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Prepare For High Holidays This Year Like Never Before – Ki Tavo 5780

You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream.

Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.

A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent.

So begins my go-to book at this time of year, Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. The book is filled with stories that help illustrate the journey of this part of the Jewish year, the arc that begins with destruction, Tish’ah Be’Av, and spirals upward through rebuilding, coronation, repentance, and celebration.

Rabbi Lew’s essential message is this: if you pay attention, if you are in fact prepared, the holiday odyssey is so much more powerful. We have the opportunity before us to change our behavior for the better, and in doing so change the world for the better.

The key to this betterment is preparation. Being ready. God tells Moshe to be ready before he ascends Mt. Sinai to get the tablets. (Ex. 34:2):

וֶהְיֵ֥ה נָכ֖וֹן לַבֹּ֑קֶר וְעָלִ֤יתָ בַבֹּ֙קֶר֙ אֶל־הַ֣ר סִינַ֔י

Vehyeh nakhon laboqer, ve’alita vaboqer el har sinai.
Be ready by morning, and in the morning you shall ascend Mt. Sinai.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are something like Mt. Sinai. That is the gravity with which we should approach these days. And we have to be prepared, just like Moshe. 

I know that the young woman whose bat mitzvah we celebrated today prepared extensively for this day; she read the entirety of today’s Torah reading. (Kol hakavod!)

What does it take to make a Jewish adult?

No bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah happens without extensive preparation. Learning to read from the Torah, learning to chant parts of the service, preparing a devar Torah to deliver to the congregation. 

However, that is really only the icing on the cake, the finished product, as it were. In order to reach that point, a child must spend years learning Hebrew, learning about Jewish practices and customs and law and holidays and values and texts. A Jewish child learns from her or his parents, watching them engage with Jewish life, participating in preparing Shabbat and holiday meals, helping to put up a sukkah, searching for hametz, coming to synagogue with them, observing them acting on Jewish values of gratitude and humility and compassion. A Jewish child learns to question: Why do we do this? What does this mean? Why is this night different from all other nights? Didn’t we say, “Next year in Jerusalem” last year? 

In all, 13 years of preparation, of investment of time and money and will, go into making a Jewish adult. And then she is not even really an adult yet. There are still more years of learning and growing to do. A lifetime, in fact; I’m still not sure if I have made it to adulthood.

It can be very easy, too easy to merely roll up to the High Holidays, to the Ten Days of Teshuvah, without preparing. Sure, you figure, we have a family meal, my suit is dry-cleaned, we have our High Holiday tickets, and so forth.

But those things are not so important. What is really important for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Three simple things – items that you know because they are identified in what you might call the centerfold of RH and YK services: the Untaneh Toqef prayer, right after we ask the grave question of “Who will live and who will die in the coming year?” 

Utshuvah, utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah
But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the severity of the decree

And I think that this year, knowing that we will not all be gathered together with our collective energy in the same physical space, we need this preparation more than ever. More than any High Holiday cycle in your lifetime. We need it to ensure that this High Holiday season will have meaning. We need it because the world seems so off-kilter right now, and we are going to be really grateful for the spiritual framework of this time. So I give you these three things to think about in the two weeks you have left before Rosh Hashanah:

Teshuvah / Return or Repentance

Rambam, arguably (everything in Judaism is “arguably”) the greatest single interpreter of Jewish life. He writes the tractate Hilkhot Teshuvah (the laws of repentance) as a part of his halakhic compendium Mishneh Torah while serving as a court physician in Cairo in the 12th century. Among the ideas about teshuvah that he emphasizes is the idea that our lives are in the balance in this season. We must look back on our deeds of the past year, and consider that we have equal amounts of merits and transgressions; they balance each other out. And it is our task at this time to ensure that we are working a little harder than usual to make sure that we lean into the “merits,” to make sure that the balance tips the right way.

That is why, Rambam says, we begin sounding the shofar in the month of Elul. We do it every weekday morning at the end of our Shaharit service (if you need a little more shofar in your life right now, you can tune in on this Zoom link every weekday morning at about 8:10 to hear it). I’m also blowing it on the roof of Beth Shalom during ELC pickup.

The shofar’s call, says Rambam, cries, עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם! Uru yeshenim mishenatkhem! Wake up from your slumber, you who sleep! The shofar reminds us that we have to be prepared; to stretch ourselves, to do better in this season.

Now is the time to reflect on your actions in the last year. To ask for forgiveness where necessary. To attempt to mend broken relationships. To work a little harder at living Jewishly, at pursuing Jewish values, at fulfilling mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life.

And that, of course, leads us to…

Tefillah / Prayer

Folks, I have to remind you all of something extraordinarily important about this season: even though we are meeting virtually, even though this may not feel like being in synagogue, it absolutely is. This is real prayer. I know, it’s not ideal, but it is what we have right now. 

So make it real prayer. Daven. Shuckle. Meditate. Sing. Do it all in earnest this year. Even if you feel like you have never successfully prayed before. Now is the time. I am proud, and you should be too, that Beth Shalom’s services have remained uninterrupted since March. You can join us every day, so that you can be a little bit more prepared.

Tzedaqah / Charity

This past week there was a powerful article in the New York Times about how the pandemic recession has impacted families.

A government survey in late July revealed that nearly 30 million Americans claimed that they did not have enough to eat. Those households include one in three of those with children. A food bank in Memphis reported that they had served 18,000 families between March and August, ten times more than in the same period last year.

There is a need right now, more so than in recent memory. The virus has caused a tidal wave of unemployment, and people are hungry. Fortunately, there is a temporary halt on evictions, but with family budgets stretched thin, there are many who may not be able to buy food. 

Give to charities now, particularly food banks. It’s good for those who need to eat, and it’s good for your soul as well.

This is really a simple formula: teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah. But investing in those three things will help you be ready.

***

Bat mitzvah is not just about showing everybody that you can read Torah or lead services or give a credible devar Torah. It is about being ready, about paying attention, about acting on the holy imperatives of Jewish life. We celebrate with our bat mitzvah family today, but we also acknowledge that the task before us, in this season in which we really need some teshuvah / return, in which we crave normality, for a return to something resembling life as we used to know it, that task is harder than ever.

