the most important. Why? Because Judaism is a tradition of the heart and mind, and understanding this is essential to deriving meaning from our traditions. Without the basis of knowledge, mature, sophisticated understanding of how to connect Jewish action to ourselves, the former are empty, meaningless.

Once upon a time, there was the Temple in Jerusalem; it was the center of Jewish life.  The Kohanim / priests ruled.  If you were fortunate, you went maybe a few times a year to the Temple to offer your animals and produce as sacrifices. That was the extent of Jewish ritual.

The Romans destroyed it for the 2nd and final time in 70 CE, leaving the Jews with a dilemma: How would we connect with God?  How would we maintain our national identity?

Out of the ashes of the Temple came rabbinic Judaism, and with it the tradition of Jewish learning which has enabled Judaism to survive to this day. The Romans did us two great favors: (א) they ended the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice, and (ב) they made Judaism decentralized. The center of Jewish tradition could never be taken away from us again, because it would now be carried in our heads (and ultimately written down in books).

No more would we be a hierarchical religion, led by priests. The Romans democratized us. Anybody who wanted access to the tradition could learn our textual sources and thus argue with leaders and teachers and scholars.

We began to offer the words of our lips, in prayer and study, instead of animals on the altar. And thus words became the glue that bound us together as a people. And it is this focus on teaching and learning from generation to generation that has enabled us to survive, long after the Babylonians and the Ptolemies and the Romans and the Byzantines and the Ottomans are all gone.

The center of Jewish life is not the Temple in Jerusalem, nor is it the ruin that remains there, the Kotel, the Western Wall, or any other physical place. It is the Jewish bookshelf, which exists not only on physical bookshelves or online, but in the Jewish heart and mind. It is not just the Torah, but the Talmud, the midrash, the commentaries, the halakhic interpretation, the stories of the last 2,000 years.

And it is from this center of ancient wisdom from which we draw meaning about our lives, our interactions, our families, our businesses. The Jewish bookshelf has sustained us for two millennia; our future depends on it.

I will discuss this in greater depth on Yom Kippur.

***

It is the combination of these three things – ritual, action, and learning – that gives our lives shape, that bring us meaning.

That’s a tricky concept: meaning. You can’t find it on the Internet. You can’t buy it with any form of currency. You won’t find any photos of it on Instagram.

Why? Because meaning is the ultimate intangible. It is elusive. But it is something we all need. A life without meaning is a life that is not worth living.

The reason we need Judaism is that when we embrace it, it elevates our lives by giving them meaning. And by engaging with Jewish life and learning, by being a member of the Jewish community, we have the opportunity to experience that elevation and that meaning in a joyful, sociable context.

So, now that you’ve made me care, Rabbi, what’s the entry point? Where do I start?

The tale is told of the early 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who is famous for two particular moments in his life: the first was that, after having decided to convert to Christianity to advance his career prospects, he stopped into a synagogue at Kol  Nidrei to give Judaism one last shot. After experiencing that service, he changed his mind, realizing that he could not possibly leave such a rich and inspiring tradition. He opted to remain Jewish.

But the second moment came years later, after he was famous for having embraced Judaism and written a contemporary philosophical work on the subject, The Star of Redemption. He was asked publicly, “Herr Rosenzweig, are you putting on tefillin every day?”

Rosenzweig’s answer: “Not yet.”

We are all somewhere on that continuum of “Not yet.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be a perfectly-observant, ritually-correct, Talmudically-fluent Jew to elevate yourself through Jewish tradition.

You can enter it from any point: come see me about where to start: it could be as simple as lighting Shabbat candles or taking time to visit someone in the hospital, or we could jump right into learning Talmud. But if you want the benefits that Judaism offers, you have to start somewhere.

All of it – ritual, action, and learning – can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. I am sorry if they did not teach you that in Hebrew school, but that’s how it looks from my vantage point. Embracing Judaism has dramatically improved my life; the same could be true for you.

למה ללמה קוראים למה? צילום: sxe

למה?

So, why are you here today? Why Judaism? Because we need it.

