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We Need God Right Now – Ki Tetze 5781

Is there any good news in the world?

As I have watched events unfold over the summer – the heartbreaking return of the Taliban, the dramatic spread of the Delta variant, the wrangling over schools and vaccination and masking and the general Covid anxiety which has returned with great aplomb – I must say that I am having a hard time keeping my usually-reliable optimism in front of me. While the early part of the summer made it seem as though everything was moving the right way, those doors seem to have closed, and everything seems suddenly more stressful.

Is anyone else feeling that? Or is it just because I’m preparing for the High Holidays, which is, for rabbis, something like training for a marathon?

When you think about it, Elul is a pretty good month for anxiety. We are supposed to be taking stock of our lives, preparing for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and the odyssey of teshuvah, of doing the hard work of repentance. We should be a little stressed. Facing our own misdeeds and failures is not meant to be a pleasant experience.

This season is also a time of returning to God, or at least that is how it is framed in our liturgy. We open Rosh HaShanah by saying,  שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר ה / Shalom, shalom, laraḥoq velaqarov, amar Adonai – Peace, peace to those who are near, and to those who are far, says God. We welcome those who feel close to God and to our tradition, as well as those who are returning from having been far off. And just before Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, we give ourselves permission to pray amongst the avaryanim, the sinners, that is, those of us who have not been here for a while.

So of course it makes sense for us to be thinking about theology at this time. What do we mean when we invoke the term, “God”? What, or who, is God? How does God function? What is God’s name? Is God with us? Is God controlling anything? Is God actually working in humanity’s interest, or has God quietly exited through the back door? Has God created us or have we created God?

It is with that backdrop that I read with interest a pitch for God by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Mr. Douthat is a thoughtful political conservative and a faithful adherent of Roman Catholicism, and, as with many people of faith today, he is engaged in the project of promoting religious involvement.

Douthat’s essential argument is one that I have made myself, even from this very pulpit, and it is more or less this: Although scientific achievements have raised challenges to certain features of religion and perhaps to God’s very existence, the basic underpinnings to religious ideas that inspired our ancestors still apply. In other words, although some today might argue that a scientific perspective negates the Torah’s telling of how we came to be, there are many questions that science cannot answer, and it is within that sphere of uncertainty where religious ideas can still flourish and sustain us. And no matter to how many questions scientific inquiry DOES find successful answers, I am certain that there will always be a place for religious inspiration.

Put yet another way, it is perfectly reasonable, for example, to accept that the universe is 14 billion years old rather than 5782, that it was not created ex nihilo in six days, and yet still believe that the essential mitzvot and values of the Torah and rabbinic literature and all the human intellectual creativity that our tradition has yielded are still binding upon us. It is still possible, if we allow ourselves, to accept that our Torah scroll flows originally from God, even though it clearly exhibits the features of a human work. 

I think it is worth remembering on this subject that science and religion offer answers to different questions. Science is trying to answer the question of, “How are we here?”, while religion tackles the “Why?” Science is the realm of cold, hard facts. Torah and all that flows from it is the realm of our spirit and of our origin story as a people. These are not mutually exclusive, but rather different lenses, both of which enable us to put our lives in perspective.

Mr. Douthat anticipates in his introductory remarks that the response to his piece will be something along the lines of, “I am down with the ethical teachings of religion, but I just cannot accept the idea of a personified God, as described in the Bible and in religious prayers.” And, true to form, the readership of the New York Times, at least on-line, responded predictably, with thousands of people “liking” comments that were more or less to that effect, if not openly hostile to the idea of religion.

There is no question that humans have committed all manner of transgressions in the name of religion throughout the ages; I am sure you can think of some contemporary examples, not limited to the extremism of the Taliban. And of course, we the Jews have had a complicated history in our interactions with other religions, from the dhimmi status forced upon our ancestors who lived in Muslim lands, to the slaughter wrought by the Crusades, to the dramatic failure of the Catholic church to attempt to save the Jews of Europe during the Shoah.

And yet, religion and religious involvement have also done so much good for humanity, from the constant reminder of our obligation to see the holiness in others, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless, to the inspiration that God’s presence in our lives has offered in challenging times, in times of grief and times of joy. People motivated by those obligations have created hospitals and schools and charities that care for the needy and the wretched, filling the gaps between commercial interest and insufficient government programs. 

What are the mitzvot / holy opportunities of Jewish life for? They are there to provide a framework for holy living, for ensuring that we treat each other with respect, that we treat ourselves with respect and God’s Creation with care and responsibility. They are there to provide shape to our days and our years, to mark the holy moments and bring comfort when we mourn and to give us the words, in God’s own language, to help us express our innermost concerns and desires. When we need to cry out, we have those words; when we need to dance and sing with abandon, we have that language and music and movement. 

Unlike secular law, Jewish law aims to be not only a moral compass, but also a practical guide for maintaining the holiness in our relationships with all those around us, a framework for holy living. No matter how arcane the mitzvah, there is always a fundamental reason behind it which makes our performance of the mitzvah a practical one.

While Ross Douthat sees understanding and relating to God as an essential part of that equation, I must say that I am more laissez-faire when it comes to God. Like Martin Buber, I cannot put any kind of condition on God that diminishes the foundational presence that God plays in our lives, immediately and constantly there and yet completely impossible to define or be limited by the boundaries of human understanding.

Martin Buber, 1878-1965

We should not be so arrogant as to suppose that our brains can actually interpret and quantify the way that God works through us and around us. Rather, we might want to simply respond by throwing up our arms and acknowledging Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement” in response to God.

And let’s face it: however we might understand God, right now we need God in our lives more than ever. If not the personal, savior God to which some religious folks appeal, at least the process God, the one who works around and through us to make for good in this world, to help us in our moment of need. When I say, three times per weekday in the Amidah, “Refa-enu Adonai venerafe,” Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed, I may not necessarily expect God to personally heal those who are suffering, one patient at a time. Rather, I invoke the God-enabled framework by which we as humans, using the Divine gifts we have received, the intellect and technology at our disposal, do the best we can to heal this world. 

Kabul Airport

When I say, at the end of every Amidah, “Oseh shalom bimromav,” May the One who makes peace in the heavens bring some peace down to all of us, I am hoping that, in partnership with God, we as humans find a way to lay down our swords and shields and to study war no more. God is on our team in both the healing of the world and the pursuit of peace.

And so here is the good news that we can take with us back into the anxiety-inducing, post-Shabbat world: This take on God cuts across all religious, political, social, ethnic, and international lines. We need God right now, perhaps more than ever; let’s stand together and bring those Divine values to all of us down here on Earth. And let us say, Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/21/2021.)

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Walking Wholeheartedly, or, the Danger of Winning at All Costs – Shofetim 5781

As you surely know by now, I am not a big sports fan, and the Olympics draw my attention only as much as the spirit of friendly international competition appeals to my love of humanity. The story of the Italian and Qatari high-jumpers agreeing to share the gold medal was heartwarming; Simone Biles’ pulling herself out of some of her events was at turns disappointing and inspiring. In the latter case, and particularly in light of Naomi Osaka’s removal of herself from the French Open earlier this summer due to her own exhaustion, Biles’ predicament brought to light something which we often do not see in these competitions: that even people who display seemingly super-human abilities are still real people with real emotions and physical limitations, who sometimes need to protect themselves.

Last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece by former professional skier Zoe Ruhl entitled, “Our Culture of Winning at All Costs Is Broken. It Almost Broke Me.” Ms. Ruhl, now a medical student, was a member of the United States World Cup Telemark ski team, and at age 16 won a World Cup race. She documents how world-class skiing caused her physical and emotional pain, and that the coaches, doctors, and organizations pushed her to push herself harder, and to push all other concerns – school, health, family, life – out of the way in order to win. 

