Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Elul 1: Resonances of the shofar

Today, the first day of the month of Elul, was the first day of the sounding of the shofar at morning minyan, the first time that most of us have heard a shofar blast in many months. There is so much power in the sound of the shofar, so many personal resonances that vibrate with each blast, from my childhood High Holiday memories to my last congregation where, as the cantor, I was also served as the ba'al toqe'a (the shofar guy) on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

There is a moment, particularly during the sounding of the teqi'ah gedolah, the longest blast, of near total reflection - of processing past and present in the context of that evocative sound. This is the holiest moment, the one that we come to the synagogue to join in. This is the power of the shofar, the ability to resonate our memories together with our hopes for the future. This is the moment that I look forward to every year.

One shofar blast is worth at least a thousand words.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rosh Hodesh Elul: What's more important than electricity?

The first day is sort of fun: flashlights, candles, ice cubes. The second day is mildly annoying: trying to eat stuff in the fridge that isn't going to last, worrying about charging the cell phone. The third day is downright frustrating: OK, so I really need to check my email and work on my sermon, not to mention the eulogy I have to write for tomorrow's funeral. OK, so I'm not a coffee drinker, but here I am with a latte in hand at a major chain outlet. A congregant offered me a seat at his table, so I'm thankful for that, and hopeful that the lights will come on before dinnertime.

As we usher in the month of Elul, I am mindful of the fact that not only are many people in my community without power, but also, if the people at NPR are to be believed, somewhat near 5 million people all up and down the Eastern seaboard. Given that Elul is the time to start taking stock of our souls in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and particularly Yom Kippur, I am reminded about what are the important things. And let's face it: wi-fi is not an essential. Even without a refrigerator, life goes on. But connections with people - family, friends, neighbors, colleagues - we cannot live without those.

Sometimes it is a radical change that helps us to understand who we are. Reflecting back on my remarks following last week's minor earthquake (already a distant memory, no?), being shaken up is occasionally good for the soul. Especially during Elul. As such, it is a perfect time to be without power for a few days.

I have (somewhat loosely) committed myself to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer's Twitter/blog-based project called "Blog Elul," and as such will try to post a little something each day to nudge the introspective process leading to the High Holy Days in a month. Tomorrow is Elul 1, when we begin sounding the shofar, summoning forth all of the reflective sounds of the New Year; let the blogging begin (and let's hope I get my electricity back soon).

Friday, August 26, 2011

Re'eh: Dangerous Hurricane Theology

As Hurricane Irene inexorably makes her way up the East Coast, it seems nearly impossible for theological questions not to simmer behind the more pressing needs of storm preparation.

It is very tempting, in the face of natural disasters, for some spiritual leaders to reflexively invoke Biblical themes of reward and punishment. So goes the traditional trope, repeated unflinchingly throughout the Torah: if you follow the mitzvot / commandments, you will be rewarded; if you don't, then God will cause you great suffering. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, both Jewish and non-Jewish preachers put forward the theory of Divine collective punishment, effectively blaming the victim.

And they stand on good, solid textual bases. Two and a half weeks after Tish'ah Be'av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem not once, but twice, we read tomorrow the third of seven haftarot of consolation. Ancient rabbis saw our loss of the Temple as being the result of our transgressions, just like the Torah tells us that droughts or floods are our own fault.

But that is not where I stand, and I would venture a guess that most if not all progressive rabbis agree with me. And the ancient rabbis of the Talmud were not of one mind on this either; they knew that the particularly troubling problem of theodicy, answering the question of why there is suffering in the world, is insoluble when we accept as a postulate that God is all good and all powerful. The Talmud puts this question in the mouth of Moses: "Master of the universe, why is it that some righteous men prosper while others suffer adversity, some wicked men prosper while others suffer adversity?" (Berakhot 7a)

We read in Parashat Re'eh tomorrow the strong imperative to avoid avodah zarah, the pagan worship of idols practiced by the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 12:3):

וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם, וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם, וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ, וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן; וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת-שְׁמָם, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.
Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

I would argue that one idol that we should smash is the ancient notion that God visits punishment on us. While God makes possible the physical forces around us that make the patterns of weather possible, God does not micro-manage, sending destructive storms here and sunny, mild weather there. The weather, and the destruction that it may wreak, is not dependent on God's mood, or indeed our behavior.

