Friday, June 22, 2012

Unaffiliated, but Potentially Engaged - Korah 5772

When I was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a philosophy course that examined contemporary spirituality.  The professor, a somewhat non-conventional rabbi, Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski, emphasized that the primary struggle of religion in our day is to bring meaning to people’s lives.  Some of the questions that we ask are:

What does our tradition teach me?  
How can I apply it to my life today?  
I only have so much time and so much energy, so if I am going to pay attention to anything, it better be meaningful.  What can I possibly gain from paying attention to Jewish life?

This search for meaning is bound up in our character; it is the reason that we are called “Yisrael,” the name given to our patriarch Jacob as “one who struggled with God and with humans” in Genesis 32:29.

Our job as a Jewish community is to answer the question, “What does this mean to me?”  Yes, we must offer many points of entry.  Yes, we must be open, welcoming, and accessible.  But even with all that, we have to offer deep, serious, meaningful content alongside the opportunity to interact with God.

It’s not enough, for example, for a synagogue to offer services on a Saturday morning and merely expect that people will show up, no matter how wonderful the sermon or the cantor’s vocal pyrotechnics.  For people to come, even those who grew up going to shul, there has to be some meaning to it.

It’s not enough to encourage 7th-grade students to continue on into the Youth House Hebrew High School program after they have completed their Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  Those kids have to see that there is some value, some personal meaning in continuing their Jewish education, and their parents have to see this as well.  We have to demonstrate that value, teach that meaning.  If we do not, they are not coming back.

It’s not enough for me to stand here before you and talk about the essential mitzvot / commandments of Jewish life, like the observance of Shabbat and kashrut, without making a case for how doing so will mean something to us as individuals and the community.  Otherwise, such suggestions will not be heard.


Perhaps some of you saw the results of a demographic studythat came out two weeks ago, funded by the UJA-Federation of New York.  The conclusions were not surprising, although the Jewish newspapers spun it as big news. Among the major findings were the following: New York Jewry saw a small uptick in population, and most of the growth was in the Haredi / “ultra-Orthodox” sector.  Jews in the metropolitan area are on the one hand growing more rigorously traditional and on the other more unaffiliated, and particularly less identified with the Conservative and Reform movements.  

To be fair, this study does not represent the entire region -- only NYC and Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties.  As journalist J. J. Goldberg pointed out in the Forward, the 1.5 million Jews counted excluded about 500,000 who live in NJ and Connecticut, and those numbers skew more heavily non-Orthodox.  

(By the way, while it is true that Orthodoxy saw growth since the last study in 2002, it might be worth noting that Haredi families average something more than six children per family.  Conservative families have an average of 1.5 children.  I’ll leave the math to you.)

The biggest point of concern from my perspective, however, is the dramatic growth of the category known as “Other.”  More than a third, 37% of area Jews, identified themselves as something other than Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  Those categories include “just Jewish,” “something else,” “no religion,” non-Jewish religion (but respondent is Jewish), “traditional,” “Sephardic,” “cultural,” “secular,” and other answers.


But what do these numbers mean?  Aside from the obvious conclusion that the non-Orthodox movements are shrinking (which, by the way, has been true for several decades), the more accurate observation is as follows: We must be doing something wrong.  Why are younger people who grew up in our movement not joining synagogues or signing up their kids for Hebrew school or even identifying themselves as “Conservative” when a pollster calls?  Maybe it’s because we are expensive, and Chabad is cheap.  Maybe it’s because we stand for Israel in a world that has grown hostile to the Jewish state.  Maybe it’s because assimilation has led our people astray.  

Or maybe it is because we have not made an adequate case for why the non-Orthodox Jewish experience is meaningful.

You see, Orthodoxy has a strong, built-in meaning machine.  It’s what much of our tradition says over and over: buy into the system, accept the yoke of halakhah, and it will be good for you.  I know people who have left the non-Orthodox fold for frummer pastures because it all seems so simple: do what we tell you and it will all make sense.  Much of Orthodoxy includes with that the very simple condition of not asking questions that probe too deeply, such as, “Why are women excluded from Jewish rituals?”  Or, “Why must there be only one path to God?”