She quit skiing competitively when she was a freshman at Williams College (located in my home town, of course, which is conveniently located near some very good skiing), citing the costs to her body and mind. She describes her departure as follows:

I learned that the dates for nationals were during a school week and would force me to miss classes. I reached out to the heads of the U.S. Telemark Ski Association and appealed to them. I told them I couldn’t miss more school. The association’s board of directors unanimously denied me a waiver.

Here’s how I heard the board’s response: You either care about this sport or you don’t. It felt to me like a choice between giving up my life and health for skiing or quitting. So I made the choice: I was out. I chose to violate my contract. I chose to give up my spot on the team. But really, I chose myself. I chose my future and my well-being.

Though she enjoyed the competition and of course appreciated winning, Ms. Ruhl realized that the cost to herself – her emotional state, her physical health, even her future – was too high. Winning at all costs was not a good strategy. So she gave it up.

Many of us were surprised and perhaps disappointed when Simone Biles temporarily pulled out of Olympic events. The news of Naomi Osaka’s departure following a win at the French Open, because she was threatened with fines and expulsion after refusing to do a press conference, was also shocking. But these women all made the right choices for themselves. They were honest about their limits; they acknowledged that winning at all costs would not be healthy for them in the long run.

Today in Parashat Shofetim, we encountered the following verse, really quite striking in its simplicity of language as well as its spiritual import (Devarim / Deuteronomy 18:13):

תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

You must be perfect with the LORD your God.

What does it mean to be תָּמִ֣ים / tamim / “perfect” with God? I’m so glad you asked!

Judging from its context, adjacent to commandments to avoid fortune-tellers, Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, glosses this with a midrashic interpretation from Sifrei Devarim:

תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלהיך. הִתְהַלֵּךְ עִמּוֹ בִתְמִימוּת, וּתְצַפֶּה לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחֲקֹר אַחַר הָעֲתִידוֹת, אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶּׁיָּבֹא עָלֶיךָ קַבֵּל בִּתְמִימוּת וְאָז תִּהְיֶה עִמּוֹ וּלְחֶלְקוֹ:

You must be perfect: walk before God whole-heartedly, put your hope in God and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you, accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with God and become God’s portion.

Rashi suggests that we should go about our lives in humility, understanding that whatever life throws at us, we should try to live with it. It is only in this completely upright approach to life that we can share in the portion of holiness allotted to us.*

Being wholehearted is not about being physically perfect or emotionally flawless, but rather that we can acknowledge and accept our flaws, to take the curveballs as they are launched at us, and handle our lives in a way that reflects who we really are, not the theoretically perfect version of ourselves.

We cannot hold ourselves to some ridiculous high standard of perfection, even those of us who are positively God-like in our abilities. No matter how talented, or athletic, or brilliant we may be, we are still human. To aspire to anything more than that is not just unhealthy, it is foolhardy. It is something akin to the Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, back in Parashat Noah. We cannot aspire to be God-like; the results would be disastrous.

So kol hakavod to Simone Biles, and Naomi Osaka, and Zoe Ruhl, for knowing their limits, for understanding that ultimately their emotional and physical health was more important than winning. The whole-hearted approach to life is to not to push yourself to be something you are not, but rather to push yourself to be exactly who you are at all times.

And this is an especially important thing to remember a few weeks before Rosh HaShanah, as we begin to take inventory in ourselves in preparation for the odyssey of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. 

Reb Zusya of Anapol, who lived in 18th century Ukraine, is perhaps best known for saying, “When I get to olam haba, the world to come, the Qadosh Barukh Hu will not ask me, “Why were you not more like Moshe, or more like Avraham,’ but rather, ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?”

And, lest you think that this principle applies only to world-class athletes, let us also remember that the curse of winning at all costs has infected our world in many areas: in politics, at work, in our families and communities.

In politics, winning at all costs can lead to the collapse of democracy; we have seen it in other nations, and we are seeing hints of it here in America as well.

At work and in business, winning at all costs leads to toxic environments and unethical decisions.

In family life, winning at all costs causes emotional rifts that sometimes result in estrangement from those who love us.

In communal life, winning at all costs creates an environment in which dissent is not tolerated, and organizations descend into chaotic infighting.

I’m sure that many of us could think of specific examples in which we as individuals have been hurt by others who pursue winning to the detriment of the people around them.

I noticed this week on Facebook a former ELC parent lamenting the fact that she could not find a recreational sports option for her 10-year-old. She said the following:

This is what I’m finding as I try to find healthy, ongoing rec sports for kids… you can’t casually join a [swim team], it has to be intense training, with parent involvement, fundraising … and often a major commitment at $300-600 a month. My kids aren’t going to be Olympic athletes or necessarily even high school or college athletes yet it feels like there is only the option to invest and train as if that’s the goal? We need more balanced sport-for-healthy-lifestyle instead of just competition and success.

If we are teaching children that young that training to win, at great expense and with great expectations is the only option, what message is that sending? 

One of the most beloved teachers on my bookshelf is Theodor Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. I’ll never forget that, on my last day of undergraduate education, my chemical engineering professor read one of his books to our graduating class, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! In that book are the following lines:

Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.

Im yotz’im magi’im limqomot niflai’m! – Oh, The Places You’ll Go

We are all so fond of winning that we just cannot bear losing. We award trophies and dessert to all our kids, even as we attempt to teach them about good sportsmanship, so that their feelings will not be hurt if they lose. But perhaps we are doing more damage than good. We need to learn to accept loss, to accept the curveballs that are thrown at us. Because, as you all know, there are lots and lots of them over the course of our lives, and being a good sport – living and interacting graciously – is so much more valuable than merely winning. Loss is a humbling motivator for improving ourselves, for improving our world.

We are whole-hearted, tamim, when we find the balance, the grace, the healthy serenity between winning and losing, between pride and humility, between shameless self-advocacy and exposing our vulnerability. 

As we journey through Elul, we should take our hearts in our hands, our whole hearts, and approach teshuvah with the sense of, I am not whole, but I can be once again. It is in this way that we improve ourselves, that we see ourselves as who we are, flaws and all, in order to build on what we have. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/14/2021.)

* Rashi’s logic seems somewhat opaque here, and his application of the midrash is admittedly murky. Given the context, I think that he is suggesting that if we manage to walk through life wholeheartedly, we will not need to consult mediums and soothsayers to tell us the future, since we will be “God’s portion,” i.e. God will be on our side, and hence no need for those other characters, upon whom the Torah frowns. But the greater point is not merely about fortune-tellers, but about our general approach to life.

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No Easy Answers – Shabbat Hanukkah 5781

OK, so let’s face it: Hanukkah is a strange holiday. Yes, it is the best known and the most celebrated in the Jewish world. Yes, it is joyous and fun and a rollicking good time when it is cold and dark outside.

But Hanukkah is also a study in contrasts:

  • Is it about the victory of the Maccabees, a small, scrappy army of Judeans, over the Seleucid Empire? Is it about throwing off the yoke of a huge imperial power and denying their Hellenistic culture and influence, according to the story found in the non-canonical Books of the Maccabees? 
  • Or is it about the rededication of the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem and the small vial of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, as mentioned centuries later in the Talmud? 
  • Is it actually a holiday of some stature, or a minor observance that arguably distracts from the really important holidays of the Jewish year, like Shavu’ot (one of the three pilgrimage festivals, which celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai)? 
  • Is it merely a weak excuse for American Jews to placate their children by providing a Christmas-like experience, a feeble, consumerist attempt to make Judaism look appealing in a sea of tinsel and holly? 
  • Is it a reminder to illuminate the world with our values, the values of freedom and Torah, or a mere celebratory trifle, a lightweight among weightier Jewish holidays?