Tomorrow we’ll talk more about action.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/3/2016.)

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The Question of the Moment

It’s hard to believe that 5776 has already flown away from us, and we are headed into 5777, which will be the only Hebrew year in our lifetimes containing three identical digits in a row (of course, this does not seem so special only 17 years after 1999).

You may recall that our theme for the High Holidays last year was Connection, Community, and Kedushah (holiness), and much of what we have accomplished over the last year has focused on those things: parlor meetings, the monthly Hod veHadar instrumental service, the new pre-bar/bat mitzvah Family Retreat, the launching of Beth Shalom’s new mission statement, beginning to plan our Centennial celebration, Pride Shabbat, the inauguration of a task force to discuss being more welcoming to interfaith families, and so forth.

This year, the theme for High Holidays is “Why?” Why be Jewish? Why Beth Shalom? Why engage with Jewish living? Why learn the ancient writings that fill the Jewish bookshelf? For the vast majority of us who were born Jewish, we have never thought too deeply about why – we have merely been Jewish by default, and done Jewish things because that is how we were raised. But the contemporary challenge to religion requires that we think more pro-actively about why we do what we do, because if we cannot answer those questions for ourselves, what is the chance that our children will continue to value the rich, meaningful legacy that we pass on to them?

In order to get yourself in the mood for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m going to suggest the following. Spend a few moments answering the following questions for yourself:

  1. What is the most meaningful Jewish thing that I do? Why do I continue to do it?
  2. What is my most powerful Jewish memory?
  3. What is one area of Jewish life and learning that I wish I knew more about?
  4. Why does the world need non-Orthodox Judaism?
  5. What value does Congregation Beth Shalom bring to my life and my community?

If you are not sure how to answer any of these questions, perhaps you will gain some perspective this year during the High Holidays. Let’s hope that we will all be open in 5777 to gain a greater understanding of the tremendous value and meaning in our customs, our rituals, our rich textual tradition.

And I am going to suggest one more thing again this year for services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Wear white clothing to the synagogue on these days. It is traditional to wear a white kittel to acknowledge our need to seek purity. But white can also suggest the search for meaning, the openness to finding meaning in what we do as Jews, not just on the High Holidays, but throughout the year. You don’t need a kittel, but you can simply wear white, and be open.

Shanah tovah!

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Optimism, or, Building Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah – Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5776

There’s an ancient rabbinic story (now quite dated) that goes something like this:

How can you tell the difference between an optimist and a pessimist in Israel?

The optimist is learning Arabic. The pessimist is learning Russian. (This worked better back in the good ol’ days of the Cold War.)

I am not going to give the Israel sermon that some of you might be expecting. I’m not going to talk about the return of anti-Semitism after 70 years of retreat. I’m not going to talk about Europe or college campuses, or, for that matter, settlements and peace processes. I’m not even going to talk about Iran. I am instead going to talk about what very few commentators are willing to engage in: optimism. Hope for the future. Because really, it’s all we have.

I have been an ohev tziyyon, a lover of Zion, for all of my life. I have lived in Israel. I have a son that lives there whom I visit regularly. I am tremendously proud of everything that our people have accomplished in the modern return of Jews to Israel, from the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, to the many scientific advances that Israel has given to the world, to the easy availability of excellent coffee and, more importantly, free wifi everywhere in the Jewish state.

I have a qesher / connection with the land of Israel, a qesher that is also (as we discussed yesterday) seasoned with a sense of qehillah (community) and qedushah (holiness). In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that my Jewish identity, my qesher with Judaism, would be incomplete without Israel. When I met Judy for the first time, we discovered that we both had this love of Israel; hers was nurtured in a secular Zionist upbringing, while mine was more closely tied to my relationship with Judaism and Jewish life. We have since confessed to each other over and over that this Israeli qesher is a cornerstone of our relationship.

Given the current state of affairs, I am sorry to say that 5775 was not a good year for optimists. Public opinion on Israel in almost every place in the world except the United States has shifted away from Israel. Israel has come under fire in every quarter, from academic boycotts to an attempt to exclude Israel from international soccer tournaments to the performing arts.

