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Count Your Berakhot – Vayyetze 5781

On this Shabbat haHodayah, Shabbat of Thanksgiving, I’m going to state the obvious: many of us might feel right now that there is not a lot to be thankful for in the world. 

The virus has taken off for what appears to be a colossal third wave, which, our Coronavirus Task Force authorities tell me, will likely not peak until (get this!) February. Many people were unable to gather with friends and family for the traditional American turkey seder last week. Even the seasonal Black Friday tradition of waiting in long lines to buy the latest cool seasonal gift was disrupted by this tiny, not-quite-living yet deadly thing. Unemployment and economic devastation continue.

And yet, Jewish tradition mandates that we offer words of gratitude every single day. 

Modeh ani lefanekha, we say every morning: Grateful am I before You. We put the modeh, the gratitudinous verb first, because that should be the first thing out of our mouths every morning. And Modim Anahnu Lakh, “Grateful are we to You… Rock of our lives and Shield of our salvation… for the miracles you perform for us all day long.” We have already said that twice this morning and will do so two more times in a few minutes.

There is a principle out there in Jewish life that we should say 100 berakhot / blessings a day. It is actually not so hard to reach that number if you recite the words of shaharit, minhah, and ma’ariv; just the three recitations of the Shemoneh Esreh (the Amidah) in those daily services account for 3*19 = 57 berakhot alone.

That’s right: we count blessings. Count your berakhot, as the old saying goes. 

(I’m pretty sure that expression is a translation of a Medieval Hebrew slogan found on a fragment in the Cairo genizah adopted from a Babylonian Jewish Aramaic saying derived from ancient Akkadian texts, perhaps with a Sumerian origin.) (That’s a little humor for all you Biblical scholars out there.)

Count your blessings. Ironically, when we say that, we are implicitly remembering the curses! You count your blessings when you know that they are interspersed with misery and failure, because of course it is the misery and the failure that remind us how valuable, and how needed the blessings are.

In the beginning of Parashat Vayyetze, our hero Ya’aqov is fleeing from his brother Esav, from whom he has effectively stolen his father’s powerful blessing, the one reserved for the first-born child, which Ya’aqov is not. And he comes to rest for the night at a place called Luz, a place where he has a dream of mal’akhim – heavenly messengers – climbing up and down a ladder.

There is a midrash about the mysterious town of Luz, which pops up here and there in the Tanakh. The midrash says that Luz was a place that was only accessible by a secret cave entrance that the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death could not find, so people there lived forever. They only left when they were tired of living, and upon leaving the city walls, the Mal’akh haMavet would take them.

But of course, I think we can understand why living forever is not really a blessing. 

It must be something like hyperthymesia, of which I have spoken of before, which prevents the afflicted person from forgetting. He or she remembers every single thing: what you had for lunch on May 28th, 1997, what pair of socks you wore the next day, and the really, really embarrassingly stupid thing you said in public the day after that. The ability to forget is actually an under-appreciated blessing.

We count blessings that we see in opposition to, or delineating between the not-so-good parts of our lives. For example, being able to open our eyes in the morning, and to behold the morning light, those are berakhot / blessings that we actually recite every morning. During a pandemic, remembering these simple things every day can be truly powerful.

But that does not mean that we should ignore, or forget, the pain and suffering in the world or in our own lives. 

I recently came across a provocative piece in the online Jewish magazine Mosaic by Daniel Gordis, the Senior Vice President of Shalem College in Jerusalem. Dr. Gordis is a Conservative rabbi and the son of Rabbi Robert Gordis, one of the leading scholars of the Conservative movement in the middle of the 20th century.

The article is titled, “How America’s Idealism Drained Its Jews of Their Resilience.” Noting that while businesses in Israel that were bombed by terrorists during the Intifada re-opened within months, the Tree of Life building down the street remains damaged and empty, he uses this as evidence to deplore American non-Orthodox Jews for their effete non-resilience. 

