Ad Meah v’Esrim (Until 120)by Rabbi Rachel Ackerman
It was after Rosh HaShanah dinner and before services. I was around 4 or 5 or 6 years old. We had cleared the table, and all of the women and girls—my grandmother, great aunt, mom, aunts, and cousins—squished into the pink bathroom around the counter with two sinks. I stood amongst these women, watching as they applied lipstick and rouge. Fumes from hairspray wafted through the air, mixing with the slightly burnt smell of the curling iron. Then, someone snuck me some dabs of perfume from a tester. Someone else curled my hair. I loved being in that space, at the time, in that place, with those people.
The ritual meal beforehand and synagogue services afterward framed that evening as Jewish. But the most formative Jewish experience, perhaps of my entire life, happened in that bathroom. There is nothing intrinsically Jewish about women putting on make-up and using hairspray—but in the context of something larger, in the context of a holiday, of a seudah (a festive meal) and a ritual preparation for services—this was a Jewish moment. And a monumental one for me.
So, what was it that transformed a moment of lipstick application to something far more impactful?
Reflecting on that moment in the bathroom with the generations of female relatives, what I realize is that there were certain elements that made it possible for this to become a formative Jewish experience.
1) This was an intentionalgathering. It had a clear Jewish purpose—Rosh HaShanah initiated the family coming together—and everyone around those sinks brought an awareness that we were preparing for Rosh HaShanah services.
2) The gathering was easily accessible. There was no extensive research that needed to be done in order to know how to create this Jewish moment. The necessary element was something easily reachable in my family: perhaps saying a few blessings, eating food together, people coming together to get made-up, following with a plan to go to the synagogue!
3) The entire evening was intrinsically Jewish. That moment in the bathroom was a formative Jewish experience because everything else about the evening was Jewish. I was already primed to have a Jewish experience, and it didn’t matter where I was—or even what we were doing—when it occurred. It called on the already Jewish part of my self.
This year, the teachers in our religious school will be introducing a project we are calling Ad Meah v’Esrim (Until 120) to our students. We will be encouraging our students and their families to track 120 hours of Jewish engagement from this Rosh HaShanah to next—to keep track of the hours they spend in class, at home, on their way, being and doing Jewish.
The number 120 holds significance in Judaism.
The phrase “ad meah v’esrim, may you live to be 120” is a customary Jewish birthday wish because 120 years was the lifespan of Moses, our perfectly imperfect biblical leader. We will engage in 120 hours of Judaism in honor of Moses’ 120 years.
Also, the Gematria, or numerical value of the Hebrew word chazakah, meaning strength, is equivalent to 120. 120 is a symbol of strength, and if each of our students can engage in 120 hours of Judaism over the next year, then we will be strengthened. Strengthened as individual learners, as Jewish families, and strengthened as a synagogue community.
So, tonight, I want to offer each of you the opportunity to join our students in this endeavor, to take this challenge upon yourselves as well.
Together we can become a community who is working toward living an
There are many themes of the holiday season, but three that I want us to focus on tonight, the three that are at the core of the kind of hours I’m talking about marking, are: intentionality, accessibility, and the Judaism that already dwells within ourselves.
120 hours may seem like a lot.. But, if we are intentional about our actions, aware of the Jewish opportunities that are already within reach, and if we look inward and reflect on Jewish experiences that will provide us with great connection and meaning, then these 120 hours should come fairly easily because, in many ways, we are already doing them.
Intentionality: Tonight we reflect on the creation of the world. The world, in Jewish tradition, did not haphazardly come into being. There was order, different creations on different days, a process of work followed by rest. Living beings did not simply appear on Earth, rather they came about through God’s intentional plan.
Tonight, as a Jewish community, we celebrate the beginning of 5773. Five-thousand-seven-hundred-seventy-three years since, Jewish tradition attributes, the creation of the world. How did the world come into being? The rabbis posited that there was a blueprint that guided the creation of the world.
A midrashic tradition offers the following parable:
When a king builds a palace, he does not build it out of his own head, rather, he follows a blueprint. And the architect who develops the blueprint does not build it out of his own head, but he has designs and diagrams, so he knows how to situate the rooms and doorways. In the same vein, God consulted the Torah when creating the world.(Genesis Rabbah 1:1)
This understanding of the creation of the world is not that it happened haphazardly, rather there was a blueprint, a clear plan of how the world came to be that God followed with intentionality.
Likewise, there are blueprints to Jewish life—they are sacred texts and library books, they are Shabbat and the holidays, they are the wisdom of our parents, staff, teachers, and clergy, they are found in Google searches, in cookbooks, or on www.myjewishlearning.com.
These blueprints provide us with a foundation, but if we fail to make the decision to intentionally use the blueprints, they are of no help. God utilized the blueprint of Torah to act and create the world. We too must utilize our resources to intentionally engage in Judaism.
During the first weeks of my freshman year of college, a girl I had become friendly with handed me a Snicker’s bar on a Friday afternoon. “We should all begin Shabbat with something sweet,” she explained. A candy bar facilitated a Jewish experience.
A number of years ago, on a long Saturday morning run with co-workers, my mind was focused on getting back in time for services so I could “get started with Shabbat.” One of the runners explained, “This for me, the peace of running through the hills and trees on Saturday morning, THIS is Shabbat.”
Shabbat was the blueprint for both of these experiences, but had we not turned a Jewish eye to the things we were already doing, the experience would have simply passed us by. And all it took was a few, short, intentional words to turn a snack or a run into a Jewish experience. In order for us to create Jewish memories and to nourish our Jewish lives, we need to be intentional about using the blueprints that we have in our grasp.