But our message, the Conservative Jewish message, reflects the richness of humanity and the complexity of the Jewish textual discourse.  Life is not black and white, and neither is rabbinic literature, or for that matter, the Torah.  There is always a dissenting opinion; there is always room for debate. The Talmud teaches us that women can be called to the Torah in synagogue and wear tallit and tefillin.  Conceptions of God by modern philosophers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel or Martin Buber are as relevant as the Torah’s multiple perspectives.

To arrive at the meaning, however, you have to dig deeper, says the Conservative movement.  It is not enough just to recite the words of tefillah / prayer quickly and accurately, it is just as important to understand them, and to re-interpret them for our times.  There is more meaning in mindfulness than in performing rituals by rote.  

I find meaning, and I hope that some of you do as well, in careful analysis, in familiarizing ourselves with these ancient texts and making them come alive. I also find meaning in asking the hard questions: “How can I believe in a God that allowed the Shoah to happen?”  “How can I accept the stories of the Torah at face value when they sometimes contradict scientific principles or archaeological evidence?”

Disagreement is an ancient tradition, and should be encouraged.  Tolerating multiple opinions was something that came out of rabbinic tradition, and is even highlighted as being “leshem shamayim,” as having a Divine purpose. As we read in Pirqei Avot, the book of the Mishnah dedicated to 2nd-century rabbinic wisdom on life and learning:

Avot 5:17:

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, סופה להתקיים; ושאינה לשם שמיים, אין סופה להתקיים.  איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי; ושאינה לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת קורח ועדתו.
Every disagreement that is for the sake of heaven will stand; every one that is not for the sake of heaven will not stand.  What is a disagreement that is for the sake of heaven? One between Hillel and Shammai.  What is a disagreement that is not? The one concerning Korah and his sympathizers.
The disagreements between Hillel and Shammai, two schools of thought referenced in the Talmud, are usually about finer points of halakhah / Jewish law.  (A classic dispute, one that I know that is taught in our Religious School, is how to light the Hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah.  Shammai says to start with 8 candles the first night, and to lose one on each successive night; Hillel says that we should start with 1 and go to 8, as we all do today.)

Korah, however, brought together a group of malcontents merely to struggle against Moses and Aaron, claiming an unfair distribution of power. In pleading his case before Moses, he said:
כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם ה'
For all of the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. (Numbers 16:3)
In other words, we are all endowed with some of God’s holiness, says Korah. What makes you guys, Moses and Aaron, so special? Rashi concurs, offering that all the Israelites stood at Mt. Sinai together, not just Moses and Aaron. Korah is advocating for a share in leadership that he thinks that he deserves.  

On some level, Korah is right: we all do have a share of the Divine.  We all stood at Mt. Sinai.  We all received the Torah.

And this is still true, by the way.  Regardless of the validity of Korah’s claim on leadership, and regardless of what synagogue we choose to attend or join or not, there is no question that we all have a share in the Torah, a share in holiness.

In today’s complex, multi-layered Jewish world, we do not necessarily disagree about the meaning of the text.  More pointedly, what we disagree about is the “how.”  How do we create holy moments?  How do we relate to Jewish law?  How do we observe?  How do we make our tradition relevant?

This is, in fact, the essential mahloqet leshem shamayim, disagreement for the sake of heaven, of our day.  This disagreement an essential part of who we are. Remember that we are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with beings Divine and human.  We challenge ourselves as much as we challenge God.

But we cannot let this dispute distract us from our holy task -- that is, bringing meaning to all those who enter this building.  As Rabbi Howard Stecker pointed out to me the other day when we were discussing this, what were the people doing while the leaders were arguing?  Did Korah’s dispute pull Moses and Aaron from their holy work?  Perhaps that is precisely why the Mishnah labels this as an un-heavenly debate.


