Tag Archives: Torah

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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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.

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Why Can’t We Edit the Torah? – Naso 5778

One of the greatest points of confusion regarding Jewish law is the following:

The Torah is NOT Judaism.

More accurately, the religious tradition described in the Torah is not how we practice Judaism today. Yes, certain items in halakhah / Jewish law appear in the Torah, and you can make the case that Judaism is derived from the Torah. But Jewish practice today contains far more complexity and subtlety and detail than what is found between the two atzei hayyim (posts) of a Torah scroll.

This is especially important in understanding parashat Naso, which we read today, and in particular, one of the most disturbing passages in the Torah, found therein: the description of the ancient ritual for the Sotah, the woman who is suspected by her husband of being unfaithful.

In short, the Torah’s description is like this: the Kohen (priest) writes a curse on a scroll, and then pours water over the scroll to dissolve the ink. The inky water is collected and the suspected wife is given some to drink. If she dies (or suffers greatly, or miscarries; it’s not exactly clear; the text says “latzbot beten velanpil yarekh,” causing her “belly to distend and her thigh to sag”), she was guilty. If she survives the ordeal, she is innocent.

Antique Print-CEREMONY-BITTER WATER-RITUAL SOTAH-ADULTERY-Cunaeus-1682

Now, you probably did not hear about that in Hebrew school. And for sure you have never heard of such a thing practiced by Jews, and there is a good reason for that: it’s barbaric. Nonetheless, the rabbis of the Talmudic period thought it interesting enough that they put together a tractate on it: Massekhet Sotah, in which they detail the process. However, toward the end we discover that the practice had been discontinued some time in the past, although of course they do not know how far back. (Scholars cannot confirm whether or not the ritual was actually ever practiced.) BT Sotah 47a:

משרבו המנאפים פסקו המים המרים

From the time when adulterers proliferated, [the performance of the ritual of] the bitter waters was nullified; [they would not administer the bitter waters to the sotah.]

This is, it seems to me, a rabbinic cop-out. They can’t say, “When they realized that the ritual was cruel and unjust, they stopped performing it.” Rather, they cite the proliferation of adultery as the reason – i.e. there were just too many adulterers for us always to be performing this ceremony. But this is not really a logical conclusion; it is, rather, in line with the traditional rabbinic attempt to mitigate the harsh punishments encoded in Torah law. The Talmud often seeks to lessen the severity of the Torah’s harshest decrees. We do not put people to death for violating Shabbat in public, or for being disobedient children, both of which appear in the Torah as commandments. Likewise, we do not perform cruel punishments like the ritual of the bitter waters. And we likely never have.

But what do we do about passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable? After all, there are many: the tale of Noah’s drinking and his son Ham’s apparent misbehavior; Lot and his daughters; Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar; the Torah’s apparent condoning of slavery, concubinage, prostitution, etc.*

When I was working on my first master’s degree at Texas A&M University, a very traditional, conservative campus, I would occasionally hear very serious Christians talk about living according to the Bible. My (thought, not spoken) response was, “Aha. So do you check your garments for sha’atnez (mixture of wool and linen forbidden by the Torah)? Do you plan on marrying multiple wives? Should you kill the entire family of somebody who raped your sister?”

The writer AJ Jacobs seized on this idea a few years back in his book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he describes his attempt to live according to the Torah, literally. What results is an often hilarious series of episodes. But his overarching point is clear: neither Judaism nor Christianity takes the Bible at its word. And we should acknowledge this.

We do not live according to the Torah. We live according to rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, which is colored by centuries of societal development and modifications to account for how we live today.

So what on Earth could be the reason that we still read about the sotah ritual? Can’t we just edit it out? Doesn’t it make us look bad?

I mentioned earlier that Massekhet Sotah (the Talmudic tractate) covers many of the details of the sotah ritual, as if the rabbis discussing it, long after the practice had been abandoned, was meant to be preserved, as if some day, like the Temple sacrifices, it would be reinstated (has veshalom / God forbid!). But the Talmud is not necessarily a linear book, and, as a text devoted to argument, you find within it pieces that comport well with contemporary sensibilities, even when the subject matter is arcane and/or obsolete. Elsewhere in Massekhet Sotah, we read the following (17a):

דריש ר”ע איש ואשה זכו שכינה ביניהן לא זכו אש אוכלתן

Rabbi Akiva taught: When a man and a woman merit it [through their appropriate behavior], the Divine presence stands between them; when they do not, fire consumes them.

I have often used this piece of wisdom at weddings. It plays on the fact that “ish” (man) and “ishah” (woman) share the letters for esh (fire), and the additional letters between them are yod and heh, which spell out Yah, a short name for God. So when you take God out, when you remove the qedushah, the holiness from a sexual relationship, all you have left is fire – empty passion – which will not last, which will consume itself.