God is the source of good, and the inspiration for our own work in repairing a broken world; we are partners with God in this task. Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thursday Kavvanah, 8/25/2011 - What is a kehillah, anyway?

On Tuesday, The Modern Rabbi featured a kavvanah about building relationships bein adam la-qehillah*, between individuals and the community. Later that day, the same word crossed my e-desk from a different direction, albeit spelled with a "k.", a blog featuring articles about contemporary issues in progressive Judaism, posted a caustic reaction to the Conservative movement's Project Reconnect and its ongoing initiative to help match people who need High Holiday tickets with synagogues.

The poster, who goes by Reb Yudel, took issue with the Conservative movement's use of the word "kehillah" in place of "congregation." Kehillah (or qehillah; plural kehillot/qehillot) literally means congregation. It is a gathering of people for a specific holy purpose, in contradistinction to the word "keneset," or gathering. A synagogue is a "beit keneset," a place of gathering (and the English word "synagogue" comes from the Greek translation of "beit keneset").

But there is nothing holy about a building; it is only when a kehillah is gathered there for ritual moments that it becomes a place of holiness.

A good Hebrew word to know, surely.


* Yes, silly grammar-lovers like me prefer to transliterate the Hebrew letter "qof" as a "q," even though it seems curious and perhaps somewhat threatening to the average English speaker.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Wednesday Kavvanah, 8/24/2011 - Shake it up

A good part of my job as a rabbi is to encourage people to feel something Jewishly - to connect to Judaism in a way such that they are emotionally moved.

I did not feel yesterday's earthquake. At the time I was on the telephone to Israel, and was walking around the room and did not notice it. Afterwards, however, I saw the dining-room chandelier swinging a bit, and it was obvious that we had been shaken up.

Sometimes, getting slightly shaken is a good thing. Now, with the High Holidays just five weeks away, I can't help but think that now is the time to prepare to get shaken. Those of us in the room this morning at minyan must have been moved enough to join us at 7 AM for ritual holy moments. But I am concerned that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will bring thousands of people to our services, most of whom are neither prepared for nor willing to be shaken up.

I will try to make those services meaningful, to help people connect. If I could schedule a small temblor, just enough to move the floor (and maybe some hearts and minds as well), I would do that. Since I can't, we will just have to work harder to move the congregation otherwise.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday Kavvanah, 8/23/2011 - Building Community: Sacred Moments

The third level of building relationships is bein adam la-qehillah / between individuals and the community. How do we do this? By creating shared sacred moments.

It is indeed possible to have sacred moments alone - some of us might identify our most mundane rituals as holy to us: that first cup of coffee in the morning, the quiet read before bedtime, and so forth. But I have found that the most powerful sacred moments are the collective ones: lifecycle events (weddings, benei mitzvah, etc.), special tefillah / prayer experiences, singing together after Shabbat dinner on Friday night.

These are the moments that connect us to each other, that establish relationships between the individual and the qehillah, the group. We need to find more of these. As the sociologist Robert Putnam pointed out in his essential book, Bowling Alone, our "social capital," our interconnectedness as a society has gradually eroded over the past half-century. As such, the need for shared sacred moments is greater than ever; we should strive to create more of them, both within and without the synagogue.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday morning in a bomb shelter

Rockets fell last night in several places in southern Israel. Two Facebook posts from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Leor Sinai, were especially unnervingץ He is currently in Beersheva:

"Sirens at 5:51am. Grab kids and run into bomb shelter, again. Hear two booms."

"We are fine. & your prayers are felt here in Be'er Sheva. Just haven't figured out how to explain to Akiva (almost 6) when he asks: aba why are we in the closet room?"

What can you possibly say to a six-year-old? I have not yet even found away to talk about something like this with my son, who is ten and also lives in Israel.

Shabbat has already descended upon Israel; let's hope that this day of rest brings some peace and quiet to those within range of rocket fire.

