Monday, July 20, 2015

Three Journeys, or, How I Learned to Find the Love in Jewish Text - Mattot-Masei 5775

I think that Mattot-Mas’ei is an ideal parashah for moving on, because (a) it's the end of Bemidbar, and (b) it's about journeys, especially Mas'ei. And so, as Judy and I are busy packing to go (the second most-stressful lifecycle event, BTW), I have been thinking quite a bit about my own journey, and how it fits into the context of our people.

There are different kinds of journeys: those of the body, those of the mind, and those of the heart. This parashah is about all three: the physical journey of the Israelites through the desert, and the mental journey, that of the mind, as they receive the Torah and struggle to live it and learn it; and the spiritual journey, that of the heart, as they endeavor to build a relationship, a berit / covenant, with their God.

392: Route of Israelites in the desert

A midrash about Mas'ei, about the journeys from place to place that we read today, where all the places are identified, is as follows. God recounts the names of each of these places to remind the Israelites where they were and what transpired along the way: “Here you needed water; here you were ill; and so forth. And from this we learn that we, as Israelites and as Jews, take note of our journeys.

Because we are all on a type of journey. We never really stop moving, even when we put down tent stakes and never pull up the tent for decades.

The journey is the interesting part. “Life,” as John Lennon once put it, “is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.” I never expected to become a rabbi or a cantor. I never expected to be living on Long Island. I never expected to move to Pittsburgh. I never expected to be married to a ballet dancer who speaks Hungarian. I never expected to have a son who lives in Israel most of the year. I never expected to get to know all of you so well. I did not plan for any of these things. But they have all made my life very, very rich.

When I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, I thought that the most important type of journey was that of the mind. In the seven years that I spent there, I put a sizeable spike on my knowledge curve in the area of Torah, halakhah, Jewish history, ritual, critical approaches to the Tanakh, etc.

But one thing that I have learned in my eight years here, and arguably the most important thing, is that the journey of the heart is much more important. The spiritual journey is the one we need to emphasize more.

There is a school of thought out there that believes that rabbis ultimately tend to give the same sermon over and over and over: the sermon that he or she needs to hear.

And it took me a few years, but I think I discovered the sermon that I needed to hear. In fact, you can very much trace my development as a rabbi from the first sermon I gave here, on my interview weekend in March of 2007. It was Parashat Ki Tissa, and I gave what I now understand to be a very heady sermon - an analysis of the language of the episode of the Molten Calf that was rooted in a close reading of one of the verses of the parashah.

Over the last eight years I have learned that it’s nice to appeal to the mind, and sometimes a rabbi has to do that. But an appeal to the heart is much more valuable, much more welcome, and much more likely to inspire people (i.e. you). I can give the most sophisticated, deep, self-impressed reading of Torah verses, and it might be greeted with a shrug at qiddush. But I have found that when I demonstrate that the Torah can be interpreted to help us live better lives as Jews and as people, I find that the message is far more likely to be heard, understood, and appreciated.

So, for example, looking at Parashat Mattot, which we read (earlier) today, we see that it opens with a detailed explanation of some of the laws surrounding vows, nedarim. Much of the detail of the law is lost on us today; most of it is irrelevant, some of it is offensive to modern people, and furthermore, we nullify personal vows in advance on Yom Kippur when we recite Kol Nidrei as a community.

However, you might make the case that the overarching message of the passage on vows is about the power of words: how they have the potential to do good or to do harm, depending on how they are used. What comes out of our mouths should be holy - it should build relationships and not destroy them. Our words should be pure, powerful and carefully considered to make sure that they are as effective as possible in repairing the world. To do anything less is to insult our God-given ability to communicate, to besmirch the sanctity of human relationships.

And that type of appeal to the heart is far more attractive, homiletically-speaking, then the most well-executed midrashic analysis that is delivered entirely divorced from the realities of our lives. The Torah is meant to teach us lessons about how to live better, not to be analyzed dispassionately in slices arrayed on sterile glass slides.

And that is the sermon that I needed to hear. JTS, bless her soul, is the Jewish ivory tower. I learned to think critically about Jewish text. I learned to review and interpret textual oddities by checking extant contemporary manuscripts. I learned about the evolution of Jewish law and custom through the lens of Jewish history. I learned to read and interpret high-minded Jewish philosophers like Buber and Heschel. I learned to read Akkadian in the original cuneiform. In short, I took a journey of the mind.

But what I did not learn is what I feel the Jewish world, and particularly the Conservative Jewish world needs. And that is a wee bit more heart. I was preparing to be too much the Scarecrow and not enough of the Tin Man.