But you can make it happen. You just have to pay attention, listen to the sounding of the shofar waking us up from our slumber, seek forgiveness, pray, and commit some of your economic resources to the benefit of others if you can. 

And then you’ll be ready. And God knows that we need to be prepared this year as we enter 5781.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/5/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

How to Leave a Better World for Our Children in Five Easy Steps – Re’eh 5780

One of the most challenging things for me right now, in this pandemic time, is the deep dissatisfaction I am feeling; I am living with a gnawing sense that whatever I do, it is not enough. Yes, to some extent I have that feeling in “normal” times as well – it’s a rabbinic affliction. But something about the isolation and limitations on human interaction in this time has vaulted that feeling of “It’s not enough” to the top of my list of regular anxieties. 

My work, which, you may know, is mostly NOT leading services and giving sermons, but rather talking with people and teaching, is not particularly satisfying right now, because I know that no matter how much I do, no matter how well we at the synagogue plan for High Holidays or JJEP or benei mitzvah celebrations, no matter how many people I call, it will not be enough. And so too at home. No matter how much time I spend with my family, it is not enough. No matter how awesome it was to go tent camping out in the woods this summer, it is not enough.

A recent family dinner, cooked over a campfire in Laurel Hill State Park

And I am continually asking myself, “When this is all over, will I be able to look back and say, did I use this time as best as I could? Could I have done better? Could we have done better?”

As you know, we have been learning some great midrashim / rabbinic stories between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon, in a series I have titled, “My Favorite Midrash.” One that we covered recently, certainly a favorite midrash of mine, is about one of the more curious characters of rabbinic literature, a fellow who is known as “Honi haMe’aggel,” Honi the Circle-Maker. He is so called because of his unique talent of drawing circles in which rain falls. Seemingly unrelated to this remarkable gift, the following midrash is also told (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a):

יומא חד הוה אזל באורחא חזייה לההוא גברא דהוה נטע חרובא אמר ליה האי עד כמה שנין טעין אמר ליה עד שבעין שנין אמר ליה פשיטא לך דחיית שבעין שנין אמר ליה האי [גברא] עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי שתלי נמי לבראי

One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Honi said to the tree-planter: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He replied to Honi: I myself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.

Carob

The midrash does not tell us about how many carob trees the man found, nor how many he planted. He was probably not too concerned about whether or not he had planted enough trees; the larger point is that he made an effort to ensure that there would be some for his grandchildren.

While my first inclination is to read this story as referring to our responsibility to take care of God’s Creation, such that we can bequeath it in good condition to those who come after us, I think it is also possible to read this as a metaphor not only for our physical environment, but for our spiritual milieu as well. 

The beginning of Parashat Re’eh is very concerned about the idea of the Land of Israel as the yerushah, the inheritance of the Israelites. Various forms of the Hebrew word “lareshet” / to inherit appear five times in the first two aliyot we read this morning. It is clear that the Torah wants us to see Israel as the reward; it is the gift for being party to the covenant, for fulfilling the mitzvot. It is what the Torah’s original audience needed to hear; that they would inherit this land as a sign of God’s love to them.

And so, as I am thinking about the emotional state of the world, the divisive nature of American politics right now, and the numbers of people we have lost unnecessarily to the pandemic, and the grief and pain that this loss as well as the economic devastation it has caused, I am left with the following question:

What do we want our children to inherit? What will their spiritual inheritance be?

Do we want them to inherit a polarized world, one in which people not only cannot see the other side of an argument, but openly denigrate those who hold opposing views? Do we want them to inherit a world in which coarse language is the norm, that prevarication goes unpunished, that advocacy for your team always wins out over thoughtful, considered positions? In which news is not fact, but merely spin? In which people on different sides of any particular issue cannot even speak to each other or break bread together, because they view the other as stupid or heartless?

I come back to the line at the end of today’s reading (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:28):

שְׁמֹ֣ר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֗ אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֑ךָּ לְמַעַן֩ יִיטַ֨ב לְךָ֜ וּלְבָנֶ֤יךָ אַחֲרֶ֙יךָ֙ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם כִּ֤י תַעֲשֶׂה֙ הַטּ֣וֹב וְהַיָּשָׁ֔ר בְּעֵינֵ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.

How do we plant the carob trees for our grandchildren? How do I use this pandemic time to create a foundation for a better world, so that my children’s spiritual inheritance will be tov veyashar, good and right?

Hevreh, the framework of mitzvot that God has given us is the formula by which we can live better. It was given to us a long time ago, and if more of us were to follow it, the world we will leave to our children will be a much better one. Here is, if you will, a simplified formula for success:

  1. Keep Shabbat. Doing so encourages respect for yourself and those close to you. Keep your conversations and your activities local and low-key. Be with your nearby family and friends. Don’t spend money; avoid technology. Connect with the here and now, and leave behind the elsewhere and the later.
  1. Keep kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). It encourages respect for God’s Creation. The lines in what we can or cannot consume are there to remind us that there are limits to what is Divinely-acceptable behavior. Maintain the holiness in the natural world.
  1. Pray daily. Connect with yourself; hold your mind and your heart in self-judgment, and leave room for doubt. You may not be right about every single thing.  Introspection leads to intentionality, which leads to patience, planning, and presence of mind in all the spheres of life.
  1. Observe Jewish holidays, and make sure you know why. Yom Kippur teaches us humility. Pesah teaches freedom for all. Hanukkah teaches enlightenment. Sukkot teaches simplicity. Simhat Torah celebrates learning. Purim celebrates standing up for what is right.
  1. Learn Torah. The wisdom of the ancient Jewish bookshelf teaches us how to be human beings, not cogs in a machine. It sensitizes us to the needs of others, and forces us to consider how our behavior impacts this world.

It is a simple formula. But of course you are thinking, “Rabbi, I’ve been Jewish all my life and while I may do some of those things, it’s just too much for me to take on something that I’m just not used to doing.”