Perhaps you heard about the American Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu, who was initially forced out of a Spanish reggae festival because he would not repudiate his support of Israel. After an international outcry, the organizers relented and allowed him to perform, and he gave them a little dig by singing one of his particularly pro-Israel tunes, a paean to Jerusalem, with exultant pride:

Jerusalem, if I forget you

Fire not gonna come from me tongue

Jerusalem, if I forget you

Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do

(The song references Psalm 137:5-6:

אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי. תִּדְבַּק לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי אִם-לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget; let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you.)

In the midst of the last war with Hamas, in the summer of 2014, while there was much carnage and loss of life and Israelis going in and out of bomb shelters something truly unfortunate happened in Jerusalem. (This was really only a footnote to everything else that happened that summer.) The Jerusalem light rail system, the Rakevet HaQalah, was attacked. Well, not the entire system – only the three stations in the Arab neighborhoods of the united city of Jerusalem: Es-Sahl, Shuafat, and Beit Hanina. I have considered the ramifications of this quite a bit in the context of what I personally know about Jerusalem.

I lived there for about seven months in the year 2000, just before the second Intifada erupted, when I was a cantorial student at Machon Schechter, the Israeli teaching institution of the Masorti (Conservative) movement. At that time, there was no light rail system, and there was (at least until that summer) a certain amount of optimism in the air. Peace was on the way. The Oslo accords were not yet dead. There was hope for a future of cooperation, of an economic dividend on both sides of the Green Line – the Palestinians had even built a casino in Jericho with the intent of attracting Israeli tourists. Ramallah was becoming a fashionable place to visit.

Living in Jerusalem is something like living in Gan Eden / Paradise. Well, that is, for the first few weeks. Then one starts to be aware of the traffic (which is particularly vicious), the high cost of living, the heavy tax burden, the tensions between the various demographic groups, the political snake-pit that is the Knesset, the thornier parts of the Israeli character, and so forth.

Back to the Light Rail: In an effort to help curb the traffic problem, in the early 2000s the city began to build its light-rail system. For a few years it actually made traffic in the Holy City even worse, as Rehov Yafo / Jaffa St., the main drag in central Jerusalem, was torn up to build the rails. It opened in 2010, and I first rode it on a visit in 2011. It’s beautiful – stylish, efficient, well-designed. (It runs on the honors system, which is, I suppose, appropriate for the Holy City – you buy your tickets outside and self-validate on the train. Inspectors do come through and check from time to time, although I have never seen one.)

And, call me crazy, but as an engineer, I appreciate things like this: it has electronic crawling signs telling you of the upcoming stops and warning you about suspicious packages. But here’s the cool part: it’s in three languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and English. So, if you can picture this for a moment, there is a kind of linguistic compromise in play on the sign. First it crawls from left-to-right for the Semitic languages, and then it reverses direction for the English. Once the English is done, it crawls back the other way again. I think that’s really cool.

But the most powerful, symbolic feature of the light rail system is that it was designed to serve both Jews and Arabs, in what is largely a segregated city, still segmented by imaginary lines. People could board the train in Shuafat and get off in the center of the city. (Although I suppose that many people here have been to Jerusalem, I would hazard a guess that very few of us have been to Shuafat. I have never been there, and I have walked many, many streets in Jerusalem.)

The fact that some Arab neighborhoods were to be served by the Rakevet HaQalah / the Light Rail was heralded as something that would be a boon to the economy. Roughly one-third of united Jerusalem’s population is Arab, and the perception is that many of these neighborhoods are under-served by city services.

Against the backdrop of the war with Hamas in Gaza last summer, the three stations in Arab neighborhoods were attacked by Arab youths and heavily damaged. For several months, the trains stopped running north of the Giv’at HaMivtar stop in French Hill. Those neighborhoods were cut off.

Some time last spring there was a captivating article in the New York Times magazine about the “psychology” of cities, and in particular how breaking transportation connections, like bridges or rail service, serves to weaken the morale of people on both sides of the breakage. Indeed, internal breakage in cities causes depression: economic and social. It drags the local population down. Neighborhoods feed off of each other for energy when people and goods flow freely. When areas are cut off from each other, says research psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove, the vitality drains away.

