Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bereshit 5771 - Can Entropy Be Reversed?

(Originally delivered on October 2, 2010.)

And so it begins again: Bereshit bara elohim. “In the beginning God created,” or “When God began to create...” or “At the beginning of God’s creating of heaven and earth,” depending on your translation. And, on the first day, Yehi or, “Let there be light.”

Once upon a time, I was a voracious reader of science fiction. The beginning of the Torah always reminds me of a short story by Isaac Asimov, written in 1956, called “The Last Question.” It is a series of vignettes about how successive generations of people ask successively bigger and more complex computers the question, “Can the entropy of the universe be reversed?”

Entropy is a measure of disorder. It’s the scientific term for a mess. When Hannah and Zev pull all of their toys off the shelves in our living room and scatter them about the floor, the entropy of the room increases.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that entropy in a closed system always increases. Our universe is a closed system, and so the disorder of the universe, the entropy, always increases, and this can never be reversed, so that at some distant time in the future, all of the structure of the universe will cease to exist, and chaos will be complete.

So in the Asimov story, each time the question about entropy is asked, the computers return the same answer: “There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.”

At the end of the story, the final, most comprehensive, most transcendent computer is asked the question, and, realizing that all possible data has been collected, determines how to reverse entropy, and says, “Let there be light.” And there was light.

I will come back to entropy in a moment.

* * *

Just before Sukkot, I attended a fundraiser for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. One of the speakers was an Israeli who, during reserve service in Lebanon in 2006, was caught in a car that was hit by a missile, courtesy of Hizballah. He was burned from head to toe, and was initially taken for dead, but managed to survive. His presentation was tragic, graphic, and he delivered it with subtle humor and an elegant touch.

Now I am supportive of the work that FIDF does, and this former soldier’s story was quite moving.

However, it also included slides of him in the hospital, recuperating from the burns that covered his body and the shrapnel that tore holes in his flesh. It was designed to shock. We are apparently so inured to everything, so apathetic, that the only way that anybody can listen long enough is if we present a grave threat, a serious danger, or graphic violence. It’s kind of like television news. You know, if it bleeds, it leads.

I have tried softer approaches to the message I am about to deliver. Now, please permit me to shock you.

I have been here for three years now. In that time, I have officiated at:

3 beritot milah (including that of my own son)
2 baby namings
9 weddings
at least 26 funerals.

Now, one might be able to explain these figures away by pointing out that more people are involved with synagogues and/or rabbis later in life, skewing the results. Also, more people require a rabbi’s service in times of death; not everybody holds a traditional baby naming, for example, and the rabbi is optional at a Berit Milah. And of course, nearly half of all marriages involving American Jews include one non-Jewish partner, and I cannot officiate at such marriages.

Sometimes, though, I worry about the future of American Jewry. Will the forces of entropy drag us down, or will we overcome them?

Here are a few other items that have caught my attention in recent weeks:

Item 1.

As some of you may recall, I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about the key role that the Youth House plays in building our Jewish future, about making actively Jewish adults.

Two weeks ago, a Youth House parent reacted to the sermon by telling me that many parents prioritize their children’s activities based on what will get them into good colleges, and that if I want kids to come to the Youth House, I have to demonstrate the value of attending. What do they get out of it?

Effectively, what he was asking was, I want my child to go to a good school. How will the Youth House help him do so? Is it worth the investment of money and time?

Item 2.

During the High Holidays, there were hundreds of children in and about this building. Many went into the various age-appropriate services that were offered for them. Many, and especially those older than 13, did not. There were, I hear, plenty of teens in the parking lot, playing in the playground, glued to the screen of their electronic devices, and so forth.

Two of the members of the Youth House staff, our Youth Director Joe Pearlman and our Religious Activities Director Itamar Futterman, approached some of these teens to try to get them to come into the teen service that they hosted in the Youth House. And the reactions they got were variations of, “No, way. I’m not going in there. You’ve got to be kidding me,” and so forth.

