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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.)

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Israel Snapshot, Part One: the Spiritual and the Physical – Vayhi 5778

I returned last week from a two-week trip to Israel. I was there for Hanukkah. I actually have not been in America for Hanukkah since 2007; it’s a great time to visit my son. He’s on vacation, the weather is cool and comfortable, and its usually before the hordes of December tourists arrive. I also find that my trips to Israel also recharge me and my sense of connection with Judaism, with our ancient texts, and of course with the modern complexities of the Jewish state.

When I sat down, by the shore of the Kinneret, to write this sermon, I found that I had been so energized by my trip that I had at least two weeks’ worth of material, so this is going to be a two-part sermon. This week, I am going to frame a different way of looking at the State of Israel; in two weeks, we’ll talk about recent political developments.

A good way to frame our understanding of Israel requires dividing the world into two traditional spheres, often reflected in Hasidic thought: ruhaniyyut, matters of the spirit, and gashmiyyut, mundane, material matters.

What got me thinking about this was the podcast Fault Lines, produced by the Forward newspaper, featuring an ongoing conversation between Rabbi Daniel Gordis of Israel’s Shalem Center, and New York-based journalist Peter Beinart. If you have not yet heard this podcast, you really should: you can find it here. What makes the podcast so appealing is that they come from different political perspectives on Israel, and yet they manage to have civil, thoughtful discussions.

HERZL WAS AN ANTI-SEMITE IN DISGUISE | SHOAH

Theodor Herzl

In an episode from last summer, they were speaking about the anti-occupation activist group If Not Now. At one point, they took a detour to talk about the competing visions of Theodor Herzl and Ahad HaAm.  Herzl was committed to the political process of statecraft – the nuts and bolts of actually creating a Jewish state.

אחד העם שלא רציתם להכיר - עיון - הארץ

Ahad HaAm

Ahad HaAm was not as interested in statehood as he was in Israel as the merkaz ruhani, the “spiritual center” of the Jews. Herzl wanted facts on the ground: borders, government, infrastructure. Ahad HaAm, noting the pitiful state of the settlements in Palestine at the end of the 19th century, wanted to focus on the way that the Diaspora and the land of Israel as its spiritual center could strengthen one another; that Israel should be “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews” – a cultural center that would foster an international Jewish renaissance. Herzl was occupied with gashmiyyut; Ahad HaAm with ruhaniyyut. They were asking different questions: Herzl was concerned with the what and the how; Ahad HaAm with the why.

Beinart and Gordis concluded that both were necessary; that Israel today was created from the visions of both Ahad HaAm and Herzl, and that both ideals still nourish and sustain the Israeli population and the State.

And so too do we need both, here in the Diaspora. We’ll come back to this.

On this trip, my son and I performed what has become an annual ritual: we got a parking ticket.

Nonetheless, on every visit to Israel, I am reminded of why I love the country and the people. Here are a few things I took note of on this trip:

Nahalat Binyamin, the Tel Aviv street fair near the shuq (open-air market) on Fridays is always packed with people. Artists and craftspeople of all kinds set up to sell their wares. There are buskers and various types of street entertainers, including a particularly talented string trio: Russian emigres, two violins and a cello. Their instruments look beat-up and barely varnished. But as I listened to them play Vivaldi, I was transported momentarily away from the busy, dusty city to a place of  beauty and tranquility. I put 10 sheqel in their hat.

The cafes are alive, bursting with people. The cafe culture in Israel is vibrant. While I have often been in cafes in America where every single person (including me) is working on their own laptop, not talking to each other, that is never how it is in Israel. Friends are having conversations; people have work meetings; some are simply checking out the scene; and so forth.

Meanwhile, Israeli city streets are always filled with people, not just cars. Israeli cities are generally built around a small, pedestrian-friendly merkaz, so the sense of seeing people and being seen is a part of the Israeli day-to-day experience.