Now, we might be inclined to think of those who attacked the stations in the Arab neighborhoods as savage enemies of Israel and the Jews. And they probably see themselves as Israel’s enemies. But I think a more accurate understanding is that they are in fact enemies of the future. They don’t want cooperation. They don’t want any acknowledgment of or participation with the State of Israel or with us, the Jews, or even anybody on the Palestinian side who cooperates with the Jews. And they certainly don’t want united Jerusalem to feel united.

I think that we can all agree that the light rail is a good thing for Jerusalem, for everybody who lives there. Connections are good. Flow is good.

Understanding this, Israel restored the stations, and they were functioning again about three months later. But the wound in the heart of Jerusalem is still undeniably there. And all the more so: the trains are running, but the dialogue is not.

In the Jewish mind there are two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, and Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem. Yerushalayim shel mata has been ravaged for centuries by war and dysfunction: destruction of two Temples and two millennia of subsequent conquerors. By contrast, Yerushalayim shel ma’alah has always been under God’s sovereignty; it is the ideal to which the earthly Jerusalem aspires, the Jerusalem of our tiqvah / hope and our tefillah / prayer. We must admit that although we, the Jews, now control Yerushalayim shel matah, and safeguard the freedom to worship for the three major religions who revere her, Jerusalem is still a far cry from the heavenly ideal.

***

Israel is a very complicated place. When you visit Israel as a tourist, you see what some dismiss as “Disneyland Israel”: the Kotel, the Old City, the wonderful museums, the fantastic food, the sense of peoplehood and sovereignty twisted together in a magical bow that resonates deeply with those of us who make our home in Diaspora but (to paraphrase Yehuda HaLevi) whose hearts are in the East . There is something tremendously gratifying about quenching our yearning of 2,000 years by hiking in the desert, weeping at the Wall, and partying on the beach in Tel Aviv.

But Israelis have a much more nuanced understanding of their own country. It is small, crowded, and relatively poor: salaries are low and cost of living is high. Army service and the constant threat of war are ever-present. Never mind the breakdown between Arabs and Jews – the rifts just among the Jews seem insurmountable: religious vs. secular, Ashkenazi vs. Eastern / Mizrahi, right vs. left. It’s very hard for Israelis to be optimistic about the future.

Those of you who know and love Israeli pop music are probably familiar with the first Israeli supergroup, Kavveret, who were sent to the Eurovision song festival in 1974 to perform their hit, Natatti Lah Hayyay – “I gave her my life”:

נתתי לה חיי

ירדתי על ברכי

יאמינו לי כולם

למדתי מה זה סתם ונעלבתי.

I gave her my life

I got down on my knees

All will believe me

I learned the meaning of nothingness, and I was insulted.

The lyrics are cryptic, but most Israelis understand this song to be a critique of their own state: you give everything to her and she knocks you down. And I have lived there long enough to assure you that every Israeli feels this way at some point.

In truth, it is really a part of the Jewish psyche, both in Israel and the Diaspora, to see ourselves as constantly under threat of disappearance. In his essay from 1948 entitled “Israel: The Ever-Dying People,” philosopher Simon Rawidowicz posited that this innate pessimism dates all the way back to Moses, and is a constant in Jewish thought and culture right up to the present day. And we see it on display in its full glory throughout the Jewish world.

Pessimism aside, Rawidowicz concludes his essay by pointing out that, “a people who have been dying for thousands of years means a living people.” We are still here, and where are the Canaanites? The Babylonians? The Assyrians? The Romans? The modern states of Greece and Egypt are barely shadows of what they were in ancient times. And yet we’re still here, and we even have a Jewish state. The ever-dying people is still alive. Thriving, even. Am Yisrael Hai.

One might even say that Zionism, the political movement that began in the late 19th century advocating Jewish national self-determination, is the most optimistic venture that we have ever undertaken as a people. Given the status of most of our people at that time, it was a bold vision indeed to think that we could establish our own state in the land renamed Palestine by the Romans eighteen centuries earlier.