Now, just a look around this room will show you how strong this community is. We can be comfortable with how many people are here today in services, or even how many come on a Shabbat morning without a bar or bat mitzvah. Even last Thursday, the first day of Sukkot, many members of this community, including many young children were here, joining together in the festival tefillot.

But I am a little bit more concerned about our teenagers, those between the ages of 13 and 18. Where are they?

I am happy that Aaron and Eric are two boys (now men!) whose families are heavily involved with Temple Israel, and who have a positive involvement with and attitude towards Judaism, Jewish life, and the synagogue. I am also certain that I will see them both around this building frequently in the coming years.

But about 50 children ascend this bimah every year to demonstrate their capability in reading Torah and Haftarah, and sharing with us the words of divrei Torah that they have crafted themselves.

And many of them, I rarely see again. Teens that I have worked with, that I have exchanged words of Torah with, that I have established a bond with. Teenagers from whom I have learned many new ways to understand our tradition. And that saddens me.

I read a great article in the NY Times about a week ago. It was about how parents often worry about precisely the wrong things: that is, they worry about perceived dangers that are violent, and not about the more subtle, less sensationalized dangers.

For example, many parents do not let their child wait for the school bus outside alone, for fear of abduction by strangers, which affects only about 100 children each year in the entire country. But few seem concerned with the poor diet and lack of exercise that has driven up childhood obesity rates. Nearly 1 in 5 children today are obese.

Well, here is something that some of us have not thought of. While some of us are very concerned with getting our children into college, some of us are pushing Jewish life out the window in favor of a myriad of other activities.

Let me tell you all something, my friends: your child or grandchild will, most likely, not grow up to become a star athlete or the first violin chair of the NY Philharmonic or the next Kristin Chenoweth. But he or she WILL be an adult Jew, one who will (God willing) be a part of a Jewish community, and perhaps raise a Jewish family as well. And that is why they need to be here now. Not in the parking lot. Not at basketball practice. Here, at Temple Israel, on Shabbat morning, and if not sitting next to you then at least sharing it with their peers at the Youth House or Junior Congregation or Morah Ronnie Katz’ toddler service.

Adam and Eve were forced out of Paradise. It might be interesting to argue over whose fault this is, but the salient feature is this: this nation, with its vast wealth, religious freedom and tolerance, and infinite choice in all matters was Paradise to our immigrant forbears. But it will soon cease to be Gan Eden if our grandchildren have no connection to the ancient mass of wisdom known as Judaism.

Our entropy increases.

The good news is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics has a workaround. Entropy may be reversed if you put some work into the system. My living room is not exactly a closed system, but it seems that the only way that I can restore order is if I pick up Hannah and Zev’s toys and put them back on the shelf. And that is precisely what we need to do.

I am working hard this year to make sure that the Youth House is appealing to teens, that it provides serious, intellectually stimulating content coupled with fun social events. Our Fall Retreat Shabbaton, next weekend, will do exactly that, and it is also open to all in grades 8-12, even if your teen is not enrolled at the Youth House. And did I mention that I am personally leading a trip to Israel for teenagers in February? It’s also open to everybody in grades 8-12.

And of course we all want the best for our children. We want the best opportunities, the best college, the brightest future. Continuing Jewish education through high school and, for that matter, university and adulthood, can be a part of that picture, ensuring the most brilliant, dazzling future for all of us. No college admissions officer will look down on time spent learning the texts of our rich, literary tradition.

Two weeks ago, when tornados blasted through Brooklyn and Queens, the power went out in the Youth House about 20 minutes before the end of classes. We brought all the students downstairs, and, in the dark, Itamar led us all in an activity in which students passed a roll of toilet paper from person to person, telling each other about themselves. It was the first opportunity of the year for the entire student body, from grades 7 to 11, to get to know each other, albeit in unusual circumstances. Two days before Yom Kippur, just before our annual bout of introspection and teshuvah, Vayehi or. And there was light.

Let us work in partnership to form stronger Jewish identities in our teenagers and imbue them with a love of Torah, avodah (serving God), and gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness), I need the commitment of parents who are willing to put the work into this system. Join with me for the Jewish future.

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