Categories
Sermons

The Two Sides of Ḥanukkah – Shabbat Ḥanukkah / Miqqetz 5782

Although I have been a rabbi for more than 14 years, I have never delivered a sermon on Shabbat Ḥanukkah, because I am almost always in Israel at this time, visiting my Israeli son. And, by the way, I am happy to report that he has been granted leave from the IDF to come visit us in Pittsburgh in a little more than a week. I have not seen him in nearly two years.

Something that I’ve noticed in Israel during Ḥanukkah is that the popular messaging there about the holiday is a little different than it is here. In America, Ḥanukkah is about candles and presents. There, it’s more about the historical victory over Greek culture. Not the military aspect, so much as the Maccabees’ success in taking back Jewish life from the Hellenistic influence of the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenized Jews who were in favor of assimilation. That is, the celebration of Ḥanukkah is a statement of, “We are the Jews who lean into our history and tradition, and do not seek to assimilate into the surrounding culture.”

It’s a theme that I think tends to get lost in America, when the very celebration of Ḥanukkah here derives so much from its overbearing Christian cousin. Ironically, we mark Ḥanukkah here with practices born of assimilation.

I am reading right now author Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews, a collection of essays about the fascination that we and the rest of the world have with the tales of Jewish persecution, murder, and genocide. 

In her chapter on the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, she distinguishes between what she calls “the Ḥanukkah version of anti-Semitism” and “the Purim version of anti-Semitism.” Ḥanukkah anti-Semitism is that which destroys Jewish civilization from the inside by pressuring Jews to gradually become non-Jews, while Purim anti-Semitism is a little bit more direct: kill all the Jews. 

The Ḥanukkah version, perhaps more subtle, is accomplished by what is described in the first chapter of the I Maccabees (1:14-15). The Hellenized authorities convinced some of the Jews to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem (according to the gentile custom, notes the book), and some Jewish men reversed their circumcisions so they could compete at the gym, and spurned the Torah and its berit, our covenant with God.

So amidst all of the fun we have here, imitating our Christian neighbors by layering gift upon gift (as, I am told, some do for “eight crazy nights”), one might see how this message gets lost. (Not that I am impugning this practice – I’m mostly just bitter because my parents never gave me gifts for Ḥanukkah.) 

But Ms. Horn is not far off: assimilation has, throughout history, created a powerful gravitational force that has pulled many Jews away from Judaism and out of Jewish life. While we have signed up eagerly for this kind of assimilation here in the Land of the Free, the Soviet Union, and the czars before it employed this sort of anti-Semitic tactic to solve what they perceived to be their Jewish problem.

So that’s one side of Ḥanukkah. But then there is the other side, one that perhaps we might have a better feel for in this corner of the world: the symbol of light, and our duty, while we are busy not assimilating ourselves out of existence, to make sure that we act in a way which illuminates the world.

On the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, we held the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service here at Beth Shalom, and I am happy to say that a handful of Beth Shalom members were there, along with folks from many other local faith communities. 

Rabbi Mark Goodman, in his role as the Director of Derekh, coordinated the service with some of our interfaith partners, but this year’s program was much less a religious ceremony and much more an opportunity to learn about all sorts of local social service organizations that are performing good works in our city. 

Among the fourteen organizations represented were such groups as 

  • the Alliance for Humanitarian Initiatives, Nonviolence and Spiritual Advancement 
  • Repair the World 
  • Days for Girls 
  • Foundation of Hope 
  • Global Links 
  • Casa San Jose 
  • JF&CS 

and so forth. Each was given a few minutes to introduce themselves, and after the brief ceremony, participants were encouraged to speak to representatives of the organizations.

Interfaith Thanksgiving 2021 at Beth Shalom

One presenter, Cheryl Lowitzer of Open Hand Ministries, told a captivating story. Open Hand’s mission is to help bridge the wealth gap between black and white Pittsburghers by among other things, helping black families to buy homes. Most of us know how complicated buying and owning a home is. But for families who were excluded from home ownership by various means (e.g. redlining) for generations, the obstacles are much higher. 

Among the things that Open Hand Ministries does is to help candidates with budgeting, reducing their debt, determining and improving credit scores, managing mortgages, and so forth. They also help families with repairing homes, using their own contractors at reduced rates. As Cheryl described it, the overarching goal of Open Hand is to help people manage their money so that it does not manage them.