Accessibility: Yes, the world was created with intention, and, yes, Jewish living requires intention, but it need not be at the scale of creation of the world. This time of year also reminds us that Torah and Jewish life are accessible. While engaging in them we must be intentional, Jewish experiences need not be extravagant or complicated.
On Yom Kippur, we read from parshat Nitzavim, in the book of Deuteronomy. In this Torah portion, Moses offers his last oration to the people, shortly before his death. And, it is here, that Moses declares:
”…[T]his Instruction which I command you…is not beyond reach. Lo ba-shamayim hi, It is not in the heavens…neither is it beyond the sea…No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart...” (Nitzavim, Deut. 30:11-14).
Torah is not beyond our reach. In Moses’ final moments, he declares that Torah is in our mouths, in our hearts, that it is relevant. It is a blueprint that we already own, and one that we can embrace and understand.
And, being within reach means that we can do Judaism in the context of our busy lives.
There is a midrashthat notes, “Fools attempt to learn the whole Torah all at once, and when they fail they give up altogether. The wise study a little every day.” (Plaut 1381—Deut. Rabbah 8).
We are not committing to radically changing our Jewish practices and adding countless hours to our already busy lives—we would give up before we’d even start. That would be foolish. Rather, we can commit to engaging in a little every day—or every few days, taking small steps, on a journey of learning and knowledge, and doing Jewish in ways that are meaningful and accessible to us. THIS is wisdom.
So let’s make the kind of Jewish living we’re counting this next year relevant. Let’s do Jewish, live Jewish, act Jewish, in ways that are easy for us to grasp and are meaningful to us as well. You can track your class hours (kids can accrue 40-70 hours just by coming to religious school!). It’s not in the heavens, nor beyond the sea, it can be right here on Grubb Road.
Some of us will choose to complete our 120 hours through coming to services or by joining our Temple Shalom efforts to help garner support for the Maryland Dream Act and the Marriage Equality ballot initiatives. Maybe you’ll cook for SOME (So Others Might Eat) or go to a NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) event. Maybe your family will bake challah on Friday afternoons, or perhaps you’ll read Jewish novels. DO WHAT IS RELEVANT FOR YOU! What is relevant for you is accessible!
Lo bashamayim hi. These moments are not in the Heavens or across the sea. They are close to us, in our hearts and our minds, because they are relevant and meaningful, touch us, inspire us, or perhaps simply make us feel connected to community.
Judaism that dwells within ourselves. This time of year reminds us to reach inside ourselves, to think about ways we can improve, and to think about the ways we act. Inside each of us has a neshama t’horah, a pure soul. When we reach into our neshama we can find that all we need to learn and do in order to live and breathe Judaism starts from something that is intrinsic.
Take notice, for a moment, of the cleft that runs from your upper lip to the bottom of your nose. Probably an evolutionary remnant of something once related to smell, the Talmudic rabbis, however, offered another explanation.
During the nine months inside the womb, the fetus sees the entire world from one end to the other and meanwhile learns the entire Torah, the texts, the traditions of Jewish life, all the world’s knowledge from beginning to end. After nine-months, a baby is born. As soon as the baby sees the light, an angel approaches the baby and slaps it on the mouth, forming this cleft, causing the baby to forget all that Torah and all those Jewish traditions completely. (Talmud, Niddah 30b)
The rabbis believed that at one point we knew everything there was to know. This teaches us that we have the capacity for vast knowledge; our minds and hearts are primed for it.
Tonight, during these very first moments of the year 5773, I am offering us a challenge—to look in the mirror, to see the reminder of what we once knew, and to think, “Today, I will embrace the opportunity to learn, to reach into the depth of my soul to the part of me that once knew everything, and I will nourish it and help it to relearn and grow.” I want us to be reminded that the vastness of Torah and the opportunity to engage in Judaism are at the core of who we already are as individuals, as families, as a community.
Intentional, accessible Judaism within ourselves..It’s time for us to commit! On your way out, take a copy of the Ad Meah v’Esrim tracking sheet and look out for more information in the coming weeks about how to actively engage in this project. This sheet lists 120 hours, leaves a space for the date, the activity, and your reaction to the experience.
By coming to services tonight, you have already completed two hours. Maybe getting dressed tomorrow morning will be the next 30 minutes you record; maybe it will be a lullaby you sing with your kids or a piece you hear in the car on NPR. You have until next Rosh HaShanah to fill out the remaining 118.
On this Rosh HaShanah, as I challenge us all to embark on this journey of counting our 120 hours, I urge us to look in the mirror, and to not be debilitated by all we don’t know and can’t attain, but to instead draw strength from the knowledge that what we have to learn is already inside us. Lo bashamayim hi, the potential for Torah and Jewish experiences are not in Heaven. The potential is very close to me, in my mouth, in my heart, and in my soul where it has been since before I was born, and I have the strength, thechazakah, to pursue it.
We can engage in meaningful Judaism this year because our hearts, minds, and souls are primed for it: it is in us already! Let us seize the opportunity to create those experiences, because we never know whether the smallest, intentional, accessible moment might turn out to be one of the most formative Jewish experiences in someone’s life. You never know when your life might change because of a gathering around a bathroom sink.
May this new year be a year of renewed chazakah, (strength) for us as individuals, for us as a community. May it be a sweet year of learning, doing and living a relevant, meaningful Jewish life.