Let me tell you why you need to reach higher: because the world depends on your mitzvot. Because our heritage – the world our children inherit – depends on your willingness to think and behave for the benefit of the common good. And that is what every single one of those things is about.

What kind of world do you want our children to inherit? One in which everybody is looking out for themselves, seeking personal gratification at any cost? Or one in which we cooperate to solve the big problems, in which we acknowledge the humanity in each other and the Divinity of Creation, in which we seek the holiness that is waiting for us under the surface of every relationship?

The choice is yours. Reach higher. Think of those carob trees, bearing fruit 70 years hence.

And I know this is hard, but try not to worry too much about whether you have done enough. If you take on this formula of five things, I am certain that you will be able to look back and say, “Yes. That was good and right.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2020.)

Categories
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
Sermons

We Can Change the World – Terumah 5778

A rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a Buddhist monk get into a pickup truck and drive to the football stadium to see the Big Game. The rabbi is driving. When they get there, they change from their “work” clothes into the colors of their favorite team, and join a couple of nuns already in the stands, who chide them for being late. The rabbi gestures to the others as if to blame them. Then their team scores! They all jump up and down and hoot and holler.

Some of you may know that this was actually an advertisement for a large Japanese auto manufacturer that ran during the Super Bowl two weeks ago. At the end, before flashing the company’s logo, the slogan, “We’re all one team” appears on-screen.

The ad had two major flaws: one was that, with the exception of the nuns that seem to have been thrown in at the last minute, all of the clergy were male. But even bigger than that, what rabbi drives a pickup truck?!

We’re all one team.

Except when we are not.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL, who spoke in Pittsburgh nine days ago to a room full of rabbis, priests, and ministers, invoked this ad and reminded us that, well, actually, we are not all one team.

It is fascinating to me that, in this time of great political, racial, and sometimes religious division in our nation, the Madison Avenue ad execs are trying to convince us that we are all one team. Because, at least with respect to the choices that we are making through the democratic process, we are not.

Consider another Super Bowl ad, ironically, for another automotive company that was heavily criticized for misappropriating the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. The people who made that ad were most likely trying to tap into a similar desire of the rabbi-priest-imam-monk ad, that is, our desire to find a rallying point, a connection across racial, ethnic, religious, and political divides in this very fractious moment. And that ad seems to have failed miserably.

The message that Rabbi Hirschfield left us with was, try to consider the other. Try to be a fan, and not a fanatic. We who stand for the rule of law, a shared vision for the betterment of society, and a moderate approach to religion in its integration with contemporary life are all playing the same game, even if we aren’t exactly on the same team; we all agree on the rules.

A little back-story here: I was going to take this sermon in a different direction. I had actually written the rest of this sermon on Tuesday, and it was about what Judaism offers, and why we should be playing on this team.

But then, on Wednesday, a troubled young man with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle walked into a high school in Parkland, Florida, and began shooting.

We have all witnessed quite a bit of palpable anger, frustration, and grief in these last couple of days. The crying out: how could this have happened once again, and so soon? The throwing up of hands in the air in frustration: will nothing change? The traded accusations, the pointed fingers.

On my social media feed, the ire was directed at politicians, who offered their cliched “thoughts and prayers.” And rightly so. Cynically-offered thoughts and prayers, in place of actual promises of legislative solutions, are useless, and have clearly not brought about any change.

But prayer, if we are acting on it correctly, can in fact help. Our team, the team that actually offers real prayer as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, can bring about change. Let me explain how.

For thousands of years, Jews have gathered in synagogues large and small to act on the holy opportunities of prayer: chanting the words of our liturgy, hearing the Torah read, learning together, and so forth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other religious groups also gather in their houses of worship for similar services. The content, style, language, features, and of course theology of all these services vary tremendously. But what do they have in common? They bring people together for holy purposes, for the purpose of finding (to use the Hebrew term) kedushah / of seeking holiness.

And when people gather in prayer, they have the potential to change the world.

heschel king torah

The Jewish prayer experience is not meant to be passive. It’s not supposed to be about mumbling ancient words in a language we do not understand. It’s REALLY not supposed to be about waiting for the person up in front to mumble through a page of obscure Hebrew. Rather, it is about having an active mind, of being aware of yourself and your world, of opening up our hearts and minds to the reality of today. It’s about understanding the possibilities of a world that could be, a blueprint for a time without fear and hatred, violence and oppression.

Tefillah / prayer is about resonating with our ancient words. It is a subset of Talmud Torah, the holy opportunity to learn and discuss the words of our tradition. The Talmud asks (Kiddushin 40b):

וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד

?נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול

נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול

נענה ר”ע ואמר תלמוד גדול

נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nitza in Lod, when this question was asked of them:

Is study greater or is action greater?

Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater.

Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater.

Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.

Tefillah, when performed with the proper intention as a form of study, leads to action. And particularly in a house of worship such as this; it turns the potential of people gathered for a holy task into action. It raises us up in kedushah / holiness so that we can go out together and make this world a better place.

And there are concrete examples of the way prayer has changed the world. Consider some of of our team’s greatest victories. Consider the American civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other clergy. Consider the movement led by Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi to free India from British rule. Consider Zionism, led by both secular and religious personalities who drew on the ancient yearning of the Jewish soul to return to Israel. We are living in a time in which gathering for prayer is still effective in bringing about major change.

Gandhi

Prayer / tefillah reminds us of the words of Deuteronomy (30:12),

לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

It is not in the heavens. We write our prayers, we fill them with our emotions and ideas, and we are God’s hands. We are in charge of our destinies here on Earth.

We can change our world. We are not powerless.

Here is where we really ARE on the same team: we, the fans, not the fanatics, we do not want our children to walk into schools in fear. We cannot allow music lovers, or church goers, or people dancing in gay nightclubs to feel that they are not safe. We cannot justify the complacency of politicians in gerrymandered districts who have to answer to nobody but the powerful lobbies who give them money for their next campaign.

And here’s what our team can do: We can change the world. That’s what churches and synagogues and mosques and mandirs and all other houses of faith are for: to bring people together for a holy purpose. And what purpose could be more holy than saving lives?

