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Finding Comfort in Hesed – Shabbat Nahamu 5780

Two days ago we observed the low point of the Jewish year, the fast of Tish’ah BeAv., the ninth day of the month of Av. It is, of course, a day on which we remember all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destructions of the First and Second Temples, Jerusalem laid waste, exile, dispersion, expulsion, and genocide. It is the only full, 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur, and still holds a great resonance for many of us, even though most of the events we recall on this day happened hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Ophel Archaeological Park, at the southern end of the Western Wall, the exterior wall of the Temple Mount plaza, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE

It was difficult on this particularly challenging Tish’ah BeAv to think only of the past. Our present moment is filled with so many things to mourn: more than 154,000 dead in America, and approaching 700,000 dead around the world; the social isolation and economic fallout and joblessness caused by the pandemic; ongoing street protests against police brutality; federal troops on the ground in some cities, lobbing tear gas and arresting American citizens; the undeniable rise of anti-Semitism.

Where are the words of comfort for this time? 

On Thursday morning, as we chanted the Shaharit / morning service in mournful tones, we recited the haftarah / prophetic reading unique to Tish’ah BeAv, words from the prophet Jeremiah (8:23), who is arguably the best prophet when it comes to grief and loss:

מִֽי־יִתֵּ֤ן רֹאשִׁי֙ מַ֔יִם וְעֵינִ֖י מְק֣וֹר דִּמְעָ֑ה וְאֶבְכֶּה֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה אֵ֖ת חַֽלְלֵ֥י בַת־עַמִּֽי׃

Oh, that my head were water, My eyes a fount of tears! Then would I weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.

Water, of course, is not only associated with tears; it is also the source of life. Jeremiah is requesting not only the ability to cry with abandon, but also to live and give life. Water also suggests, in a more spiritual sense, the sustaining salvation, the life-force that is Divine in nature (cf. Isaiah 12:3, which we say at havdalah every Saturday night, as Shabbat draws to a close: Ush’avtem mayim besasson mimmay’anei hayeshua / Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.) Who will give me the spiritual sustenance to face the great challenges of this broken world? Where will I find, in my parched soul, the nourishment to rise again tomorrow morning and confront yet another day of devastation? How can I care for those around me, when I am not sure I can even care for myself?

On this Shabbat Nahamu, this Shabbat of comfort, I ask, where is that comfort?

I think that it is only natural at this time to look heavenward, hands outstretched, and ask God directly for some kind of help. In the enduring words of Psalm 121:1, Esa einai el heharim, me-ayin yavo ezri / I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?

In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, our ancestors must have been devastated. Everything that they knew about the order of the world had changed effectively overnight. There would be no more sacrifices; there would be no more priesthood. The central pillar of their connection to God was gone.

Now, it may have taken nearly two millennia for us to be able to say this, but maybe the Romans did the Jews a sort of favor. Yes, you have heard me say this before: we now offer the words of our hearts and minds in place of animal sacrifices, surely a less-barbaric approach to worship, and definitely a form more palatable to vegetarians. Our tradition also became portable, decentralized, no longer tied to a particular place and building, and somewhat more democratic, not held in the hands of a few Kohanim / priests, but rather distributed amongst the scholars called rabbis, wherever they lived. 

But there is something more. In particular, the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrifice system gave us another path to forgiveness. Consider the following passage, which appears on the bottom of p. 14 if you have the classic Siddur Sim Shalom:

Avot deRabbi Natan 4:5

פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב מקום שמכפרים בו עונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך יש לנו כפרה אחרת שהיא כמותה ואיזה זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח

Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him. Rabbi Yehoshua saw the Holy Temple destroyed, and he lamented: ‘Woe to us, for this is destroyed—the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven!’ Rabban Yohanan replied, “My child, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Gemilut hasadim, performing acts of lovingkindness, as it says, ‘For I desire hesed / lovingkindness, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). 

This charming story from the midrashic interpretation of Pirqei Avot called Avot deRabbi Natan is a classic rabbinic re-framing of Jewish life. Yes, the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple is destroyed, and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were there to witness the destruction and to continue to see the ruins for some time after. Rabban YbZ, despite having been there for the cataclysm (and, as the midrash tells us, smuggled out by his students in a coffin), is not fazed by the loss of the center of the Jewish world. Instead, he reminds R. Yehoshua that, despite the fact that we can no longer offer sacrifices, we have another means of bringing about teshuvah, of repairing ourselves in the wake of transgression: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness.

And to put a fine point on it, YbZ quotes the book of Hosea, written eight centuries before any of these events take place. The Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One) does not desire our animal sacrifices. Do you think God needs us to burn animals on an altar? What God really needs from us is for humans to go out of their way to treat others respectfully; to go the extra mile to take care of those in need; to commit to tzedaqah, charitable acts of righteousness; to literally clothe the naked and feed the hungry and house the homeless and comfort the bereaved and free the oppressed.

Rabban YbZ did not quote my favorite “refrigerator-magnet” verse from the prophet Micah (6:8), but he could have:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃ 

“[God] has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.”

Hevreh, I must say that I have been thinking a lot lately about what the world will be like, in a couple months (let’s hope it’s not too much more than that) when a vaccine for this virus is available, and enough people get the vaccine so that our lives can return to something resembling normalcy.

Will we continue to cautiously tiptoe around one another, maintaining our social distance? Will we avoid gathering in public places: theaters, restaurants, libraries, synagogues, like we used to, for fear of aerosolized viruses? Will I be able to shake anybody’s hands ever again?

Or will we all run outdoors and give hugs to passing strangers? Will we commit ourselves anew to offering our hands in assistance to neighbors in need? Will we reach out with both arms to others as we do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with God?

The way out of our current state is not by reading kinnot, poems of lament, like the ones recited on Tish’ah BeAv. On the contrary: the kinnot, and indeed the Book of Eikhah / Lamentations that we read on Wednesday evening, the fasting, the self-denial, the eschewing of leather shoes, signs of luxury are there to remind us that there is an end to suffering; that suffering, in fact, precedes redemption. That we can actually bring about the comfort we seek by recommitting to gemilut hasadim

We will be redeemed. But we do not have to wait for a vaccine to do hesed right now! Yes, gemilut hasadim includes some activities that must be performed in person, and maybe some of those things should not be done right now. But if you have money, if you still have a job, you can give tzedaqah. Find the organizations that are doing good work for people, and donate. Seek out the institutions that you want to ensure will still be here when all is said and done (synagogues, for example, which rely on charitable donations to survive), and make a donation.
We have a means to bring about redemption. Let us recommit to hesed to ensure that our world grows in justice and goodness, so that we may continue to walk modestly with God. That will surely bring us some comfort, even as we remain apart from one another.

Safam’s “Nahamu, Nahamu” performed by alumni of the collegiate Jewish a capella group Pizmon

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/1/2020.)

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A National Day of Mourning / Shabbat Hazon 5780

You may find this hard to believe, but I once saw the hip-hop group Public Enemy live in concert. It was 1991, and I happened to be visiting a friend at Yale when they played in New Haven. I knew very little about what we called “rap” in the 1980s, and although I had the sense that Public Enemy was somewhat controversial, I figured it might be a way to expand my musical horizons.