Eqev - Seven Symbols of Security

As my late summer haul of tomatoes ripens on the vine, I can't help but reflect my backyard bounty through the lens of the "seven species" identified in Parashat Eqev this week as symbols of the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:8):

אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה, וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן; אֶרֶץ-זֵית שֶׁמֶן, וּדְבָשׁ.
Eretz hittah us'orah, vegefen ut'enah verimon, eretz zeit shemen udvash.
A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.

From the vantage point of my window, I can watch my tomatoes grow in peace, a peace that we in the Diaspora often take for granted. The attacks on Israeli civilians near Eilat yesterday, on the very road that I traveled during my visit there last December, remind me that the figs and pomegranates cannot ripen on the vine if Israel does not have secure borders.

Let's hope for an olive branch soon.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Video: Dr. Ron Wolfson at the LOMED Summer Institute, 8/10/2011

Here's a video snippet featuring Dr. Ron Wolfson at the LOMED Summer Institute that I attended last week, and which yielded my sermon from last Shabbat. He is speaking about the importance of greeting people as they enter synagogues, and he mentions Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church.

Temple Israel's Religious School director, Rabbi Tracy Klirs, and Rachel Mathless, director of the Beth HaGan nursery school, are in the foreground, dutifully taking notes.

Thursday Kavvanah, 8/18/2011 - Building Relationships Between Individuals

The second level of relationship-building that a faith community should be committed to is finding ways to connect people to each other, bein adam le-havero. One way of doing this is to build affinity groups; that is, to feature activities that bring together people with commonalities. Synagogues have traditionally done this through groups that categorize people by age, gender, or stage in life: seniors, young couples, men's club, sisterhood, and so forth. There are other groups that we can try as well: professions, hobbies, reading groups, and so forth.

Looking around the room at the minyan (morning service) attendees today, I saw that everybody who was willing to give an hour of their day, beginning at 6:45 AM, was fairly well-connected to others in the synagogue community. Only very rarely do we get somebody at morning minyan who is not.

But it is not enough to put similar people together in the same room. We must then offer ways for each person to share his or her own story. Telling one's own story, and listening to those of others, helps to build those personal bonds. We need more of this.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wednesday Kavvanah, 8/17/2011 - Relationships with Ourselves

With Rosh HaShanah a mere six weeks away, the time has come for serious introspection. In two weeks, when the month of Elul arrives, we begin sounding the shofar (ram's horn) every morning to rouse us as we head down the path of teshuvah (return), the central theme of the High Holidays.

Yesterday in this space I pointed to the six types of relationships that faith communities should seek to develop. The first on the list, bein adam le-atzmo (between an individual and him/herself), is front and center during this period. I am not so sure that I have such a great relationship with myself - sometimes the way that we see ourselves is not honest enough. And sure, there is a certain amount of self-protection in that. But getting in touch with ourselves is one goal that we should consider for this season.

Summer is waning. Now is the time to begin looking inside, to explore the more complex parts of our souls as we aim toward teshuvah.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tuesday Kavvanah, 8/16/2011 - Six levels of building relationships

According to Dr. Ron Wolfson, there are six levels of relationships that a synagogue should work toward building:

1. בין אדם לעצמו
Bein adam le-atzmo
Between a person and him/herself

2. בין אדם לחברו
Bein adam le-havero
Between individuals

3. בין אדם לקהילה
Bein adam la-qehillah
Between individuals and their faith community

4. בין אדם ליהדות
Bein adam le-yahadut
Between individuals and Judaism (Jewish practice, Jewish text, Jewish life)

5. בין אדם לעולם
Bein adam la-olam
Between individuals and the greater world

6. בין אדם למקום
Bein adam la-maqom
Between individuals and God

This is not necessarily a linear process, but it makes sense to start with one's internal accounting before moving on to the relationships with others and with God. In future kavvanot, I hope to elaborate on all of the above.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Va'et-hannan 5771 - Listening to our Jewish Stories

I am often asked what led me to the rabbinate, and my stock answer is that I was not happy working as an engineer, and wanted to work with people instead of things. That is true. But there is more to the story. The inclination to become a rabbi had been within me for many years. But there was some sort of obstacle – something prevented me from acting on it.

