Friday, May 22, 2015

The True Value of Torah - Shavuot 5775

A curious news story crossed my computer screen last week. My rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which some of you may know that I truly love, has been in a difficult financial position for some time, and has decided to sell off some assets for the sake of easing their budget deficit. Among the items that they are selling is a treasure from JTS’ vaunted Rare Book Room: a fragment of an original Gutenberg bible.

It’s eight leaves of one of the first books ever printed by Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, in the year 1455. This fragment was donated to JTS in 1922 by the Schiff family, Jewish-American financiers of the early 20th century, who purchased it from a rare-book dealer who broke the original copy into pieces to sell it for more money. This particular fragment is the Latin translation of the Book of Esther, and it’s in excellent condition. Sotheby’s expects that it will fetch between $500,000 and $700,000.

Dr. David Kraemer, the librarian of JTS and a former Talmud professor of mine, says that selling the item is not a real loss to JTS because, since JTS is primarily focused on Jewish studies, these pages from a Christian translation are not of much use in the JTS library, and that this fragment has more or less been sitting on a shelf, “collecting dust” for more than 90 years.

The story is interesting, but I think it opens up a wider question that is entirely appropriate for Shavuot: What is the value of Torah? (And, just to be clear here, I’m not limiting the discussion to merely THE Torah, i.e. the five books of Moses, but all the Tanakh and all the interpretation that flows from it).

When I think of studying Torah, which is, according to the Mishnah, the most important mitzvah of all 613, I don’t think of dusty scholars in rare book rooms handling ancient texts with tweezers. On the contrary: you can go into any Judaica shop in the world and purchase brand-spankin’-new editions of the Tanakh with contemporary commentaries, which will be sitting right alongside the ancient and medieval interpreters, volumes of the Talmud and midrash and halakhic works and bookshelves upon bookshelves of perspectives on Jewish text, all reprinted and reprinted. There are, as the Talmudic maxim goes, shiv’im panim laTorah, 70 faces to the Torah, meaning that there are many ways of reading every word, every verse. But really, we have only yet uncovered maybe 28 of those 70. We have not even found half of the perspectives on Torah.

We continue to interpret for today. The Torah is a living document, both a testament to our historical roots as well as a contemporary perspective on our lives. While we in the Conservative movement have traditionally understood that to mean contemporary approaches to halakhah (e.g. As when the movement permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat, even though doing so is a clear violation of the long-settled traditional halakhah / laws of Shabbat observance), there are other, less circumscribed ways to read Torah for today. These ways may be far more valuable to the average Jew than academic discussions about the details of halakhic observance.

So let me give you an example of the real value of Torah. Last night at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, Danny Mishkin and I spoke about an idea that should be obvious when we are talking about Torah: immediate relevance.

Why is this important? Because we are living in a world of limited time, limited focus, and the ubiquitous sentiment that if it’s not relevant and/or beneficial to me, I’m not going to invest my time in it. It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that each of us has only 140 characters in which to make our point, but it’s not too far from the truth. Long form is getting to be a harder and harder sell, particularly to our children. And this is a challenge for Jewish tradition, particularly for tefillah / prayer.

But it is a challenge we must face boldly. Times change, and Torah has never been left behind; it is an eternal tradition. (By the way, Gutenberg and others were printing books for a couple of decades before the Jews decided to accept printed works. The first Jewish printed books were volumes of the Talmud produced in Italy in the 1470s, but we soon got over our skepticism about the new technology. That is happening once again as part of the paradigm shift which we discussed last night. Judaism is catching up with the rest of the world. Ein kol hadash tahat hashemesh, says Qohelet. There is nothing entirely new under the sun.)

Here is an item of immediate relevance, one which we discussed on Saturday evening. We study Torah because it helps us make decisions and guide our lives (Pirqei Avot 1:14):
אם אין אני לי, מי לי; וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני; ואם לא עכשיו, אימתיי.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Take a moment to reflect on these words.