True, it was borne of pessimism: In France, the first country in the Old World to grant Jews full rights as citizens, the young Hungarian journalist, Theodor Herzl, was covering the Dreyfus affair in Paris in 1895. It occurred to him that if an angry mob of citizens of the most enlightened society in the world at the time could march through the streets chanting, “Mort aux Juifs,” (“Death to the Jews”) then there was no future for Jews in the Diaspora. It was this pessimistic outlook which inspired him to convene the First Zionist Congress in Basel two years later. The rest, of course, is history.

Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you will it, said Herzl, it is no dream. That is an undeniably optimistic statement.

And you know? We can still follow Herzl’s lead. We can return to the tremendous optimism that yielded Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, the greatest Jewish miracle of our time. And who brought about that miracle? We did.

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine the Israel that you want your great-grandchildren to visit, to know, to love. Is it a peaceful place? Is it well-developed? Economically stable? Vital? Not bathed in fear? Living in harmony with her neighbors? A vibrant, Jewish democracy? Imagine that for a moment.

We will disagree about the various political wranglings that must take place to build that Israel. As the old joke goes, two Jews, three opinions.  And it is OK to disagree, as long as we do so respectfully. But everybody around the table has to keep talking to each other.

(An aside: Regarding respectful disagreement, I’m afraid that on the domestic front we Jews and ohavei tsiyyon / lovers of Israel on both sides of the recent debate over the Iranian nuclear deal have been guilty of not merely being uncivil, but downright appalling public rhetoric, so much so that the Anti-Defamation League had to speak up to condemn it forcefully, calling it “hateful,” “vicious,” and “dehumanizing.” I certainly hope that such horrible discourse will never be heard again.)

While a pessimist is never disappointed, optimists live happier lives.

These Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, these ten days of repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are among the most forward-looking days of the year.

We gather to pray and sing, and of course to eat, and maybe hear a few bons mots from the rabbi. But we also gather to yearn for closeness with God, to ask for forgiveness, to seek reconciliation, to hope for a good year, to carry the sweetness of these apple-and-honey soaked days into 5776. In short, we should be filled with optimism on these days; we acknowledge that we have the power to change our lives, to change God’s decree. That is an incredible thing!

If we can do that for ourselves, we can also do it for Israel. Let’s keep looking to the future, and keep talking, and counting on the measure of Divine goodness that enabled Israel to come into being a mere 51 years after the First Zionist Congress. And we must keep building and rebuilding those literal and figurative rail lines.

So what’s the action item, rabbi?

It’s not so easy. Yesterday, I suggested the action item of wearing white on Yom Kippur. That’s simple.

Today, the action item is to follow the lead of Theodor Herzl, and turn pessimism into optimism. Think positive. Be hopeful. Not in a Pollyannish, naive kind of way.  But rather in knowing that doing so is part of our heritage, our tradition.  It is what God wants of us on these days, and beyond them for our lives.  I know as little as you do about the future, but I am pretty certain that hoping for and working toward a good outcome has a better chance of success than defeatism.

Consider optimism. Come on over to the sunny side of Jaffa Street as we inch toward Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem.

Shanah Tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/15/2015.)

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One Jewish Boy’s Story and Three Qofs – Day 1 Rosh Hashanah 5776

Shanah tovah! It’s truly a pleasure and an honor to stand before you here today. I am truly feeling at this moment the spirit of “Hayom Harat Olam.” Today the world is born. It’s a new world for me and Judy and the kids. We are overjoyed to be here in Pittsburgh.

I am going to start off in a sort of unorthodox way (which is completely OK, ‘cause I’m not an Orthodox rabbi…). We all need to get to know each other, and there is only one of me and whole lot of you, so I am hoping that you are willing to cut me some slack, at least for the first few years.