When I was 28, I was living in Houston, and I belonged to a Conservative synagogue (not many 20-something single men do, of course). After having sat anonymously in the back for a while, I was invited by one of the gabbaim to sing in the synagogue choir. I soon became close with Hazzan Stephen Berke, who invited me to learn how to lead High Holiday Shaharit / the morning service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Not long after I led my first Rosh Hashanah service, Hazzan Berke invited me to have dinner in his sukkah, during which he recommended going to cantorial school, something which had really never occurred to me.

I needed that series of invitations. I needed to be welcomed. It was that personal connection that enabled me to get around the roadblock that had prevented me from continuing my Jewish path. Thirteen years later (this Rosh Hashanah will be a kind of Bar Mitzvah for me), and here I am.

Everybody in this room has a Jewish story. Most of them do not involve rabbinical school. But we are all here because of the invitations we have received and the obstacles that we have circumvented. And that's what connects us all to Judaism, to God, and to each other.


Perhaps you noticed that I was sitting in back today for much of the service. Maybe I greeted you when you came in. I hope you don't mind that I was conducting a sort of experiment, inspired by lectures that I heard this week.

I spent two days at an institute hosted by the Jewish Education Project, an organization that provides training and resources to synagogues and religious schools in the metro area. I was there with our Religious School director Rabbi Klirs, our nursery school director Rachel Mathless, and educator Jennifer Khoda. This seminar was under the auspices of LOMED, a project that is helping synagogue schools move forward with new, “high-impact” models; Temple Israel has participated in LOMED for two years. The keynote speaker was Dr. Ron Wolfson, who is a professor of education at the American Jewish University in LA, and an uber-educator who has made it his business to help synagogues improve their educational offerings and everything else that they do. In particular, he has spent the last several years working on helping synagogues become more welcoming, and studying what makes houses of worship successful.

The essential mantra of Wolfson's presentations (I listened to him for nearly 6 hours over two days) was the following:

Many synagogues spend much of their time and energy preparing great programs and hoping that people show up. They should instead re-orient their priorities such that the bottom line is not, “How many people came to our fabulous program,” but rather, “Did our program build relationships?”

Because, let's face it: a faith community (synagogue, church, mosque, ashram, whatever) is about relationships. Why do most people join synagogues? Maybe it's because they want High Holiday tickets, or because they want their children to become bar or bat mitzvah, or because they want some kind of satisfying Jewish experience that they cannot get for free from Chabad.

But what makes them stay and become involved? That they have bonds with other members. That they make friends. That they feel like part of a community of like-minded people.

Why do people leave synagogues? Because they have nothing to connect them any more. Why do most members of Temple Israel deactivate? It's because their last kid completed bar or bat mitzvah.

In the four years that I have been here, our membership has remained about the same – that is, about the same number have left Temple Israel as have joined. That's good, I suppose, in one sense.

But it's not just about membership. It's not just about making our finances work. On the contrary – a synagogue exists to give people opportunities to get in touch with God. And study after study has shown that the vast majority of people, even skeptical, cosmopolitan Jews, want that. And we should be unapologetic about that goal. But we need to connect people first with each other, before we can connect them with God. If we succeed in doing that, the inflow of new members might stay the same, but the outflow might just decrease.

So how do we build these relationships? Ron Wolfson has spent years studying two models that are thriving right now: Chabad and the so-called “mega-churches.” What makes these models work, in a nutshell, is that they have mastered the art of making connections with people. How does Saddleback Church in southern California draw 30,000 people for services on a Sunday morning? By making personal connections with each and every one of them.

You see, one reason that many synagogues are not good at building community is because they are committed to a top-down style of management that is traditionally associated with, well, the 10 commandments, which we read this morning. God dictated the aseret ha-dibberot to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and Moshe reported them to the people, and expected them to follow. Leaders and followers – that is how it has always been. The rabbi, the president, the board – they run the synagogue.