Public Enemy

I enjoyed the show, and I was blissfully unaware that some of the controversy surrounding the group was about somebody who was by then a former member, Professor Griff, whose real name is Richard Griffin. Griffin had been kicked out of the group in 1989 for making anti-Semitic statements in an interview with the Washington Times. Among the things he said were, ”The Jews are wicked. And we can prove this,” and that the Jews are responsible for ”the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” 

So when an interview of Richard Griffin surfaced two weeks ago, by celebrity Nick Cannon  (who, I must admit, I had never heard of – perhaps you get a sense that pop culture is not really my bag?), in which Cannon indulged in some classic anti-Semitic accusations (e.g. that “Zionists” and “Rothschilds” hold lots of power), I was surprised to learn that apparently Griffin had not made amends for past transgressions. Cannon, who as a result of the interview lost his position as host of comedy improv show Wild ‘N Out, offered a pareve non-apology for his remarks.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver DeSean Jackson recently posted an inflammatory statement on Instagram, incorrectly attributed to Adolf Hitler, about how the Jews “blackmail” and “extort” America, and their intent for “world domination.” Mr Jackson later apologized, and has been in dialogue with a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor in an attempt to learn. (I must say that I am indeed puzzled that a Black person could deliberately quote Hitler, whether the quote was real or not.)

But the upshot of these incidents is that my favorite Pittsburgh Steeler, offensive tackle Zach Banner (OK, so I had also not heard of Mr. Banner before last week) posted a moving video in response to Mr. Jackson, in which he drew on his experience as a Pittsburgh resident in the context of the Tree of Life shooting. In it, he stated:

…We need to understand Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now, but I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them. Just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves, we can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves, and that’s very, very important to me, and it should be important to everyone. . . .

We can’t preach equality but in result flip the script and change the hierarchy, if that makes sense. Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let’s all uplift each other.

Steelers Offensive Tackle Zach Banner

Mr. Banner’s words speak for themselves; we must all be united in the struggle against hate.

In a similar vein, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, wrote a column asking, “Where is the outrage over anti-Semitism in sports and in Hollywood?” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, noting the disturbing recent rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes in recent years, called out rapper Ice Cube, basketball player  Stephen Jackson, and Chelsea Handler (who is, in fact, Jewish) for promoting anti-Semitic material, and drew a direct link from the spreading of such material via social media to the Tree of Life massacre.

With all of the concern right now in the world for how Black people have been treated by white America, something which I have spoken about repeatedly over the last several weeks, we cannot lose sight of the fact that anti-Semitism has a much longer history than European exploitation of African peoples. We cannot forget that anti-Semitism is pernicious and ever-present; it is, you might say, the “Ur-racism.” We cannot forget that anti-Jewish conspiracy theories still infuse much of the world. We cannot forget that these theories motivate actual killers, and we will not forget that one of those killers was driven by this nonsense to murder people that many of us actually knew personally, a half a mile away from where I stand.

So thank God for Black allies like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Zach Banner. Thank God that there are people who understand the power of language, the danger of ideas. Thank God that there are some who get that hatred of any group is all cut from the same cloth, that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in 1963 in his essay, “Religion and Race,” “What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.”

Five days from now is Tish’ah BeAv, the saddest day of the Jewish year, the only full 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur. It is a day on which we recall all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Expulsion from Spain, the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and so forth. It is a day for literally sitting on the floor and weeping, for not bathing or doing anything that brings enjoyment. It is the day of the Jewish calendar on which we recall our oppression and dispersion and persecution throughout our lengthy history.

Detail from the Arch of Titus, showing Romans carrying away holy objects from the Second Temple

But Tish’ah BeAv is not merely a day on which to be hungry, thirsty, and miserable. It is also a day on which doing so should make us reflect on our behavior, on our words, and our relationships, stirring our souls in the direction of action. We read Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, to remind us of the destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, the very first verse, which portrays Jerusalem as a bereft widow, always fills me with woe:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃

Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; The princess among states has become a slave.

The Talmud teaches us (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b) that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE due to the most serious transgressions according to Jewish law: murder, idolatry, and inappropriate sexual liaisons. But the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE due to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred among the Jews.

And, ladies and gentlemen, the world is still filled with causeless hatred. And one of the messages of Tish’ah BeAv is that we are responsible for eliminating it. We remember what and who we have lost; we acknowledge our suffering; and we rebuild as we head toward the coronation days of Rosh HaShanah.

And so I call on all of us to consider this Tish’ah BeAv not just a national day of mourning for the Jews, but a national day of mourning for all of us: for the 150,000 Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19, yes, but also for all of the forms of destruction wrought by sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred – from the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa to the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II to the Shoah to the Tree of Life murders to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. This Thursday is a day on which all of us should reach deep down inside ourselves to find and acknowledge the sin’at hinnam within each of us as individuals and as a society, and to pledge to stamp it out.

Antique illustration of people (veiled women, men and kids) praying at the Place of Weeping (part of the Western Wall, Wailing Wall or Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel)

And that of course applies to the Jews as well as to everybody else; just as Messrs. Abdul-Jabbar and Banner have called out anti-Semitism promoted by Black people, so too must we the Jews call out racism and other forms of hatred in our own community when we see it.

At this particular moment in history, we have a lot for which to mourn, on this most mournful day of the Jewish calendar. But let us turn this mourning into a call to action, to improve ourselves and work harder to fix this broken world, to reach out to others in partnership and in the spirit of teaching and learning from one another, so that detestable ideas of any sort about other groups of people may be expunged from the collective human heart.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/25/2020.)

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Waiting for the Promised Land – Mattot/Mas’ei 5780

Two weeks ago my family and I were on vacation, tent camping in the Allegheny National Forest, and it was simply wonderful. It’s easy to socially distance when you’re out in the woods, and the hiking and biking were joyful and restorative. Despite the inconvenience of regularly checking for ticks, I actually really love being out of doors, and for me there is nothing quite like it. More importantly, we had no wi-fi or even a mobile phone signal for most of the time, so it was fairly easy to forget, at least for a few days, about the public health catastrophe that is going on all around us.

But we cannot ignore this, folks. It is not going away. I think the State of Pennsylvania made a critical tactical error in labeling this phase of re-opening “Green,” because it seems to me that this suggests, “Go for it.” People poured into bars and restaurants, flew off to the beaches in South Carolina and Florida, and in Allegheny County we went from almost no new cases to a couple of hundred a day. And I cannot even muster the energy to try to comprehend how the governor of Georgia decided to outlaw local mask-wearing orders. I am beside myself.

Let’s be clear here, folks: we did this to ourselves. Our politicians have ignored the directives of actual scientists and experts and have lacked the intestinal fortitude to clamp down, and we the people have refused to comply with simple, sensible health measures. As a result, this journey of grief and unemployment and depression will last much longer, and many more Americans will die.

Speaking of journeys, the end of the book of Bemidbar / Numbers documents the various places that the Israelites traveled to and set up camp on their 40-year journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel. It is one of a handful of passages in the Torah that list stops along the way. The question is asked by some commentators, why bother to list these locations? They are in the desert, unremarkable places that hold no other significance.

One theory, promoted in a midrash, is that God wanted the Israelites to have a record of where they had been, so they could recall the travails of the journey. “Here is where you were tired and needed to rest; here is where you felt ill; here is where you were thirsty and needed water.” Perhaps. 

But the Jewish journey that began in the Torah and effectively continues up until today includes stops in many places that we will never recall. How many of us can name the towns where our great-grandparents were born? Or their great-grandparents? And yet, we know how they suffered. They suffered at the hands of Cossacks and Spaniards and Arabs and Persians and Romans and Babylonians. They suffered through famines and plagues, and were often blamed for these things by their gentile neighbors. They suffered through blood libels and anti-Semitic laws and accusations and suspicions. They were forcibly conscripted into the Czar’s army, forcibly converted to Christianity and Islam, forcibly taken from their homes and put on trains and sent to death camps.

In the context of today’s pandemic, I must say, I am certain that we will survive. We will still be here when this is over. 

We will still be here because we have survived worse than this. Much worse, in fact.