There is no reason, of course, why it cannot be all of these things.

Some of you tuned in last week to hear me speak about the messages delivered by angels to Ya’aqov, and in particular his receiving the new name of Yisrael. We are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God and with people. I offered that, while it might be nice every now and then to get a direct message from God, brought to us by a mal’akh, an angel that is a designated Divine messenger, generally we do not receive heavenly messages.

On the contrary, we receive so many other types of messages that it is impossible to tell which ones may be Divine in origin and which are merely human. I can remember a handful of times in my life in which a voice in my head told me clearly to do something, and I cannot be entirely sure where it came from. 

But Judaism does, in some sense, rely on our tradition to give us signals from the Qadosh Barukh Hu. Dr. Louis Finkelstein z”l, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is known to have said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.” We understand that in order to hear God’s voice, to find those messages, we have to dig deep into the texts of Jewish life: Talmud, Torah commentaries, tefillah, and so forth. 

And even in the middle of all that text, all of that traditional beit-midrash-style give-and-take of argument and subtlety and nuance among the jumble of Hebrew and Aramaic, we still may not receive the message.

Because, you know what? There are no simple answers.

There are no simple answers to the hard questions, the questions to which we might actually need a Godly answer. There are no easy answers to the kinds of questions that Yisrael, those who struggle with God, might ask, questions like:

  • If God is all-powerful and God is all good, then why are we suffering from a worldwide pandemic, in which thousands of people around the world are dying every day? Why were the Nazis allowed to murder so many people? 
  • If God wants us to treat one another with respect, why is there racism found within the human heart? Why do some upright, honest people suffer, while some despicable people thrive?
  • Where did we come from?
  • Is God listening to us at all? Does God even have ears with which to listen?
  • What is Hanukkah REALLY all about? A miracle, a successful uprising, or defense of culture and tradition?

Sarah Hurwitz is a former speechwriter for Michelle Obama. Back in Tishrei of 5780 (that is, around Rosh Hashanah in 2019) she wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about her own rediscovery of the complexity of Judaism as an adult, titled Religion for Adults Means Embracing Complexity

Ms. Hurwitz begins by explaining that, although she grew up going to synagogue and celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah, the words of prayer and our customs and songs and stories and texts were effectively meaningless to her, and so she rejected them. And although she came back for High Holidays year after year for decades, she would only resent the apparent simplicity of the message of those days: good deeds put you in the Book of Life; sin leads to the Book of Death, so you better repent.

And then, at age 36 (certainly a suitable age – double hai, twice the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life” – for discovering Judaism), she decided to take an Introduction to Judaism class, and found what she had been missing in her Hebrew school education: complexity.

She points out that not only does the Untaneh Toqef prayer ask, מי יחיה ומי ימות, who shall live and who shall die, but also, מי ינוח ומי ינוע, who shall be calm and who shall be tormented, and מי יעני ומי יעשר, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, and of course that those descriptors can be understood as metaphor. She learned that this prayer draws heavily from the book of Iyyov / Job, which wrestles with theology until God comes along in a whirlwind and more or less asks Iyyov, who are you to challenge Me? What do you know of the complexity of My world? (Job 38).

Ms. Hurwitz realized that she had never understood this because, since she stopped her Jewish education at age twelve and never proceeded any further, she was never in a situation where she could actually wrestle with this complexity, with the richness of the Jewish bookshelf, and the powerful words of wisdom therein. We cannot really teach the many layers of meaning in Untaneh Toqef, or in the Amidah (the standing, silent prayer recited 3x/day), or even in something as simple as Modeh Ani (the first words that should leave our lips every morning, acknowledging gratitude for life), to children; ours is a tradition that was created, maintained, and carried by adult Jews for thousands of years. Different layers, different strands of our tradition are meant to speak to us at different stages of our lives. That is the glory of religion in general: it is neither pediatric nor geriatric; it is both, and everything in-between as well.

That is why, and I know you’ve heard me say this before, we read the Torah every year; the same Torah. That is why daily tefillah (prayer) is mostly the same each day and from week to week, because every time we turn back to these words, we unlock something new; we connect them to a new part of ourselves as we grow and change and mature. There is no end to the perspectives we gain each time we return.

Ms. Hurwitz writes,

If someone told us that they found their sixth-grade science or history classes to be dull and overly simplistic, and thus entirely stopped learning about those subjects, we would be appalled. But that is precisely what many of us do with religion, including plenty who continue to show up at our places of worship and go through the motions. We’ve rejected the kiddie stuff but never bothered to replace it with an adult version.

And that’s a real loss, because mature forms of religion don’t traffic in simplistic or implausible answers, but push us to ask the right questions. Not just “what does it mean to be happy or successful?” But “what does it mean to lead a truly ethical life? To be part of a community? To serve something greater than one’s self?”

And therein lies the challenge for us today, even as adults who appreciate and value our tradition. When the minhag / custom of today is to express yourself in 280 characters or less, or with a photo and a brief caption, how will we possibly capture that complexity? How will we relay the many layers, the multi-dimensional perspectives and thoughts and expressions of grief and joy and solitude and raucousness?

How do we pass on the value of Torah, in all its messy, organic glory and open-ended, occasionally inscrutable wisdom, when we boil a holiday experience down to lighting candles and eating fried foods? How do we teach the wonderfully esoteric items of Jewish culture, as distinct from ancient Greek culture, when we can barely get past sheheheyyanu?

What if, particularly during this COVID Hanukkah when we are all stuck inside with our families, we set aside a few minutes, over latkes, to discuss the possible parallels between the Maccabees’ world and our own? Can we acknowledge our assimilated, and yet connected way of living today? Can we face the thorny questions around Jewish identity in the context of secular America? Can we talk about the power and holiness in our ancient customs, our traditions, and how we need them to help make our lives better today?

We need to dig deeper, to ask more questions, to continue to struggle. We need to, as Ms. Hurwitz puts it, to do the seeking, the learning, and the grappling ourselves. The table is set before you, not just with latkes and sufganiyot (jelly dougnuts), or for that matter haroset and maror (symbolic foods of Passover) or apples and honey (Rosh Hashanah) or cheesecake (Shavu’ot), but with an impossibly rich range of appetizers, sumptuous main dishes, and multiple courses of wine. There are no easy answers, but within that smorgasbord of Jewish life and text there is much of value, and finding it is more than half the fun. It is all there. Now come and learn.

Shabbat shalom, and hag urim sameah (Happy Festival of Lights)!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, the second day of Hanukkah, 12/12/2020.)

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We Are Not Originalists – Bereshit 5781

I have always been a fan of the original Star Trek series, and not just because the two leads, Captain Kirk and Spock, were played by Jewish actors. As you may recall, the show began each episode with what used to be considered a grammatical faux pas, boldly splitting an infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

And so too does the Torah open with a grammatical “oopsie.” The very first words of the Torah are (Gen. 1:1)

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

Most of us, when we hear these words, we think, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”

But that is not actually what the text says. Actually, we cannot really understand this line, because it is clearly missing at least one word. That is because the word “bereshit” does not mean “In the beginning,” but rather, “In the beginning of…” If you were to translate directly, the verse as it appears in the Torah reads, “In the beginning of…, God created the heavens and the Earth.” 

Now, that sounds a little funny, right? Well, it sounded funny to Rashi, too, in 11th-century France. And so Rashi proposed that the text could possibly be read as

בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרִיאַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ

Bereshit beri-at shamayim va-aretz

“In the beginning of creating heavens and Earth, …”

or,

בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה בָּרָא אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Barishonah bara et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

“At first, [God] created the heavens and the Earth.”