Being on the ground here in Pittsburgh, I find Gordis’ argument distasteful. Never mind the faulty comparison between a for-profit business like a pizza shop and a synagogue, and the likelihood that he has no first-hand knowledge of the particularities of our situation here. Rather, this follows a pattern that Dr. Gordis has often taken: calling out of American Jews for their perceived weakness and lack of commitment, particularly in comparison to the vitality of Israel. 

Nonetheless, he makes a captivating point about one of my favorite moments of weekday services: tahanun.

Never heard of it? I understand. I did not know what tahanun is until I was in cantorial school, and that is mostly because, although my family and I were Shabbat-morning regulars, like many of you, we were rarely in synagogue for weekday services. But it was also because many Conservative synagogues (not Beth Shalom, BTW) and the Ramah camps stopped reciting tahanun in their weekday services in the middle of the 20th century. I presume that they did so as a time-saver, and also because, well, it’s sort of a let-down.

Tahanun, literally, “supplication,” etymologically related to the Hebrew word hen, meaning “grace,” is actually one of the four major modes of Jewish prayer, and usually refers to a selection of passages after the repetition of the Amidah that emphasize that we are sinful, and that we suffer due to our insufficient righteousness. It includes the lines that we all know as the dramatic, musical conclusion of “Avinu Malkeinu”: Have mercy on us, though we have no good deeds upon which to plead our case. In fact, tahanun reads something like a little slice of Yom Kippur, every weekday shaharit and minhah (morning and afternoon services).

And then there is this:

שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁמוֹר שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאַל יֹאבַד יִשְׂרָאֵל הָאֹמְ֒רִים שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל

Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and let not the people of Israel perish, the ones who say, “Hear O Israel.”

We are She-erit Yisrael, the remnant of Israel. We have suffered, and we continue to pray, to recite the Shema, to unify God’s name, to recite three times the words of qedushah, of holiness – Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh Adonai tzeva-ot / Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 6:3, used in the qedushah part of every Amidah.)

Furthermore, the recitation of tahanun is marked by an act called, “nefilat apayim” – literally, falling on one’s face. When we recite the first part, it is traditional to put one’s head down into the crook of the weak arm (unless you’re wearing tefillin, in which case it’s the other arm), and recite these words of supplication in a position that suggests groveling. We are not proud of having sinned, and suffering for them; we are, in fact, ashamed. 

Nefilat apayim / נפילת אפיים / “falling on one’s face” during tahanun

So what Dr. Gordis posits is that the omission of tahanun by 20th-century non-Orthodox Jews, a standard piece of liturgy for perhaps a millennium, is evidence of “feel-goodism” in Jewish life, that we have emasculated Judaism by emphasizing only the blessings and not the curses. American idealism, suggests Gordis, has led us to forget the sense of dislocation, the “brokenheartedness” endemic to Jewish life. By omitting tahanun, he claims that we are in danger of forgetting our history of oppression and loss and hence our source of resilience:  

Hardship is not a break in the structure of Jewish history; it is an enduring feature of Jewish history. That is why Jewish resilience — enduring and overcoming hardship — is so noteworthy, and why understanding it is so critical in our own uncertain times.

His point is a decent one. Even as we count our blessings, we cannot ignore the hardship. That is the message of tahanun: it is, to some extent, the misery and failure that have enabled us to survive as She-erit Yisrael, to stick together as a people in tough times, to maintain our traditions and hold up our Torah in the face of anti-Semitic oppression and genocide, to build a Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile and dispersion, and yes, to continue to thrive here in the New World. 

Those of you who have been to my Benei Mitzvah Family Workshop (mandatory for 6th graders and their parents) may remember that the 2013 Pew study of American Jews found that 73% said that “Remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me.” Only 19% of American Jews said that about “Observing Jewish law.” I still find the juxtaposition of those numbers staggering; if we are only Jewish to remember what Hitler did to us, then what are we?