So in pursuit of getting to know each other, I’m going to tell you a story. A true story. But first, I have to lay something out for you that you might find a little unpleasant, an important fact about me that I have hidden from you up until right now:

I know next to nothing about sports. More to the point, I know virtually nothing about the Pittsburgh teams. What I do know, I know about baseball, and most of that is from the late 1970s, when I was collecting baseball cards. (The good news is that 1979 was my first summer at a sleepaway camp, and I remember the Pirates of that year, the summer of “We Are Family,” the gay ‘90s caps. But other than that and a vague notion of who Roberto Clemente was, I’ve got nothin’.)

Prior to consulting with Rabbi Google two weeks ago, I couldn’t name a single Steelers quarterback. And the Penguins? As they say in Brooklyn, fagettaboutit.

So we’re all going to have work a little harder to get to know each other. I’ll try to become familiar with the current teams, but I must admit that I have a pretty long to-do list right now, so I’m not optimistic. Meanwhile, we’re going to have to work with other material. So now that that is out of the way, let me tell you a story.  The story of a boy and 3 qofs*.

Once upon a time there was a Jewish boy, who lived in a small town in the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts. He and his family were very committed to their Conservative synagogue, which was 20 miles away from their home. They spent a lot of time on the road, driving back and forth to synagogue for Hebrew school, for Shabbat morning services, for special events and speakers and classes and semahot and so forth.

This boy loved his synagogue community. He felt very much an integral part of it, and after his bar mitzvah continued in Hebrew High School, read Torah regularly, led services regularly, helped build and decorate the sukkah, led Junior congregation, was a music teacher in the Hebrew school, and so forth. He went to Israel during the summer before his senior year in high school, and felt even more strongly connected to his people.

And then something happened. He left to go to university to study engineering. And he did not have the same qesher*, the same connection with the other Jewish students he met there. He drifted away from them, and away from his qehillah*, his Jewish community, and away from Jewish life. (Ironically, in this time, he also became a vegetarian, mostly because he could not get kosher meat.)

But then something stranger happened: he went even further away from home to go to graduate school, also in engineering, at a huge university in a far-away place, where  there were only a handful of Jewish people like him. And he discovered that he needed qehillah, community, and that he needed qesher, personal connection. And so he re-entered Jewish life.

Eventually, this 20-something engineer had to find a job. So he did. And meanwhile, he maintained his connection / qesher, and joined a community / qehillah or two. He taught Hebrew school again, led a Jewish youth group, sang in a synagogue choir, read more Torah, and even learned to lead parts of High Holiday services. And went to work, where he helped build things. Big things: chemical plants, refineries, and parts thereof. But something was missing.

One Sukkot, our young Jewish man, now almost finished with his 20s, was sitting in his cantor’s sukkah. And the cantor said something like this: “Look, I know you don’t love your work as an engineer. And I know you love Judaism and love to sing. Why don’t you consider going to cantorial school?”

The young man had never thought about that. But after lots of reflection, he began to think that it might address the problem of “something missing.” So, taking stock of his life, he took the next appropriate step: he moved to Israel, to the desert town of Arad, to clear his head, to learn Hebrew, and to reflect, just as the Israelite prophets always did in the Judean hills.

After some contemplation, some hiking in the desert, and a whole lot of falafel, he realized that what was missing was qedushah, holiness, and so he decided to make qedushah a career. And he enrolled in cantorial school.

After 4 years of study he became a hazzan.  But he was reveling in the qedushah so much he decided to remain a few more at the Jewish Theological Seminary to become a rabbi as well.

And that is the story of how I came to stand before you today, this day on which the world was born. I am proud to say that I have built my rabbinate around these three qofs, these three ideas: qesher / connection, qehillah / community, and qedushah / holiness.  My greatest desire is to help others to find their paths into these three things, and with all the excitement and anticipation that comes with starting a new position, I hope to take these principles to a whole new level.

CCQ

Together, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to be partners. We are going to build that qehillah that brings qesher and qedushah to all who enter. And all the more so, we are going to reach out beyond these walls to bring all three of those things to those who don’t yet know they need them.

This won’t be easy. It will require love. Love of everybody. Love of all humanity.

It will also require resources, energy, and people.