Ms. Lowitzer told the story of one 60-year-old woman, whom they helped to buy her family’s first home ever. Upon achieving her goal, the woman remarked, “I’ve been paying for someone else’s dream for over 20 years. Now I’m going to fulfill my own dream.”

This is an organization that is truly making a difference in people’s lives, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about Open Hand, and the other organizations present that evening. 

You may know that the psalm most closely associated with Ḥanukkah is Psalm 30, which opens with (Tehillim / Psalms 30:1)

מִזְמ֡וֹר שִׁיר־חֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַבַּ֣יִת לְדָוִֽד׃

A psalm of David. A song for the dedication of the House.

The word חנוכה / Ḥanukkah means, literally, “dedication. The “bayit” (house) referred to here is the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Given that the psalm may have been written 800 years before anybody had heard of a Maccabee, it is clearly not referring to the dedication in the Ḥanukkah story, but more likely the original ḥanukkat habayit, the dedication of the First Temple, built by Shelomoh haMelekh, King Solomon.

But if you can imagine how powerful it must have been for this woman to dedicate her own house, fulfilling a dream that neither she nor her parents or grandparents or great-grandparents have been able to fulfill, that might give you a sense of the power of Ḥanukkah, the power of light over darkness.

Further down in Psalm 30, we read (v. 6)

בָּ֭עֶרֶב יָלִ֥ין בֶּ֗כִי וְלַבֹּ֥קֶר רִנָּֽה׃

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (KJV*)

Light is a symbol of the victory over the dark; although we may suffer in dark times, redemption is always there, around the corner. 

But symbols must lead to action. Joy doth not come with the light, unless we maketh it do so. If the Ḥanukkah candles do not lead us to a place where we do something concrete, something where we actually improve the quality of life of people near us, then we have missed the point. If we allow Ḥanukkah, or any Jewish holiday, merely to wash over us in joy and gifts and over-consumption of greasy foods, then we have not heeded the message.

Our goal in this season, as much as it should be to maintain our traditions, to remember our berit, our covenant, to resist assimilation by passing on moments of joy and gravitas and prayer to our children, should also be to act. To make a difference. To cast more light through action. To bring about ḥanukkat habayit – figuratively or literally to help dedicate a house.

A joyous and meaningful Ḥanukkah to you all, and may you be re-dedicated in this season to improving the lives of others.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6th day of Ḥanukkah, 12/4/2021.)

* King James Version translation. I don’t usually use King James, preferring the new Jewish Publication Society translation. However, in this case, it just seems to work so well.

Categories
Sermons

Less Stuff, More Compassion – Vayyishlah 5782

A funny thing happened to me this week.

The older of our two cars, a 2007 Toyota, was parked in front of our home in Squirrel Hill on Tuesday night. Judy went out on Wednesday morning, started up the car, and was absolutely freaked out by a fearful roar of the engine. It sounded like the muffler had fallen off. 

But no. As it turns out, some enterprising thief or thieves had gotten underneath the car and stolen the catalytic converter, which is apparently a 10-minute job that is worth it for the expensive metals, particularly platinum, found inside of it.

Catalytic converter

OK, so this is annoying for a whole bunch of reasons, as I am sure you can imagine. But let’s face it: a car, while essential for getting from place to place, is an expensive hunk of metal. Despite the fact that this vehicle was my first major purchase after completing rabbinical school, I do not have any particular affection or nostalgia for it. At some point, I’ll probably have to replace it with something that will look and feel a lot nicer, at least for a little while. I consider myself fortunate in that I can afford two cars.

But I had a fairly spartan childhood, growing up in rural New England. In my family, we almost never received Ḥanukkah gifts – for us, gift-giving was something that non-Jews did in December, and there was a clear, almost rabbinic opinion in my family that Ḥanukkah had nothing to do with Christmas, and that “giving in” to gift-giving was like celebrating Christmas. It just did not feel appropriate. 

So I suffered in resentful silence as my friends (virtually all of whom were not Jewish) received the newest, coolest toys, and all I got was a few pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold foil, and, if we were lucky, a few homemade latkes served with applesauce.

Truth is, my parents were experts at not buying stuff. We were all skilled in the art of re-using and recycling, way before it was cool, and turning the junk of others into our own treasure. Here is some true Adelson Family folklore:

Where we grew up, there was no municipal garbage pickup. We had to drive our garbage to the landfill (known affectionately as “the dump”) and actually toss it onto the pile, where it would soon be covered with soil. I’ll never forget the smell, which was not pleasant. 

Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I grew up

But the dump was fun in other ways – there was a recycling area where you could pick through the discarded periodicals of others, and also a spot where you could find large items that some considered garbage; but for us it was an opportunity to find slightly imperfect appliances and furniture at a VERY reasonable cost. So sometimes we came back from the dump with more stuff.

When my mother sensed that a critical mass of our household refuse had amassed in the garage, she would say, “Lennie, it’s time to go to the dump.” And my father would say, “Why? Whaddaya need?”

Now, with the anti-materialist deprivations of my childhood far behind me, I feel like I have too much stuff. I’ve got a whole house full of it. And, as I am sure is the case with many of you as well, most of it we almost never use.

As a society, of course, we think a lot about buying stuff at this time of year: the sales, the holiday pitches, family get-togethers, etc. Black Friday, the day when retail businesses go into the black, is coming up this week. And let’s face it: right now, supply-chain issues aside, the US economy needs a boost. (And perhaps some booster shots, as well!)

So it caught my eye that in Parashat Vayyishlaḥ, there is a particularly significant episode of gift-giving. Our hero Ya’aqov, preparing for being reunited with his brother Esav 20 years after effectively stealing their father Yitzḥaq’s blessing and fleeing, is expecting the worst. He assumes that Esav is still angry, and he has heard that Esav is coming with 400 men. So what does Ya’aqov do to attempt to head off a potentially deadly confrontation? He sends gifts: 550 animals – goats, sheep, camels, and even donkeys.

His reasoning is stated in the Torah (Bereshit / Genesis 32:21):

אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him; perhaps he will show me favor.

This is very interesting verse for a number of reasons:

  1. The use of term minḥah, which we think of as meaning, “the afternoon service,” although here we reveal its original meaning, “offering.” (When the Temple was functioning in Jerusalem, prior to its second and final destruction by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the minḥah sacrifice was the daily offering in the afternoon.)
  2. There are four idioms containing the root peh-nun-yod, meaning “face,” which is clearly a leitwort / thematic word of this chapter. The root also appears in the place name Peni-el, literally “face of God,” where Ya’aqov has the wrestling match with the angel.
  3. One of those idioms is akhapperah fanav baminḥah, which is hard to translate. Our translation says, “If I propitiate him with presents,” although the verb here is to atone. Ya’aqov seeks to “atone to his face,” or something similar.

Ya’aqov knows, as we all do, that people like gifts. Giving a gift tells the recipient, I care.  I love you. I am concerned with your welfare. Or, in this case, I’m sorry for what I did to you 20 years ago. I am atoning to your face.

But gifts can also be a kind of shortcut, an attempt to say something meaningful without actually saying it! 

In recent years, since there is so much more shopping that happens online, we have not heard about the Black Friday debacles that have happened in the past: people lining up all night, and stampeding when stores open, to get to the heavily discounted holiday gift items. You may recall that there was a Walmart employee who was trampled to death on Long Island about a decade ago. So thank God that sort of thing isn’t happening right now.

We like having stuff!  Ya’aqov liked stuff too – he left his father-in-law Laban’s house with all the best animals. The offspring of that hand-picked herd, the unnaturally-selected cream of the woolly crop, was delivered to Esav to ameliorate him, because Ya’aqov assumed that his brother also liked having new stuff.

But really, the problem here is that gifts do not necessarily resolve long-standing estrangements. Gifts do not even solve simple disputes. They might make the recipient more willing to talk to the giver, and perhaps lighten the mood. But the issues are still there.

Perhaps Ya’aqov made his offering under the misguided notion that it would right past wrongs.  Perhaps he feared Esav so much that he was unable to “atone to his face” verbally, to ask for forgiveness, to apologize, to try to make amends.  So he gave him a whole pasture-full of ruminants.

And the plan may not have even worked! When the brothers meet, in the following chapter, Esav runs to greet Ya’aqov, kisses him, and immediately declines the gifts. “יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃,” says Esav. “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” I don’t need your charity.

Radaq, Rabbi David Qimḥi, writing in Provence in the 12th-13th c., says that Esav realizes in that moment that he has abased himself, and is filled with compassion for Ya’aqov and genuinely forgave his brother. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, 15th-16th c. Italy, tells us that this change happens when Esav sees his brother; it is only when they see each other face-to-face that all is forgiven.

Ya’aqov fails the key test: instead of actually seeking forgiveness through reaching out to his brother, he tries to buy him off with gifts. Ironically, the true hero in this case is Esav; he is filled with compassion, not moved by gifts. He didn’t need more stuff.