But of course, that is not what we have. Every single Torah scroll in the world opens with what cannot be described as anything other than a grammatical error. A typo. (Except, of course, that Torah scrolls are never typed.)

Rashi himself, in surveying this problem, says, אֵין הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר אֶלָּא דָּרְשֵׁנִי! “This passage only tells us, ‘Interpret me!’” And he offers two plausible suggestions. Of course, it is completely possible that neither of these may be the original intent of the text. 

And what might we learn from this? Two possibilities, in my mind:

  1. We should never be so sure of ourselves or our opinions. We might be wrong! Always an excellent lesson.
  2. The plurality of voices in interpreting Torah, both ancient and contemporary, heighten our relationship with the text. 

****

If you were paying attention this past week to events on the national stage, you probably heard the term “originalism” thrown around a lot. Originalism is an idea held by some interpreters of constitutional law that the United States Constitution should be interpreted and applied as it was intended when it was written in 1787.

In terms of Jewish life and Jewish law, we are not and cannot be originalists. That ship sailed about 2,000 years ago. If we take the Torah as our analog to the Constitution, let’s say, and the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah – the Talmud, midrash, the Shulhan Arukh, etc. – as the way we understand how the Torah applies to us today, then we are definitely not originalists. 

For example, the Torah says that the primary means of worship is by sacrificing some of our livestock and our produce by Kohanim (priests) on an altar. Do we do that? No. Rather, we have prayer, an idea more or less created by the rabbis, because the altar in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans two millennia ago. Our tefillah / prayer, is actually a substitute offering, in place of the agricultural sacrifices that our ancestors gave. Although the original intent of the Torah is for us to sacrifice, changes in our circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill that, so we do something else.

The Torah says that we should not do melakhah / work on the Shabbat, but does not define the word melakhah. In this case, we do not even know what the intent of the text is. How do we know, for example, that spending money on Shabbat is prohibited, but peeling an orange is not? That is because the rabbis defined 39 categories of work, ל”ט אבות מלאכה, and created a system by which those categories could be managed and expanded to suit any new type of technology that came along.

The Torah, by the way, does not even mention one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish year: Hanukkah. Hanukkah does not even appear in the entirety of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It is, rather, also a rabbinic innovation.

And I could go on. We do not practice the ancient Israelite religion described in the Torah. We practice a rabbinic Judaism that is flexible, that is constantly reinterpreted for the moment and the place in which we live.

And that is true of all movements within Judaism. We may disagree on the interpretation, but none of us are originalists. And that, by the way, is exactly the reason that we the Jews are still here, despite the Romans’ best efforts to destroy us. Had we been limited to the Judaism extant in 70 CE, as originalists, we would have disappeared as soon as Titus’s legions razed the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

And sure, the rabbis of the Talmud argued that their innovations came from Mt. Sinai, nearly a millennium-and-a-half prior, and that they were originally intended in the unadorned Torah text even though you cannot find them there. This explanation is an attempt to legitimize rabbinic Judaism, which is, after all, what we call “Judaism” today. We are rabbinic Jews, but you cannot really find most of our practices today in the words of the Torah as they appear in the scroll.

This highlights, by the way, one of the primary distinguishing features between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. We understand that the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah came much later, and although Divinely inspired, it was not the way the Torah was read prior to the destruction of the Temple. It is this subsequent interpretation that allows us to incorporate new ideas and more flexibility into our understanding of the Torah, and really to helping frame our lives in meaning. Consider, for example, contemporary understandings of God which do not reflect the Torah’s traditional views, or the full equality between men and women in our worship spaces, which we base on the reinterpretation of traditional sources.

Now, there is a certain strain of originalism that I learned while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was ordained as a rabbi and invested as a cantor. That type of originalism is found primarily in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, wherein the scholarly study of Scripture devotes most of its energy into trying to determine exactly what the Torah meant when it was written. To do so, scholars in the field of Biblical studies use the tools of archaeology and literary analysis and comparison to literature contemporary to its time and so forth. Modern Jews sometimes also use these tools to interpret Torah as well; they are welcome addition to the שבעים פנים לתורה, shiv’im panim laTorah, the 70 faces of Torah.

So, turning back to Bereshit, we know what the author meant, right? In this case, yes, and that understanding is not likely to change. The originalists in all of us are struggling right now: on the one hand, we know what the Torah implied, even if that is not what it says. On the other hand, there is something that looks conspicuously, to us at least, like a flaw! 

Or perhaps what looks like a typo is just an opening into a richer, more varied palette of understanding?

Right up front, from the very beginning, the Torah gives us insight into an absolutely human trait: the potential to screw up. We should never be so sure of ourselves that we think we are immune to being wrong. 

And that leads us to the second lesson: in the completely human realm of interpreting the text, we can guard against our own hubris by using every tool at our disposal to try to understand it. We may not know the original meaning of this or of many other parts of the Torah; we may not know what God’s intent was in gifting these words to humanity. But we do know that we are obligated to draw on our own intellect, on the range of human creativity and potential, to continue to seek answers. In some sense, it is that absolute unknowability, the obligation to pursue answers while acknowledging that not a single one of them may actually be “right,” which helps us maintain our own humility.

However the Torah came down to us, whether in a moment of fiery dictation on Mt. Sinai or through the hands of many ancient, anonymous scholars channeling Divine wisdom, it is our ongoing willingness to plumb its depths that will continue to fill our lives with meaning and a sense of purpose, and keep us away from the arrogance that comes with declaring our own correctness.

We are not originalists, and we are definitely not perfect. But we are committed to serious and varied inquiry into the Jewish bookshelf, to all the words and ideas which flow from the Torah, even as we acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. And we continue to draw on all of those ideas in seeking meaning for today, for how we live and how we can live better.

Shabbat Shalom! Live long and prosper.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/17/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Making Peace Between People: An Essential Jewish Goal – Shemini Atzeret 5781

A few weeks back, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a compelling piece titled, Go Live in Another Decade. I Recommend It, about comparing our current moment to the past. In trying to understand how we got here, to this moment of deep division, of people marching in the streets for racial justice and militia groups brandishing rifles and plotting the kidnapping of a governor, of casting doubt on the reliability of our election process and the politicization of public health, Mr. Manjoo chronicles his deep dive into the chaos of the 1960s. He discovered the wealth of video available on YouTube of news coverage and pop culture from the second half of the 20th century, and zooms in on one speech given by President Lyndon Johnson, his first address of Congress five days after the assassination of JFK and his having been sworn in as president aboard Air Force One in Dallas.

If you listen to the speech, you can feel the heaviness in the room as the Congress applauds the new president, who concedes his reluctance at having to take on the duties of the highest office in the land at such a soul-crushing moment. Johnson speaks of unity in the task of righting wrongs, in improving the lot of people around the world and at home, at facing the challenges of racism, of “poverty, misery, disease, and ignorance.” He reinforces the idea that the “strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defense of justice.” 

And, pointing to the divisiveness of that decade, President Johnson says the following:

The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defied of law and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.

I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.

It brought tears to my eyes.

A question that we must ask ourselves at this moment, as Jewish Americans, is, “What is our role in seeking the unity that we need right now?” 

As you might expect, I find those answers in the framework of Jewish tradition, starting with a quote from the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 39b):

אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא אלו הן כבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והכנסת אורחים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the matters that a person engages in and enjoys their benefits in this world, and the principal reward remains for the World-to-Come, and they are: Honoring one’s father and mother, acts of loving-kindness, hospitality toward guests, and bringing peace between one person and another; and Torah study is equal to all of them.

Yes, you have heard me say that last one many times as a foundational statement of Jewish life, that Torah study is equal to the weight of all other mitzvot combined.