But: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain, the blood libels and the pogroms and all of the ways that we have been persecuted and slaughtered and yes, the Shoah, they all remind us of how our ancestors grasped these words, these berakhot, and held aloft their Torah; these things have, somewhat ironically, kept this remnant together.

We need the berakhot. We count those blessings. But we cannot forget the pain and suffering either. It is the entirety of our history, and the entirety of our liturgy, that has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this very moment.

And so too the future.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/28/2020.)

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Sermons

Angels for Anxiety – Vayyetze 5780

I had a captivating conversation this week in the context of an ongoing interfaith discussion in which I participate called the “Priest-Rabbi dialogue.” We meet two or three times a year, a group of about 10, evenly divided between Catholic and Orthodox priests and Reform and Conservative rabbis, and we generally discuss matters of theological interest. The initial subject of Thursday’s meeting was trans-substantiation, which is the Christian concept of the wine and bread used in some church rituals that are understood to turn into the body and blood of Jesus.

Now of course, we Jews also use wine and bread in our rituals, but for us they are symbols of the luxury of Shabbat (and Yom Tov holidays), symbols that set apart the 25 hours of Shabbat as being sanctified time. But this led to a fascinating back-and-forth about what we consider holy – time, objects, places, and so forth. One could make the case that in Judaism, there are really no holy objects or places, only sanctified time (we can argue that one over kiddush – literally, sanctification of the day – if you’d like). Likewise, while for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, relics – bones and body parts of dead saints – are considered holy and in some cases necessary for the building of worship spaces, to Jews that is anathema.

The discussion sparked my thinking about angels, which feature heavily in Parashat Vayyetze. After waking from his vision of angels, Ya’aqov says (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16), “Akhen yesh Adonai bamaqom hazeh ve-anokhi lo yada’ti” – “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” In other words, the presence of angels here, whether in a dream or not, gave Ya’aqov the sense that it is a holy place. He dubs the location “Beit El,” or Bethel, the house of God – the angels indicate God’s presence.

I must say that I have been fascinated by the angel passages in Bereshit for quite a long time. Avraham and Sarah are visited by angels multiple times; Lot offers up his daughters to the evil men of Sodom, rather than let them have his angelic guests; an angel saves Yitzhaq’s life; Ya’aqov has two run-ins with angels, and the next one will be when he wrestles with one, who renames him Yisrael, the one who has struggled with God. Midrash has angels there at the creation of the world; when God says, in first-person plural, “Na’aseh adam betzalmenu,” “Let us create a human in our image,” the midrash envisions the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One as consulting with the heavenly court of angels.

And we continue to invoke them over and over. How many of us sang, last night, “Peace unto you, O ministering angels”? (I.e. Shalom aleikhem, mal’akhei ha-sharet.) How many of us sing Had Gadya on Pesah, during which we recall the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death? How many of us see the wings of the keruvim, representing those on top of the Aron haBerit / Ark of the Covenant up on the wall behind me?

Over the ark at Congregation Beth Shalom

And how many of us noticed the angels in the first berakhah this morning in Shaharit, the morning service, who are calling to one another with the words from the prophet Isaiah (6:3):

וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה’ צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.

And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”

… and the words of Ezekiel (3:12), who describes the great noise of the angels’ wings beating against one another as they say,

וַתִּשָּׂאֵ֣נִי ר֔וּחַ וָאֶשְׁמַ֣ע אַחֲרַ֔י ק֖וֹל רַ֣עַשׁ גָּד֑וֹל בָּר֥וּךְ כְּבוֹד־ה’ מִמְּקוֹמֽוֹ׃

Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound: “Blessed is the Presence of the LORD, in His place.” *

And then we repeated those lines in the Qedushah, when we recited the Amidah aloud, only this time, we were actually acting like angels, standing with our feet together as if they are fused (Ezekiel 1:7), and lifting ourselves up heavenward.

(Actually, I recently learned from Dr. Reuven Kimelman, a scholar of Jewish liturgy who teaches at Brandeis, that we are actually imitating angels who are imitating humans! But that’s another story.)