Whose pictures adorn the walls of the hallway outside the chapel? The past presidents of the congregation, and of course Rabbi Waxman (zikhrono livrakha). And of course we are grateful for their service. But what is missing is the photos of families enjoying a meal in the Temple Israel sukkah. Where are the pictures of the Adult Bat/Bar Mitzvah classes? Or the Youth House kids playing ga-ga at a “shul-in”? Where are the people?


My friends, the world has changed. The tools of social media have enabled the sharing of ideas and collective social interaction that was never possible before. The governments of Tunisia and Egypt were felled by calls to action on Facebook. Maybe Syria is next. There are thousands of people sleeping in tents all over Israel, precipitated by movements on Facebook and Twitter. The people of Iran and the whole world know about the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan because of the Internet - you can even watch her death on YouTube. I heard on NPR yesterday morning that Great Britain is seeking to limit the power of social media sites to help quell the riots of the past week.

The world is changing. Powerful social innovations now come from everybody, not merely from Mt. Sinai. Traditional, top-down organizational structures are being bypassed. And certainly for just about everybody younger than I am, this is how we are all beginning to think.

All of us in this room today are the insiders of this congregation. And we want others to join us. But they will not do that unless they feel like they have a certain connection to Temple Israel, to others in the room, to the clergy, to the teaching staff, to the office staff, and so forth. Most of us in this room have those connections already.

Dr. Wolfson told us that studies conducted by Saddleback Church indicate that new members won't stick around until they have made strong bonds with 5-7 people. That might not sound like a lot in a congregation of 930 families. But it's actually quite a high number. Especially when most new adult members belong so they can send their children to the schools that we have, and might only rarely get out of the car during their 5 or so years of membership here.

The goal of every person in this room is to make sure that they DO get out of their cars, and that they are welcomed into the building, and that they hang around and talk and make friends. Everybody here is an ambassador, and we are going to call on your talents in the coming years. My role at Temple Israel is changing, and I hope to be focused on finding ways to engage people so that we might build the congregation that we want.

Now, Rabbi Stecker, Cantor Frieder and I can stand up here on the bimah, week after week, and parcel out the 10 Commandments from on high, as has happened at synagogues for 2000 years. I can give sermons that teach the the literary and grammatical nuances in the Torah or Haftarah or siddur. We might be able to impress you with fiery oratory or magnificent vocal acrobatics. But the question that we should all be asking is, do these things build relationships? Because in today's climate, that is all that counts. Yes, once people are engaged, then we can hit ‘em with Rashi and Ibn Ezra. But the first step is to invite them in.

One thing that we, the ambassadors, can do is to train ourselves to follow all the guidelines on this handout on how to make this congregation a place that people will want to come to.

We have to be the inviters, the ones that remove the obstacles to the Jewish journeys of others. Let them complete their journeys here. With us. Let’s not send them to Chabad, which will surely be waiting with open arms.

And that’s why I am sitting in the back today, welcoming people and making everybody feel comfortable to share their stories. We can’t all sit in the back, but we can all welcome, and we can all listen.

I want to thank you for being such good sports and sharing your Jewish stories. I look forward to hearing more of them from you and from everybody else, and I hope that all of you give the opportunity to others in this community to do the same.

Shabbat shalom!

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, 8/13/2011.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Devarim 5771 - Talk is Cheap: Word Inflation

I’m not much of a talker. Really, I consider myself very bad at small talk. I just can’t kibitz.

But that might be because I grew up in rural New England, where silence really truly was golden. My parents, city folk from Boston, they are the loquacious sort. My brother, sister, and I - the strong, silent type. Better a stiff upper lip. We were direct, short and to the point, and small talk was avoided unless absolutely necessary. But that is not typical for our people.

Woody Allen once quipped that his Jewish ancestors, responding to pogroms and other forms of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, had to be quick with words: they learned how to talk their way out of a tight spot.

As Jews, we understand the value of words. Yes, we are the “People of the Book,” (a moniker bestowed upon us by the Muslims, by the way). But our words are central to our faith. Which is all the more reason for us to be concerned about the future of the word. But I’ll come back to that.