But go back one, to “hava-at shalom bein adam lehavero.” Making peace between one person and another. Quite high up on this list of essential mitzvot is the obligation to repair relationships, to bring people together, to heal interpersonal wounds. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all failing at this task. 

In 1963, President Johnson was speaking to a nation doubled over in pain, not only from the assassination of JFK, but also from protests over racial injustice, Cold War fears of communism spreading abroad and possibly infiltrating at home, American military involvement in distant lands, and of course political division.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is OK to disagree. It is not OK to denigrate people on the other side. It is worth remembering that, while there are certainly bad actors in this world, there are always going to be honest people, good, well-intentioned people, people of faith, with whom you will disagree vehemently. And their opinion, no matter how offensive or ridiculous or oppositional to everything that you believe, if it is based on reasonable, factual assumptions and honest assessment of the situation, is just as valid as yours.

Political division is creating personal rifts between people. I know of people in the same family who cannot even speak to each other and friendships that have been broken as a result.

And, lest you think that electing one person over another in a few weeks will change that, please allow me to burst your bubble. We are going to have to work very hard if we are going to find our way out of this morass. It is not as simple as casting a ballot, or posting a meme on Facebook, or putting a sign in your front yard.

I would rather refocus our energies on fulfilling the spirit of Exodus 23:5:

כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃ 

If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might be inclined not to help him, you must make every effort to help him.

Should you help your enemy if he votes for a different party than you? Of course. But what if there is a Confederate flag flying in his front yard? What if he was recently released from prison after serving time for a murder or rape conviction? What if he is the head of the local chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel?

Not so easy, right?

I would love to hear a leader stand up in front of the American people and speak about love, about loving your neighbor, about working together, even when we disagree, to solve the big challenges we know we all face: the challenges of education, of health care, of unemployment, of mass incarceration, of the ongoing scourge of mass shootings, of the abuse of opioids, of the challenges posed by a warming climate.

I would be happy to see our leaders choosing country over party, understanding that it’s not all about winning, and that they are elected not to throw mud at the other guy, but rather to reach out across the aisle in partnership.

I would be overjoyed to see our journalists and media outlets help us all to understand that the truth cannot be reduced to a soundbite or a tweet, that patience and intellectual engagement are necessary to help find the solutions to the challenges we face.

Tomorrow, hevreh, is Simhat Torah, the day on which we complete the cycle of reading the Torah and go back to the beginning again. And in rejoicing with the Torah (which we will of course be doing, albeit a little subdued from our ordinary celebration; we will just have to remember to dance and sing twice as hard and twice as loud in 5782), we remember that Torah is long form. 

Yes, if you unroll a sefer Torah, you’ll see that it does not even reach half the circumference of the Beth Shalom Ballroom. But all the “Torah” in the more general sense, all of the Torah that flows from it, fills not a room or a building, but our entire lives. It is a lifetime’s worth of learning, of reflecting, of growth and change and reading again and revisiting and re-interpreting. Learning that Torah never ends, just as our own individual pursuits of self-discovery and self-improvement never end.

Torah is long form. We cannot ignore or erase the verses we do not like, but we must contend with them on the page. 

And the same is true for being a good citizen, for making a functioning democracy, for building a just society, as our tradition commands us; we work together, even with those with whom we disagree, to improve our world, to solve the big challenges. Total ideological purity is not a reasonable goal.

There is another tradition that we will perform tomorrow, one that may be familiar to some of you. The Hatzi Kaddish before Musaf on Simhat Torah is often sung to a series of holiday melodies from throughout the Jewish year – tunes from Hanukkah and Purim, the Three Festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and even Tish’ah BeAv. It is referred to as the “Yahres Kaddish,” the Kaddish of the whole year. 

It is a musically frivolous moment, coming at the end of a raucous service at the end of a long holiday season. But there is also a reflective quality to it – a reminder that this is the end of the holiday season, as we enter Marheshvan, the bitter month of Heshvan in which there are no joyous days, 

and we look back to the year that has passed, 

and we look forward to the one that we have just begun, 

and we consider our joy and our grief and our pleading to be sealed in the Book of Life and our remembrance of those who have passed, 

and we sense the cool wind of fall and smell the fallen leaves, 

and we remember that we are frail, that we are older, that we have suffered loss even as we move from strength to strength.

And we remember that one of our fundamental duties, as we look to the next holiday and begin the cycle anew, drawing on our memories and what we have learned and our apprehension of what is to come, and the inexorable march of time, is the obligation to make peace between people. That is an essential role that we the Jews aspire to fulfill on this Earth. 

President Johnson’s words were prophetic. As we mourn the 213,000+ fellow citizens who have died needlessly, and we remember all those for whom we grieve today during the Yizkor service, I too hope “that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.” 

Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning of Shemini Atzeret 5781, 10/10/2020.)

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
Sermons

Names, Not Numbers – Bemidbar 5780

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, students would make funny videos for Purim that we would share at the Purim se’udah, the festive daytime Purim meal. One that I will never forget featured a rabbinical student stuck in the beit midrash, the big study hall where students would gather to learn traditional texts together. The doors are locked and he cannot get out, and it’s time to daven minhah (recite the afternoon service). So he gathers together a minyan (prayer quorum) of familiar, well-loved books: the dictionary of rabbinical Hebrew and Aramaic by Rabbi Marcus Jastrow, the book of Talmudic terminology by Rabbi Yitzhak Frank, a volume of Talmud edited by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and so forth. He stands them up in a circle, as if they are davening with him. These books were so familiar to all of us that we referred to them not by their titles, but by the names of their authors. Rabbi Jastrow, z”l, although he passed away in 1903, was a dear friend to all of us through his dictionary.

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow

Parashat Bemidbar begins with a census. (A particularly hot topic right now, of course, because 2020 is a census year here in America.) Bemidbar is the first Torah reading in the book of the same name, which is called “Numbers” in English. Why Numbers? Because it begins with a whole lot of census data. (Hebrew names of the books and the parashiyyot / weekly Torah readings are derived from the first significant Hebrew word at the beginning of the book or parashah; the English names, mostly Greek, are thematic.)

We, the Jews, have been obsessed with numbers (not the book, but the concept) particularly since the late 19th century, when Jewish historians and demographers in Eastern Europe began the enterprise of studying their people. And yet, as you can see, there is a basis for this obsession in the Torah; this is one of a few passages that counts the Israelites. 

And yet, I am drawn to the fact that immediately after God gives Moshe the imperative to count the people, the Torah then launches into names. “Ve-eleh shemot ha-anashim asher ya’amdu ittekhem.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:5) “And these are the names of the people that will stand with you.” And because of this passage, the Torah preserves not only the names of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, not only the names of the twelve tribes, that is, the twelve sons of Ya’aqov, but also such names as Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai and Elishama ben Ammihud, two of the tribal chieftains that were identified this morning. And let’s face it: I’m sure Shelumiel and Elishama were great guys, along with Pagi’el ben Okhran and Gamaliel ben Pedahzur, but they are not exactly well-known figures in Jewish life. 

The 16th-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, noting the presence of this list of names up front in a passage primarily about numbers, tells us that there is a reason that the names are mentioned here, instead of merely the numbers. Everyone of that generation, he says, was identified individually by a name that expressed his/her personal character. Not all of those names are in the Torah, of course, but Seforno wants us to think of them as individuals, not merely numbers.

Other commentators observe that the census was completed, to use contemporary parlance, with non-anonymized data, i.e. they counted the people by name, not merely by numbers. And why? The 14th-century Provençal commentator Rabbi Levi ben Gershom points to a traditional Jewish superstition about counting people: if they do it by name, rather than number, he suggests, it would not bring a plague upon the Israelites. 