What is more valuable than material goods? Genuine, true expressions of love. Honesty, compassion, sympathy, and earnest attempts to forgive those from whom we are estranged. Showing our faces.

We read in the Talmud, Massekhet Shabbat,

These are the things which people may do and thus enjoy their fruits in this world, while the principal of the investment remains for the world to come: honoring one’s parents, the practice of loving deeds, and making peace between people, and the study of the Torah surpasses them all.

The most valuable gifts we can give are not tangible; they are expressions of love and compassion. Material goods might make us momentarily happy; but personal investment in our relationships and knowledge will pay off throughout this lifetime, and the next.

So don’t worry about the supply-chain issues. What your family and friends and maybe even estranged relatives need is for you to reach out and tell them how much you love them, how much you appreciate them, and how much you care. They don’t need more stuff; they need to see your face. They need you.

Wassily Kandinsky – Unstable Compensation, 1930

A joyous Thanksgiving to you and yours, and may you have a happy, illuminating Ḥanukkah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/20/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

What Do Rabbis Do? – Vayyetze 5782

What does a rabbi do?

Are we teachers? Service leaders? Pastors? 

Am I employed by Beth Shalom to perform (God forbid!) your mother’s funeral? Or to help your daughter give a devar Torah for her bat mitzvah?

Do rabbis give advice? Pray for healing? Lead by being symbolic exemplars? Counsel people going through divorce or grieving a loss or celebrating a joyful moment? Plan and execute Purim, Simḥat Torah, Tu Bishvat, Tish’ah BeAv, and so forth? Work with people converting to Judaism, or teach in the Hebrew school? Do they serve a public role in the community as representatives and advocates? Serve on committees tasked with administrative duties for our qehillah (congregation)? Help members of our community deepen their connection to Judaism?

The answer to all of those questions is of course, yes. Rabbis do all of those things, and many more.

But if you had to encapsulate what rabbis do in one sentence, what would it be?

Not so easy to answer, right? 

I have some good news: Congregation Beth Shalom is now officially engaged in the process of hiring an Assistant Rabbi. This is very good news for you, because many of you know that I am stretched very thin (…), and the congregation as a whole will benefit if we have two people working in the rabbinic trenches. Our committee met for the first time this week, and we hope to be interviewing candidates as early as December. (Watch for upcoming info on two open forums in which you can participate.)

Surely some of you are thinking, “But how will we pay for another rabbi? Don’t we have a bunch of other rabbis around? Why do we need another one?”

First, I would like you to invite you to direct all questions regarding financing to our President, Alan Kopolow, and he will be happy to answer them.

But please know that Rabbi Mark Goodman, our interim Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, will hand off his responsibilities to the Assistant Rabbi when his term comes to an end in June. Additionally, the new Assistant Rabbi will be my partner in doing many of the things that I do from day to day and week to week. The other rabbis on staff (Rabbi Shugerman, Rabbi Freedman) have other areas of responsibility, and usually do not share in my tasks, particularly the pastoral and adult education roles. 

Hiring an Assistant Rabbi will allow us to deepen our rabbinic relationships with the community. It will ensure that you, a healthy-sized congregation of 600 families, are better served for all of the pulpit and pastoral responsibilities that are right now only attended to by yours truly. I’ll come back to this thought in a moment, but first a word from our sponsor this week, Parashat Vayyetze.

Vayyetze contains, right up front, one of my favorite scenes from the Torah. (Yes, I know I have a number of these, but this one is definitely in the Top 5.)

Our hero, Ya’aqov, is fleeing his brother Esav, and he stops for the night to have a schluff. While asleep, he has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder, and upon waking, he realizes that he is in a holy place, and exclaims (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16-17),

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃ וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ 

“Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it! … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

Has anybody here ever had a revelatory moment quite like that?

Marc Chagall, Jacob’s Ladder (1973)

It is a striking statement. Ya’aqov had not thought that there was anything special about this place, or this particular time, and yet he is suddenly aware of God’s presence, of the holiness of this single point in the spacetime continuum.

One thing that we might learn from this is that sometimes extraordinary things happen in otherwise ordinary circumstances. That is, you never know when the miraculous might occur, and you may not even realize that you are in the middle of a miracle until after the fact.  

And so it might very well be a good idea to expect it! The 15th-16th c. Italian commentator R. Ovadiah Seforno says that after the fact, Ya’aqov regretted not being ready for this moment:

ואנכי לא ידעתי שאלו ידעתי הייתי מכין עצמי לנבואה ולא כן עשיתי

And I did not know it. That if I had known [that God is present in this place], I would have prepared myself for prophecy; but I did not.