A few of you may know that I host a bi-weekly meeting for what I refer to as the Hanhalah Team of the synagogue, the senior staff. It includes Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, our Etxecutive Director Ken Turkewitz, Youth Director Marissa Tait, ELC Director Hilary Yeckel, and JJEP Director Rabbi Larry Freedman. And we had a meeting on Thursday that was tremendously frustrating. The ELC is open and functioning safely for about 60 kids in small, non-intermixing pods; that’s the good news. But for the rest of us, planning for the coming year – the High Holidays, JJEP’s classes, youth activities, Derekh activities, youth tefillah – all of them are effectively up in the air. We feel as though people are Zoomed out. We are working in an environment in which we cannot make decisions about the future, because we simply have no idea what the future looks like.

It’s not just frustrating. It’s downright painful. We all care about living and teaching our tradition, and since being Jewish so heavily depends upon being around others, it has made our lives so difficult.

But let’s face it: things could be much, much worse. Has veshalom / God forbid.

We always open these meetings with a devar Torah, and Rabbi Freedman regaled us this week with a wee bit of optimism: the Promised Land is coming. It’s actually not that far away. Yes, we are still in the desert, and we will be for a while. But next week we start reading the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, and we know what happens next.

But maybe that’s why all those stops along the way from Egypt to Israel are there: to remind us that 40 years was a VERY long time. To remind us that the journey can be easily forgotten when recalling its endpoints. To remind us that there were headaches and hunger and thirst and loss along the way.

The silver lining is this: we are gathered here this morning, a testament to the fact that the Jews have survived 2,000 years of dispersion and destruction and suffering and loss. And how did we do this? By recounting the journey. And by leaning into the words of our tradition: the Torah, and of course the words of prayer, the words of our siddur. And let me just bring this to a close by pointing us all to one particular line in our siddur, one that is so often overlooked because it is mumbled through quickly in a transitional moment in the service. 

It’s found in Yequm Purqan, p. 412 in Sim Shalom and 176 in Lev Shalem. We only say this on Shabbat morning; it is a request for health and welfare for the congregation, and also includes a wish for our children. Open up and take a look for a moment:

זַרְעָא חַיָּא וְקַיָּמָא, זַרְעָא דִּי לָא יִפְסוק וְדִי לָא יִבְטול מִפִּתְגָּמֵי אורַיְתָא

Zar’a haya veqayama, zar’a di la yifsuq vedi la yivtul mipitgamei oraita. 

May [our] children thrive, never ceasing to speak words of Torah.

It’s in Aramaic. Why? Because that was the language that our ancestors spoke for many centuries, and therefore understood it better than Hebrew. We do not know exactly how old it is, but it first appears in the 13th-century French Mahzor Vitry.

Prayer, you may recall, is a blueprint for a better world, a vision of a society that could be. The point of this wish is to remind us that, just as we have carried our Torah with us for millennia, we want our children to do so as well.

It is a beautiful plea; a statement of yearning that, whatever challenges we face right now, in whatever spiritually-barren place in which we find ourselves, that our children receive and carry with them the words that have kept us alive and nourished us up until this very day.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to face this pandemic, the dysfunction of our governing structures and the lamentably growing death count, remember that the silver lining is that our children will know Torah; that its wisdom and values and guidance will never depart from their lips. And now go out and make that happen. That is how we will get through this. The Promised Land is not far away.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/18/2020.)

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The Common Good and America the Beautiful – Huqqat-Balaq 5780

Well, I must admit that it’s a bit sad for me to be all alone in our sanctuary once again. For a moment there, we thought we might be able to keep meeting in person. Now, it seems, we are back to square 1.  I am grateful to Beth Shalom’s Coronavirus Task Force for considering this issue thoughtfully and putting our safety ahead of other concerns.

But I suppose it is, unfortunately, not too surprising, based on the behaviors that I have seen in the last few weeks. Some people are diligent about wearing masks and keeping away from others. Others are not at all. And of course there is a range in-between: uncovered noses, pulling a mask down to speak, believing that a mask exempts you from social distancing, which it does not.

Now, clearly, even with a mask-wearing order in place, law enforcement cannot ensure that everybody is wearing masks and distancing themselves. To a great extent, we have to rely on the willingness of people to follow these instructions to benefit public health.  Or, on a smaller scale, we can ask those we interact with in public to please put on their masks. 

But Americans love to break conventions and customs as an expression of freedom. From its very outset, the American nation was based on an idea that was mostly foreign to the monarchies of Europe: that, as the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence puts it, “all men are created equal.” Yes, I know that at the time, they did not really believe that in a complete sense, and that that particular phrase excluded a majority of people living here when it was written. But the spirit of democracy that infused the creation of this country was an affront to virtually everything that had come before it. 

And that independent streak still runs strong through American veins. Some of us still carry the banner of, “Don’t tread on me,” but today, of course, it is primarily a vulgar gesture directed at our own government.

So now we have discovered a problem with the American inclination to flout convention for the sake of “freedom”: in order to beat the virus, we have to work together. We have to understand that this is an “all-in” sort of operation. Nobody is beyond the reach of this bug, and to beat it, we are all going to have to change our behavior for the common good. And before we even get to that point, we have to agree what “the common good” is. And, thankfully, our tradition can guide us in this.

Many of you know that I am an optimist, and although these times seem to leave little room for optimism, I have to remind us all that we will eventually get past this as a society. I am very sorry to say that we have not been able to muster our courage as a nation to prevent more disease and more unnecessary deaths. Perhaps this new wave of infections, and the rising body count that will inevitably follow, will lead more people to be more inclined toward the common good.

I heard this week Rabbi David Wolpe interviewed by Jonathan Silver on the Tikvah Podcast. Rabbi Wolpe is one of the most prominent Conservative rabbis in America, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. They were speaking about the future of the non-Orthodox movements, and the interviewer asked the following: “Do you think the pandemic will change the way [non-Orthodox] Jews think about America?” Rabbi Wolpe responded with the following:

My greatest sorrow through this — obviously apart from the loss of life — has been the extent to which even the question of wearing masks becomes politicized. And I think that as long as we are in the grip of this inability to believe anything good of people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from oneself, and to believe that the opposite side is venal and evil, and as long as I receive nothing but articles attacking the other side from members of my congregation who are on one side or another, I’m not sure that we will learn anything about America that is useful to be learned. It is only the extent to which we are able to vault over our own preconceptions and to understand that whatever the faults of the people who oppose you, that they also have something to say, and their experience also deserves to be taken into account, only then will we be able to learn.

You cannot learn by lobbing grenades over a wall. So, I hope the pandemic will teach us something, but so far I’m not seeing it.

The Jews, of course, are just like everyone else, only moreso. So all of the challenges that we have with division in this country exist in our community as well. Rabbi Wolpe was speaking about the Jewish community, but you could very easily extrapolate what he said to the rest of America. We cannot work toward the common good until we as individuals are willing to think beyond ourselves. 

I am grateful that this nation was a haven for my great-grandparents when they arrived here more than a century ago.  I am grateful that the founders of this country dedicated themselves to the proposition that all are created equal, and that President George Washington, upon visiting the synagogue in Newport, RI in 1790, affirmed that this nation should “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I am grateful to have grown up in this American experiment, in which we the Jews have, mostly, thrived.

But I am also terrified. I behold the mess in front of us right now, a nation that is coming apart at the seams. Our leaders do not debate serious policy proposals; they exchange barbs. Our people are told to make particular behavioral choices to protect public health, and they do the exact opposite. Winning at any cost is valued over the common good. The simmering cauldron of the American culture wars is laced with racism and anti-Semitism, seasoned with misinformation and outright lies, and about to boil over.

Some of you know that my favorite hymn (ok, so my second favorite after Hatikvah, which always makes me cry), is America the Beautiful, the poem originally penned by Kathryn Lee Bates in 1893. One of the verses that is almost never heard is the following (it’s not in the back of our siddur):

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

This is, by the way, the verse that Ray Charles starts with in his phenomenal recording of the song. If you have never heard this version, you definitely should do so right now:

Let me just break down a brief piece of that, Rashi-style:

Who more than self their country loved,
The heroes of which this verse speaks include of course those who fought and died for this nation, but also those who, behind the front lines and not in military uniforms, dedicated themselves to building a society based on the common good, and not merely on self-interest. 