(You may know that there are a few related customs when trying to figure out how many people are in the room to make a minyan, a quorum of ten people, like using a scriptural verse that contains ten words, or the tremendously charming and somewhat confusing, “Not one, not two,” method. My father, the mathematician, really likes that one.)

Indeed, even the commandment from God to count the people suggests the personal nature of the count. The text uses the idiom, “Se’u et rosh kol adat benei Yisrael.” (Bemidbar 1:2) “Lift up the head of each of the Israelites.”

We do not merely count people. We recognize their names; we lift up their heads, as if to see their faces, as if to acknowledge their humanity.

Perhaps some of us have known people with numbers tattooed on their arms. My father-in-law’s number was A-7082; his name was Ervin Hoenig. Part of the Nazi system of dehumanization was to replace names with numbers. 

At this time, when we mourn so many that our nation has lost due to the mishandling of the virus response by our authorities, we might remember that each of the roughly 100,000 dead Americans each had a story, each had people who loved them, each had lives in which they sought meaning and love and companionship.

From the New York Times’ listing of names of 100,000 COVID-19 victims, 5/24/2020

People are kind of hard-wired to count ourselves. The Zoom software that many of us are using now tells us exactly how many devices are connected.

But the value of gathering – for prayer, for learning, for mourning, for celebrating – is not how many people showed up to a service or a program or how many times an online video was streamed.  Rather, it is whether or not lives were touched by the content. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, who has dedicated much of his recent work to helping synagogues improve themselves, points out that it does not matter how many people show up to a class or a program or even a service, but rather, how many relationships were made or strengthened.

I suppose that is the essential challenge that we face right now as a community. How do we build or enhance relationships when we are so far apart from each other? Do online minyanim, for example, reinforce personal connections?

Building relationships is an essential part of Jewish community, of course. But the most valuable thing, and the foundation of all relationships, is Torah. That is why our tradition suggests that the depth of commitment to learning Torah is so great. That is why Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) teaches us that Torah cannot be acquired if you are well-fed, or during the day, when there are too many distractions. One must be hungry and focused to truly learn Torah.

Rambam, writing in the 12th century, was mostly drawing on early rabbinic literature from a millennium earlier. In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, these ancient rabbis turned Judaism from a centralized, hierarchical, sacrificial worship system into a portable, democratic, knowledge-based system that depended on teaching and learning and passing on that knowledge from generation to generation. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, please come to my session via Zoom at the Pittsburgh community’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot on Wednesday evening, 5/27.)

This is what these rabbis said in the 2nd century:

Pirqei Avot 6:4

כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל, אִם אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה כֵן, (תהלים קכח) אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְטוֹב לָךְ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

Such is the way [of a life] of Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor.

Pirqei Avot 6:5

[This mishnah identifies the forty-eight ways in which Torah is acquired]

בְּתַלְמוּד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתַיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב, בְּשִׂכְלוּת הַלֵּב, בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה, בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, וּבְפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים, בְּיִשּׁוּב, בַּמִּקְרָא, בַּמִּשְׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁינָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק, בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, וּבְקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוּרִין

… by study, attentive listening, proper speech, by an understanding heart, by an intelligent heart, by awe, by fear, by humility, by joy, by attending to the sages, by critical give and take with friends, by fine argumentation with disciples, by clear thinking, by study of Scripture, by study of mishnah, by a minimum of sleep, by a minimum of chatter, by a minimum of pleasure, By a minimum of frivolity, by a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, by long-suffering, by generosity, by faith in the sages, by acceptance of suffering…

[…and that’s only 24 of the 48!]

How do we learn Torah and apply it to our lives? Through serious, hard work and dedication, with a minimum of qalut rosh – lightness of the head. And why is this so important? So that we do not become numbers. So that we are names. We are people, with a history, and a past, and a nation, and a homeland, and a whole lot of ancient yearnings.

What is really of value? Not how many of us there are, but rather our stories, our laws, our values, our interpretations, yes, even our holy disagreements. Those are the things that make us human. Those are the things that make us Jewish.

Let the numbers be for the people who are interested in things.

We understand the value of people, of names, of stories, and in telling and re-telling our national saga. Forget the Romans; that is why we, the Jews, are still here. Torah has sustained us until this very moment. Torah gives our names meaning; Torah fills our lives with context and depth.

Numbers? No thanks. As a former engineer, I’ve had my fill of numbers. I’ll take the names instead.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/23/2020.)

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Meeting Virtually and Saving Lives – Vayyiqra 5780

While I am working from home, making Zoom calls or phone calls, I try to sit by a window, so I won’t lose sight of Creation. (You may know that a synagogue must have windows, so that one does not forget the world outside.)

Eldridge Street Synagogue, NYC

I have seen so many people walking and bicycling and running by – couples, families, single people out for a quiet, contemplative stroll. All are keeping their distance from one another. It is definitely far less car traffic than I’ve seen, and far more non-car traffic, and that is somewhat reassuring. We have not receded into our caves. We have not forgotten that life goes on.

I want to take a moment to reflect on where we are right now. We are physically distant from one another, but we remain close spiritually. Some of us are probably starting to feel a bit anxious, wondering:

  • How long will this go on? 
  • How long will we be cooped up like chickens? 
  • How long will it be before we can safely see our friends and relatives again in person? 
  • How long will it take for the wave of infections to crest?

I am beginning to hear the frustration, the anger, the tears of members of this community who feel isolated, who have lost their jobs, who cannot get to the store. I am beginning to hear the sound of loneliness, of depression, of anger at our elected officials, whose job it is to keep us safe and properly informed, to craft a responsible, science-based plan and to make good decisions in the context of international crisis.

And I am beginning to hear those things within myself, as well. And the insistent questions: How do we continue to connect as a community? How do I serve my congregation when I cannot be in the same room with them? How do I continue to teach Judaism, to relay the message that our tradition helps us improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, when I am limited to electronic communications? How do I learn of and bring comfort to congregants in distress?

As is obvious, because I am the only person in this sanctuary right now, I have clearly given a green light to the use of Zoom calls on Shabbat. And I know that this is a halakhic challenge. But let me be clear about this: we are in what the rabbis called, “she’at hadehaq,” the hour of urgency. It is not physically safe for us to gather for minyanim, for services. To do so would violate the principle of piqquah nefesh, the saving of a life. I will come back to that in a moment.

First, two brief thoughts from Parashat Vayyiqra:

1. The first verse of the parashah, which is also the first verse of the book of Vayiqra / Leviticus, is a wee bit curious:

וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר ה֙’ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃

God called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting [part of the mishkan / sanctuary complex], saying…

God called, and then spoke. The medieval commentators are all over that. Rashi says something simply lovely: that this is leshon hibbah, language of affection. God does not merely instruct Moshe by enumerating laws; God first calls to him in a tender moment, an endearing opening to indicate God’s closeness. And while the rest of the parashah is dedicated to the straightforward and occasionally grisly details of sacrifices in the ancient Temple, this verse reminds us of the imperative to connect, to express our affection to those with whom we are in relationship.

2. In written sifrei Torah, and in some editions of the humash (like Etz Hayyim and the venerable Hertz), the letter alef at the end of the first word, vayyiqra, is small. My favorite explanation for this is as follows: Comparing the small alef with the large bet at the very beginning of the Torah, in the word “bereshit,” (in the beginning), and, knowing that alef has the numerical value of one and bet is two, we learn that Torah must be studied in partnership. When we learn Torah with a partner, we make ourselves greater; when we study alone, we miss something, and we become smaller. Two is always greater than one, not just numerically, but also spiritually.

It is a fundamental statement about the nature of our tradition. The smallest element of doing Jewish, of living Judaism, is two people, learning together, in relationship.

Ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves in a very real, very dangerous situation, and our primary goal as a society right now is not to overwhelm our healthcare system. About 10-20% of people who are infected with COVID-19 require hospitalization; some of those will require ventilators; and a small number of those will die.  What percentage is still unknown, but it is definitely much higher than the number who succumb to the flu. If the virus continues to spread unchecked, then the need for hospital beds and ventilators will quickly outstrip the availability of those items, and doctors and hospitals will be forced to decide who lives and who dies. 

As you may know, the principle of piqquah nefesh overrides every single mitzvah in our tradition save three prohibitions: worshipping idols, committing murder, or any of the prohibited sexual liaisons. 

Meanwhile, we have the imperative in Pirqei Avot (2:5): Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from your community. We are a communal people, and we are obligated to be together, to be in relationship with one another, to be a qehillah, a congregation. We learn this not only from the first word in Vayyiqra, but throughout our tradition. Relationship is fundamental to Judaism.

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, while not expressly permitting it, gave us a basis on which we can rely for counting a minyan virtually. I am reading from their Letter of Rabbinic Guidance on the subject:

The classic sources (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:13, and others cited by Rabbi Reisner) require that a minyan be located in one physical space. However, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:14 does open the possibility that there may be an exception by joining in to constitute a minyan if one can see the faces of the other participants: “One who is standing behind the synagogue, with a window between that person and the congregation, even if it is several stories up and less than four cubits wide, and who shows his face to them, may combine with them to form a minyan of ten.

The possibility of a minyan being constituted by people who are not physically near each other is further expanded by Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein in Hashukei Hemed on Berakhot 21b (p. 135), where he permits constituting a minyan for kaddish yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish) where people are scattered in a field but can see each other. Recently Rabbi Haim Ovadia called attention to this source, arguing in favor of constituting a minyan by means of real-time video and audio connection between ten Jews. Therefore, in this crisis situation, a number of us are of the opinion that a ruling relying on these precedents should be issued.

So yes, the CJLS concedes that this is not ideal; the ideal remains to gather as a community in physical proximity. But this is what we have right now. If this is the only space in which we can gather, then we should gather in it.

In this hour of urgency, and coupled with the principle of saving lives, and relying on a lenient reading of ancient texts, we ARE gathering. We are responding to one another; we are still a qehillah, a congregation. And not just for services – also for all types of learning.

So thank God. Because we need this. We need this right now more than ever. I am grateful that our attendance at weekly minyanim has been higher than it has ever been in the nearly five years I have been in Pittsburgh. We are now averaging 30 people in the morning and 40 in the evening. And I cannot see how many people are on this call right now, but I know it’s a bunch. We are gathering. We are not separating ourselves. And we are saving lives.

Once again, thank God. Thank God for the resiliency of our tradition, and thank God that the Conservative movement is willing to engage with our tradition in a living way, in a way that reflects the needs of the moment. 

We need each other right now. We need to call out to each other with affection; we need to learn Torah together; we need to gather on Pesah, even if we have to do it via electronic means, which are clearly not ideal. Welcome to she’at hadehaq, the hour of urgency.

Remember that, as I said last week, our tradition offers us the framework, the guidance, the values that will get us through this. Take advantage of the tools we have; they will help keep us spiritually nourished and strong in order to stay safe and healthy. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via livestream from Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/28/2020.)

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Sermons

Lifting Up God’s Face – Naso 5779

Last Shabbat I mentioned the panel discussion at Rodef Shalom’s annual congregational meeting about the future of synagogues, and one of the items that I identified at this discussion regarding the future of American Judaism is our knowledge of Hebrew. Yes, we live in a time in which readily-available online translations of ancient Jewish text have made the learning of our collected wisdom so much more accessible. That is a good thing; many of you know that we are currently in a kind of renaissance of Jewish learning, aided and abetted by Sefaria and other such platforms.

Nonetheless, there is no question that the Hebrew language, the language of the Jews, is the key to engaging with Jewish life. I learned most of my Hebrew as an adult, and I must say that, even though I learned to “decode” (i.e. read without understanding) when I was quite young, I had no idea what I was missing.

In 1845, at the conference of Reform rabbis in Frankfurt, Germany, a line was drawn in the sand over the Hebrew language. Some Reform rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the “founding father” of Reform, advocated for dispensing with Hebrew in Jewish worship in favor of the vernacular. German, Rabbi Geiger argued, was the “language of the soul,” of philosophy, of civilization; for Geiger, prayer in German struck “a deeper chord.” The Jews of the time did not understand Hebrew, and if the purpose of tefillah / prayer is for our words to connect with our hearts, then tefillah should be in a language we understand.

Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, one of the leading lights of the Positive-Historical School, which ultimately became the Conservative movement, argued that Hebrew is the language of the Jews, the language of the Torah, the language of God. How could we jettison such an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish?

Our sensitivity to language is borne of the historical Jewish need to code-switch. Since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, nearly 2600 years ago, Jews have lived in places where they had to speak another language and manage another culture to get along. The Babylonians imposed the Aramaic language on their entire empire, mostly because they had wiped out the Arameans, and so speaking that language implied no political agenda. And from that time forward, Hebrew became the second language for the Jews, taking a back seat to Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and the Jewish dialects of all of those, some of which survived the centuries to be spoken today as Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Provencal, and so forth. We are experts at translation of language and culture, because we have been doing it for so long.

And hence the interest we have in parsing our ancient texts; we are constantly moving from our second language to our first and back again. Most of you have heard me say that it is the continual wrestling with the Torah and Talmud and midrash and poetry and halakhic works that has continued to sustain us to this day. That is one reason we are still here, because, as Pirqei Avot (5:22) suggests,

בּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ

Ben Bag Bag says, “Turn it over and over, because everything is in it.”

Our ancient words are a lens that help us contextualize our world, to determine what is right, to improve our lives and our communities.

And of course we continue to wrestle.

In that light, we might consider an unusual Hebrew verb, one which has flown by us several times this morning already, and in particular appears, arguably, as what scholars call a leitwort (thematic word) for today’s parashah, Parashat Naso. The verb is the shoresh / root נ-ש-א, from which the very word “naso” is derived. It usually means, “to lift up, elevate.” But its appearances in the Torah are usually idiomatic. Consider the following, the second verse of Naso, and the line from which the name of the parashah derives (Numbers 4:22):

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ בְּנֵ֥י גֵרְשׁ֖וֹן גַּם־הֵ֑ם לְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָ֖ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.

Now the idiom, “Naso et rosh …” might be literally translated as, “Lift up the head of…” But here it means, “count.” That is, take a census.

And then it appears multiple times in the subsequent verses, which one way that we determine a leitwort. In particular, it appears near the end of the parashah in the passage that we generally know as birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

We also use these words to bless our children on Friday evening. (By the way, we sang this at the ELC graduation on Thursday, as we wrapped our 4-year-olds in a sefer Torah, encircling them with the ancient words of our tradition.)

Did you notice the occurrence of our leitwort? It’s the first word of the third verse: yissa. (If you wondered why there is no letter nun there, there is a reason: the nun is assimilated into the sin; that’s why there is a daggesh hazzaq in the sin, suggesting a “doubling” or “gemination” of the letter.)

But what does it mean here? Again we’ve come against an idiom. Yissa Adonai panav elekha is translated as something like, “May God bestow favor upon you.” But what it literally means is, “May God lift up God’s face to you.”

OK, so now there is something strange in this idiom. Most of us conceive of God as being above us, or all around us, or perhaps as some indeterminate, de-localized force within nature. And many of us conceive of God as not having a particular face. At the beginning of the Amidah, we refer to God as El Elyon – God on high; by comparison, we are lowly and Earthbound.