So one advantage to studying and re-reading passages that make us uncomfortable is that we might in fact uncover gems of wisdom when we dig deeper. But in order to find those gems, we have to keep reading.

Another lesson we might glean is that our understanding of what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism changes. Just as the Talmudic rabbis, living around Baghdad in the 3rd century or so, could not stomach the ritual of the bitter waters (!), so too can we look back on Jewish practices historically and make judgments based on who we are and how we live today. Halakhah, Jewish law, evolves. The world changes, and Judaism changes with it. We treat women and men equally under Jewish law (i.e. egalitarianism). We uphold the values of Shabbat, even as we encourage people to drive to synagogue if they live too far away from the synagogue. We ordain gay men and women as rabbis, and join them in marriage under the huppah (wedding canopy).

At the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (late-night study session on the first night of the festival of Shavuot) last Saturday night, we read the words of Rabbi Neil Gillman, who taught that our understanding of God, the Torah, and halakhah changes as we change, and these things are shaped by our cultural context. “Halakhah is indispensible,” he wrote, “‘because it is what the Jewish community understands God’s will to be.” Not God’s will, but rather our understanding of God’s will. And that changes.

The final message we might glean here is, you might say, related to the current “#MeToo” moment. The sotah tale sits there in Bemidbar / Numbers to remind us that horrible things have been done by people to other people, and in particular by men to women, throughout history, and that these historical wrongs must be righted. Even if it was never performed, even if the tale found herein is merely to scare women and men away from adultery, the descriptions in the Torah and the Talmud are there as a caution: this is the kind of thing that can happen when we do not count women as equals.

Why is this here? As a reminder that we need to struggle to overcome it. We do not edit the Torah; on the contrary, we edit our behavior to reflect the holiness in all of us.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/26/2018.)

* Given the death of Philip Roth this week, one might ask the same question about Portnoy’s Complaint, and other works in his oeuvre that do not necessarily make the Jews look so good.

 

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The Power of #metoo – Lekh Lekha 5778

I am grateful to be the spiritual leader for a large and growing congregation. I am always honored to be there for people in need, members who are grieving, congregants who need guidance. It is a very special part of my work that few see, but that gives me a great amount of satisfaction with my job.

Frankly, I hope that Harvey Weinstein has gone to his rabbi for counseling.

I concede up front that it is far too easy for me to say from this comfortable position that Mr. Weinstein, and a host of other celebrities who have recently been named in similar incidents, need to do some teshuvah, to seek repentance. Perhaps Mr. Weinstein should have spent more time learning some of the messages of our tradition regarding respect for others.

Harvey Weinstein's A-list accusers come out, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie recount their ...

But what are those messages, exactly? And here we encounter a slight difficulty.

Whenever possible, I try to remind Jews of the essential value of Jewish tradition, the most fundamental aspect of Jewish life and learning: that our ancient wisdom teaches us to elevate the holiness in our relationships with others. That the primary benefit to learning the words of our tradition is that they will improve our marriages, our friendships, our work/life balance, our parenting insight, and our society.

But sometimes, the way that some of the female characters are treated in the Torah does not match our understanding of human relationships today. Times have changed; gender roles have changed. And so, we have to read the Torah with contemporary eyes, sensitive to the way that these stories might be read today.

Most of these tales hit the cutting-room floor in Hebrew school, edited for the sake of decency, or for the complexity of trying to explain them. But to me they speak of two things:

  1. There is no human experience that is not captured in our holy texts.
  2. We have to continue to learn not only from the admirable traits of our ancestors, but also from their failures.

Consider the unnamed wife of Noah, from last week’s parashah, who must have been a saint to have managed 40 days and 40 nights of human and animal chaos, but is barely acknowledged in the story of the tevah / ark. For everything that she did, she gets no credit. (Gen. 6-8)

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Or the tale of our matriarch Sarah, who has no choice but to be taken into the harem of the Egyptian Pharaoh with the apparent blessing of her husband Avraham so that he can save himself. (Lekh Lekha, Gen. 12:10-20)

Or the story of Lot’s wife, also nameless, who exercises some individual agency in looking back in pain and/or longing at her home town as it is destroyed in fire and brimstone, and is punished for it. (Vayyera, Gen. 19:23-26).

Or the story of Jacob’s only daughter Dinah, taken by force by Shekhem the Canaanite and slurred in the Torah as a yatz’anit, effectively a streetwalker, in what amounts to a classic case of blaming the victim. (Gen. 34)

Or the tale of Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, who is denied Judah’s third son after his first two die, in violation of the Torah’s law of the levirate marriage. In desperation, Tamar resorts to dressing as a cultic prostitute to fool Judah into lying with her himself, arguably a foil to Judah’s “male privilege.” (Gen. 38).