And that’s where you come in. The first step is to build qesher between all of us. And we have to start with the fundamentals: the sharing of stories. I have just told you one of my stories, and I have many more to share .And each of you has many stories as well, stories that define who you are, that have the potential to connect you to everybody else here.

What makes a community function well, ladies and gentlemen, is that we feel interconnected. And one of my primary goals during my first year here is to build connections. Many of you are already connected to each other, I know. Even for three and four generations. But that’s not enough. We have to reach higher. If we are going to make this truly a qehillah qedoshah, a community bound together in holiness, a community that is so inspiring that others will want to join or participate in more fully, we have to be even more interconnected. We have to raise our qesher quotient, our QQ, if you will.

I have already begun this process. I have met with a few small groups already to get the ball rolling in raising that qesher quotient. Throughout this year, every single person in this room will be invited to a parlor meeting where you will meet me, I will meet you, and we’ll share some of ourselves as a group to further the goal of building qesher, of raising ourselves up in the context of community.

Some of the ideas that have surfaced at these meetings we are already putting into place. Many of you attended the instrumental service that I led here with several musical partners a few Friday evenings ago. More than 200 of us learned some new melodies, sang joyously, and considered the Jewish value of compassion; it was really quite moving. We will be doing that again on October 23rd, and ideally every fourth Friday night of the month thereafter. We will be having more Shabbat dinners as well, paired with upbeat, Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat services. We will step up our social action activities. And there will be more.

Another new vehicle for building qesher is the New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, which we will be hosting in coming months for those that have recently joined our congregation. On that day we will incorporate our newest members by giving each of them the opportunity to hold a sefer Torah, visibly demonstrating how we can all take hold of our tradition. Judaism is not something that the rabbi does for you; it’s yours to take hold of, and we will be finding ways to lower the bar to participation.

And we are launching yet another new, engaging way to connect. We don’t even have a name for it yet, but we will be reaching out beyond the synagogue walls to host a series of discussions in people’s homes, led by a group of ideally ten members with whom I will be personally working. So it goes like this: I meet with my ten scholar/facilitators, discuss a Jewish topic with them, and then they go off to discussions hosted by some of you in your living room to discuss the same material. The goal is to engage far more people, some of whom may not even be members of Beth Shalom, in making Jewish values and text relevant to who we are today. (If you have an idea for what to call this, or if you want to lead or host, please let me know!)

The true holiness to be found in synagogues, in being here today, is not in the celebration of an ancient ritual, of the welcoming of 5776, of the opening of the Book of Life. Those things are all important, but they are not the essential reasons that we are gathered here today.

The most important reason that we are together today is community. We are here to be with each other, to be a part of something big, to connect with our heritage. To grasp our tradition.

Because let’s face it, people. We need this. Not Rosh Hashanah. Not “shul,” per se. Not the wonderful lunch that you’re going to have in an hour or so. But each other. Together, we make part of a whole, a connection with our past, our ancestors, our tradition, our Torah. And you can’t find that on your smartphone. You can’t buy it on Amazon. You can’t get it with vanilla syrup and steamed milk at Starbucks.

The holiness to be found in connection and community can only be acquired right here, with your fellow Jews.

As we celebrate the start of 5776, as we begin this 10-day journey of cleansing, of spiritual inventory-taking and ultimately atonement, we should take note of each other. We are all here together at this moment, but that does not mean that when we leave this room that we are no longer inter-connected. On the contrary – we will share these bonds when we leave the building as well. And even if many of us do not see each other for a whole year, until we gather again for the beginning of the year 5777 (whoa…), we will continue to be connected to each other, and ideally to draw more of us into our qehillah circle.

I am very much looking forward to hearing your stories: what it means for you to be Jewish, what powerful Jewish experiences you have had, how you see yourself connected to Beth Shalom or the Pittsburgh Jewish community or the entire Jewish world, and, most importantly, what action items might inspire you to help us build an even more engaged, more vibrant community.

At our Selihot evening discussion last week, we spoke about understanding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as being about spiritual yearning, about the closeness of God at this time and our desire for a revelatory encounter with God.