One of the essential messages of the Purim story, if you look beyond the costumes and the graggers and the drinking and partying, is that Esther saved the Jews of Persia because she spoke up. She was not silent in the face of impending murder.

Now is not the time to be silent. Now IS the time for prayer. And to turn the potential from the prayers of everybody who is on our team, the prayerful team, into action.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/17/2018.)

 

Categories
Kavvanot

Gandhi on Prayer

A friend recently forwarded this quote, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, about prayer. Gandhi came from a prayer tradition quite different from the Jewish one, and yet his words speak powerfully about our own experience with tefillah (prayer). I have appended comments, Rashi-style:

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

ghandi

“A longing of the soul

We need to express that longing, to acknowledge the need to heal our spirits, to seek wholeness in a fragmented world.

The soul does not speak English or Hebrew or Aramaic. It speaks yearning. It speaks prayer wordlessly.

“Admission of one’s weakness”

We go through life trying to demonstrate to everybody else and to ourselves how strong we are, how resilient we are, how talented we are.

We do not willingly admit weakness.

It is only through prayerful moments that we allow ourselves to admit even privately that we are vulnerable, that we are broken, that we need more from God or from others or from the universe.

“Better to have a heart without words than words without a heart”

Tefillah / prayer is not intended to be an empty recitation of words in a language we do not understand.

Rather, the ancient yearnings of our ancestors, found on the pages of the siddur, transport our own longing; those words provide a conduit for the heart, a tap into the soul.

As we learn in Pirkei Avot (2:18), Al ta’as tefilatekha qeva, Do not make your prayer a prescribed routine, but a plea for mercy and grace before God. Your words of tefillah should not be fixed, but filled with kavvanah: intention, spontaneity, honesty to yourself.

So as we sing / chant / mumble / meditate on the words of our own tradition, as we let the longing of our souls flow, remember that the kavvanah, the heart behind the words, matters more than the words themselves.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

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?”

3 Must See Beaches in Asia - Moonlight MileMoonlight Mile

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.)

Categories
Sermons

No Justice, No Peace – Ki Tetse 5777

Last Monday, Rabbi Jeremy and I were fortunate to be able to attend a local interfaith commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug 28 1963 March on Washington. Faith leaders from all over the region gathered at the JCC to learn together and share sermons about the need for justice in our society today, a need that is as great as it was 54 years ago when Dr. King gave his most famous speech. Dr. King’s dream is still alive; it is, of course, unfulfilled. 169 local priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams signed a joint declaration, which we read at the ceremony, re-affirming our obligations as clergy to fight hatred and to stand together for compassion and inclusion.

... Who Refused to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

This section of Devarim / Deuteromony is all about justice. It begins with the statement in last week’s parashah, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” “Justice: you shall pursue justice,” (that’s my translation), and the Torah’s requirement to appoint impartial judges and law enforcement officers. The thread of justice continued this week with an assortment of other commandments that maintain the holiness in human relationships. For example, the obligation to pay a day laborer promptly and not take advantage of him (Deut. 24:14), or the commandment not to despise the foreigner among you, because we know what it’s like to be foreigners (23:8). We have to allow needy people to pick up produce that has fallen to the ground, and otherwise glean from our fields (24:19, e.g.), but they are not allowed to take more than their share (23:25).

We have an obligation to make sure that our society is a just one. And, as Maimonides explains at the end of the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, the mitzvot (holy opportunities derived from the Torah) are there not only for us to fulfill, but also for us to extrapolate moral behavior according to the spirit of the law. This principle is known in Hebrew as “lifnim mishurat hadin,” that we should behave within the line of the law. So yes, having a just society means setting up legitimate courts, honest weights and measures, and making sure that some of your  produce is set aside for the poor; these are all explicit in the Torah. But extending that line, creating a just society also means that we have an obligation to step forward in the event that your leadership does not. It means that we each have a personal responsibility to make sure that our society is just, and we might fulfill that by supporting organizations that protect the right of everybody to vote, for example, or by making sure that our laws do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, gender, religion, and so forth, or by working to ensure that our public schools offer a worthy education to all who enter.

There has been much recent concern over public statues that feature people who stood for abhorrent things, like slavery. This was, of course, part of the back-story for the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA a few weeks back. I think that there are certainly good arguments for taking down statues to Confederate leaders.

But there is also another way. What do we do with the symbols of an unseemly past? We teach. We talk about them. We study.

There are many such examples in our siddur (prayerbook). To cite just one, consider the image of resurrection that is featured in the second berakhah of the Amidah, the standing prayer that we recite each day. Yes, you heard that right: resurrection. When we say, “Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayye hameitim,” we are saying, praised are You, God, who brings the dead back to life. It is a paean to the ancient understanding that when the Anointed One, the mashiah (messiah) comes, faithful Jews will be resurrected and get on El Al flights to return to Israel, which will be united again under the kingship of a descendant of King David. In today’s Jewish world, some groups have elevated classical messianism to the point where it is an essential part of their theology, despite the fact that no such idea exists in the Torah.

But messianism has always been an uncomfortable area for contemporary Jews, including your faithful rabbinic correspondent. We don’t treat each other justly for some eschatological reward (something to which we can look forward at the end of times). Rather we treat each other justly because it is the right thing to do in the here and now, that the reward comes from elevating the qedushah / holiness in our relationships.

And so, while the Reform movement replaced “mehayye hameitim” with “mehayye hakol,” restoring life to all, we in the Conservative movement say the original text, while reinterpreting the berakhah to mean that God is the source of all life. It does not have to be about messianic resurrection; it can be about how God works as a force in nature all around us, providing the spirit that nourishes all of us in life and in death. We take our traditional text and reinterpret the words, thereby conserving the tradition and making it work with our contemporary values.

But of course, that requires explanation, and you will find one if you look in the margin of Siddur Lev Shalem on a page with the Amidah (e.g. p. 186). In the Conservative movement, we have a long and glorious history of re-interpretation. So the message for today is, whether we take down statues or not, let’s make sure that we make our interpretation explicit.