But whatever your understanding of God, how is it that God might be lifting up God’s face to us? Should it not be exactly the opposite? Should we not turn our faces up to God, for inspiration, for guidance, for knowledge of right and wrong? The second half of the verse, “May God grant you peace,” seems totally reasonable within our range of understanding God; so too the preceding statements. So what gives?

When we pray or study words of Torah, we lift our faces to God. When we pursue outward actions that better our relations with others, God’s face lifts up to us.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest contemporary figures in Jewish thought and one of the most essential thinkers on the totality of the Jewish bookshelf, taught that the reason the Torah forbids images of God is NOT that God has NO image, but rather that God has just ONE image: that of every living, breathing human being. That is, we humans create the image of God with our lives – by doing mitzvot, by sanctifying time, by highlighting the holiness in all other beings and in all of God’s Creation.

It is when you fashion yourself in the Divine image that “Yissa Adonai panav elekha,” God lifts up God’s face to you.

When we as Jews take our Judaism outside of our homes and synagogues into our work and social lives, God looks up to us.

When we give generously and anonymously to those in need, God looks up to us.

When we act in compassion on behalf of those who are mistreated by governments and other organizations, God looks up to us.

When we support our cousins in Israel with our time and energy, God looks up to us.

When we take seriously the obligation to treat all of the people around us with derekh eretz, with respect, God looks up to us.

And, not insignificantly, when we parse the words of our living texts in our ancient language to inspire us to do these works, God’s face lifts up, and God will grant us peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/15/2019.)

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Sermons

Not Just Checking the Box – Tzav 5779

One of the most fundamental concepts in Jewish life is that of Torah lishmah, learning the words of our tradition merely for the sake of learning. Consider the following from Pirqei Avot (6:1):

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ

Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake; He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of the Omnipresent,” “one who loves humankind,” “delighter of the Omnipresent,” “delighter of [all] creatures.” He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgment, and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop. He is modest and long-tempered, and forgives insult to him; And it enlarges him and raises him above all [that God] made.

Torah lishmah is the key to perfecting ourselves. All of the fundamental human traits that we desire—humility, lovingkindness, reverence, uprightness, faith, compassion, gratitude, modesty, forgiveness and so forth—flow from learning, from analyzing, from interpreting the words of our tradition.

I recall reading some time ago that the difference between the Western approach to education and that of the East is that while in the East education is understood to be the way to improve yourself, in the West we use education as a means to acquire skills that help us manipulate the world to our own personal benefit. The difference is one of focus: internal vs. external. Torah lishmah, like the Eastern tradition, is primarily an internal activity. It leads us to be better people.

***

The university admissions fraud scandal, revealed two weeks ago is, unfortunately, not too surprising. In an educational system that is already clearly skewed in favor of those who grow up with means, does it surprise anybody that people who can afford to pay half a million dollars to guarantee their kid admission to Yale will do so, even through illegal channels.

But in many ways, it is symptomatic one of the greatest challenges that our society faces. We are all striving to push, to achieve, to do, that we rarely take time to consider our values. We take for granted that we must push harder, but we sometimes cannot see the humanity around us: the loved ones who need us most, the neighbors, and indeed neighborhoods in distress, the ways in which our personal choices might undermine the common good.

We are so obsessed with quantifiable achievement—grades, test scores, numbers of hours spent in extra-curriculars—that we enable a framework in which our children spend more and more time in activities that will make their university applications stand out from the crowd, that will give them the edge. We are so in love with brands – Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. – that we encourage our teens to check more boxes, to “diversify,” to extra-curricular themselves to the point of exhaustion.  

What do we want our children to be? Do we want them to be overstretched automatons? Do we want them to be successful money-making machines? Or do we want them to focus on the non-quantifiables?

In my experience, when asked, parents tend to say things like, “I want my child to be a good person, to make good choices, to know right from wrong, to be respectful, to be happy.” Nobody ever says, at least not in front of a rabbi, “I want my child to live in a fancy neighborhood and drive an expensive car.”

So how did we get here? Are we all just fooling ourselves?

Greed, avarice, egotism, selfishness. These are the traits that have enabled the bad actors who produced this scandal. And who is responsible for this? We are. We all are. Because no matter what we might tell ourselves, our children seem to think that the key to happiness in life is getting into a well-known university. Because they are all running themselves ragged chasing after that fantasy. And where do they get that idea? From us. Adults.

Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s Youth Director, tells me that our teens are all over-scheduled. Taken in isolation, each one of the following activities are important and laudable:  They take SAT classes, do sports, go to JLine, various school clubs, sing with HaZamir, and of course they are staying up every night until midnight or later doing their homework for all of their AP classes.

They are all deeply invested in these things. However, with the expectation, according to author William Deresiewicz in his book, Excellent Sheep, that every college applicant has 7-10 extra-curriculars, might it be possible that these kids hardly have time to be kids? As parents, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we are giving our children the tools necessary to build the character traits that will make them benei Adam, human beings?

How can you appreciate what you have learned if you have no time to do so? How can you improve yourself, building on the values your education endows you with, if you are too busy checking all the boxes? How can you acquire depth, recognize historical patterns that continue to play out today, acknowledge the poetic vulnerability of the human soul if you do not have time in which to reflect?

Entirely coincidentally, the Making Caring Common Project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education issued a report this week about how parental messaging regarding the focus on college admissions is actually damaging to teens.

The report notes that

…an intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out serious attention to ethical character both in a large majority of high schools and a large number of families. Many parents—particularly, middle- and upper-income parents—seeking coveted spots for their children in elite colleges are failing to focus on what really matters in this process. In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.

Furthermore, the process

…corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity in a college application.

The point we have reached is a destructive one. The literature shows that rates of anxiety and depression have been rising for some time.

So what is the antidote to all of this?

Among the strategies that the report suggests are,

  • “Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways”;
  • “Advocate for elevating ethical character”; and
  • “Model and encourage gratitude.”

Hmm. Where might one learn these things?

Pulling back the lens, considering our teens and all the rest of us, what we need is not the checking of boxes and the micro-management of our packaged identities. What we need instead is meaning. Connection. Highlighting the holy moments. And we have a framework for that: it’s called Judaism.

Yes, Shabbat. Yes, holidays. Yes, highlighting the holy moments through lifecycle events such as bar mitzvah. Yes, tefillah / prayer that is self-reflective. All of those things are valuable.

But all the moreso, real learning. Studying the words of our tradition. Torah lishmah. Torah for its own sake. Because that is how we improve ourselves; that is how we internalize the true value of tzedaqah / charitable acts of righteousness, gratitude, empathy, humility, and so forth.

Talmud: Berakhot 35b

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יהודה ברבי אלעאי: בא וראה שלא כדורות הראשונים דורות האחרונים, דורות הראשונים עשו תורתן קבע ומלאכתן עראי – זו וזו נתקיימה בידן, דורות האחרונים שעשו מלאכתן קבע ותורתן עראי – זו וזו לא נתקיימה בידן

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi El’ai: Come and see that the latter generations are not like the earlier generations. The earlier generations made their Torah study a regular activity and their work occasional, and these were both successful for them. However, the latter generations who made their work regular and their Torah occasional, neither work nor study was successful for them.

We need to make sure that Torah lishmah is an essential feature of our lives. We need to focus more on the soul, on improving our internal character.

Here at Beth Shalom, particularly through Derekh, offer all those tools, for adults, for teens, for everybody. We are offering Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake in many ways, through programs and discussions that take place not only on Shabbat, but all week long.

Come take advantage of them. You will improve yourself and your life, and the more that we do so the greater chance we have of building a better world, one that reflects all of the values that we say we hold dear. And just maybe we will together help teach our children to be benei Adam, human beings.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/23/2019.