And we also should not forsake an obvious case of harassment in the Torah, the tale of Yosef, who is coerced by the wife of his employer Potiphar in Egypt, and imprisoned when he does not fulfill her desire. (Gen. 39).

For most of Jewish history, nobody read these stories as being about “blaming the victim” or “male privilege.” But we are living in different times. One principle, which you have all heard me say by now, is that we have to read the Torah in the context of today, as a text that brings meaning to how we live right now.

A few weeks back, when the accusations against him began to emerge as numerous women came forward, Harvey Weinstein stated, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse…”

When I read that, I had two thoughts: (a) many decades have passed since the 1970s; did it really take him this long to get the message? And (b) the changing of the times and what is acceptable behavior is something that we, the Jews, are acutely aware of.

Jews have survived for thousands of years precisely because rabbinic Judaism, our belief system as conceived by the rabbis of the Talmud, was conceived to be malleable.  From generation to generation we have been charged with reviewing our tradition and figuring out how to apply them in every new age.

You might even make the case that it is the series of changes that have made us who we are today: the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The paradigm shift from Israelite religion and sacrifices to study and prayer of rabbinic Judaism. The expulsion from Spain. The establishment of the State of Israel. Each of these reshaped the contours of the Jewish world dramatically.

And when was the very first such change? In Parashat Lekh Lekha, which we read from today. At the beginning of the parashah, Avraham was given the command to pick up and leave his homeland and his family behind and head from Mesopotamia to Canaan, which would ultimately be known by the name given to his grandson, Israel. But it’s not yet Israel, and Avraham cannot properly be called an Israelite. Instead, he was referred to today (Gen. 14:13) as “Avram ha’Ivri,” Abram the Hebrew. It’s the first time that anybody is given this label.

There are midrashim that suggest etymologies of the Hebrew word for “Hebrew,” that is, “עברי” / “ivri.” It comes from the shoresh / root meaning “to cross over.” Avraham is the first ivri, the first Hebrew, because he crossed over the river Euphrates to get to Canaan, but also because he crossed over from an idolatrous society to a monotheistic one.

We are the people who have metaphorically crossed many rivers to get to where we are today, and every time we do so, things change: language, dress, foods, of course, but also, society changes; what is socially acceptable changes; the understanding of gender continues to change.

What has not changed is that our tradition understands that each of us has a certain spark of the Divine within us; that every person deserves love and respect; that there are good, solid reasons for boundaries in our behavior, boundaries that protect the qedushah / holiness that exists between us in all our relationships.

The Talmud teaches us (BT Sanhedrin 82a):

כל מקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב

Wherever the desecration of God’s name [hillul hashem] is involved, one does not show respect to the teacher.

It comes in the context of a discussion of prohibited liaisons. The suggestion is that, no matter the power or rank or knowledge of the transgressor, the subordinate is forbidden to allow inappropriate behavior to continue; rather, the teacher or manager or politician or celebrity must be called to account for his/her actions.

God help us if “the casting couch” at which Mr. Weinstein hinted in his statement was at one time considered acceptable in Hollywood or anywhere else. The very idea is revolting. Such behavior can only be described with the rabbinic term, “hillul hashem,” a desecration of God’s name.

But if we are to truly prevent people from the kinds of abuse that have been splashed across headlines in recent weeks, we have to make sure that the abusers know that those whom they abuse will not be silent. We have to ensure that the power dynamics that enabled Mr. Weinstein and others to do what they have done to so many is eclipsed by the strength of #metoo, by the strength of knowing that if all of us speak up, then the power of the abuser is broken. That those of us who have been abused can take the control away from the abusers.

We cannot be rendered anonymous and silent, like Noah’s wife, or powerless like Sarah; we cannot allow people to be shamed, like Dinah, or forced into desperate situations like Tamar, or harassed like Joseph.

Instead, we have to stand up and raise our voices. To say, “Me too.” “Gam ani.” To make sure the abusers of this world are cast out of the shadows and into the light. To make sure that the young women (and young men) who are called to the Torah this year are not victims in the next.

And whatever happens with Harvey Weinstein, I just hope that he has an opportunity to reflect on the words of our tradition, about changing times, and about how his actions have caused such damage to so many.

If you have been a victim or know somebody who has, speak up, even if it is just a phone call to the right person. I or my assistant Audrey can put you in touch with somebody who can help. Change does not happen overnight, but Ani veAtah neshaneh et ha’olam – you and I will change the world.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/28/2017.)