In retrospect, Ya’aqov realized that he missed his chance. He gets another one four chapters later, when he wrestles with an angel and is bestowed the name Yisrael. But here, he was not ready. God showed up – a miraculous moment – and Ya’aqov was caught off guard.

Do not think, ladies and gentlemen, that the synagogue is the only place where qedushah / holiness happens. On the contrary: what we learn from this passage is that holy moments can happen anywhere.

I might frame my job as a rabbi to be to remind you to connect the dots between what we learn from the Jewish bookshelf, here in the synagogue and elsewhere, with what we do with the rest of our lives. That is, the rabbi’s job is to deepen your understanding and appreciation for our tradition, so that it will stick with you; that you will remember the lessons taught by Avraham and Sarah, Rivqah and Yitzḥaq, Ya’aqov and Leah and Raḥel; that these pieces of ancient wisdom will be there when you need them, wherever you are in your Jewish journey. 

We need to be ready – ready for nevu’ah / prophecy, as Seforno suggests, or maybe ready just for the opportunity to raise the general level of qedushah / holiness in our midst: by making the right choices for ourselves and for others; by greeting another person with a smile; by being a better, more respectful neighbor; by seeking to understand before we criticize; by committing to learn an inch deeper, an centimeter wider. (The Talmudic text that I taught earlier suggests that all that it takes to get the yetzer hara off of somebody’s back is to drag them into the Beit Midrash!)

That is the value of our tradition. And the role of the rabbi is to help you find the wisdom, and to be ready, because you don’t want to miss that holy moment when it comes. 

I was asked recently by one of the members of our current Intro to Judaism class what the biggest challenge to contemporary Judaism is. And, lamentably, the answer is apathy. Indifference to our tradition.

And the survey data that we collect about ourselves (e.g. the recent Pew study) reinforces this: we see a gradual hardening on the far theological right, and everybody else, from Modern Orthodoxy leftward, is gradually drifting away. You know this from the realities of your own family members. Assimilation and disinterest continue to take their toll.

My primary role as a rabbi is not only to endeavor to inspire those who may be drifting away, but also to inspire you who are not, you who are still showing up for Jewish life, to deepen your commitment, to be role models for contemporary Jewish engagement, to demonstrate your appreciation and love of Jewish text, Jewish ritual, Jewish living. My primary goal is to make you care – to show you the value in our tradition, and how it can improve your life and our world. That is, to be ready for all holy moments that come your way; to recognize that God is always in the place where you are. 

And the same will be true of our new Assistant Rabbi. Ladies and gentlemen, as we embark on this process, please know that foremost in my mind is that the successful candidate will inspire you to think about our tradition not only on Shabbat morning or at a Lunch and Learn or a shiv’ah house, but in every waking moment, and sometimes when, like Ya’aqov, when and where you sleep as well.

What do rabbis do? They help us to be ready for the holy moments, the times when God is in this place, and God knows we need more inspiration to do so.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/13/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

I’m Done With Outrage – Ḥayyei Sarah 5782

In the opening moments of Parashat Ḥayyei Sarah, Avraham loses his wife Sarah, and he cries for her, mourns for her, eulogizes her, and buries her.

There is no question that Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is still in mourning, three years after the horror that was perpetrated in our neighborhood by a murderer motivated by “the Great Replacement Theory,” the detestable idea held by white nationalists that Jews are engineering the “replacement” of white people by importing dark-skinned immigrants from elsewhere.

Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017, where marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

There is no question that the fabric of this community was irreparably torn on that day. You may know that it is customary when in mourning to wear a piece of torn clothing (we usually represent this with those ubiquitous black ribbons, although the real tradition is to actually tear your shirt). If it is a parent whom we have lost, that torn shirt may be sewn up, but may never be entirely repaired. So too will we as a community never be entirely repaired from that Shabbat morning, the 18th of Ḥeshvan*.

Even as we remember those whom we lost, even as we recall the last time we saw Cecil Rosenthal in the Beth Shalom office, patiently waiting for minḥah, or Dan Stein in the JCC locker room, we nonetheless also have to remember that life goes on. That is, of course, why we say the words of the Mourner’s Qaddish, which mentions not death but life, and the God-given framework of life which enables us to go from day to day, from week to week, from year to year. These ancient customs carry us from the depths of shiv’ah to the end of a year of mourning and onward, to the point where we can celebrate with a young couple who will soon be married, as we have done today.