The fifth line on the chart, the one that we do not see, is the line of the “Unaffiliated, but Potentially Engaged.”  Or maybe “Unaffiliated, but Still Seeking.”  That line is also on the way up.  It may not include all of the Unaffiliated, but it certainly includes some proportion of them.  

And that is where we come in.  Those are the ones who might enter this synagogue, and even stick around, if:

1.  If they are greeted and welcomed properly.
2.  If they make connections with others in this building.
3.  If they get a personal boost, a shot of meaning, out of the time spent at Temple Israel of Great Neck.

That third item, conveying the meaning of our brand of Jewish life, is the most difficult of all, because we set the bar higher in terms of understanding.  We dig deeper, and that is hard to convey in 140 characters or less, or even in the context of a Shabbat morning service that is already chock-full.  

But that’s where we should aim.  Let’s talk about why women and men can be understood as equal under Jewish law.  Let’s talk about how modern perspectives on the Torah add to our understanding.  Let’s teach that it’s not all or nothing, glatt or treif.  Let’s engage with those questions that bring meaning to who we are as modern people, as modern Jews.

Thoughtful analysis of Jewish ideas couched in a friendly, easily-accessible format that includes a healthy dose of spiritual openness is one thing that will bring those in that other category in. That’s where we need to focus our energies.

In the wake of the UJA study, plenty of commentators lamented the disappearing center of the New York Jewish community. I say, bring it on. The center is still here, but we have to work harder to pull others in with us. All we have to do is make it meaningful, and that invisible line of the Potentially Engaged will start to creep back down.  

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 23 June 2012.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Scouting Out Your Life - Thursday Kavvanah, 6/14/2012

The Torah tells us this week in Parashat Shelah Lekha that Moshe sent out twelve men on a reconnaissance mission to the land of Canaan.  Their assignment: to survey the situation and report back.  Ten of them return fearful and pessimistic; only two, Caleb and Joshua, are hopeful.  But the negative report had already sown concern and despair, and as a result God decides that the Israelites are simply not ready to inherit their land.

One might say that this does not work out so well for the Israelites, freed slaves who are desperate for their own homesteads.  Forty years in the desert is a punishing sentence.  But we might find here an important personal message: that occasionally we have to scout ourselves out.

Every now and then, it is essential to take stock of where you are: what have you accomplished, what is your current outlook, where are you going?  Had I not been open to that more than a dozen years ago, I would not have left engineering, ultimately to become a cantor and a rabbi.  Today I am much happier and more fulfilled where I am, and I would not have arrived here without some serious introspection.  Our post-Exodus ancestors needed to investigate themselves just as much as the Land of Israel, and while the land was found to be flowing with milk and honey, the people's state of mind warranted two generations of waiting.

Perhaps this is the time to ask yourself, "Do I need to perform some internal reconnaissance?"  Send out the scouts.  Behatzlahah!  Good luck.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Can't Get No Satisfaction? Become a Spiritual Immigrant - Behar/Behuqqotai 5772

When I was in my early twenties, I interviewed my maternal grandparents, Rose and Eddie Bass, aleihem hashalom.  They were born around 1912.  My grandfather was happy to tell his story, which was, ironically, not too happy – his father had left his sick mother in charge of five boys, and my grandfather was taken at age 3 by the State of Massachusetts and placed in a foster home with a Jewish farmer outside of Boston.  Gramps spoke very fondly about the Slotnick family who took him in, his years on the farm, his pet cats, driving cars as a teenager, and so forth.
My grandmother, however, who had immigrated to the United States from what is today the Ukraine at age 8, kept trying to back out of the interview. “Why do you want to hear this?” she said.  “We were poor, we were miserable, and the non-Jews were horrible to us.”  As far as she was concerned, there was nothing to tell about her childhood.  She was glad that she had left the old country, but life was hard in America as well.  She never looked back.  