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Joy and Grief – Eighth Day of Pesah, 5777

As I was preparing for the first few days of Pesah, I happened upon a thought-provoking piece of commentary in the Rabbinical Assembly haggadah, Feast of Freedom. It was a quote from the venerable Hertz humash (Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text English Translation and Commentary, edited by Dr. J H Hertz, 2nd ed., p. 397) about what set the Israelites apart from the Egyptians. The source of our ancestors’ faith was the Tree of Life (Etz Hayyim), while the Egyptians emphasized the cult of death:

When we compare the Egyptian attitude towards death with that of the Torah, we see in the latter what appears to be a deliberate aim to wean the Israelites from Egyptian superstition. On the one hand, there is not a word concerning reward and punishment in the Hereafter; on the other hand, there is rigorous proscription of all magic and sorcery, of sacrificing to the dead, as well as every form of alleged intercourse with the world of spirits. Israel’s faith is a religion of life, not of death; a religion that declares man’s [sic] humanity to man as the most acceptable form of adoration of the One God.

The Torah sets up the expectation that we should dwell on life, not on death; that what counts is not what comes next, but what happens here on Earth. We do not, as the ancient Egyptians did, bury people with all their material possessions in array around them. On the contrary, we expect that we will take nothing with us when we leave this life.

And, unlike certain parts of Christianity, our goal is not to behave well in this world so that we may enjoy the next. Our goal is to live a good life right now because that is good for ourselves and good for those around us to do so.

Of course, Judaism has its own framework for mourning. Consider these things: many Jews who are not so rigorous with respect to many of the daily aspects of Jewish practice (kashrut / dietary laws, Shabbat, Talmud Torah / studying the texts of our tradition, etc.) are suddenly very traditional in the context of death and bereavement. People who do not show up for Sukkot or Shavuot will come to say the Mourner’s Qaddish on a Tuesday evening for yahrzeit. As may be obvious today, the Yizkor service still draws a crowd. (I’m told that there was a time in New York’s Garment District when there were back-to-back Yizkor services all day long on the last Yom Tov / festival day, so people in the neighborhood could pop in and then go right back to work.)

But of course there is a reason for it. Grief requires a framework. It’s a powerful motivator to reach out: to tradition, to ritual, to customs that our ancestors have practiced for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

And yet, one might make the case that the larger framework of this day is still that Tree of Life: we read the Torah today, we recited words of gratitude and praise and acknowledgment of the holiness of this day, and all of that is about life, not death or mourning.

redwood stump

Here is a relevant question for this day, for this moment:

Today is a Yom Tov, literally, a “good day.” It is a festival celebrating a joyous moment in our national story. And yet it is also a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, who have departed from this world. Is this a day to rejoice, or to grieve? Can we be happy today? Can we recall with sadness those who have left this world?

As Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, our Director of Youth Tefillah, is fond of saying, it’s a “both-and.” We are joyful, and we grieve. And, of course, our entire reality incorporates happy and sad moments, and everything else on the spectrum of human emotion. Sometimes these emotions bump right up against each other. That’s how life goes.

Even within the context of bereavement, we remember our departed loved ones with both sadness AND joy. We miss the good moments AND the painful moments that we shared. (I always remind families that humorous stories about the deceased are completely appropriate at a funeral; the laughter helps us to work through our grief.)

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, the founder of the Bratzlaver hasidic movement, is somewhat famous for emphasizing the joy in life. If you have been in Israel lately, and you happened to be in a public place where an outrageously-decorated van with huge speakers on top suddenly pulled up, and a bunch of guys in tye-dye shirts and peyes (sidecurls) jumped out and started dancing around to the music, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Those are the Bratzlavers. One of Rabbi Nahman’s most famous quotes is:

מצווה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimhah tamid.

It is a great mitzvah to be joyful all the time.

Now of course, that’s ridiculous. Nobody can be always happy. You cannot even force yourself to do so. Even though the Mishnah advises us (Pirqei Avot 1:15) to greet everybody with “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance, we occasionally have to smile with gritted teeth.

There was a fascinating article in the New Yorker last summer about happiness. It was about the Aristotelian theory of happiness and how research into the human genome suggests that this approach to happiness is more effective than hedonism, that is, pursuing physical pleasure for its own sake.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, [Aristotle] described the idea of eudaemonic happiness, which said, essentially, that happiness was not merely a feeling, or a golden promise, but a practice. ‘It’s living in a way that fulfills our purpose,’ [said] Helen Morales, a classicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara…

The researchers determined that the expression of some genes was affected by our moods, and specifically that misery and loneliness were likely to yield negative health effects. So they tested for the expression of these genes in people who pursued either hedonistic or eudaemonic happiness, and found that only Aristotle’s way was the true way to stave off the expression of the undesirable genes.