Let’s make sure that every child knows that slavery was deeply wrong, that racism is wrong, that anti-Semitism is wrong, that anti-immigrant-ism is wrong. Let’s make sure that our elected officials and judges and law enforcement officers do not unfairly target people with different skin color. Let’s make sure that we acknowledge the divinity in EVERY human being, the Godly spark that motivates us all to do good for each other in this world.

It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to recite a prayer for the secular authorities of the jurisdiction in which we live. (One of the most interesting features of old siddurim is to find the prayer for the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or, as referenced in Fiddler on the Roof, a blessing for the czar and/or czarina).

Week after week we pray for our country, that of the United States of America. They are roughly the same words that we have been saying for many years (Lev Shalem, p. 177).

We are living in a time in which many people are in pain. Many in our this great and prosperous nation are suffering from disenfranchisement, from the scourge of readily-available, inexpensive addictive drugs, from the cycles of poverty which afflict us from generation to generation, from the growing gap between rich and poor, from the closing of steel mills and coal mines to the looming threat of unemployment from self-driving cars and trucks and the coming automation of, well, everything. We are frustrated by stagnant wages and the outrageous cost of health care. We are frightened at the prospect of emboldened racists and anti-Semites parading through our streets, and the attendant regression in race relations. We are once again roiled by the fear of immigrants in our midst. We are living in a time of great philosophical divide in our country, and the reluctance to compromise on a range of issues.

As the center of American Judaism, we have what to teach the world about these things. We, particularly as Conservative Jews, understand listening to all sides, left and right. We understand the value of maintaining tradition while reinterpreting and explaining for today to reflect contemporary sensibilities.

In our prayer for the country, we said the following:

Help [the inhabitants of this country] understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

If there were ever a time that we needed those words, it would be right now. If there were ever a time in which we needed those ideals, it is the current moment. And so we have to get out there and teach our Torah, our values.

To have peace, happiness, freedom, and security, we need justice. And justice requires thoughtful reflection, to making sure that the choices we make will ultimately support the institutions that we have set in place. We cannot respond out of hatred and fear of the other. We cannot support authority figures who seek only to destroy institutions and prop up the bigotry-mongers. We cannot violate the sacred ideals of democracy and individual protections which immigrants to this great nation have sought for centuries. We have to make sure that our leaders follow not only the rule of law, but also the spirit. Lifnim mishurat hadin.

Image may contain: one or more people, crowd, sky, tree and outdoor

We have the potential to reignite those values. Because, in the words of Pirqei Avot (the 2nd-century collection of ancient rabbinic wisdom), “Im lo akhshav, eimatai?” If not now, when?

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/2/2017.)

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Measuring Ourselves – Behar-Behuqqotai 5777

There is a classic Hasidic story about Reb Zusya of Anapol:

As he lay on his death bed, Reb Zusya trembled with fear. His students asked him why he was afraid. Reb Zusya said, “In the world to come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Avraham Avinu, or Sarah Imeinu, or Moshe Rabbeinu / Moses our Teacher?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?'”

reb zusya of anapol
The final resting place of Reb Zusya of Anapol

How do we understand ourselves? That is, when we take those rare moments of reflection, how do we measure our emotions, our choices, our relationships? How do we judge ourselves?

Now of course I’m not talking about the tangibles. I’m not concerned with what you do for a living, or how much money you earn, or how many children you have or what kind of car you drive, although we for sure know that there are people who measure themselves according to those things. And let’s face it: those are easy things to measure.

What’s much harder is the internals, the intangibles. How do we understand who we are and why we behave the way we do? How do we evaluate whether we have made the right choices? Not so easy, or so measurable.

One possibility is that we measure ourselves based on the range of our life experiences. Who were the people in our lives whom we trusted, who taught us many useful ideas and skills? Who were the people that served as role models? What are the thoughts and principles that we have acquired that drive our choices, that sanctify our relationships?

For many of us, that will include our parents. It might also include teachers whom we remember fondly, or neighbors, or public figures, or authors. It would probably include some of the things that they taught us, the sayings and phrases that they gave us that come to the fore when we need them.

Those learned principles will certainly also include the lessons learned the hard way – the time that a good friend engaged in risky behavior that landed him in the hospital; the colleague who continued dating the person that was clearly wrong for her, and eventually was devastated when the relationship ended.

We hear these voices and we draw on them when we need them – to evaluate ourselves, to check our behavior, to  judge our choices.

I recall once being on a highway during my previous life in Houston, when suddenly there was a downpour that suggested Parashat Noah. Suddenly, I couldn’t see a thing, even though the wipers were on full blast. And then, out of nowhere, I heard my mother’s voice: “Get off the road!” she said, firmly. And I did. My safety, my mother said, was more important than whatever I was headed to.

We take the most salient things that stick in our heads, the pieces of wisdom that we accumulate as we go through life, and we refashion them for our own purposes, to be our measuring-sticks as we move through life. We pull them out, usually sub-consciously, when we need to re-examine that framework, to chart our course through life, to make decisions. They are all part of the glue that holds our lives together as we continue on our own personal journey.

We measure ourselves through the lens of past experiences and our reactions to them.

***

Now the interesting thing here is that Jewish prayer, tefillah, is a kind of model for this very phenomenon.

You may have heard me say that the essence of tefillah, of Jewish prayer, is self-judgment. Prayer is not just mumbling curious words in an ancient language – it has a structure, themes, choreography, history, customs, tradition, laws, etc. And the Hebrew word for “to pray,” lehitpallel, is actually a reflexive verb, meaning that you do it to yourself. The relatively obscure root, פלל (p-l-l), actually means “to judge.” So when we rise to lehitpallel, we are standing in judgment of ourselves.

And tefillah, prayer, is meant to be a text upon which we meditate when we stand in judgment. It is the Jewish mantra. And it is filled with the most resonant, the most appealing bits of Jewish text. Let me explain:

Everything in the siddur was assembled from previously-existing words and phrases, mostly from the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. It’s almost like a quilt made from recycled cloth: these phrases were selected from various textual sources and re-fashioned to suit the needs of the composer. These composers lived throughout the last 2,000 years in different places around the Jewish world; some we know, and some we do not. But all of them abided by the simple rule that these quilts are stitched together from the ancient sources. (A few  things, like the three paragraphs of the Shema, are direct quotes from the Torah, and were therefore not composed specifically for prayer, but most of the siddur is not like that.)