And yet, when I asked her about her teenage years, about meeting my grandfather, she would light up for a moment and give me a charming memory: “All the boys were after me,” she said.  “I didn’t like Eddie at first, but he grew on me.”  They were married in 1936, during the Great Depression, and were together for 66 years before my grandmother passed away in 2002.

Their lives were hard, marked by poverty, loss, and suffering.  I recorded some truly astounding stories.  But they were happy with what little they had.  And whatever small successes they had in life they relished, perhaps because they were achieved with their own hands.
When we read the Torah this morning, there was an extended aliyah of curses. That's right, good 'ol fashioned biblical curses.  You know the sort – if you don't walk in the way of the Lord, your enemies will conquer your land and scatter you amongst the nations and you will be desolate and hungry and barren and so forth.

Amongst these curses is one that I think speaks to where we are today, one of the greatest curses of contemporary America.  “You shall eat and not be satisfied.”  (Lev. 26:26).  Ladies and gentlemen, thank God, we have more today to eat than any previous generation.  When my mother was growing up, if you didn’t finish what was on your plate, my grandmother went into panic mode.  By comparison, my children, thank God again, are surrounded by food, clothes, many, many gizmos that make a cacaphony of noises (such that Abba tries hard not to replace batteries when possible).  They have a warm, loving home, and lack nothing.

We “eat” better today, here and now, than in any previous generation.  And “eat” here is in quotes, because we are blessed with many kinds of abundance, many things that were unavailable to our grandparents:

How many of us...
… Have more vehicles than drivers in the household?
… Could donate half of what’s in our closets and still have plenty of clothes to wear?
… Have the luxury of free time for overseas vacations?
We are healthy and comfortable.  Barukh haShem.  And yet, we all know that no matter how much we have, there always seems to be something else that we want or “need”.

In 1965, a mere forty-four years after my grandmother immigrated to the United States, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones released a musical statement about satisfaction.  Mr. Jagger’s complaint was, as I'm sure you know, that he couldn't get any.  The song is a statement about class, about society, about wants vs. needs (and of course it's got a great beat and the kids can still dance to it).
Satisfaction has always been very hard to come by, but somehow, I think we are worse off in this regard than our grandparents were.  In this Goldene Medina (Yiddish for “Golden Land”) of plenty, satisfaction is in shorter supply than it ever was.  Perhaps this is an innate human reality.
Last week, Rabbi Stecker mentioned the opinion piece in the New York Times about the culture of outsourcing.  We don’t have the time to take care of all of the things that we used to do, so we pay somebody else to do them, and then must work more to pay for all of the things that we have outsourced.  For sure, today’s economy boasts hundreds of new types of employees -- life coaches, dating coaches, wedding planners, hired dancers for parties, wantologists (who help people determine what they really, really want) -- but what have we lost? The author of the article, Arlie Russell Hochschild, an emerita professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, observes the following:
“Focusing attention on the destination, we detach ourselves from the small — potentially meaningful — aspects of experience. Confining our sense of achievement to results, to the moment of purchase, so to speak, we unwittingly lose the pleasure of accomplishment, the joy of connecting to others and possibly, in the process, our faith in ourselves.”
We are so anxious about where we are going, says Dr. Hochschild, that we forget to enjoy where we are.  While we are busy farming out our daily tasks to professionals, the small successes of life go unnoticed, the holy moments unsavored, and the satisfaction of personal accomplishment unrealized.

Our grandparents had far fewer choices than we do.  Given that we are all pressed for time and faced with an inordinate number of options as to how to devote it, how do we find our way through life in such a way that maximizes our satisfaction?

This is, you might say, the 2012 reflex of the Rolling Stones’ very prescient question, nearly half a century ago.  

Well, I have an idea.  When the lack of satisfaction gets unbearable, it's time to leave. Emigrate.  Pick yourself up and move, spiritually, to a different place.

You can do it.  Some of us in this room are physical immigrants – some of us picked ourselves up and left our homes due to the various upheavals of the 20th century – from Hitler's atrocities to Khomeini's revolution.  And those of us who are not immigrants are necessarily the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants.