Aristotle2

The study indicated that people high in eudaemonic happiness were more likely to show the opposite gene profile of those suffering from social isolation: inflammation was down, while antiviral response was up.

Hedonistic happiness yielded nothing.

So how do we achieve that eudaemonic happiness? What is the magic formula to living a healthy life?

For Aristotle, it required a combination of rationality and arete—a kind of virtue, although that concept has since been polluted by Christian moralizing. “It did mean goodness, but it was also about pursuing excellence,” Morales told [the author]. “For Usain Bolt, some of the training it takes to be a great athlete is not pleasurable, but fulfilling your purpose as a great runner brings happiness.” Fredrickson, meanwhile, believes that a key facet of eudaemonia is connection. “It refers to those aspects of well-being that transcend immediate self-gratification and connect people to something larger,” she said.

In other words, connection, community, and qedushah / holiness, the magic formula that the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life offers us. Eudaemonic happiness comes from living within the framework of our tradition, which emphasizes life over death, of meaningful joy derived from the holy opportunities offered here at Beth Shalom in the context of Jewish practice and wisdom.

Jewish life gives us purpose; it is a practice that inherently brings us happiness and health. The joy comes from that framework, from pursuing connection, community, and qedushah / holiness.

Recalling those who gave us life, who brought us smiles and loved us and supported us and taught us and nourished us, that can be a joyous thing when it is part of our eudaemonic practice. Yes, it’s solemn. Yes, it’s a weighty matter. But it is, nonetheless, joyful.

Meaning. Purpose. That’s what ultimately makes us happy, and enables us to contend with grief. And that meaning must depend on our embracing today, to find meaning in our everyday interactions, to frame them in holiness, to seek out the opportunities to improve our relationships with others and with the world.

So yes, even as we recall those whom we have lost, we derive meaning and hence happiness in doing so. This is healthy and leads to better outcomes for all of us.

So yes, today is in fact a joyful day, one on which we allow ourselves space to grieve as well. It’s a “both-and.”

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, end of Pesah, 4/18/2017.)

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Responding to Richard Spencer (or, Torah is Love) – Vayyiggash 5777

Some of you know that my first experience in graduate school was at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas. A&M is one of the largest public universities in the country – today nearly 60,000 students, although when I was there it was only about 43,000 (still pretty big). However, in Texas, if you’re Jewish, you are much more likely to go to the University of Texas in Austin. A&M’s Jewish population is only a few hundred, whereas UT’s is a couple thousand.

Ironically, it was my attending Texas A&M which brought be back to Judaism. Although I had grown up in a fairly traditional household, I had found that at as an undergraduate at Cornell, I was not so interested in Jewish life. It took relocation to the buckle of the Bible Belt, to one of the most socially and politically conservative corners of this country, to one of the most heavily fundamentalist Christian enclaves, to rediscover my heritage. The Hillel rabbi at A&M, Rabbi Peter Tarlow, figured strongly in my return. (His wife, by the way, Dr. Sara Alpern, is a Pittsburgher.)

Texas A&M opt-out bill faces obstacles | The Baylor Lariat

Rabbi Tarlow retired a few years back, and the new Hillel rabbi is a young, energetic fellow named Matt Rosenberg. Rabbi Rosenberg was faced with an unusual challenge recently: Richard Spencer, the white supremacist leader who has come to the fore in recent months, was invited to speak on campus by an alumnus who is known for supporting such causes. Apparently, Texas A&M has a policy that any alum can rent a room in the student union on campus for any event, and the university has no right to cancel an event of which it disapproves.

So, given that Spencer was coming to speak on campus, and given that there was nothing that anybody could do to prevent it, a whole host of student groups mounted an anti-Spencer campaign. The university itself hosted a protest rally at the same time as Spencer’s speech in Kyle Field, the legendary stadium that is home to the Aggie football team and the Twelfth Man tradition.

Among the loudest protesters was Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, who spent tireless weeks rallying A&M students against Spencer. When the day came, Rabbi Rosenberg found himself in Mr. Spencer’s press conference before the speech, and was called on by Spencer to ask a question. The exchange did not go well; Rabbi Rosenberg conceded that it was not one of his best moments. (You can see this online here.)

Rabbi Matt Rosenberg: You come here with a message of radical exclusion; My tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love. That love is embodied by Torah. Will you sit down and study Torah with me and learn to love?

Richard Spencer: OK, I can’t promise to study with you. That’s kind of a biggie… I will say this. I will promise to talk with you. And I will say this: Do you really want “radical inclusion” into the State of Israel? And, by that, I mean, radical inclusion: maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that? … You’re not answering.

RMR: I’m not.