Just after we heard the shofar this morning, we chanted the line (Ps. 89:16):

אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם, יֹדְעֵי תְרוּעָה; ה’, בְּאוֹר-פָּנֶיךָ יְהַלֵּכוּן

Ashrei ha’am yode’ei teru’ah, Adonai be’or panekha yehalekhun.

Joyous are the people who know the calling of the shofar; Adonai, they walk by the light of Your presence.

Why are we joyous for having swooned to the sound of the shofar? The Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sudilkov, a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov who lived in the latter half of the 18th century, saw this line as being essential to the entire enterprise of Rosh Hashanah.

He taught (in his work Degel Mahaneh Efraim), that the sound of the shofar breaks open our awareness on these days, opening us up to our penimiut, our true spiritual inwardness. And inside these depths, buried within our mundane reality, we find the radiance of God’s holy name, glowing within us.

We are the yode’ei teru’ah, those who intimately know the shofar’s call. And this deep familiarity inspires us to seek that encounter, that breaking of the external to get to the light hidden within, to reach the Divine spark found within each of us. That is what happens when we hear the sound of the shofar.

But you can’t do that at home, alone; you can only do it with your community. The shofar unites us on this day to uncover that internal radiance. This verse describes us all in both plural and singular:

Ashrei ha’am = Happy is the nation (singular, i.e. one people)

Yode’ei teru’ah = Those who know the shofar’s call (plural, i.e. individuals)

American culture highlights the power of “one,” of the individual; our tradition speaks to the power of “us.” What makes the shofar moment work is that we are all together, that we stand together, joined as one nation, one “am,” to listen for that sound that opens us up. We share this together as individuals, personally connected to one another, and also as a community. This is the qedushah found in that moment of shofar.

It’s a new year. It’s 5776. And we are all going to get to know each other. We are going to seek those holy moments together. We are going to open up together. We are going to pray together, to sing together, to weep together, to dance, to celebrate, to learn, to share stories, to eat, and on and on. We are going to break open those tough, exterior shells to get to the inner radiance that we share. That is how we will build qesher / personal connection and qehillah / community; the qedushah / holiness will follow in spades.

And, to that end, I am going to suggest a small “action item,” one that I hope will help us in the building of qesher and qehillah on Yom Kippur: Wear a white outfit. I know that some of you  already do this, and I will obviously be wearing white. But the tradition of wearing white on YK is not just for the rabbi and cantor. It’s for everybody! It’s a symbol of purity: the purity of the soul that we seek as individuals and as a community during these ten days of teshuvah, of repentance. Yes, I know that the custom is to dress in nice clothes for synagogue. But don’t worry about that so much! YK is not about your nicest, cleanest suit! It’s about your nicest, cleanest soul. It does not have to be a kittel or a robe – anything white will do. I hope that some of you will join me in participating in this symbolic gesture next Wednesday, and that it will connect more of us to each other and our tradition as we raise the bar of community and qedushah.

Shanah tovah!

* Apologies if the “q” seems strange. One way of representing the Hebrew letter ק (qof) in English transliteration is q, because (as you can readily see if you look at them right next to each other) the Latin q is actually related to the Hebrew ק. (The Latin “k” comes from the Hebrew כ (kaf).) By transliterating this way, it helps English speakers learn or remember the Hebrew spelling of the transliterated word.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/14/2015.)

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Spiritual Inventory: A Self-Test for the End of Elul

For the purposes of introspection, here is a list of ten questions worthy of consideration in the final days before Rosh Hashanah:

In the past year, have I…

… taken care of the people around me enough?

… sought reconciliation with loved ones with whom I have struggled?

… improved my connections with others?

… tried to focus on personal behaviors that I would like to change?

… sought humility?

… evaluated how my actions affect others?

… volunteered my time for the betterment of society or the environment?

… mistreated anybody, deliberately or not?

… not fulfilled promises?

… considered ways to improve this world, and taken appropriate action?

… avoided words that may hurt others, both in public and private?

… apologized where necessary?

Plenty to think about here, but if you have a good question to add, please leave it in the comments below.

Shanah tovah! Have a good and introspective 5776.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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