But to immigrate spiritually is just as difficult, and yet there is a precedent in Jewish history: when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago, the Jewish people immigrated spiritually from one way of worshiping God to another; our prayers today, specifically the Amidah but really all of them, replace the sacrifices that our ancestors offered in the Temple.  Instead of a priesthood offering the best of our flocks to God, we as individuals offer the best of our lips. Sometimes we in this building debate very subtle changes in what we do here in services; imagine replacing the whole system with something else entirely!

So how do you move to a place of satisfaction?  Maimonides, the most influential single rabbi in Jewish history, suggests the following:
צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם שֶׁיְּכַוַּן כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו, כֻּלָּם, כְּדֵי לֵידַע אֶת הַשֵּׁם בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בִּלְבָד; וְיִהְיֶה שִׁבְתּוֹ וְקוּמוֹ וְדִבּוּרוֹהַכֹּל לְעֻמַּת זֶה הַדָּבָר
A person should direct his heart and the totality of his behavior to one goal, becoming aware of God.  The way one rests, rises, and speaks should all be directed to this end. (Mishneh TorahHilkhot De’ot 3:2)
Maimonides gets even more specific: eating, sleeping, relationships, and every single action that we undertake should not be ONLY for the pleasure of doing so, but rather that all should serve the higher goal of making it possible for us to be holy vessels.  That is, we can and should take pleasure from our daily activities, but pleasure is not the end goal.  Judaism has never endorsed asceticism; on the contrary, it is a mitzvah to live well within a sacred framework.  But everything we do has a holy purpose: to make it possible to get in touch with God.  That is our bottom line, if you will.
This is spiritual immigration.  Maimonides wants us to re-orient our thinking, to make us conceive of our actions differently.  If we can successfully immigrate to this mode of thought, we have a much better chance of being satisfied, and to devote our energy to the Jewish values of learning, of repairing the world, of seeking peace between people, of treating each other respectfully in all our dealings.  
We need to think like spiritual immigrants.  We need to guard against the possibility that abundance, whatever form it takes, might breed apathy or discontent.  We need to stay “hungry” for challenge, for spiritual exploration, growth, and ongoing satisfaction.

My grandmother did not want to talk about her experiences, because she thought that her poor childhood reflected badly on her or made us uncomfortable.  As one who had come to this country to seek a better life, her perspective came from having found satisfaction in achievement.  That was the story that I wanted wanted her to tell me, and eventually she did.  Most of us do not face the physical challenges that she faced; we must therefore take up the spiritual challenge.

If we re-orient ourselves to focus on how to be holy vessels, to see our actions as serving this purpose, we might be able to manage successfully the challenge of want vs. need, and perhaps get some satisfaction.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, May 19, 2012.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mystery and Power: The Question Marks of Jewish Life - Behaalotekha 5772

My odyssey through Judaism has been peppered with question marks. Our tradition is one of questions.  Everything can be challenged -- that is the Jewish way, the rabbinic tradition of the last two millennia. I would suggest that the most appealing feature, and indeed the central tenet of our intellectual history is the openness of our tradition to what is unknown and can therefore be discussed.  All the more so, what we do not know, what is not concrete, lends to the mystery and power of Jewish tradition.

In 1987, when I was seventeen, I visited Israel for the first time.  I was there for eight weeks on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, where we studied Jewish history from ancient times until the present, visiting relevant sites all over Israel.  I matured in many ways that summer -- living away from home for the first time, in a foreign country -- and grew in my relationship with Judaism and the Jewish State.

But the moment that I remember more clearly than any other that summer was my first visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.  I remember approaching the ancient rocks, feeling the July heat radiating forth from the wall, and I remember the tears.  They came from deep down inside, uninvited, unprovoked.  I had this moment of resonance, as if my connection to the past had drawn them up from within me.  I cried and cried and cried.  I looked around me, and all my friends were experiencing the same thing.  Even the tough guys among us (although I can’t say that I counted myself among that group).

