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March 29, 2024

It’s Complicated

Sarah Berman

It's Complicated
Rabbi Sarah Berman


Last weekend I was asked one of the most controversial questions of our time:
Is a hotdog a sandwich, or is it not a sandwich?
To simplify a hotdog to its most basic components, it’s meat and toppings, eaten between bread.
Is a hotdog a sandwich? My answer was “yes.”

Then I asked myself the natural next question.
No, not, “ketchup or mustard.”
The next question is: Why does it matter?

Not in a “why are you thinking about sandwiches with the world on fire around us,” way, but in a “why do we need to fit hotdogs into the sandwich category at all?” way.
As humans, we crave simple, straightforward, consistent answers to the questions we have about our world. 
We want binaries, black-and-white; we want definitions, one answer to every question.
How frustrating is it to ask a question, and hear “It’s complicated” in response?  
(And I admit that my favorite answer, “yes, and,” is not far behind!)
But “It’s complicated” (or, “yes, and”) is also, usually, the closest we can come to a correct answer.
Because the universe we live in is complex.

We exist within an environment, live in societies, take part in economies, and spend our days in workplaces—all of which are complex systems.
In fact, each one of us--every single human--is a complex system.

According to its definition, a complex system is “composed of many components which may interact with each other.”[1]

As hard as we try to simplify, it’s not possible to understand a complex system through straightforward scientific models or pithy definitions.

And we cannot understand the whole of a complex system by breaking it down to its smallest component parts—not even using math, science, or metaphysics.

In a complex world, we are each whole, while also being part of a larger whole—something beyond ourselves, in which we are integral.
We experienced this complexity without even thinking about it tonight.

When you, Cantor Pearsall, and I sang Hashkiveinu/One Day, we became part of something larger.
We shared the experience of being lifted up by the prayer—a feeling beyond just words and melody and the act of singing.
The transformation of parts into whole created that sublime sense of unity. 
We became one voice, in a beautiful complex system.

While it’s easy to see the complexity, it can be hard today to find beauty in the arcane rituals of the Book of Leviticus.
This week’s parasha, Tzav, delineates the process of ordaining Aaron and his sons as Kohanim, (priests).
A process that’s anything but simple, it took a full seven days and included at least 72 different steps (I counted!).
Donning special clothing, making sacrifices, cleaning, anointing, eating, and resting—“complex” is an understatement!
In a text notorious for skimping on details, this section of Torah overflows with them.

Each step of the process of ordination relied on a prior action and led to the next one—each piece integrated into the whole and crucial for the success of the ritual.
No single act could represent the entire ritual, each one was integral and inextricable.

On the most direct level of interpretation, this parashah revels in complexity.
Going beyond the literal, the complexity only increases when we consider these 72 steps as metaphors for the physical, communal, and spiritual preparation required to take on the mantle of sacred leadership.
Or when we think of them as a process of “becoming”—becoming a congregation, becoming a community, becoming a people.

Torah is not only full of complex rituals and metaphors—but is, itself, one of the most complex systems we have in our tradition.
We are taught that Torah has 70 faces, and that we must turn it, turn it, and turn it again to uncover its layers of meaning.
Torah isn’t simple or monolithic—it is multivocal, and its complexity increases with each generation that interacts with it.

But, still, we seek to meet the complexity of Judaism and Jews with our instinct to oversimplify.o

Israel refuses… all Jews are… Judaism believes… God hates…
As tempting as these sweeping generalizations are to make, they land us with understandings so vague as to be misleading or outright false.
These generalizations keep us from really seeing and understanding—not only our traditin, but one another.

So, instead of generalizing, why don’t we choose to learn from the complexity of the 72 steps of priestly ordination, and the 70 faces of Torah?

What would happen if we looked at our own Jewish community—globally and locally—as one of the most complex systems that there are?
What if we embraced the reality that we are a complex system made up of complex people, all of whom deserve to be heard and understood?
Not always agreed with but always treated with dignity.

What if we were to approach our diversity and multivocality as Jews as a strength, not a weakness to be explained away or erased?
What if we embraced our different cultural backgrounds as a source of strength, instead of an inconvenience to be dealt with through assimilation into one Jewish culture?
What if our differing political views, stemming from our different understandings of our values, were a range we allowed ourselves to listen to and learn from--rather than trying to argue and convince, flatten, and eliminate?
And what if our different ways of practicing Judaism--religiously, culturally, morally, and ethically—were embraced as evidence of our evolution as a people, a global community that has changed to fit the needs of the place and the moment, over and over, allowing us to thrive thousands of years after our journey began?

It can seem like an insurmountable task--to change the ways we think about ourselves and our people. But in this moment of crisis, what could be more important?

Complexity theory teaches that when major moments of rupture occur, they can open pathways for a complex system to evolve.
The global Jewish community, Am Yisrael, is in such a moment of disruption right now; and has been since long before October 7th.
Complexity theory suggests that a new era of possibility—perhaps of connection, of learning, of growth—might be right around the corner.

We can’t yet know what that growth might look like—but it is us up to us, in all our complex parts, to build our Jewish community for the future.

And who knows?
Maybe one day, our big, complex, diverse Jewish community can meet up together for hotdogs, sandwiches, and other things served on buns.

[1] “Complex system,” Wikipedia, accessed 3.23.24

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.