What does it mean to us? Is it about the balance of personal commitments vs. communal contributions? Is it about trying to make a living in a dog-eat-dog world? Is it about balancing family and work? Is it about the natural give-and-take of human relationships? Is it about managing one’s anger? Is it about monetary charity, or donating your time?

Each of us might see something different in this mishnah. But I would suggest that this is one of hundreds, or maybe thousands of quotables in Jewish tradition that would be worth keeping on a mental index card, and pulling out whenever you are faced with the challenge of choosing yourself over others, or vice versa. And these decisions come up every day, many times a day for all of us.

Hillel’s words are a mantra of balance, of figuring out where to put our energy and focus in this time-poor, over-stressed, over-stuffed world. This piece of wisdom is immediately relevant. I can use it to improve myself and my life, particularly if I refer back to it in the moment of need.

You cannot put a dollar amount on any word or page of Torah. It is truly priceless. OK, so some pages are worth more than others. But it is possible to glean personal meaning and yes, value from every page of commentary, halakhic analysis, midrash, and so forth.

This is the true value of Torah; it reflects back to us who we are, and compels us to change our behavior for the better.

So, while JTS might be selling off rarities for a few quick bucks, the real worth of those eight leaves, which tell the story of the Jewish woman who challenges authority, maintains her identity in a potentially hostile, non-Jewish environment, and leads her people out of danger, is not to be found at Sotheby’s. The intrinsic value is not the impression of the Latin words by the world’s first printing press. It is in the content, the meaning, and the lessons that we learn from Esther and Mordecai and the Jews of ancient Persia.

What makes Torah valuable is that every word means something different in each person’s mouth, mind, heart and hand, and that it brings those things together to improve our lives and repair this broken world. Furthemore, what makes it truly priceless is that it is completely ours, and every perspective it gives us is true. As we chant after a passage of the Torah is read in the synagogue:
… אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּורַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עולָם נָטַע בְּתוכֵנוּ.
… asher natan lanu Torat emet, vehayyei olam nata betokheinu.
… who gave us the Torah of truth, planting within us life eternal.
Our Torah of truth gives us eternity as a people because Torah itself is eternal, and as long as we continue to (in the words of Ben Bag Bag, Pirqei Avot 5:24) “turn it over and over,” we too will continue to reap its benefits forever. It is both immediately relevant and timeless. And that is its true value.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, the first day of Shavuot, May 24, 2015.)

The Desert Still Speaks to Us - Bemidbar 5775

One night in 1999, while I was living in the small Israeli city of Arad, I took a hike in the desert by the light of the full moon with a few friends. We had no flashlights. Maybe one of us had a cell phone. But that was truly one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever taken (and I’m an avid hiker, so that’s saying a lot), over the rolling hills of Judea and through a wadi, a dry riverbed. The moon provided ample light, once our eyes were adjusted, and I had the sense of ancient-ness, the primitive nature of this moonlit walk, in which the desert landscape stood out in bold relief against the dark blue shadows.

Was it dangerous? Maybe. Foolhardy? Probably. We had been given clear directions by our madrikh, a fearless young man from Arad named Yoni, who was skilled in guiding hiking, climbing, and camping trips of all sorts. But Yoni could not join us that night, so we were just a bunch of naive Americans twenty-somethings marching silently through the eerily powerful light, quietly challenging ourselves and hoping that nobody tripped and fell or got stung by a scorpion or ambushed by one of the seven remaining Arabian leopards in Israel.

No such horror occurred. But it was a transformational experience, one which I will probably never be able to repeat.

The desert speaks to me. Really, it speaks to all of us.

We started a new book of the Torah today, the fourth book: Bemidbar Sinai (in English, it is Numbers, which is a very poor title, since the numbers are really only found in the opening chapters. Then it gets much more interesting). Bemidbar is entirely set in the desert, as the Israelites are between the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival in Israel. The story of our wandering in the desert is as essential to who we are as the Exodus. We are a desert people. We received the Torah in the desert. Our patriarchs lived in the desert. Our prophets received their prophecy in the desert.