Here are some of the primary ways in which our tradition elevates words:

1. We offer the words of our lips in place of sacrifice; the amidot that we recite every day are in place of the sacrifices that took place in the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the hallmark of rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish practice that emerged in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (which we commemorate on Tuesday, when we observe Tish'ah Be'Av) - that words are the primary medium of our relationship with God. Gershom Sholem once described normative Judaism as only allowing words to bridge the gap between us and God.

2. Not only this, but all of our rituals involve words. From the Pesah seder to the vidui confessions of Yom Kippur, from the most seemingly insignificant berakhah to the soaring recitation of Tal, the prayer for dew, we mark our holy moments with liturgy, the words of tefillah / prayer.

3. We read the Torah cover to cover each year, interpreting and re-interpreting, commenting and agreeing and disagreeing and occasionally taking it out to parade it around and dance with it. The Torah contains (according to the Masoretic note at the end) 79,856 words, but it has yielded millions upon millions of others.

4. We highlight study and learning above all other mitzvot: the rabbinic principle of Talmud Torah keneged kulam (the study of Torah outweighs all other mitzvot / commandments) speaks to the centrality of the word in Jewish life and tradition. Everything we do comes, in some way, from the Jewish bookshelf, and we continually revisit these texts to learn more.

5. And, understanding the harm that words can cause, we also prohibit lashon hara, gossip, motzi shem ra, slander, nibbul peh, having a detestable mouth, and of course taking God’s name in vain.

The opening of the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, which we read this morning, is Elleh ha-devarim. These are the words, said Moshe. Or maybe, the concepts. The ideas. The actions associated with these commandments. Because a word, in Jewish tradition, is not just a word.

One ironic idiosyncracy of the rabbi standing before you is that while I am lousy at small talk, I love words. I have often fantasized about being the next author of the pseudonymous Philologos column in the Forward, which (I have on good authority) is written by the author Hillel Halkin. So please consider the following lexical diversion a sort of audition:

The Hebrew “davar” can be read in multiple ways. In modern Hebrew, a “davar” is a thing, and usually a “millah” is a word. But in the ancient language of the Torah, a “davar” can be read as either a word, or a matter or affair.

Those of you who are Hebrew grammar buffs know that the most common verbal form of “davar” is ledabber, to speak. But that is in the pi’el, or intensive conjugation. In the rare qal or regular conjugation, the (theoretical) infinitive is lidbor, which might be translated as “to have the ability to speak, although not currently engaged in doing so.” One might make the observation that a “davar,” a word or matter, is more clearly connected to the qal verb. That is, the word or concept exists, but not until it is actually pronounced aloud does it become “dibbur,” speech.

Rashi, Rav Shelomo Yitzhaqi, the celebrated 11th century French wine merchant, was the first to give a running commentary to the Torah and hence democratize the learning of Torah and Talmud for all generations to come. Rashi describes his guiding principle in a comment to Genesis 3:8:

ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא, ולאגדה המיישבת דברי המקרא - דבר דבור על אופניו

“I have come only to teach the plain meaning of the passage, and such Aggadah [stories] that settles the words of the Scripture, each word in its proper way.”

Rashi’s last four words, “davar davur al ofnav,” might be translated as “a word worded in its way.” Each word, says Rashi, has a simple, contextual meaning, dictated by the way that the Torah has applied it. His job as a commentator, and that of all Torah commentators who followed him, is to be sensitive to the word and its context. Every word is powerful by itself, but it does not stand alone; it is supported by the verbal structure around it.

A midrash about the opening of Parashat Devarim connects the word “davar” with “devorah,” a bee. The words of Torah can be sweet like honey; but if we stray from them, they can sting like bees.

Judaism elevates the word; we understand that words have power. The written word is concept; for the spoken word, which puts the concept into action, the stakes are even higher.

Which is all the more reason for concern regarding the future of the word, both written and spoken. Frankly, I’m worried. Verbal inflation has arrived. The word is being rapidly devalued. As with money, when you have more in circulation, every greenback is worth less. And there’s no debt ceiling with words.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is changing. We are the witnesses to an unprecedented paradigm shift, as the printed word eases its way out of this world, replaced by its electronic cousin.