And mercy more than life.
The sign of a truly just society is the one that cares about all its people no matter their station. When I am willing to sacrifice what I have, my possessions, my reputation, my life, so that somebody else is treated mercifully, then we will have achieved the nobleness that the verse references.

National hymns like this, very much like prayer, are aspirational; they reflect our aims as a society, where we see ourselves headed. God willing, some day Americans will put mercy for others above their own lives. Some day, they will hew to the instructions of the prophet Micah, which we read in today’s haftarah:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.

Would that we could all follow this simple formula: justice, goodness, and walking modestly. It’s that last one that is especially captivating for its unusual form. It’s an imperative, but the verb is not lalekhet, to walk, but rather, lehatzni’a, to make modest. Hatzne’a lekhet, perhaps more literally translated is “Make your walking modest” as you saunter through life. And I think that this image of approaching life modestly includes the following values taught by our tradition: 

  • Honesty – מדבר שקר תרחק (Midevar sheqer tirhaq / Distance yourself from falsehood. Shemot / Exodus 23:7)
  • Learning – תלמוד תורה (Talmud Torah, the highest holy opportunity of Jewish life.)
  • Respect – דרך ארץ (Derekh eretz. See e.g. Pirqei Avot 2:2)
  • Justice – צדק צדק תרדוף (“Justice, you shall pursue justice.” Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20)
  • Mercy – רחמים
  • Not speaking hurtfully of others – אונאת דברים
  • Making peace between people – שלום בית

Ladies and gentlemen, all I can say on this July 4th is the following:

Make good choices. Make the choices that benefit the common good. Implement these Jewish values in your everyday actions. Protect others. Have mercy. Seek justice and goodness. Make your walking through life modest. 

And if we can get everybody on that program together, we will not only vanquish the virus, but we will continue to build America the Beautiful, and get this American experiment back on track.

Shabbat shalom, and a happy and reflective Independence Day.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/4/2020.)

Categories
Kavvanot

Desperately Seeking Catharsis – Huqqat/Balaq 5780

Purity and purification were of utmost importance to our ancient Israelite ancestors, and for good reason. Theirs was a world of many dangers: marauding wildlife, uncontrollable diseases, bloodthirsty enemies, lawless bandits, the merciless forces of nature, and so forth. Purity was an ideal that they held out before themselves, that through various rituals they could achieve a pure state, in which God would favor them and lessen the danger.

Not much has changed. With COVID-19 potentially lurking in every corner, police brutality on display for all to see, racial injustice revealed in all its ugliness, anti-Semitism gathering steam, and governmental dysfunction of cataclysmic proportions, it is easy to feel like we are floundering in chaotic currents of human failure.

I could use a good cleanse right now. 

And so it almost makes sense to read the passage in Parashat Huqqat about the parah adumah, the notoriously elusive “red heifer” used in preparing a magic potion that would cleanse anybody of tum’at met, ritual impurity that came from exposure to a corpse. Almost, because to contemporary ears this passage is inscrutable. And not only contemporary: a midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 19:3) has the wise King Solomon declaring, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the parah adumah.”

Nonetheless, one does see the appeal in achieving purity through curious rituals. I want all of this to be over. I want resolution. I want purity. And I want to be able to sit on my porch on a summer evening, survey the world, and think, All is right once again. 

I want catharsis. 

One of the greatest challenges that we see right now is that none of these things have a simple, sweet resolution. The virus is not going to magically disappear. The problematic political actors are not simply going to pick up their toys and go home. The system that reinforces racial injustice at many levels in American society is not going to fix itself. The Jew-haters are not going to crawl back into their holes. The Internet will not suddenly only speak the polite truth. The Earth’s atmosphere is not going to stop its steady warming. There is no magic potion. There is no parah adumah.

There is only us. And we are going to have to work together to solve these problems. But the good news is that we have solved many such challenges before, and we have the ability to do so again. But it will require that we listen to one another and to the words of professionals, that we act from a place of respect for each other rather than “winning.” 

Perhaps what this passage teaches us is that the details and complexity of the parah adumah ritual, and indeed the impossibility of finding the right cow for the job, suggest that the easy way out does not exist; that although absolute purity is unattainable, we should nonetheless push ourselves to find it. 

Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena, says Pirqei Avot. It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither can you let it go. We may not find either a red heifer nor that much-needed catharsis, but if we do not even seek to unite to solve big problems, then nothing will be solved. It is through cooperation and commitment that we will ultimately achieve purity.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, July 3, 2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Black Lives Matter – Qorah 5780

In the classic Israeli pop tune from 1974, Natati La Hayyai, the first Israeli supergroup, Kavveret, opined about giving one’s life to one’s country, only to be insulted in return.

נתתי לה חיי, ירדתי על ברכי
יאמינו לי כולם, למדתי מה זה סתם ונעלבתי

Natati la hayyai, yaradti al birkai
Ya’aminu li kulam, lamadti mah zeh stam vene’elavti

I gave her my life, I got down on my knees
Believe me, everybody, I learned what’s meaningless, and I was insulted

It was Israel’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest of 1974, their second year of participation in the annual competition. They didn’t win; it was not until 1978 and 1979 that they had two monumental hits that won Eurovision two years in a row (Abanibi and Halleluyah). 

But the song was also a critique of Israel’s government, a plea for a two-state solution long before that idea was taken seriously by anybody in the mainstream:

אחד אומר שנגמרים לו השמיים
כשיש מספיק אוויר למדינה או שתיים

Ehad omer shenigmarim lo hashamayim,
ksheyesh maspik avir lemedinah o shtayim.

One says that the sky is ending for him,
When there is enough air for one or two countries.

It’s a statement of disaffection — the feeling that after what the song’s composer, Danny Sanderson, had given to Israel – his army service, his taxes, his ideological commitment to building the State of Israel, which was only about a quarter-century old when he wrote the song – that the State had left him behind, had smacked him down.

It’s been floating around in my head for a couple days, not for Zionist reasons, but for patriotic American reasons. Because I have been thinking, as many of us have, about the range of challenges facing Black Americans.

Yes, the police brutality, the chokeholds, the default suspicion, the profiling. Yes, the unequal distribution of resources. The ineffective schools. The double standards of justice. The higher rates of infant mortality. Yes, the redlining. The income statistics: As NY Times columnist David Brooks (no liberal snowflake, that one) points out, Black families earn 57 cents for every dollar white families earn. Black college graduates earn only about 80 cents for every dollar earned by white college graduates. “Between 1992 and 2013,” Brooks writes, “college-educated whites saw the value of their assets soar by 86 percent, while their black counterparts saw theirs fall by 55 percent.”

That is truly staggering. The feeling that I have been left with after surveying the depths of these challenges, is that Black Americans were not only mistreated from the moment that they arrived in chains on this continent, but that the very foundations of the American economy depended on the free or very cheap labor that Black Americans provided. And it seems that even after Emancipation, every attempt was made, whether deliberate or through the invisible hand that moves markets, to keep them from moving beyond the lowest rung on the economic ladder. Perhaps you heard last week about the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921?

It is easy to understand why many Black Americans feel that they have given their lives to America, for the building of this nation. And yet many also feel that not only have they NOT received credit, but feel as if this country continues to try to smack them down. And when a police officer kneels on a Black man’s neck patiently until he dies, we do not have to wonder why people are angry and disaffected. Natati lah hayyai. I gave her my life.