And then there is the youthful energy of Israel. On my flight over, I was literally surrounded by Israeli babies on four sides. I didn’t sleep so well, but the comfort of knowing that Israelis and Israeli society are family-centric is worth so much more.

As bustling and exciting as Israeli is, I confess that what I love most when I visit is the opportunity to reflect: the quiet of a hike, wherein I can chew on history and current reality, about what it means to be a Jew, an American Jew, an Israeli Jew, an American Zionist, an American Jew who considered making aliyah but then returned to America, and so forth.

Arbel caves

View of the north-facing cliff of Mt. Arbel, which contains the caves

Last Sunday, my son was in school following Hanukkah break, so I drove up to Mt. Arbel, just north of Tiberias, to take a hike. Arbel is best known for the ancient natural caves, hewn into the steep cliff on its north face, that were not only used as homes by our ancestors, but also played a role in the rebellion against Rome in the first century CE. (Noted by Josephus because Herod’s commander lowered soldiers from the cliff above the caves to enter and massacre the rebels in the caves.)

Josephus

Unfortunately, the caves were inaccessible because it was a windy and rainy day. So instead I strolled around the top of the mountain, and also checked out the ruins of the 4th-century synagogue near the summit.

The synagogue, like many ancient synagogues in Israel, is demarcated by Israeli authorities to protect the past. Among the signs placed haphazardly around the site are descriptions of the worship area, and then a note that there were also rooms to one side where limmud / “learning” took place.

Israel needs that ancient synagogue. It lies there, a collection of worn, sculpted rocks, as a symbol of our ancient connection with the land; it represents the past as much as the present. It reminds us of the politics and the spirit. It speaks to us of ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut, the material and the spiritual.

Now, you might be thinking that ruhaniyyut here is tefillah / prayer, since it involves what at least ostensibly suggests expressing our gratitude and requests to God; that the role of the synagogue as a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, is the spiritual side.

And I would posit that it is exactly the opposite: tefillah has a certain rigidity to it: it has laws, customs, and the expectation, at least historically, has been that it’s done a certain, particular way. The words do not change; the melodies do not change that much. As much as many of us synagogue regulars crave a certain amount of variety in our services, the reality is that most of us expect that prayer will be done a certain way, and that not doing it that way would be foreign.

(Aside: we are currently hosting a discussion about re-imagining what we do here for tefillah, something that you will become more aware of in coming months. We’re setting some goals, and will try to make our services align with those goals. And we are certainly focused on making tefillot a more creative and meaningful endeavor.)

But limmud, learning is exactly the opposite. The rules are simple: study and argue. It is a creative endeavor. And although you have to use what’s come before, the field is wide open in terms of interpretation, what ancient words mean to us today.

Tefillah / prayer is like Herzl’s political Zionism; it desires structure. It is about demarcating liturgical frameworks so that words of praise are recited in an organized way, so that people can gather in groups to create a ritual framework together. But learning is about openness, about freedom, about exploring yourself through ancient text. It is about enriching yourself and your community through seeking meaning. The Jewish bookshelf is the virtual merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center of our people.

The synagogue, ancient and modern, symbolizes the modern state of Israel – learning and praying together, structure and creativity, ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut.

החיים היפים בתל אביב הקטנה / חלק א` | מסע בתוך החמישים

And the lesson that we can draw from this is that the Israel that we know and love, the Israel that gives us inspiration, is not just about political boundaries and democracy and the peace process; it is also about how we go about finding meaning here in the Diaspora. It is about being not only or lagoyim, a light unto the nations, but or la’am, a light unto OUR nation, the Jewish people, as well. It is about the people who live there, and the wealth of culture that Israel gives to the Jewish world: the religious culture, yes, but also the secular: the pop music, the plays, the fashion design, the high-tech innovations.

As Diaspora Jews, we are as much enriched by Herzl’s vision of Altneuland, the old land become new, as we are by Ahad HaAm’s notion of the merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center. Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward.

Take me to Part Two!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/30/17.)

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