In the desert, you need stories to connect you to civilization. You need to connect where you have come from to where you are going. This is an essential part of who we are as Jews - we need those connective stories, which bring us together, which keep us committed to who we are.

The Torah is a desert document. Not only did we receive it in the Sinai desert, but we also actually had to leave the fleshpots of Egypt (see Exodus 16:3), the lush green of the Nile delta, and prepare ourselves as a people by purifying our physical and spiritual selves for three days in the desert before receiving it.

The story of Moses concludes in the desert; Moshe Rabbeinu, our Teacher, never enters the Fertile Crescent. And the prophets who follow him are desert-dwellers; Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the whole gang drew all of their prophecy from the power of the wilderness. For example, the haftarah we read on the Shabbat after Tish’ah Be’Av, known as Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, includes the following (Isaiah 40:3, Etz Hayim p. 1033):
קוֹל קוֹרֵא--בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה'; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵא-לֹהֵינוּ.
Qol qore bamidbar: panu derekh Adonai; yashru ba’aravah mesillah leloheinu.
A voice rings out: “Clear in the desert / A road for the Lord! / Level in the wilderness / A highway for our God!
And what does this Heavenly voice say? (Is. 40:6-8)
כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה... יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.
Kol habasar hatzir, vekhol hasdo ketzitz hasadeh… Yavesh hatzir, naval hatzitz, udvar Eloheinu yaqum le’olam.
“All flesh is grass / All its goodness like flowers of the field… Grass withers, flowers fade - / But the word of our God is always fulfilled.”
What I felt as I was walking through the desert in the moonlight, listening to that quiet wind, was the eternality of that scene. The desert is the same as it always has been, as it always will be. Just as the desert is eternal, so too is God eternal, so too is the Torah eternal, so too is the burning fire of desert heat; the unconsumed, flaming bush that Moses found in the desert is still burning. A hint of it is in that light up above the ark.

You may know that the logo of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the primary rabbinical school and teaching institution of the Conservative movement, is a stylistic rendering (!) of the burning bush.

One idea that this symbol suggests is the eternal nature of God’s revelation, of God’s voice coming through to us. Our movement grew out of a group of 19th-century German-Jewish scholars known as the Positive-Historical school, and among the principles they espoused was the idea that history is an essential player in Judaism, that our traditions, our customs, our law - in short, our Torah - have continued to develop and change throughout the centuries. We have never read our text devoid of its historical context. And we continue to hear God’s voice, in our contemporary context, as we strive to interpret the Torah for today, acknowledging that although the ancient voice still comes from the desert, the rest of the world has changed

As contemporary Jews, with an eye toward history and the continuous unfolding of revelation, we continue to draw on the inspiration of Abraham, who pitched his tent near Be’ersheva, and welcomed in visiting angels in the desert. We continue to learn from the complaints and misbehavior of our ancestors as they trudged across the wilderness for forty years, driving Moses to the point of anger and thereby denying him from ever leaving the desert.

Once again, Isaiah tells us (12:3):
וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם-מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה.
Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’ayanei hayeshu’a.
Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.
That is, the desert wells, from which spiritual nourishment continues to flow.

And hence the need for those ancient stories. Without our desert connection, we would be rootless. Hence the power of the State of Israel for us today. This is, perhaps, why David Ben Gurion insisted that he be buried in Sde Boqer, south of Be’ersheva, deep into the Negev.

Another brief memory: When I visited Israel for the first time at age 17, I remember being on a tiyyul in the desert south, hiking through Wadi Tzin, just south of Sde Boqer. Our teacher told us that this was the place where Moses struck the rock in anger to placate the Israelites, who were dying of thirst. I was positively blown away. How cool is that?

Did it really happen that way? I cannot say; I wasn’t there. But the very presence of this story, the residual vibrations after thousands of years, crept into my soul and have lodged there since. The desert stories are timeless and powerful.