This quilt is warm, reassuring. The swatches of material repurposed for regular use bring together ancient wisdom and the gravitas of generations of Jews, who clung to them through the centuries and across continents, through pogroms and triumphs, through forced expulsions and Zionist yearnings.

There were, in today’s haftarah / prophetic reading, a bunch of these nuggets that have been recycled throughout our liturgical tradition:

בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּה’; וְהָיָה ה’, מִבְטַחוֹ

Barukh hagever asher yivtah badonai, vehayah Adonai mivtaho.

Blessed is the one who trusts in God, for God will be his stronghold. (Jeremiah 17:7)

This line appears in two places: in Birkat Hamazon, the “grace after meals,” and also in a section at the end of the weekday morning service called Qedusha deSidra.

וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל-מַיִם

Vehayah ke-etz shatul al mayim

[God shall be] like a tree planted upon the water (17:8)

This is quoted in the piyyut (liturgical poem) called “Geshem” (“Rain”), recited on Shemini Atzeret in the fall, anticipating the beginning of the rainy season in Israel.

בֹּחֵן כְּלָיוֹת

Bohen kelayot

[God is] the one who searches the heart (lit. checks the kidneys) (17:10)

This image of God appears in a piyyut for High Holidays, Vekhol Ma’aminim (“And all believe…”).

וְלָתֵת לְאִישׁ כִּדְרָכָו, כִּפְרִי מַעֲלָלָיו

Velatet le-ish kidrakhav, kifri ma’alalav.

… to give to every person according to his ways, to each the fruit of his doings. (17:10)

An adapted version of this appears in the standard funeral liturgy, in the section recited after burial called “Tzidduq HaDin,” the justification of the decree.

רְפָאֵנִי יְהוָה וְאֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה:  כִּי תְהִלָּתִי, אָתָּה

Refa-eni Adonai ve-erafe, hoshi’eini ve-ivashe’ah, ki tehilati attah.

Heal me, God, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for you are my praise. (17:14)

This is found in the weekday Amidah, recited three times a day, except that the language we recite has been pluralized (i.e. “Heal us, God, and we shall be healed…”).

What is the lesson here?

One of the beautiful things about Jewish practice, about living our lives in Jewish time, is that we benefit from a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. Our textual sources, our collective body of knowledge, has enabled us as a people to see farther, as Sir Isaac Newton put it, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

shoulders of giants

When you walk into a synagogue and pick up a siddur, whether you know the history and development of the material therein, whether you can read Hebrew or not or know the melodies, you can rely on the fact that what is contained within is tested by time and filled with the best bits of Jewish tradition. You may not agree with it all (and I certainly struggle with some things in our liturgy), but at least you know that it is a genuine product of generations, and that all you have to do is pick it up to stand on their shoulders.

lev shalem

And, pulling back the lens, this very Jewish idea can infuse our entire lives with holiness. Just as the siddur / prayerbook, the Jewish mantra, is based on the most inspiring pieces of ancient text, just as the vehicle for self-judgment is a quilt of the wisdom of our ancestors, so too do we understand ourselves by peeking through the lens of the lessons we have gleaned from our most important teachers, the people who have personally given us their lessons. So too do we measure our lives by drawing upon all of the most powerful pieces of wisdom handed to us by others.

The lessons that we draw from our educators, parents, and friends help us to measure ourselves. We stand on their shoulders and thrive on their wisdom to give us clearer vision about who we are, about how we relate to others.

And that is what we do throughout our lives.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/20/2017.)

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Open up the Kotel – Va’era 5777

In 1987, on my first visit to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program*, I visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, as every Israel tour group does. And out of nowhere, it seems, tears welled up from deep within me, from some ancient place in which Jewish history and theological yearnings meet and tap into our collective grief and our enduring optimism. I bawled as I leaned against the warm, ancient stones. So did everybody else in my group, including the one guy out of the 80 or so of us who was not Jewish. I was seventeen.

Fast forward thirteen years to 2000, when I was in cantorial school at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I experienced an unusual thing that at the time seemed quite avant-garde, even slightly illicit: an egalitarian shaharit / morning service at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex. At the time, there was no proper area for such a service – it was just a spot on the ancient Roman roadway at the base of the wall, under a rocky outcropping referred to as Robinson’s Arch, within the archaeological park that covers the southern vicinity of the Temple Mount. I don’t think there was even a table; just a few cantorial and rabbinical students with tallit and tefillin and our own siddurim.

robinsons-arch
Robinson’s Arch

What seemed like a covert operation at the time, a solution arrived at to allow egalitarian groups to daven / pray in the style that is customary for 85% of North American Jews, was a compromise – an attempt to allow mixed groups to do it their way without upsetting the more traditional, men-and-women-separate prayer that goes on in the plaza that is often thought of as the Western Wall (even though that portion of the outer retaining wall is really only a small fraction of Herod’s rebuilt, 2000-year-old plaza). Our ability to meet there was granted by the Israeli government to solve the problem of Haredi groups harassing egalitarian daveners (people who are praying) and throwing chairs and even human feces at them.

For more than a decade afterwards, that Roman road under Robinson’s Arch became a well-known location for egalitarian groups, and particularly for destination benei mitzvah services conducted by Jerusalem-based Conservative and Reform rabbis who were grateful for the business. The road was uneven, and there were no chairs, and portions were roped off because it is an active archaeological dig, but it was a special and unique experience to don tallit and tefillin and read Torah among the ancient rocks.

But struggles continued at the traditional Kotel plaza, where (in particular) a group known as Women of the Wall gathered regularly on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each Jewish, lunar month) to attempt to hold services in the women’s section, wearing tallit and tefillin (according to the various customs of the individual participants) and reading from a sefer Torah. These Rosh Hodesh gatherings became a focal point for many shocking confrontations between more traditional worshippers, the police, and the Women of the Wall participants, who were verbally abused and physically harassed and occasionally arrested.