RS: Look, in terms of the Jewish people, why are they a people? They are a people precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion. Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles. It’s axiomatic. That is why the Jews are a coherent people with a history and a culture and a future. It is because you had a sense of yourselves. I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves. I want my people to survive in the future.

***

In his own defense in the Forward, Rabbi Rosenberg pointed out that he had never been trained in debating skills. I am pretty certain that I would not have done any better, because frankly, I did not see that coming.

What Spencer did, in a few sentences, was to twist all of recent Jewish history to suit his own purposes.  There are multiple reasons why the Jews are still here: Yes, because we have held fast to our traditions and our ancient texts; yes, because we have stuck together, but also yes, because for thousands of years we were prohibited from mixing with non-Jews – by ourselves, our own customs and institutions, but even more so by the people who oppressed us: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans, but also the English, who kicked the Jews out of England and Wales in 1290, the French, who kicked the Jews out of France in 1306, the Austrians, who kicked the Jews out of Austria in 1421, and so forth.We cannot forget the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and the centuries of persecution which preceded it. We cannot forget the pogroms of 19th-century Eastern Europe. We cannot forget Germany of the 1930s and ’40s. And the waves of Arab hatred and riots of the 1950s. And the Iranian revolution of the 1970s. And let us not forget the Jews of Silence, the Soviet Jews, who, once applying to leave for Israel, were punished by the Soviet authorities.

In short, it is people like Richard Spencer who have kept the Jews isolated throughout history. And here is the irony: freedom is a double-edged sword. As much as clinging to our traditions and texts has kept us distinctive, so too has that distinction been reinforced by those who despise us. Let’s face it: why is the intermarriage rate in America so high? Because we have finally gained acceptance. Jews actually make appealing spouses to non-Jews, something that not too long ago was anathema. And you may know that many of those Jews who can now marry non-Jews (since they will now marry us) still feel proud to be Jewish, still feel connected to Judaism in some way. In prior centuries, the only way to join the wider society was to become not Jewish. Today, all doors are open.

So when Richard Spencer tried to cast Jews as an isolationist success story, about people who maintained their identity because they refused to mix with others, he was spinning history for his own agenda, cynically using the Jewish tale of persecution across the ages to justify that very persecution. His people, the haters, are the ones who kept us apart, who kept us in ghettos. His people passed humiliating laws and carried out expulsions and forced conscriptions and forced conversions. People of his kind promulgated the blood libels and ultimately genocide.

White Nationalist Richard Spencer Sparks Protests at Texas A&M

But that was only half of his statement. The other half was about Israel, and it’s an argument that is even more loathsome. He said facetiously, “Maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that?” His hyperbole played on the fallacious argument that Israel is an apartheid state and used it to justify the separation of Jews from non-Jews. Spencer’s subtext was, “You Jews should understand keeping another people down, right? Because you’re doing it right now in Israel.”

Spencer smiled at this point, because he knew that he had hit Rabbi Rosenberg where it hurts most.

Where to begin on this one? Should I start with my son’s soccer team, HaPoel Deir Hanna, on which Jewish and Arab 16-year-olds, young citizens of the democratic State of Israel, cooperate on the field, on the same team? Should I mention the Muslim and Christian members of the Knesset? Should I recap the entire history of Jewish-Arab conflict on that small strip of land, the opportunities lost, the blood that has flowed on both sides? The very present and immediate need for Israeli security?

The reality of Israel, her internal demographic realities and external struggles are much more complex than can be captured in a provocative soundbite. But Israel is an open, democratic society that has its share of challenges, just as every nation does.

Rabbi Rosenberg was right: the Torah is love. Earlier this morning, as we do every single morning of the Jewish year, we said this explicitly when we wrapped our tzitziyyot (the fringes hanging from the four corners of our tallitot / prayer shawls) around a finger, as we prepared to recite the Shema. “Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu.” With great love you have loved us, God. And you have demonstrated your love by giving your Torah to the world. And it is up to us to “lilmod ulelamed, lishmor vela’asot, ulqayem et kol divrei talmud Toratekha be’ahavah,” to learn and teach, to keep and do, and uphold all the teachings of your Torah in love. Torah is love. Love is Torah. And it is upon us to share this love with everybody – to share with the world the idea of “Ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha” (Lev. 19:18) – love your neighbor as yourself, with that ahavah rabbah, that great, unbounded love.

What can we learn from this? That we have to be ready to make the case for who we are, not only to respond to haters like Richard Spencer, but also to ourselves. What we must have on the tips of our tongues is the following:

We are Jewish, and continue to be Jewish, because our tradition has value: it brings us knowledge about ourselves and others, it brings us joy, it provides a framework to celebrate and grieve as a community. And it teaches us love through the ancient words of Torah. And that is why we are still here.