Is it possible that with the explosion of news sources, entertainment options, and Internet search engines that seem to read our minds rather than our keystrokes, that we are gradually losing ourselves in a sea of information?

As text messages multiply, content aggregators aggregate, and newspapers around the world go out of business, we have to face the uncomfortable reality that the way in which all of us here over 30 years of age acquired information, is going the way of the typewriter and the rotary-dial telephone.

When Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, stood before the Israelites, knowing that he would die before they entered the land of Israel, he laid before them a whole book of words, a series of commandments. Elleh ha-devarim, he said. The Greek name for this book is Deutoronomy, meaning, “second law.” Many of the commandments laid down in the fifth book of the Torah were already given in the previous four, but many were not. It was a final parting gift of tremendous value, a gift platter loaded with the most potent, well-chosen ancient Hebrew words / concepts / commandments / affairs that Moshe could deliver. Elleh ha-devarim. These are the words.

Estimates are that today, total global data storage is on the order of zettabytes - that is, trillions of gigabytes - 10^21 characters. We have no choice but to ignore nearly all of them. We search through volumes of them online to find only what we want; we save multiple copies of them throughout the cyber-cloud; estimates are that as much as 70% of those stored zettabytes is actually redundant material.

The cheapening of words has social consequences: we listen to national politicians abuse words by selling us one story while executing another. We watch helplessly as the words of the State of Israel, its government ministers, its spokespeople, its regular Jews, are openly doubted in the press and in mainstream thought.

Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary has recently begun blogging, and I have very much enjoyed reading his pieces on the state of the Conservative movement and ideas for its future. He posts a new article every week.

His last two articles have been about tefillah / prayer, and how to reinvigorate it in the Conservative movement. I was struck by one of the comments left by a reader, who was obviously inspired by the level of discourse achieved in the discussion thread about last week’s post. He wrote, “Finally, in the last 3 or 4 weeks, I believe this has turned into a real conversation.”

Now, I suppose it is wonderful that the blog discussion has yielded what at least one reader thinks is a “conversation.” But it is hard for me, lapsed Luddite that I am, to see how comments posted on a website, pixels on a screen, can equal the real-time give-and-take to be found in an actual conversation. I have found that online discussions are more often merely people with extreme views talking past each other.

I have to be careful not to confuse the medium with the message. Nonetheless, I fear that words have become devalued, because there are just too many of them. How can we possibly stay on top of all of the electronic clutter? How can we filter the signal from the noise? In the future, how will we know who to believe, who to trust, if all pixels are equally bright?

Given our history and tradition, what can we do in the face of word inflation? What must we do to combat this cheapening of the word? We have to return to our texts, to study them again, to turn them over and over. We have to recommit to Jewish learning, to being sensitive to the meanings of our words. We have to drag our friends to adult ed classes, to cajole our teenagers to enroll in the Youth House, to urge our college students and young adults to find an open-minded place to learn Torah and Talmud. We have to learn more Hebrew, our language. We have to truly rejoice in the rolling of the Torah back to the beginning on Simhat Torah, and start all over again with Bereshit / Genesis.

If we allow our words to be devalued, our rich tradition will not survive another generation. So please forgive me if I fail at small talk - I am simply trying to maintain the value of words.

Shabbat shalom.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2011.)

Tish'ah Be'Av 5771 - Loss and Transition

Tish'ah Be'Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, represents the most fundamental loss that the Jewish people have suffered – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem - not once, but twice. It is a reminder of our national incompleteness, of the missing piece of ourselves that was taken away, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE. With both destructions, we suffered not only the denial of the religious practice mandated by the Torah, the ability to sacrifice to God, but also the land of Israel, our national homeland. And we continue to mourn to this day, even though the latter has been restored.

There is in this tale a hint of irony. The system of religious and cultural traditions that we call Judaism was hatched only after the Second Temple was destroyed. Leaving aside the sacrificial cult (which is by far the most extensive part of the Torah's vision of religious practice), what we do today is derived from the Torah, but is not really described therein. It is only through the rabbinic lens, through centuries of interpretation and re-interpretation, that we arrive at today's Judaism.

