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The Dead Support the Living – Yizkor / Shavu’ot 5780

You may know that I love to hike, and during this pandemic, I have been spending more time walking outside than I ordinarily do, particularly in the heavily-wooded Frick Park. That’s a good thing – particularly now that the weather is nice. Good for the spirit, good for the body. 

Red-tailed hawk in Frick Park (photo credit: me)

Judy and I were in the park a few weeks ago, and we noticed a couple of tall trees that looked dead, sort of intertwined with each other. And upon looking closer, we saw that the situation was much more interesting: one of the trees, standing upright, was clearly dead – no leaves, no bark in many places, minimal branches still remaining on its tall trunk. But the other tree was leaning over heavily onto the dead one, and it was still alive. It looked as though the live tree had been knocked over in a storm, and the dead tree had somehow “caught” it, and prevented it from falling.

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

We generally think of dead natural things – trees, animals, etc. – as being past their point of usefulness. That is, they are no longer part of the system. But of course that is not true. On the contrary: as you walk around a forest, for example, and you see plenty of dead things on the ground – leaves and tree trunks and occasionally animal carcasses – it is worth remembering that those things are essential parts of the circle of life. They serve as homes to insects, food for fungi, and of course when they break down into nutrients and reenter the soil, they continue to nourish the living plants around them by fertilizing the ground once again.

That is the cycle of life. Life yields death, which yields life again. 

And, in some sense, the same is true for people. Not in physical sense, of course, and not in the sense of death and resurrection, although for sure there are some Jews who believe in that sort of thing. But rather, I would like to propose that the dead nourish and sustain the living, sort of like that dead tree holding up the live one.

How can that be? Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah (Psalm 115:17), we chanted in Hallel earlier today. The dead do not praise God; that is only for the living. Being able to sing words of praise together with our community, that is a sure sign of life.

And yet, those of us who have passed from this world into the next are not only very much here with us, but they support us, the living as well. Let me explain, with an assist from the following midrash:

Moshe Rabbeinu is at the end of his life, and has ascended Har Nevo (Mt. Nebo), as God instructed him to do. God reminds Moshe that, even though he will not enter the Promised Land, he can see it from the mountain.

Moshe appeals to God, saying that it is not fair that he, Moshe Rabbeinu, who took the people out of the Land of Egypt, bringing them forth from slavery, cannot enter the Land of Israel. “I should be the first to cross the Jordan River,” he pleads. “I should lead them into the Land. Why won’t you let me? Why do you not favor me with love, as you favor the rest of Benei Yisrael (the Israelites)?”

“I have favored you with love,” says God. “I gave the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments to the people through you. I gave the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to them through you. That is how I have expressed my love for you.”

“Who, then, will lead the people, if not me?” says Moshe.

“Yehoshua (Joshua) will lead them. It is time for the people to find the courage to travel on without you, Moshe. But you will die knowing that they will never forget you. You will always be an essential part of them. You will be constantly invoked, in song and story, in learning and teaching, in repeating the words of Torah for millennia to come. You will continue to support them after you die, and your words will bring them strength.”

Moshe thinks about this, and then goes back down from Har Nevo to give a final blessing to Benei Yisrael. He climbs the mountain a final time, and, as he is looking out over the Land of Israel, spread out before him to the west across the Jordan River, God kisses his soul, taking his life. 

As a final act of God’s love, God buries Moshe on top of Har Nevo, in a location that has remained secret to this day.

***

How do the dead support the living? In the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu does: through the words that they said; through the actions that they took to sustain us in life; through the inspirations and memories fixed in our hearts and minds, that lead us to seek peace between people and care for those in need and comfort those who grieve. 

We carry them with us, just as we carry with us the Torah that Moshe gave us. When we get to Simhat Torah, the other celebration of Torah, half a year away, we will read, “Torah tzivvah lanu Moshe; morashah qehillat Ya’aqov.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:4) Moses charged us with Torah, as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. Our heritage includes not only Torah, but also the pieces of our ancestors that we contain: their good deeds, their wisdom, their reputations.

And how will we, the living, support those who will someday remember us when we are gone? By being the best people that we can be in life. By drawing on the Jewish values of learning, of compassion, of gratitude, of community-building, of remembrance. By fulfilling the mitzvot, the holy opportunities communicated to us through Moshe Rabbeinu and upheld by generations. By committing ourselves, every day, to making this world a slightly better place.

Three times a day in Jewish life, and sometimes four, we recite the berakhah Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayyeh hameitim.” Praised are You, God, who gives life to the dead. I know that it’s a not-so-coded reference to the Messianic resurrection of the dead that our ancestors yearned for. The Amidah (standing, silent prayer that is a part of every Jewish service) says, God keeps faith even with those who sleep in the dust: umqayyem emunato liysheinei afar, we sing ever-so-joyously. (BTW, that well-known melody, ubiquitous in American synagogues, was written by Cantor Max Wohlberg for a Junior Congregation service in the middle of the 20th century. He later regretted its spread to the entire Jewish world, because it just did not quite fit the meaning of that paragraph.)

But the berakhah is incomplete. It was liturgy that served a particular purpose at one time, and there are some who feel it has outlived its usefulness (the Reform and Reconstructionist movements changed the language; the Conservative movement left the language but tinkered with the translation). 

How it should be read is not only about God giving life to the dead, but also as the dead giving life back to us. Mehayyeh hameitim. We are in a circle of mutual support: God sustains the dead, who sustain us, who praise God. It’s an eternal loop of life. 

I would be remiss not to mention today that we passed an abominable statistic in America this week. The number 100,000 means nothing in relative terms; our per capita death rate in America due to the coronavirus is lower than many nations. 

But in very real terms, it is a staggering number, more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict combined, and all in the space of a couple of months.

I find myself coming back to the words of President Abraham Lincoln, delivered a little to the east of here, after the battle at Gettysburg in 1863:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

We the living, said President Lincoln, continue the work of those who gave their lives to give us life. They sustain us through their devotion. And as we recall not only our parents and grandparents and spouses and siblings and children who are no longer with us, we also recall those who gave up their lives to this disease, and we too resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

The dead give us life. They hold us up like strong, tall tree trunks. And we continue to remember them, to live their words and their deeds and their wisdom. That is the cycle of life, in which we are all bound.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / Second day of Shavu’ot, May 30, 2020.)

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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.

20161014_095403_resized

 

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.

20161014_095628_resized

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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