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So, Mr. Spencer and your white supremacist friends, please don’t look to the Jews to justify your twisted rationale for hate. Rather, learn from our history and our tradition and see that respect and love for all is the source of our continued existence. That is humanity’s divine obligation. That is Torah. That is love.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/7/2017.)

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4 Whys #4: Why Do We Need Torah? – Yom Kippur 5777

As you surely know by now, this is the fourth and final sermon on the topic of “Why?” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we covered, “Why be Jewish?” On the second day, “Why do we need the mitzvot, and Shabbat in particular?” Last night, we discussed why we need Congregation Beth Shalom.

Today’s why is, “Why do we need Torah?” Why do we need to learn the words of our ancient tradition, our stories, our customs and principles and values and laws?

***

I recently heard a podcast that positively blew my mind. It was on Radiolab, which is an NPR program about ideas, often featuring scientific subjects.

The idea featured in this particular episode is about inter-connectedness, about networks, but not how we usually think of them. It was uncovered primarily by a professor of forestry from University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, whose research has demonstrated, effectively, that trees are networked with each other through something called a mycorrhizal network, and that this network helps the trees support each other.

The way it works is as follows: in the soil, there are tiny, nearly invisible tubes called mycorrhiza, which are parts of various kinds of mushrooms. Fungi. There can be miles of these tubes in a pinch of soil. The tubes affix themselves to the roots of trees, and engage in a kind of exchange with them: the tree provides sugar to the mushrooms, and the mushrooms provide minerals to the tree.

Brain Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is the example of an ideal leaf The Fungi ...

Note to plant pathologists: yes, I know this is not the kind of fungus we’re talking about here. But it’s a pretty photo nonetheless, don’t you think?

OK so far? It’s even better than that.

Not only is there an exchange between the fungi and the tree, but the fungi, which are connected to many of the other trees nearby, actually share nutrients through the network between trees. And the trees support each other – when one tree needs more nutrients, the other trees will, with the help of the network, send them. When there is a shortage of one type of nutrient, the mycorrhizal network will hoard that nutrient and dole out to the neediest trees. The network also ropes in the assistance of other creatures – bacteria and insects – to help maintain the whole system.

It’s almost as though the forest is “thinking,” like some kind of huge plant brain; strategizing, sharing, supporting.

What is truly revelatory and beautiful about this is that it seems that there is no such thing as a lone tree. Each tree is linked into the whole system. Prior to discovering the network, Dr. Simard had noticed that when you pulled out one tree, sometimes another nearby tree of a different species would die, clearly a result of upsetting the balance in the network.

So why am I telling you this?

When I heard this story, my mind immediately went to us, the Jews, and how we are linked together.

When you think about it, it’s downright unbelievable that we are still here. I mentioned this briefly on Rosh Hashanah – we outlasted the great empires that ruled Israel, that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, that dispersed us all over the world. We have long since bid goodbye and good riddance to the Babylonians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Russian czars, the Fascist regimes of the middle of the 20th century.

What has kept us alive? I would like to propose that our metaphorical mycorrhizal network, the invisible, powerful connection that has maintained our network and supported us is Torah. Not THE Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, but “Torah,” without any definite or indefinite article. It is a much more comprehensive term. Torah is what flows from THE Torah.

It refers to the entire Jewish bookshelf.  Torah obviously begins with the Torah, which we read through each year. But that is just the beginning – Torah in its greater sense is all of our collected learning, including the rest of the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim – the entire Hebrew Bible), and it flows through the collected network of rabbinic texts which make up the Jewish bookshelf: the Talmud, commentaries and supercommentaries on the Torah, midrashim, halakhic codes (Jewish law), mussar (ethical commentaries), Hasidic stories, kabbalistic literature, the words of tefillah (prayer), Jewish music and artistic interpretation, and on and on.

“Torah” in its greater sense is the ongoing project of two thousand years of intellectual development: debating the meaning of our ancient texts across generations, continents, and centuries; it is the thread that connects us to each other, to our ancestors, to our families, to Israel, to our people.

Torah (in its greater sense) is what holds us all together. It is our unseen, yet essential network. None of us are individual trees; we are the Jewish forest, connected by a textual, mycorrhyizal network, sharing and distributing all of that wisdom, ancient and modern.

What holds us together is words. Centuries ago, we were dubbed by the Muslim world as Ahl al-Kittab, the People of the Book. But we took that moniker proudly as our own: we are Am haSefer.