Although I may not have been able to express this at the time, what we all experienced at that moment was the power and mystery of Judaism; the qesher / connection with our ancient national stories, our collective relationship with the central historical site where our ancestors worshiped, and where, we are told, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, once dwelt.

Looking back, it occurs to me now that those tears came from the depths described in Psalm 130: Mimaamaqim qeratikha Adonai.  From the depths I cry to You, God.  I recently encountered this verse while preparing for an adult-learning course that I am currently teaching in Great Neck on the Zohar, the 13th-century Spanish compendium of Jewish mystical tradition  These are not the depths of life, says the Zohar, but the depths of the soul, because that is the place from where true tefillah, true prayer comes.

What makes Judaism continue to be a relevant, living tradition is that many of us still occasionally feel the power in Judaism.  We might feel it when reading the words of the Torah or while reciting tefillot.  We may relate to the chain of tradition across generations when fulfilling rituals that punctuate Jewish life.  We might feel the pride and power in connection with the modern State of Israel, the miraculous product of 2,000 years of wandering and yearning.  Even as urbane, sophisticated people, what brings us back to the Kotel, to the synagogue, and the Passover seder and so forth is the desire to feel that mystery and power.  

This is in fact one of the themes that ran through today’s parashah, Behaalotekha.  During their decades of wandering in the desert, the Israelites needed to be reminded from time to time of God’s mystery and power. Where did they find it?  It was right in the center of their encampment -- the mishkan, the portable altar and sanctuary that is described in overwhelming detail in the latter chapters of Exodus.  The mishkan contained the aron, the Ark that carried the tablets that Moshe received on Mt. Sinai (you know, the same one that was featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark).  

We read today that when the Israelites were in camp, there was a cloud that settled over the altar, and that cloud became something like fire at night.  That must have been reassuring; if you ever had a doubt, all you had to do, night or day, was look in the direction of the mishkan, and there was your proof that God was with you.

Well, OK.  So let’s face it: we don’t have visible reminders like this today.  Quite the opposite: everything that happens in our world is explainable according to scientific principles, logic and rationality.  Unnatural, Divine clouds that burn at night don’t appear in your building’s air shaft.  (And if one did, you would call the super.)

Some of you know that before I became a cantor and a rabbi, I worked as an engineer.  I used to design parts of petrochemical plants: pumps, heat exchangers, boiler systems, relief valves, exciting, inspiring stuff like that.  I am by nature a scientific person, a lover of logic and the laws of physics, and as such it is usually difficult for me to get swept away by the mystery and power that our ancestors must have perceived.  I know that I’m not alone here; these are skeptical times.  The fastest-growing religion in America is “none.” More and more of us, Jews and non-Jews, seem not to be actively seeking a connection with God, at least in public.

And yet, every now and then, like my experience at the Kotel, we have those transcendent moments, the moments that open up the depths of the soul and allow us to feel the resonance of ancient wisdom.  

That is exactly where we as Jews need to be.  We have to be explicit about the fact that our stock-in-trade as a synagogue, as a sacred community, is a potential glimpse of the Divine.  This is not only a place to socialize, or to enjoy the qiddush, although these things are of course important and valuable in creating connections among us.  And though part of running a synagogue is the mundane sphere of managing budgets, personnel, maintenance and so forth, its raison d’etre is something far more elusive, and far more lofty.  It’s about people trying to bring some holiness into their lives.  Ideally, this is what synagogues do.

Ladies and gentlemen, many of us live lives that are stretched to the breaking point.  Our waking hours are filled with family, work, recreation if we are lucky, and we are all running a sleep deficit.  We must constantly make choices about where to focus our energies, choices that wear us down and spread our attention too thin.  What is it that will keep people coming back to Judaism?  Is it services?  Bar/bat mitzvah?  Sermons?  Well, maybe not.