I have been trying to find the right way into this issue for a while. Three weeks ago, I quoted an assortment of texts from the Jewish bookshelf on the various ways of respecting one’s neighbor. Two weeks ago I suggested that the way that we can help is by being engaged with society, with all the people around us. But there is something else that we need to acknowledge, hevreh, and that is this:

Black lives matter.

Yes, yes, I know. Jewish lives matter too. And some of you are surely thinking, “Rabbi, shouldn’t you be talking about the Jews?”

Well, I am talking about the Jews. I’m talking about the Jews of Boston – my great-grandparents, who owned a house in Dorchester, which at some point in the early 1960s they sold because they were scared – the neighborhood was changing. I’m talking about the Jews of the Hill District here in Pittsburgh, and of cities all over America, who were busy fleeing to the suburbs, and who did not look back over their shoulders, like Lot and his daughters, to see the faces of those who moved into their old neighborhoods.

And I am also talking about the Jews who signed up for the civil rights movement; who stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, who worked alongside Black activists in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, who died along with them.

And I am also talking about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote in his essay, “Religion and Race” in 1963:

There are people in our country whose moral sensitivity suffers a blackout when confronted with the black man’s predicament. How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person?… What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.

Bias and fear of the other are, of course, a part of being human, and these things are very hard to overcome. And while I am certain that the vast majority of us do not sympathize with white supremacy, which would of course be ludicrous for Jews, there is no person without biases.

But we are all part of this system, whether we like it or not. And that is why it is essential right now to affirm something that we might all have missed as we were busy becoming fully accepted in American society: that black lives matter too.

Now, I know that some of you have heard that that slogan is anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel. It is true that the Movement for Black Lives, which is one group within the sphere of those who have participated in the wider Black Lives Matter movement, has featured language on their website since 2016 that is anti-Israel, using odious terms like “apartheid” and “genocide” in ways that are completely inappropriate. The attempt to link the Palestinian cause to the struggles of Black Americans indicates a woeful misunderstanding of the history of the Middle East and muddles the message of the latter. 

However, the Movement for Black Lives does not speak for all who carry the banner of Black Lives Matter. This is not the message that most people hear when they repeat that slogan. What they hear is, We care about our neighbors; we care about equity in our society; we care about the disenfranchised, and we want to make sure that all are given a fair opportunity to make it in this world.

And those are clearly things which are drawn from Jewish tradition, some of which I have previously identified.

So yes, we must be wary of those who seek to delegitimize Israel, but we can also work for the benefit of our African-American neighbors at the same time. Those things are not in conflict. (And many have written about this already, including my rabbinical school classmate Rabbi Avi Olitzky: Why I, A Minneapolis Rabbi, Changed My Mind About Black Lives Matter, and Amanda Berman, the founder of Zioness, a progressive, Zionist group: We Can – We Must Show Up As Zionists For Black Lives Matter). 

Turning back to the Torah for a moment, the first two words of Parashat Qorah, which we read this morning, are, “Vayiqqah Qorah.” Literally, Qorah took. But there is a problem with this verse, in that the verb “laqahat” (to take) is transitive – in Hebrew as in English, it requires a direct object. You cannot merely take; you must take something. Rashi tells us something useful: that 

לקח את עצמו לצד אחר להיות נחלק מתוך העדה

He took himself to one side, splitting off from the community.

That is, Qorah’s attempt to effect change was to selfishly and violently lead others astray, to divide the Israelites so as to upset the balance of power. Moshe, by the way, does not fare much better; he is angered by Qorah’s accusations, by dividing people and leading malcontents astray, and fires back with similarly accusatory language at Qorah and his posse.

And folks, this is not leadership. True leadership requires working together for the common good. It does not encourage division, or accusation, or aggressive, one-sided actions.

Good leadership requires talking to everybody, listening to all the voices around you and forging a path forward together. It does not mean that everybody agrees on everything, but that disagreement is respectful and does not impact the common welfare.

How can we in the Jewish community show true leadership at this time? By being part of the discourse, by listening to our Black friends and neighbors, by understanding that the message of “Black lives matter” is one that we can and should sign onto. We need to be at that table. We need to make sure that Jewish voices are heard in that context. We need to give of our lives as well, to make sure that, as Rabbi Heschel put it, the inequality of some does not inevitably become the inequality of all.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/27/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

We Can Change the World Through Civic Engagement: Schmoozing Leads to Action – Beha’alotekha 5780

Milt Eisner passed away and was laid to rest this week. He was a member of Beth Shalom for 57 years, a stalwart of lay leadership, former president, chief gabbai and man of many committees who held a range of roles for this synagogue and for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Those of you who knew Milt knew that he was first and foremost dedicated to community. If you did not know Milt, you should know that it was this dedication that made Beth Shalom what it is. He was a gifted fundraiser, but even more so, a consummate schmoozer. He knew everybody, and he knew you and your kids and your stories and, of course, how much you should be giving to the shul or the Federation. As Federation CEO Jeff Finkelstein put it at his funeral, they don’t make ‘em like Milt anymore.

Milt knew something that not enough of us realize: that civic engagement is the key to a thriving community. 

Now, of course, Milt came up in a time in which the Jews were more likely to look inward. When he first joined Beth Shalom in 1963, the world was a very different place for the Jews. They were still not welcome in some circles. Casual anti-Semitism was still very much alive. It was only 18 years after the end of World War II, and Jews were still struggling to make known the horrors of the Holocaust.

Those Jews who were inclined to participate in communal activities did so with the other people in their neighborhoods, i.e. Jews. They played poker with other Jews; they dined with other Jews;  they donated to Jewish causes.

And people like Milt poured their heart and soul into building the institutions of Jewish community, institutions like Congregation Beth Shalom.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world has changed tremendously. But civic engagement, truly engaging with your community, is the key to the future. We all need to be more like Milt, but we need to do it a little differently. 

Right up front in Parashat Beha’alotekha, in the second verse of this morning’s reading, the one that includes the titular word, we find the following (Bemidbar / Numbers 8:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Speak to Aharon and say to him, “When you raise up the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”

What is God telling Aharon, the Kohen Gadol / High Priest to do? To lift up seven lamps; to elevate the Israelites and their spirits by casting light. Yes, you can read this literally, as a mere prescription for a routine activity in the mishkan (the portable sanctuary in which the Israelites worshipped while wandering in the desert for 40 years). But you can also read it metaphorically as the obligation of leadership to cast light and to elevate the holiness in people and in the community. 

Detail from the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem being carried away following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE

In fact, Rashi (Rabbi Shelomoh Yitzhaqi, France 1045-1105 CE) points out that the wicks of the three lamps on either side of the seven should be pointed inward, toward the middle lamp, so that nobody would say that it was God who needed the light. In other words, the light cast is for us. Humans, not God.

I’ll come back to that, but let’s pause for a moment of internal self-congratulation. Beth Shalom took a giant leap forward this week with respect to leadership: We passed the new constitution. Mazal tov! Milt would be very proud.

Yes, I know that does not sound so exciting. But it speaks volumes about the health of this institution. In the wake of and of course driven by the new strategic plan, the implementation of which began last fall, we now have a constitution that meets the needs of this congregation now, allowing us to sail boldly together into the future with more efficient, more transparent leadership. And that is tremendously valuable.

And bringing that plan and this new structure to fruition required the help of a bunch of civic-minded people, too numerous to mention right now, but you know who they are. When volunteers put their heads together, great things can happen. And it bodes well for the larger plank in this congregation’s future, that of financial sustainability. 

The leadership of this synagogue is truly worthy of praise and appreciation, and I am grateful for and inspired by your talents and your commitment. Kol  hakavod.

Turning our attention now beyond the walls of Congregation Beth Shalom, we cannot deny that we are facing other great challenges right now as a society.

I spoke last week about the particular challenge of racism seen in the recent murder of George Floyd. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor. And Antwon Rose. And I spoke about how our tradition – verses of Torah and rabbinic literature – speak directly to our obligations as Jews to build a better world. And I spoke about how we are all in this together: Black, white, Asian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian.