But Rabbis, and Jews in general, should be talking about love. We should be talking about repairing the world. We should be demonstrating that our tradition teaches us how to live in a way that is better for us as individuals, better for us as a people, and better for the world as a whole. Because it is. We are Or Lagoyim, a light unto the nations. We have the potential to bring everybody the message that our bottom line is not measured in dollars or in trinkets or in how many degrees we have acquired, but in the quality of the relationships we build, within and without. As Paul McCartney once put it, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” (Can you tell I'm a Beatles fan?) That’s what mitzvot are all about. We have the potential to increase the love in this world by acting in it, by reaching out beyond ourselves.

When we study Torah, we acknowledge that there are shiv’im panim latorah, seventy faces to the Torah, that is, seventy ways (at least) of understanding every passage, every word, every story, every mitzvah, and so forth. (OK, so maybe not seventy, but that’s just rabbinic-speak for “a whole bunch.”)

There are many ways of understanding our foundational text, and the way we approach this text, referred to rabbinically as “Talmud Torah,” we must take as axiomatic the idea that no single approach is the lone correct understanding. Talmud Torah includes the seventy faces. And among those faces are those of the heart and those of the mind.

So while it makes sense to study Torah from both the rational perspective, the cool, removed, just-the-facts-ma’am position, as well as from the spiritual perspective. We should not merely ask, “What does this mean?” but also, “What does this mean to us?” And this takes a whole lot more work. So while the standard commentators (Rashi, Ramban, ibn Ezra, etc.) usually try to resolve issues within the text by working through the challenging language, the midrashic approach seeks to humanize the text by telling stories. And Hasidic tales tend to go even further by seeking the personal angle - how might we learn from this to emulate the acts of piety and selflessness of which Hasidic lore often speaks.

It took me a long time to figure out that the journey of the heart is where it’s at, since my own inclination is to be analytical. (If my wife would let me I'd be going for my 6th degree in something...anything... I love that Ivory Tower.) But Talmud Torah for the modern audience has to hit us where we live: to answer questions like this:
  • What do I want my children to learn about life?
  • How do I make a difference in this world?
  • Why is this world so much more complex than it used to be, and how do I navigate the complexity?
And so forth.

These are all essential questions that we might often overlook if they are not staring us in the face. And that’s why the most important mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah (see Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1, etc.). You can light all the Hanukkah candles you want; you can daven with passion while fasting on Yom Kippur; you can gorge yourself on matzah and sit in the Sukkah and make sure your boys are circumcized and your doorposts have mezuzot and on and on, but until you commit to learning the precious words of the Jewish bookshelf, you cannot fully appreciate the richness and value of our tradition. When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.

The Beit Midrash

Bottom line is that I learned here in Great Neck the value of the third, and most important, Jewish journey. And I am going to exhort you to step up to the plate: the beit midrash awaits.

Don't be afraid to take that journey. Embrace it. That is the way we move forward, the way that we discover who we are.

I found my voice here at Temple Israel. I found my stride, my legs. I discovered my hands, and the good works that I could do for others. My true passions were revealed to me here.

This stuff actually works.

Talmud Torah keneged kulam. The study of Torah weighs more than all of the other mitzvot combined. Keep learning, and asking “What does this mean to us?” You are not taking a physical journey like we are (though Pittsburgh is a great place to visit - just sayin'). But I hope you will all keep moving forward, and work hard to bring everybody else in this community along with you. Keep moving.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/18/2015.)


  1. Great Sermon. Pittsburgh shall be enhanced by your presence.

  2. OK, as with Pope Francis, a more accomodating pastoral attitude is welcomed. But without much knowledge, where will Consevative Judaism and Temple Israel be in another 10 years? One of Rabbi Waxman's familiar themes was the piddling knowledge of any aspect of Judaism in the congregation vs. member success in so many fields from business to the arts to law and medicine, with people holding advanced degrees, favorable comments on books, etc. Then he would say they had virtually no knowledge of anything related to Judaism and weren't terribly interested. And he would recount how he always bought the Bibles he found at tag sales because they were pristine and unopened since he had presented them to bar mitzvah children years before....

    1. I do not feel as though I have watered down anything that I have presented here at Temple Israel. But rather than demeaning our members' knowledge, I have opted instead to try to reach all who come where they are. To paraphrase Qohelet, there is a time for studying Torah, and a time for drinking single-malt scotch.

      Our society is structured in such a way that secular knowledge will by necessity take precedence over Jewish learning. So my task as a rabbi is to demonstrate the value of Jewish learning and living so that those who have little familiarity will be able to latch onto something. And often that requires an appeal to the heart.

      BTW, I consider it quite a compliment to be compared to Pope Francis! 'Course, he has a fancier kippah...

      Shabbat shalom!

    2. Will Beth Shalom be where the beit midrash awaits? To the best of my knowledge I haven't seen a Talmud class offered there in a long time. Or how about parent-child learning opportunities? The kollel down the block is packed with fathers and sons on winter Saturday nights learning while BS remains dark unless a party is going on. Egalitarianism shouldn't equal lack of opportunities to have serious learning. What will you do to change that?