Tish'ah Be'Av therefore marks a transition – the stimulus for the most comprehensive religious retrofit ever undertaken by a people. We moved from a centralized, hierarchical, religious tradition headed by the Kohanim, the priests, to a democratic, personal, and portable tradition based on learning and maintained by rabbis, who are scholars, not priests.

Frankly, the system we have had for the last 1,900-odd years seems to me superior. Even if I were not a rabbi, the idea that I can communicate with the Divine directly through prayer rather than through a priestly mediator seems far more sophisticated, far more civilized than the ancient practice of sacrificing animals.

The Temple is a symbol, a powerful reminder of our history and the glory days of our ancient sovereignty over the land. (It is for this very reason that when you visit the Temple Mount, the Islamic Waqf gives you a pamphlet that claims that the Jewish Temple was never located on that site.) In recalling its destruction on the ninth day of the month of Av, we are not only invoking our historical roots and our incompleteness, but we are also reminding ourselves that this is, ultimately, a transition for the better.

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, 8/5/2011.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Thursday Kavvanah, 8/4/2011 - The opposite of happiness

Yesterday I discussed the unreasonable expectation, promoted by the Na Nachs (a sub-set of Breslover Hasidim), to be happy all the time. It is remarkable that the Jewish calendar has periods of "enforced" communal sadness, while it does not have similar periods of happiness.

We are in such a period right now: known as the Three Weeks, it is the period between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av (Tish'ah Be'av). Customs vary among communities, but the more commonly-observed minhagim include not holding weddings, not cutting one's hair, and not eating meat or drinking wine other than on Shabbat or at a se'udat mitzvah (a festive meal celebrating a berit milah / circumcision or the conclusion of learning a tractate of Talmud). Another similar period is that of sefirat ha-'omer, the period of the counting of the Omer between Pesah and Shavuot.

While most of our holidays are joyous, and we are told that in the month of Adar (leading up to Purim) our happiness increases, there are no similar periods in the Jewish calendar during which we add special behaviors that make us happy. It is indeed curious that the ancient rabbis instituted periods of sadness, but not parallel periods of happiness. Were they trying to limit our joy?

Perhaps happiness is best appreciated when the opposite is occasionally mandated.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wednesday Kavvanah, 8/3/2011 - Seeking constant happiness

When my wife and I were dating, we discovered that we had different takes on happiness. She felt that being happy was a goal in itself, while I felt that consistent happiness is an unreasonable expectation, that as we move through life we are sometimes happy and sometimes not, and that to seek happiness will only yield frustration and disappointment.

While I was in Israel a week and a half ago, I was taking an evening stroll by the beach in Tel Aviv, when I encountered a group of "Na Nachs," a sub-sect of the Breslover Hasidim who dance through the streets of Israel blasting music from vans, to the amusement and/or chagrin of all around. One of them handed me a booklet titled, "Simhah" ("Happiness"), which includes a selection of quotes by Rabbi Nahman of Breslov on that very subject. On the back is the following piece of wisdom, which seems to be the credo by which the Na Nachs live:

והעיקר להיות בשמחה תמיד, וישמח עצמו בכל מה שיוכל, ואפילו על-ידי מלי דשטותא לעשות עצמו כשוטה ולעשות ענייני שטות וצחוק או קפיצות וריקודים, כדי לבוא לשמחה שהוא דבר גדול מאוד.
"And the principal idea is to be always happy, and that one should apply all his ability to make himself happy, and even by means of nonsense words that make one as a fool, and to engage in foolish matters and laughter or jumping and dancing in order to come to happiness, since [happiness] is a very great thing." [Tanina 48]

I must confess that, while being happy is clearly important and we should seek those times of joy, I can't say that I think it's a good idea to strive to be always happy. We need space in our lives for other emotions and states of mind: sadness, anger, love, grieving, seriousness, and so forth. To attempt to be always happy is to court frustration.

Look forward to the happy times, but remember that we need the other times as well; that is what makes us human.