A lot of people are very upset and hurt right now. And a lot of people are looking for positive ways to be involved. And here is my suggestion: we have to channel that energy into being like Milt, that is, being committed to the idea of community.

The future of our society, and our ability to right fundamental wrongs, to change institutional bias that breeds injustice, depends on our interdependence, on our willingness to work together and to support each other. And it also depends on leaders – people who step forward to make things happen.

However, unlike in the Torah, when leadership came through tribal affiliation and primogeniture, leadership today can come from anywhere. Each of us has the potential to be a leader. And we need more leaders. 

Many of us are asking ourselves, what can we do? What can we do about the inherent biases in our schools, in our real estate practices, in our healthcare system, in our policing, that lead to very different outcomes depending on the color of your skin?

And, in particular, what can a synagogue do?

Let me tell you, in particular what we need. We need volunteers, people who are willing to step forward to create dialogue. We need to partner with another community, an African-American church, for example, with whom we can create not just bridges, but opportunities. We need to get to know each other, to share stories, to break bread, maybe even to daven together, to learn what they need from us as allies, as members of the same community. We need to create meaningful joint programming and not just “virtue signaling.” 

We should also acknowledge that the landscape of American Judaism is no longer only Yiddish-speaking, gefilte-fish-eating, Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. We need to have dialogue within our own community about the palette of contemporary Jews. 

And before we even get to those dialogues, we need to prepare ourselves. Did the Israelites receive the Torah on day 1 at Sinai? No. It was day 3, after extensive preparation.  We have to make sure that we understand our own biases first, our own comfort and discomfort zones. We have to make sure that our intentions are pure and our hearts are open.

Ladies and gentlemen, this will take time. I know, the urgency of the moment feels like we need to swoop in and do something dramatic. And for sure, there are many people in this world who do not have the luxury of time. 

True leadership is thoughtful and mission-driven. And now that many of us have been drawn into the cause of casting more light in this world, into considering how we might make a difference in the fight against racism, we have before us an unprecedented opportunity to show real leadership.

Congregation Beth Shalom should be building that metaphorical seven-branched menorah. Not the one in the mishkan, but the one that serves as a beacon of light, here on Beacon Street, to our neighborhood, our city, and our country; to lift us all up, together, black, brown, white, and everything else. 

Building that menorah will not be easy. Milt Eisner and other people like him put decades of work into building the institutions of this community. And where did it begin? With the schmooze. With sharing stories; with breaking bread together. With being involved with people and organizations.

Rabbi Aqiva teaches us (Babylonian Talmud Masekhet Qiddushin 40b) that study is greater than action, because study leads to action.

We have a lot of learning to do before we get to the action. Now is the time to discuss, to learn, to take a good long look at ourselves, and then to reach out to others to expand the dialogue. And then we can lift up the lamps that will illuminate all of us.

And we need you to be involved first. Derekh has sponsored a few initiatives in the past year or two, including the civil rights trip last year and the book group reading Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist. We intend to turn up the volume in this area, to raise the level of dialogue. So when those opportunities come, please take them. 

We will also need a dedicated task force to prepare and create the dialogue, and to facilitate the learning opportunities that will lead to action. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we will all need to be involved if we as a synagogue community want to make a difference. We will need you to step forward as a leader. We will all need to be a little more like Milt.

Milt (z”l) and Sarita Eisner

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/13/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

There is Only One Side – Naso 5780

:’לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor; I am God. (Vayiqra/Leviticus 19:16)

(The “I am God” bit is often left off; but it is an essential part of the verse. Understanding that we are all in holy relationship, that God dwells in the space between each of us and connects us, is needed now more than ever.)

***

On October 28th, 2018, there was a hastily-prepared memorial service at Soldiers’ and Sailors Memorial Hall for the victims of the previous day’s murders at the Tree of Life building. I remember the silence, the shock and grief, the over-capacity crowd, the sea of umbrellas outside of people who could not get into the hall. 

I remember that the clergy who were invited to join the presenters on the stage were from across the community: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, white, black, and everything else.

Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018

I remember that we stood together, unable to fathom the depth of what had happened, unable to imagine the sheer brutality and hatred required to carry out such an unspeakable act.

I did not watch the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. I could not bring myself to do so. The print details were enough: 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “I can’t breathe.” “Mama!”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in pain as a society. The coronavirus, the 108,000 dead; the economic fallout, 13% unemployment; and now a slew of events on the national stage that remind us all of the deep ugliness that lurks within the American psyche. The hatred, the systemic racism, the political division, the festering anger toward the judicial system and law enforcement, the resentment that different groups of people feel toward one another.

I attended a peaceful protest of clergy on Monday. One of the African-American preachers riffed on Psalm 94, which we recite in our weekday services every Wednesday.  

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה’ עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃

How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult? (Tehillim / Psalm 94:3)

How long? He cried. How long?!

Pittsburgh, June 1, 2020

How long indeed. 

As you know, we had an 8:30 curfew for three nights last week. I confess that I broke the curfew on each of those nights; on Saturday night because I did not know that there was a curfew (I don’t use computers or listen to the radio or turn on TV on Shabbat or Yom Tov). On Sunday and Monday evenings because I was taking an evening stroll in Frick Park after dinner, and did not quite make it home by 8:30. 

On the latter two nights, I suppose that I broke that curfew because I knew I could. I knew that if a police officer were to stop me, he or she would not interrogate me or knock me to the ground or handcuff me or arrest me and take me down to the station. And if I happened to say the wrong thing or not look sufficiently submissive, she or he would probably be forgiving, tell me to just go home, you’re not supposed to be outside right now.

And that is exactly the point.

I will not have to have “the talk” with my sons, the talk that all black parents must have with their sons. Although I am 6’4” and arguably intimidating if you were to pass me alone at night, I will probably not have to worry that I will be perceived as a threat, and I know that people do not immediately assume that I am up to no good when they see me in public. I can go jogging or bird-watching without fear of anything going wrong.

And that’s because I look white. And I wear a kippah on my head.

But my tradition teaches me to be sympathetic to others; to listen to their needs; to help them when we can.

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Shemot / Exodus 22:20)

We remember where we came from. We remember that we were slaves, so that we understand the oppressed, the enslaved, the disenfranchised. And we remember that we have to stand up for them, whether they are Jewish or not.

I was dismayed to read an opinion piece in the Forward this week, written by some rabbinic colleagues, titled, Every Jew Must Decide Which Side They Are On.

No! Hevreh, there is only one side: the side of humanity. The side in which we build a better society, one in which police officers do not kill unarmed people, and in which peaceable assembly is not accompanied by violence, theft, and vandalism. The side in which there is no need for city curfews. The side in which visibly Jewish people can walk in the street without fear of being attacked. The side in which law enforcement, and indeed the US military, do not use tear gas on American citizens who are lawfully exercising their Constitutional rights. The side in which people are not divided between “sides.”

I am afraid right now that, given the division between people, our society will be torn apart by well-meaning people who point angry fingers at others. Let us not be manipulated into thinking that there is an “us” and a “them.”

There is only one side, and I am on that one. And so is the Torah.

Ladies and gentlemen, the only way we are going to move forward as a society in a way that is safe and respectful and loving is by understanding that we are in this together. 

:’וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Love your neighbor as yourself.
(Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)
[ זה כלל גדול בתורה, this is a great principle in the Torah, adds Rabbi Aqiva.]