For the last three years, there has been a solid, yet temporary and somewhat inelegant platform in the Robinson’s Arch area, just south of and out of sight of the “traditional” Kotel plaza, and this platform has made the area seem a little bit more official. About a year ago, the Israeli government agreed to complete the “upgrade” to the Robinson’s Arch area to make it a fully-functioning option for egalitarian groups.

But, Israeli politics being what they are, promises made by the Netanyahu administration were never quite fulfilled. Activity was stalled. Feet were dragged. Religious parties threatened. Nothing happened.

And the groups that had been advocating for change pressed charges, bringing their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Just a few weeks ago, the Court handed down a verdict which said that the prohibitions against mixed tefillah, against women wearing tallit and tefillin and reading Torah were all the Israeli equivalent of “unconstitutional” (although Israel has no constitution and no principle of separation of church and state), and that the religious leadership of the Kotel (Rabbi Shemuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation) would have 30 days to demonstrate why all people could not pray according to their own customs.

According to the JTA article on the verdict:

[The Israeli Supreme Cout] also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs…

The [administrative] parties “must explain why the petitioners  should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site,” the court said.

Kol hakavod to the Supreme Court for standing up for what is right here, and against the forces of fundamentalism in our midst. It is truly ironic that religious protection seems to exist for non-Orthodox Jews in every democratic country in the world except Israel.

It is worth pointing out that religious restrictions such as these are not limited only to the Kotel. In 2011, I took 37 teenagers to Israel, and we stayed one night at Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz just north of Tel Aviv. It so happened that the following morning was Monday, a Torah-reading day, and as we gathered in the hotel’s synagogue for shaharit / the morning service, we were told by the hotel staff, secular Israelis, that we were forbidden from using the hotel’s sefer Torah by the local religious authorities because we were an egalitarian group.

In the weekly cycle of parashat hashavua, the weekly reading of the Torah, we are right now in the middle of reading the Exodus story, arguably the most powerful and moving narrative of the Torah, and certainly the one that has spawned the best biblical films. It is a tale of the struggle against oppression, against hatred and fear, and of overcoming authoritarian rule. But it is also a tale about egalitarianism, about equality between men and women. Let me explain.

Some of you may have heard (from some others in the Jewish world) that the only positive, time-bound mitzvot / commandments to which women are obligated are lighting Shabbat candles, separating a piece of hallah when making it, and immersion in the miqveh (ritual bath) following the menstrual cycle. But that is not true. Those are, you might say, “alternative facts.”

In actuality, there are many other positive, time-bound mitzvot that are identified in the Talmud to which women are obligated, and one of them is drinking four cups of wine at the Pesah seder (God’s promises to the Israelites that serve as a basis for these four cups were found in today’s parashah, Ex. 6:6-8). The Talmud’s reasoning for this is (Talmud Bavli Pesahim 108a-b):

ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס

Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: Women are obligated to drink these four cups, because they too were part of the miracle [of deliverance].

In other words, the Exodus was not just for men; all of the Israelites were saved. And we all are obligated to celebrate this egalitarian deliverance today. That statement for freedom and against oppression continues to resonate in every corner of the Jewish world, not only on one side of the mehitzah. And given the centrality of the image of our people’s redemption from Egypt as a justification for treating all people with equity, the poor, the widow, the immigrant and refugee among us, it is undeniably an imperative to ensure that all of us have access to God and our tradition, that none of us are excluded due to gender or any other status.

And there is plenty more material here – the idea of a mehitzah (separation barrier between men and women) is actually medieval; it may only date for certain to the 13th century. And never mind the fact that there was no official mehitzah  at the Kotel until 1967.

old-kotel-1
The Kotel in the 1920s

So I am waiting with great excitement to see how the anti-egalitarian forces of the Israeli religious right will justify denying adherents of the progressive movements to daven in our customary way. The Talmud tells us that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was permitted by ancient authorities to wear tefillin (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 96a). Would our contemporary zealots challenge their authority?

jews_at_western_wall_by_felix_bonfils_1870s
The Kotel in the 1870s

By way of conclusion, it is worth pointing out that there are really no holy places in Judaism. Once the Temple was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in 70 CE, our understanding is that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed from the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies, and has not returned. We have sanctified time, not space or objects, for two thousand years. While there is no question that the Kotel is a place of great sentimental significance – a central connection to our history, the focal point of our prayer, the physical remains of the ancient epicenter of the Jewish world – our tefillah is just as valid right here in Pittsburgh as it is in Jerusalem.

But since the Kotel has been elevated to an unprecedented level in the contemporary world, that spot should be emblematic of all of the different paths we have through our tradition. It’s not a synagogue; it’s just a very moving, very powerful location. And it should be open to all.

Let’s hope that by the time that we take our congregational trip to Israel (coming your way soon! Let me know if you’re interested!) that we will proudly be able to gather there for a meaningful service the same way we are doing right now – acknowledging that we are all equal before God.

Shabbat shalom!

* AMHSI is now offering free scholarships to a few lucky teens from Pittsburgh. Please see me for details.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/28/2017.)

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Positive Judaism – Noah 5777

Those of you who have been to the melaveh-malkah-in-the-sukkah that my family and I have hosted for the last couple of years know that I love folk music. Way back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I saw Pete Seeger perform. Just a tall, gangly guy with a banjo. He was not young then, but he was magical. Mr. Seeger had the amazing ability to ask the audience to sing along with him, and they would do so in four-part harmony. Magic.

My physical chemistry professor, a man whom I still think of to this day as the most boring person on Earth, was seated a row in front of me to my left. He nodded off during the concert, and I felt a certain satisfaction in that my opinion of him was confirmed.

When Pete Seeger died nearly three years ago at the age of 94, his obituary in the New York Times chronicled all the political turmoil of his life: protests of his concerts by members of the John Birch Society, his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and so forth. But that obit concluded with a striking statement of Mr. Seeger’s personal take on life. “The key to the future of the world,” he said, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

I have said on multiple occasions in this space that I am an optimist: on Israel, on the Jewish future, on life in general. Those of you who were here on the High Holidays may recall that I mentioned that the Judaism we need to emphasize, if we want our children and grandchildren to embrace it, is positive Judaism. By that I mean that we have to give them Jewish experiences that are affirming: being welcomed warmly into a Jewish community, having prayer experiences that make one feel transformed and invigorated, having affirmative interactions with Jewish institutions, interacting with clergy and communities that validate who we are and why we are here, that are not judgmental, that do not draw lines to exclude people.