But you probably did not notice any of those things, because we do them all the time without thinking about them.

Judaism is saturated with angelology. And I think the reason we have not focused on them is that, well, they’re kind of hard to explain. And, as heavenly beings, they challenge somewhat the idea of the unity and supremacy of God, in the monotheistic ideal. And, let’s face it: we’re all rational, and angels are not. The two centuries of history of the contemporary movements in Judaism have leaned heavily into rationalism, and thus Jewish angelology and Jewish mysticism were jettisoned. And, frankly, the whole idea seems vaguely Christian.

But to come back to Ya’aqov, on the run, being pursued by his angry and possibly violent brother Esav, the angels in his dream, climbing up and down that ladder on missions to and from Earth, are reassuring. They are an indicator that he’s OK, that he’s on the right path. Sure, he has deceived his father Yitzhaq to get his blessing, aided and abetted by his mother Rivqah, but that was the way it was meant to be from the outset. He must be in an anxious, uncomfortable place.

And yet he is in Beit El, the house of God.

Let’s fast forward to the present. My guess is that nobody here has seen an angel, at least as far as we know. I have no idea what an angel looks like, except that maybe some of them have fused legs, and that some of them (ofanim) are wheel-shaped, and some of them (serafim) must appear as though they are burning, and that keruvim (cherubim, in “English”) have wings. I don’t think I have seen any of those things. Maybe they are not meant to be seen, but rather merely imagined. Or dreamt about.

But meanwhile, we are living in anxious times. We are daily assaulted by the misdeeds of our fellow humans. 

  • Great political division
  • Disinformation campaigns
  • Racism and other forms of hatred
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Mass shootings in every imaginable context

I must say, the world is an increasingly scary place, especially for the Jews. But then I remember that this is why we have Judaism: when life is challenging, our tradition is a source of comfort and strength. When we mourn, when we fear, when we celebrate our freedom and our enlightenment and our striving to be better people, we rely on our customs and texts and wisdom for framework. And, almost everywhere we look in Judaism for that framework, we find hints of angels.

So I’ll let you in on a little secret: they are here. One midrashic opinion understands that our words of prayer are carried to God by angels.

When Ya’aqov awakes from his dream and understands that the presence of angels indicates that God is “bamaqom hazeh,” in this place, we too must understand that the heavenly court is right here with us, even right now. And this is a reminder that we are in the right place, the place of truth and justice. The place where God’s will is fulfilled. The place where all is good in the world, even when circumstances tell us to be anxious, to fear for our present and our future.

What do we say to those who are in shiv’ah, the deepest period of mourning during the first week after burial? Hamaqom yenahem etkhem. May God comfort you. But the euphemism for God here is maqom, place. We say literally, “May The Place comfort you.”  Wherever we gather, God is in that place. Maybe God even IS that place, marked by the presence of angels.

  • Whenever we comfort those who mourn, God is in that place.
  • Wherever we work for the benefit of the wider society, God is in that place.
  • Whenever we support those who are needy, God is in that place.
  • Wherever and whenever we pursue acts of qedushah / holiness, God is in that place.
  • Wherever we study the words of our ancient tradition, God is in that place.
  • Whenever we express gratitude for what we have, God is in that place.

Look for the angels. You will not see them, but they are there. They are all over the place. And their presence bamaqom hazeh, in this place, indicates that God is with us as well. I hope that this presence will bring us all some comfort in anxious times.

The Shabbat window at Beth Shalom

Shabbat shalom!

* It is a common scholarly opinion that the word “barukh” in this verse should be emended to “berum,” so that the verse should instead be understood as not recording words that the angels are saying, but that the sounds of the wings beating against each other create a great noise “as the Presence of the Lord rose from where it stood.” This makes a lot more sense in context, and does not change the fact that the angels feature heavily in this passage in Ezekiel. It does, however, render apparently incorrect the doxology that Jews have used in prayer for thousands of years.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/7/2019.)