Hevreh, there is a lot of blame to go around for how we got here. But blame is also a game that involves picking sides, drawing lines. Let’s face it folks: we are all a little guilty of bringing us to this point. Parashat Naso (Bemidbar / Numbers 5:7) teaches us that when we seek atonement, we must confess our sins, and here are a few we have all done:

We are guilty of not helping raise up our enemy’s donkey, after it fell from a too-heavy burden. (Think metaphorically, folks.) (Shemot / Exodus 23:5)

We are guilty of repeating slander of one another via social media, like the tzara’at skin disease that spreads so easily, and cannot be taken back. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 13:1ff)

We are guilty of not having a system of justice that is applied equally to the rich and the poor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:15)

We are guilty of not following the Torah’s imperative of “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – צדק, צדק תרדוף. Justice! you shall pursue justice. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20)

We are guilty of standing idly by the blood of our fellow human beings. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16)

But here is the upshot: we are all in this together, and we can change.

What we need now is not anger. Not division. Rather, what we need right now is to listen to one another, to work together, and pull ourselves up out of the mess we have made. 

Our neighbors showed up for us, ladies and gentlemen. And we must show up for them.

And not just that. Get to know people outside your familiar range of friends. It is only through being in relationship with others unlike you that we learn to counteract our own natural biases. We, the Jews, have spent so many centuries in ghettoes and in forced exile and subject to pogroms and genocide that we are reflexively suspect of others unlike us. But now is the time for us to listen to the stories of all of our neighbors, and act through love toward one another. That is the Torah’s great principle.

Parashat Naso includes a piece of text that is well-known in Jewish life, the so-called Birkat Kohanim, which the Torah identifies as the blessing that the kohanim, the priestly class shall bless all the rest of us:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ 

May God bless you and protect you!

יָאֵ֨ר ה’ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you!

יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

May God’s face lift up to you and grant you peace!
(Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26)

It is up to us to seek God’s face, to look for and understand the divinity in each and every person. It is up to us to find ways to reach out, to learn, to listen, to create spaces in our lives beyond our comfort zones to connect with others. We must all stand on the same side at this time to be blessed and protected. We must seek to change ourselves, to change our behavior, to rid ourselves of the anger and the fear and the hate, to create that single side, the right side of justice and peace and love. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/6/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

The Dead Support the Living – Yizkor / Shavu’ot 5780

You may know that I love to hike, and during this pandemic, I have been spending more time walking outside than I ordinarily do, particularly in the heavily-wooded Frick Park. That’s a good thing – particularly now that the weather is nice. Good for the spirit, good for the body. 

Red-tailed hawk in Frick Park (photo credit: me)

Judy and I were in the park a few weeks ago, and we noticed a couple of tall trees that looked dead, sort of intertwined with each other. And upon looking closer, we saw that the situation was much more interesting: one of the trees, standing upright, was clearly dead – no leaves, no bark in many places, minimal branches still remaining on its tall trunk. But the other tree was leaning over heavily onto the dead one, and it was still alive. It looked as though the live tree had been knocked over in a storm, and the dead tree had somehow “caught” it, and prevented it from falling.

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

We generally think of dead natural things – trees, animals, etc. – as being past their point of usefulness. That is, they are no longer part of the system. But of course that is not true. On the contrary: as you walk around a forest, for example, and you see plenty of dead things on the ground – leaves and tree trunks and occasionally animal carcasses – it is worth remembering that those things are essential parts of the circle of life. They serve as homes to insects, food for fungi, and of course when they break down into nutrients and reenter the soil, they continue to nourish the living plants around them by fertilizing the ground once again.

That is the cycle of life. Life yields death, which yields life again. 

And, in some sense, the same is true for people. Not in physical sense, of course, and not in the sense of death and resurrection, although for sure there are some Jews who believe in that sort of thing. But rather, I would like to propose that the dead nourish and sustain the living, sort of like that dead tree holding up the live one.

How can that be? Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah (Psalm 115:17), we chanted in Hallel earlier today. The dead do not praise God; that is only for the living. Being able to sing words of praise together with our community, that is a sure sign of life.

And yet, those of us who have passed from this world into the next are not only very much here with us, but they support us, the living as well. Let me explain, with an assist from the following midrash:

Moshe Rabbeinu is at the end of his life, and has ascended Har Nevo (Mt. Nebo), as God instructed him to do. God reminds Moshe that, even though he will not enter the Promised Land, he can see it from the mountain.

Moshe appeals to God, saying that it is not fair that he, Moshe Rabbeinu, who took the people out of the Land of Egypt, bringing them forth from slavery, cannot enter the Land of Israel. “I should be the first to cross the Jordan River,” he pleads. “I should lead them into the Land. Why won’t you let me? Why do you not favor me with love, as you favor the rest of Benei Yisrael (the Israelites)?”

“I have favored you with love,” says God. “I gave the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments to the people through you. I gave the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to them through you. That is how I have expressed my love for you.”

“Who, then, will lead the people, if not me?” says Moshe.

“Yehoshua (Joshua) will lead them. It is time for the people to find the courage to travel on without you, Moshe. But you will die knowing that they will never forget you. You will always be an essential part of them. You will be constantly invoked, in song and story, in learning and teaching, in repeating the words of Torah for millennia to come. You will continue to support them after you die, and your words will bring them strength.”

Moshe thinks about this, and then goes back down from Har Nevo to give a final blessing to Benei Yisrael. He climbs the mountain a final time, and, as he is looking out over the Land of Israel, spread out before him to the west across the Jordan River, God kisses his soul, taking his life. 

As a final act of God’s love, God buries Moshe on top of Har Nevo, in a location that has remained secret to this day.

***

How do the dead support the living? In the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu does: through the words that they said; through the actions that they took to sustain us in life; through the inspirations and memories fixed in our hearts and minds, that lead us to seek peace between people and care for those in need and comfort those who grieve. 

We carry them with us, just as we carry with us the Torah that Moshe gave us. When we get to Simhat Torah, the other celebration of Torah, half a year away, we will read, “Torah tzivvah lanu Moshe; morashah qehillat Ya’aqov.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:4) Moses charged us with Torah, as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. Our heritage includes not only Torah, but also the pieces of our ancestors that we contain: their good deeds, their wisdom, their reputations.

And how will we, the living, support those who will someday remember us when we are gone? By being the best people that we can be in life. By drawing on the Jewish values of learning, of compassion, of gratitude, of community-building, of remembrance. By fulfilling the mitzvot, the holy opportunities communicated to us through Moshe Rabbeinu and upheld by generations. By committing ourselves, every day, to making this world a slightly better place.

Three times a day in Jewish life, and sometimes four, we recite the berakhah Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayyeh hameitim.” Praised are You, God, who gives life to the dead. I know that it’s a not-so-coded reference to the Messianic resurrection of the dead that our ancestors yearned for. The Amidah (standing, silent prayer that is a part of every Jewish service) says, God keeps faith even with those who sleep in the dust: umqayyem emunato liysheinei afar, we sing ever-so-joyously. (BTW, that well-known melody, ubiquitous in American synagogues, was written by Cantor Max Wohlberg for a Junior Congregation service in the middle of the 20th century. He later regretted its spread to the entire Jewish world, because it just did not quite fit the meaning of that paragraph.)

But the berakhah is incomplete. It was liturgy that served a particular purpose at one time, and there are some who feel it has outlived its usefulness (the Reform and Reconstructionist movements changed the language; the Conservative movement left the language but tinkered with the translation). 

How it should be read is not only about God giving life to the dead, but also as the dead giving life back to us. Mehayyeh hameitim. We are in a circle of mutual support: God sustains the dead, who sustain us, who praise God. It’s an eternal loop of life. 

I would be remiss not to mention today that we passed an abominable statistic in America this week. The number 100,000 means nothing in relative terms; our per capita death rate in America due to the coronavirus is lower than many nations. 

But in very real terms, it is a staggering number, more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict combined, and all in the space of a couple of months.