Now, if you know a little about the history of contemporary movements in Judaism, you might know that the Conservative movement’s origins are in a group of scholars in the mid-19th century known as the “Positive-Historical School.”

The Reform movement emerged in the early 19th century in the German-speaking lands as a congregational movement led by rabbis who wanted to reform Judaism – to make it possible for Jews to live like Germans on the street and Jews in the home.

At the Reform conference in 1845, Rabbi Abraham Geiger and other early reformers were advocating for German to be the sole language of Jewish prayer. A more traditional reformer, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel and his allies argued that Hebrew was the language of the Jews, and should always be the language of prayer. In less than a decade, Rabbi Frankel & Co. launched the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, the original home of the Positive-Historical School: “positive” because they affirmed the binding nature of halakhah / Jewish law, and “historical” because they embraced the critical, scientific approach for understanding how Judaism developed over millennia, a philosophical stance which the Orthodoxy of the time opposed vigorously.

We, the Conservative movement, emerged from the Positive-Historical School. Yeah, I know, it’s not such a great title.

But, to quote Rav Kook, “הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש.” “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified. Together, they shall become torches that shall illuminate Zion.”

For more than a century, we in the theological center of Jewish life have been called “Conservative,” mostly because in changing Judaism for contemporary times, we have moved conservatively. The siddur that you hold is very similar to a traditional siddur; only a very few can readily identify how it is different.

And we have never lost our positive, historical roots. But we have to understand those words differently in the 21st century.

To be positive today, we have to be open. Open to change, open to new ideas, open to new members of the community whom we may have traditionally excluded. We have to be open to the principle that what goes on inside this prayer space reflects how we live outside; that is, that women and men are treated equally with respect to Jewish law; that we consider how the ways we live differently today affect our relationship to tradition.

We have to make sure that we do not merely force our children to memorize ancient words in a strange language, but that we teach them the underlying values of tefillah. We have to ensure that whatever we do here, it’s not just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” but because it’s meaningful and brings us closer to God, closer to ourselves, and fills our lives with kedushah, holiness.

A good example of what it means to be positively Jewish is in a part of the service that very few of us hear, and yet it is such an essential statement of who we are as contemporary Jews.

Take a moment to open your siddur (Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s most recent Sabbath/Festival prayerbook) to p. 103. You’ll see on this page and the one that follows a series of 14 berakhot, blessings. We recited them at 9:01 this morning, and we recite them every single morning here at Beth Shalom. They are known as “birkhot hashahar,” the morning berakhot.

There are two patterns that might be discerned here. For the eleven of them (the first and then the fifth through the 14th) they follow the trajectory of how one begins the day: the rooster crows (are there any roosters in Squirrel Hill?) at dawn, then you open your eyes, get dressed, and go on about your morning routine. All of these eleven come from one passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) as things you should say as you start each day.

But the second, third, and fourth berakhot do not match the pattern. They say the following:

Praised are You, God, who made me in the Divine image.

… who made me free.

… who made me a Jew.

Now, anybody who has some familiarity with a traditional siddur knows that that’s not how these berakhot are worded. Rather, they are phrased in the negative, based on the language found elsewhere in the Talmud (Menahot 43b). In contemporary Orthodox siddurim you’ll find:

… who has not made me a gentile.

… who has not made me a slave.

… who has not made me a woman.

These berakhot were designed to acknowledge in ascending order the different levels of commandedness: classically speaking, free, adult male Jews were obligated to 613 mitzvot; slaves in Jewish homes were obligated to somewhat less than that, and gentiles are obligated to very few mitzvot (some say seven – as reported in today’s parashah).

Now, there is an obvious difficulty with the third berakhah; in traditional prayer books, women say “she-asani kirtzono,” “… who has made me according to His will.” And there is another difficulty: the Talmud does not say “… who has not made be a gentile,” but DOES say, “who has made me a Jew.”

farsi-birkhot-hashahar
Endings of these berakhot with Farsi translation, prepared for a Persian siddur. This order differs slightly from that found in Lev Shalem, although it is the same as that found in older Conservative siddurim.

So in 1946, with the publication of Rabbi Morris Silverman’s venerable “Sabbath and Festival Prayerbook,” which was found in the pews of virtually all Conservative synagogues until the 1980s, the language of those berakhot was changed to reflect who we are, rather than who we are not. Rabbi Silverman “positivized” all three, based on the positive formulation of she’asani Yisrael, and other positively-formulated variants of these berakhot used in various places and times throughout the last 2,000 years. We still use them today.

Leaving aside the problem of insulting most of humanity, I think the greater good of emending these berakhot is the statement of positivity. We should begin each day by saying, I am proud to be a free Jewish person, made in the image of God. I am exhilarated by the prospect of beginning my day by acting on the positive relationships suggested by those statements.

And not only that, but I also read another message about liturgical change here. While there are certain key elements of the siddur that have remained fixed for nearly two millennia, there are far more specifics that were in flux for many centuries, until the printing press arrived in the 15th century and caused standardization across vast swathes of the Jewish world. Prior to that, there was much more creativity in tefillah. (Another two points for history.)

The message is, “We have the power to make our Judaism positive. We can embrace the optimism. We can look into our future and see that change will yield positive benefits to how we connect Judaism with who we are, and thus ensure the future of our tradition.”  

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled to be free, to have the imprint of divinity on my spirit, to be an inheritor of our two millennia of tradition. I love all those things, and I say them proudly every morning.

Having a positive approach to Judaism, not throwing up walls and dividing people, is an attitudinal shift that is good for the Jews. To paraphrase Pete Seeger, the key to the future of our people, and maybe the world as well, is finding the positive stories and letting them be known.

Shabbat shalom!