What will maintain our connection to Judaism in the future is our ability to make this congregation a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community, to offer something that you cannot get anywhere else: the opportunity to interact with God, to get a peek behind the veil of the ordinary to what lies beyond.  

What does the word qadosh mean?  We think it means “holy” (qodesh = holiness; qiddush = sanctification; qaddish = being holy, etc.).  But what it really means is “set apart.”  (Some here might know that the opposite of qodesh is hol,  literally, “sand” i.e. that which is commonplace, mundane.  A synagogue, and the qehillah qedoshah / sacred community that resides therein, are set apart from the madness of life outside this building -- our family commitments, our schools, our co-op boards, and so forth.  This is a place where we can have those moments that make Judaism special, where we can share the quiet moments of personal prayer, and sing together with gusto.

We read a passage in the Torah this morning that I remember seeing as a young boy, and which continues to intrigue me to this day.  After describing the cloud over the mishkan, the Torah says the following (and this may sound familiar):
וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה:  קוּמָה יְהוָה, וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ, וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.  וּבְנֻחֹה, יֹאמַר:  שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Vayhi binsoa ha-aron, vayomer Moshe: Qumah, Adonai, veyafutsu oyevekha, veyanusu mesan’ekha mipanekha.  // Uvnuho yomar, shuvah Adonai rivevot alfei Yisrael.”

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You!  
And when it halted, he would say: Return, O Lord, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands.” (Numbers 10:35-36)

Although the text here is curious (it’s about strength, rather than holiness; perhaps those two things were more closely related in ancient times), what is really fascinating is how it appears in the Torah: it is set off by two upside-down Hebrew letters, two nuns.  (You can see this in the Hertz humash on p. 613.  Coincidence?) This sort of typographic trick does not occur anywhere else in the Torah, nor does any other kind of punctuation.  An ancient editor (possibly God), felt the need to graphically show us that these two verses are different, set apart.  We do not know why or how this appeared in the text identified this way, but for me that only heightens the mystery.  

To this day, we recite these words when we take the Torah out and when we put it away, hinting at the mystery, the big Question, to which those nuns point.  

What makes our stories appealing from one generation to the next is not their concrete nature, but the ambiguities that allow for reinterpretation in every age.  The Torah is not about the period; it’s about the question mark -- in fact, myriads of question marks -- the difficulties detected and explored by rabbinic tradition -- from the Mishnah and Gemara to Rashi and Ibn Ezra and the subsequent centuries of hermeneutic possibilities.  All of Jewish life flows from the question mark.

Maimonides, the 12th-century Spanish rationalist, rejected the wild speculations of qabbalah regarding the nature of God.  And yet he still maintained the mystery by denying that God has a physical form (The piyyut Yigdal, often recited at the end of synagogue services as a closing hymn, is based on Maimonides' 13 principles of faith, and includes the line: Ein lo demut ha-guf, ve-eino guf - God has neither a form nor a body).  God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm,” which we all know from the Pesah seder, are metaphors, says Rambam; the reality of God is elusive.  Martin Buber, the early 20th-century Jewish philosopher, went even further: God is so beyond description as to be completely unconditional.  Unlike objects or beings, our relationship with God is beyond any possible limit or boundary or presupposition.  That is mystery and power, indeed.

We are the guardians of those ancient mysteries, the inheritors of centuries of rabbinic inquiry and debate.  And therein lies the secret that will maintain Judaism: this is ours.  This rich, varied tradition offers so much to us today, and to our children and grandchildren tomorrow.  That is what being a qehillah qedoshah is all about.  Ledor vador -- from generation to generation -- we pass on that sense of wonder.

It may be that there is no pillar of cloud or fire today, hovering over the mishkan.  But we do not necessarily need to look for this kind of miraculous occurrence; we can be rationalists like Maimonides, and still maintain the mystery and power of Judaism, Jewish life and learning. By doing so, by seeing ourselves as a sacred community that draws on this mystery, we will enable all who enter this synagogue to plumb the depths of the soul, and thereby reach higher.

Rabbi Seth Adelson