I find myself coming back to the words of President Abraham Lincoln, delivered a little to the east of here, after the battle at Gettysburg in 1863:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

We the living, said President Lincoln, continue the work of those who gave their lives to give us life. They sustain us through their devotion. And as we recall not only our parents and grandparents and spouses and siblings and children who are no longer with us, we also recall those who gave up their lives to this disease, and we too resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

The dead give us life. They hold us up like strong, tall tree trunks. And we continue to remember them, to live their words and their deeds and their wisdom. That is the cycle of life, in which we are all bound.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / Second day of Shavu’ot, May 30, 2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Names, Not Numbers – Bemidbar 5780

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, students would make funny videos for Purim that we would share at the Purim se’udah, the festive daytime Purim meal. One that I will never forget featured a rabbinical student stuck in the beit midrash, the big study hall where students would gather to learn traditional texts together. The doors are locked and he cannot get out, and it’s time to daven minhah (recite the afternoon service). So he gathers together a minyan (prayer quorum) of familiar, well-loved books: the dictionary of rabbinical Hebrew and Aramaic by Rabbi Marcus Jastrow, the book of Talmudic terminology by Rabbi Yitzhak Frank, a volume of Talmud edited by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and so forth. He stands them up in a circle, as if they are davening with him. These books were so familiar to all of us that we referred to them not by their titles, but by the names of their authors. Rabbi Jastrow, z”l, although he passed away in 1903, was a dear friend to all of us through his dictionary.

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow

Parashat Bemidbar begins with a census. (A particularly hot topic right now, of course, because 2020 is a census year here in America.) Bemidbar is the first Torah reading in the book of the same name, which is called “Numbers” in English. Why Numbers? Because it begins with a whole lot of census data. (Hebrew names of the books and the parashiyyot / weekly Torah readings are derived from the first significant Hebrew word at the beginning of the book or parashah; the English names, mostly Greek, are thematic.)

We, the Jews, have been obsessed with numbers (not the book, but the concept) particularly since the late 19th century, when Jewish historians and demographers in Eastern Europe began the enterprise of studying their people. And yet, as you can see, there is a basis for this obsession in the Torah; this is one of a few passages that counts the Israelites. 

And yet, I am drawn to the fact that immediately after God gives Moshe the imperative to count the people, the Torah then launches into names. “Ve-eleh shemot ha-anashim asher ya’amdu ittekhem.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:5) “And these are the names of the people that will stand with you.” And because of this passage, the Torah preserves not only the names of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, not only the names of the twelve tribes, that is, the twelve sons of Ya’aqov, but also such names as Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai and Elishama ben Ammihud, two of the tribal chieftains that were identified this morning. And let’s face it: I’m sure Shelumiel and Elishama were great guys, along with Pagi’el ben Okhran and Gamaliel ben Pedahzur, but they are not exactly well-known figures in Jewish life. 

The 16th-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, noting the presence of this list of names up front in a passage primarily about numbers, tells us that there is a reason that the names are mentioned here, instead of merely the numbers. Everyone of that generation, he says, was identified individually by a name that expressed his/her personal character. Not all of those names are in the Torah, of course, but Seforno wants us to think of them as individuals, not merely numbers.

Other commentators observe that the census was completed, to use contemporary parlance, with non-anonymized data, i.e. they counted the people by name, not merely by numbers. And why? The 14th-century Provençal commentator Rabbi Levi ben Gershom points to a traditional Jewish superstition about counting people: if they do it by name, rather than number, he suggests, it would not bring a plague upon the Israelites. 

(You may know that there are a few related customs when trying to figure out how many people are in the room to make a minyan, a quorum of ten people, like using a scriptural verse that contains ten words, or the tremendously charming and somewhat confusing, “Not one, not two,” method. My father, the mathematician, really likes that one.)

Indeed, even the commandment from God to count the people suggests the personal nature of the count. The text uses the idiom, “Se’u et rosh kol adat benei Yisrael.” (Bemidbar 1:2) “Lift up the head of each of the Israelites.”

We do not merely count people. We recognize their names; we lift up their heads, as if to see their faces, as if to acknowledge their humanity.

Perhaps some of us have known people with numbers tattooed on their arms. My father-in-law’s number was A-7082; his name was Ervin Hoenig. Part of the Nazi system of dehumanization was to replace names with numbers. 

At this time, when we mourn so many that our nation has lost due to the mishandling of the virus response by our authorities, we might remember that each of the roughly 100,000 dead Americans each had a story, each had people who loved them, each had lives in which they sought meaning and love and companionship.

From the New York Times’ listing of names of 100,000 COVID-19 victims, 5/24/2020

People are kind of hard-wired to count ourselves. The Zoom software that many of us are using now tells us exactly how many devices are connected.

But the value of gathering – for prayer, for learning, for mourning, for celebrating – is not how many people showed up to a service or a program or how many times an online video was streamed.  Rather, it is whether or not lives were touched by the content. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, who has dedicated much of his recent work to helping synagogues improve themselves, points out that it does not matter how many people show up to a class or a program or even a service, but rather, how many relationships were made or strengthened.

I suppose that is the essential challenge that we face right now as a community. How do we build or enhance relationships when we are so far apart from each other? Do online minyanim, for example, reinforce personal connections?

Building relationships is an essential part of Jewish community, of course. But the most valuable thing, and the foundation of all relationships, is Torah. That is why our tradition suggests that the depth of commitment to learning Torah is so great. That is why Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) teaches us that Torah cannot be acquired if you are well-fed, or during the day, when there are too many distractions. One must be hungry and focused to truly learn Torah.

Rambam, writing in the 12th century, was mostly drawing on early rabbinic literature from a millennium earlier. In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, these ancient rabbis turned Judaism from a centralized, hierarchical, sacrificial worship system into a portable, democratic, knowledge-based system that depended on teaching and learning and passing on that knowledge from generation to generation. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, please come to my session via Zoom at the Pittsburgh community’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot on Wednesday evening, 5/27.)

This is what these rabbis said in the 2nd century:

Pirqei Avot 6:4

כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל, אִם אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה כֵן, (תהלים קכח) אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְטוֹב לָךְ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

Such is the way [of a life] of Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor.

Pirqei Avot 6:5

[This mishnah identifies the forty-eight ways in which Torah is acquired]

בְּתַלְמוּד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתַיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב, בְּשִׂכְלוּת הַלֵּב, בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה, בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, וּבְפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים, בְּיִשּׁוּב, בַּמִּקְרָא, בַּמִּשְׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁינָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק, בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, וּבְקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוּרִין

… by study, attentive listening, proper speech, by an understanding heart, by an intelligent heart, by awe, by fear, by humility, by joy, by attending to the sages, by critical give and take with friends, by fine argumentation with disciples, by clear thinking, by study of Scripture, by study of mishnah, by a minimum of sleep, by a minimum of chatter, by a minimum of pleasure, By a minimum of frivolity, by a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, by long-suffering, by generosity, by faith in the sages, by acceptance of suffering…

[…and that’s only 24 of the 48!]

How do we learn Torah and apply it to our lives? Through serious, hard work and dedication, with a minimum of qalut rosh – lightness of the head. And why is this so important? So that we do not become numbers. So that we are names. We are people, with a history, and a past, and a nation, and a homeland, and a whole lot of ancient yearnings.

What is really of value? Not how many of us there are, but rather our stories, our laws, our values, our interpretations, yes, even our holy disagreements. Those are the things that make us human. Those are the things that make us Jewish.

Let the numbers be for the people who are interested in things.

We understand the value of people, of names, of stories, and in telling and re-telling our national saga. Forget the Romans; that is why we, the Jews, are still here. Torah has sustained us until this very moment. Torah gives our names meaning; Torah fills our lives with context and depth.

Numbers? No thanks. As a former engineer, I’ve had my fill of numbers. I’ll take the names instead.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/23/2020.)