“Ours is not a bloodline,” write Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book, Jews and Words, “but a textline.” What connects us from generation to generation is not Hanukkah candles or matzah or even Yom Kippur. It is not our being an extended cousins’ club. It is not mah-jongg, or eating Chinese food on Christmas. It is our collected body of wisdom. What connects Moshe (Rabbeinu) on Mt. Sinai to Moshe (Maimonides) in 12th century Cairo to Moshe (Mendelssohn) in 18th century Berlin is that thread of interpretation that makes the matzah come alive for us today. Without the text, it’s just a lousy, unsalted cracker.

In what is one of the best-known stories found in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b-57a), Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai effectively launches rabbinic Judaism by having his students smuggle him out of besieged Jerusalem in a coffin.

The year is 69 CE. The Jews have been revolting against the Romans for a few years, trying to preserve their way of life, their land, and particularly their Temple, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, wherein they have been sacrificing animals and produce to God for nearly a thousand years. The Romans, led by Vespasian (who is not yet the Roman Emperor), have taken Israel by force, and have surrounded Jerusalem.

After having been smuggled out as a corpse, Rabban Yohanan arrives at Roman military headquarters, and pops out of the coffin in front of Vespasian. A lively debate ensues in which the Romans exhibit their inclination to live by the sword, and Rabban Yohanan counters with proto-rabbinic wisdom: “All neighbors who do harm to others find that they have done it to themselves,” he says. Vespasian understands that he is in the presence of a very wise man.

Then something happens that changes the course of Jewish history.

Rabban Yohanan has predicted that Vespasian will soon be the emperor, and sure enough, while they are speaking, a messenger arrives to crown him as Caesar. Vespasian says to him, “I am now returning to Rome, and will send somebody else to take my place. You may, however, make one request of me, and I will grant it.”

Rabban Yohanan says, “Give me Yavneh and all its sages.” That is, give me a little, out-of-the-way, sleepy seaside town where I can assemble a crack team of rabbis to figure out what comes next in Jewish life.

He did not say, give me back Jerusalem. He did not say, just let me keep the Temple and let the Kohanim continue making sacrifices for the Jews.

He said, give me space to start writing the first chapter in the textline. I need a forest where I can plant some fungi.

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Sometimes, we have to conquer our fears of the future and embrace change. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the rabbis of Yavneh fashioned from the rubble of the Roman destruction not a Third Temple, but rather what we know today as Judaism. Thanks to Rabban Yohanan and his scholars, Judaism was re-invented. We, the Jews underwent a paradigm shift, eliminating the barbaric rituals of animal sacrifice and replacing it with the meditations of our hearts. This was the biggest historical turn for our people since leaving slavery in Egypt and receiving the Torah, 1300 years prior.

We all need to be a little bit more like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: facing down our fears, letting go of what was, and embracing the future. That’s why I spoke last night about re-envisioning this synagogue, about the vision of Beth Shalom as a center of contemporary Jewish life and learning for the whole region.

And that brings me back to our mycorrhizal network, about our need for Torah, about our need for connection to each other through our ancient wisdom. But first, a collective “Al het.”

Al het shehatanu lefanakha. For the sin we have sinned against you God, by practicing Judaism without seeking meaning within it.

If there is a bottom line to everything that I have said over the past ten days, it is that Judaism’s future depends on our willingness to let it bring meaning to our lives.

Why are we like so many individual trees, not connected to the network? Because we have failed as a community to look to our textual heritage. Because we have assumed that being Jewish meant lighting Hanukkah candles and saying kaddish and “having a bar mitzvah,” without making any serious effort to connect these things to who we are, how we live, what we feel. Because Judaism loves to tell us more about how to do something rather than why.

The key to the Jewish future is the mycorrhizal network of Torah. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai pulled off a nervy stunt to get an audience with Vespasian so he could ask, not for ritual, not for ancient sacrifices, NOT EVEN FOR JERUSALEM, but for Torah.

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As disconnected trees, we will die. As trees whose roots intertwine with the tiny underground tubes, connecting us to our Etz Hayyim, our tree of life, we will thrive.

That’s why we are still here. That’s what makes us a community, a qehillah, brought together for a holy purpose, sustained and nourished by the words of Torah, thousands of years of collected knowledge that is still fresh and fragrant today.

****

Why have I devoted these four sermons, nearly 100 minutes of talking, over 10,000 words, to answering the question of “Why?”

I told you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah that these are essential questions that we must be asking if we want there to be a future to progressive Judaism.

But more importantly, I want to make you care. I want you to understand the value of what we have inherited. I want you to ask why, and then go seek out the answer. And sometimes, all it takes to appreciate what we do as Jews is a new take, a fresh perspective, a captivating insight.

And beyond that, we should never do anything merely because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” That answer is insufficient for me, and it will not further the cause of connecting Jews with Judaism.

We need to ask “Why?” more. And we need to dig deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to find the answers.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 5777, 10/12/2016.)

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