And here’s another: not far from that location, at the “Bedouin tent” lodging for tour groups called “Khan HaShayarot,” Danny Mishkin and I took our Youth House group outside of the camp under the stars when we were there last year for a ma’ariv service in the desert that blew them all away. The desert is powerful, mystical; it resonates with stories. Its very emptiness enables you to hear yourself in the quiet wind.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, taught that the reason the Torah was given in the desert is because we can only merit the true acquisition of Torah when we have canceled all of our attachment to material things.

That is why we stay up late tomorrow (Saturday) night for our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, a night of dedication to our history, our textual heritage. The first night of Shavuot is a time that we put our physical desires aside to listen for that still, small voice emanating from the desert, calling to us from the wilderness.

Shavuot is not just a celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is a joyous time, on which we eat sweet, rich dairy foods to recall the sweetness of Torah and its connection to the land flowing with milk and honey. But it is also a sober festival, a reflective stretching of the mind to reconnect with our national tales, to bring us back, in some sense, to Mt. Sinai.

I hope that you will be joining us as we consider new perspectives on the Torah, which will connect our ancient words with who we are today. Come with us as we return, just for an evening, to the moonlit desert, to the burning bush, and to our unfolding tradition.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, May 23, 2015.)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Responding With All Your Might: A (Post-) Lag Ba'Omer Thought

Lag Ba'Omer*, the 33rd day of the counting of the omer (the 49-day period from Pesah to Shavuot), marks a joyous occasion in the midst of an anguished period of Jewish history. The Talmud (Bavli Yevamot 62b) tells us that this period was marked by a plague in the 2nd century CE which took the lives of 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Only a handful survived, among them Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, considered by some to be the father of Jewish mysticism. As such, Lag Ba'Omer has become in recent years a celebration of Shim'on bar Yohai: tens of thousands of Haredim march from Tzefat, in northern Israel, to Mount Meron, where bar Yohai is traditionally thought to be buried, and light bonfires to honor his legacy.

... holiday is known as Lag b ' Omer . The mourning practices of the omer

I was once at the grave of Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, not on Lag Ba'Omer, and experienced there the most peculiar behavior that I have ever witnessed in the context of tefillah / Jewish prayer. It was an otherwise ordinary afternoon, and there was a standard pick-up minhah (brief afternoon service) going on nearby, attended by a handful of guys who seemed to be from the same Haredi sect.

They arrived at the end, and one of them began saying the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer recited by those who have recently suffered a loss or are recalling the annual observance of a relative's passing. They came to the congregational response, usually similarly intoned in a spoken-word form - no music, marking the mourner's sadness. And then something truly wacky happened: all of the assembled began to SHOUT WITH ALL THEIR MIGHT, "Amen! Yehei shemei rabba mevarakh le'alam ul'alemei alemaya!" "May God's great name be praised throughout all time!"

I think I jumped. I had never heard anything like that.

A few years later, as I was studying liturgy seriously at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I encountered a real gem of Talmudic wisdom, and experienced a brief moment of revelation (Bavli Shabbat 119b):
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו ־ קורעין לו גזר דינו
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: One who says, "Amen! Yehei shemei rabba mevarakh..." with all his strength, any [negative Divine] decree against him is torn up.
In other words, if you scream this line when responding to a mourner, you get a whole lot of Heavenly credit, and a guaranteed place in the world to come. I realized, in retrospect, that this is exactly what was going on during that otherwise ordinary minhah: they were taking this piece of wisdom literally.

I do not necessarily recommend shouting in synagogue. Depending on the congregation, the reactions by others might vary from discomfort to shock to bodily removing you from the building. But we might want to think, not only as we respond to those in mourning but throughout our tefillah, about Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, about the bonfires of the soul, and about pouring all our might into forming those words of prayer.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

* "Lag", ל''ג, is not a word but a number: the Hebrew letter lamed has a numerical value of 30 and the gimmel a value of 3.