Cecil Rosenthal

It is not coincidental that the American Jewish Committee released its third annual report on the state of anti-Semitism this past week. The survey is based on the perceptions and experiences of 1,433 American Jewish adults, and compares with attitudes about anti-Semitism within the general American public. Now it is worth highlighting that this survey is not based on incidents reported to law enforcement, but rather on the experiences of the respondents. 

And, as you might expect, Jews not only perceive rising rates of anti-Semitism, but also that their perception of anti-Semitism is much higher than that of the general public.

We should all be concerned about anti-Jewish attitudes and perception, particularly in light of what happened here three years ago. But we should also put this in perspective: anti-Semitism is truly an ancient hatred. It has always and will always be around us. While the rate of anti-Jewish acts – from graffiti on Jewish buildings to desecrating Jewish cemeteries all the way up to physical attacks on Jewish people and institutions – may wax and wane, they have never gone away. And they never will. While we might have thought for some time that America is different, we now know that is not reality.

CEO and President of AJC David Harris released a statement regarding the report, in which he said the following:

Now is the time for American society to stand up and say “Enough is enough.” American Jews see antisemitism on the far right and the far left, among extremists acting in the name of Islam, and elsewhere throughout America. It is 2021, and a disturbing number of Jews in America are afraid of identifying openly as Jewish for fear of attack. Where is the outrage? Where is the recognition that antisemitism may begin with Jews but, ultimately, targets the fabric and fiber of any democratic society?

While I agree with Mr. Harris that anti-Semitism, like all forms of hate, is a pernicious phenomenon that eats away at all of us, I must say that I am done with being outraged. Yes, we should make people aware of anti-Semitism in all its forms. Yes, we should chastise public figures of all sorts who dip their toes into anti-Semitic waters. Yes, we should be vigilant in protecting ourselves from physical threats.

But outrage? There is enough outrage in our world. Our society has turned the outrage knob to eleven. Social media platforms, and to some extent more traditional media outlets are in fact outrage machines.

So rather than add to the outrage, I want to us to make sure that our response to rising anti-Semitism is an intentional one.

Consider the words of our neighbor and friend, Reverend Canon Natalie Hall, who is now the Interim Rector of the Church of the Redeemer on Forbes. Reverend Hall spoke at the memorial service hosted by the 10.27 Healing Partnership on Wednesday in Schenley Park, and she invoked the words of Psalm 23 to make a point which really resonated with me.

Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, Oct. 27, 2021. (Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)

She noted that the tone of the psalm, which speaks of being sheltered and protected by God in the context of threatening evil, takes a surprise turn toward the end. The next to the last verse reads (Tehillim / Psalms 23:5):

תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ לְפָנַ֨י ׀ שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹרְרָ֑י דִּשַּׁ֥נְתָּ בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן רֹ֝אשִׁ֗י כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה׃

You prepare a banquet for me in the presence of my enemies; my head is anointed with oil; my cup runs over.

Said Rev. Hall:

Enemies. What a startling turn. At the end of a walk with the Almighty, we’re invited to a table with those who differ from us. Adversaries. People who don’t know, understand, or even like one another. It’s here that we’re refreshed with overflowing cups. Why? Because God knows it’s hard to hate your neighbors when you share dinner.

In the closing picture painted by the psalm, we are dining “neged tzorerai,” sitting opposite those who despise us. It is a reminder that at the end of the day, we can be outraged about those that hate us; we can twist ourselves up in anguish and lament the state of the world and the hatred therein; we can write impassioned opinion pieces and write checks to AJC and ADL and decry the backward-thinking, knuckle-draggers who are the source of all of our tzuris*.

Or we can sit down to dinner, at the table that God has set, facing our enemies, and seek a different way.

The best response to anti-Semitism is not outrage – it is the same response that our people have had throughout our history. It is to mourn our dead. It is to grieve through the words of our ancient texts. It is of course to protect ourselves through physical and legal means. And it is to lean into the framework of our tradition: prayer, Shabbat, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life. 

We remember, we mourn, we are vigilant, and then we go on about our lives, wounded as we are, knowing that there will always be people who hate us for no good reason.

Outrage is not helpful. Although it is a natural human reaction, it only leads to more outrage. And don’t you think there is enough of that going around already? 

Laura Ellsworth, speaking at the recent Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh (about which I spoke last week), pointed out that no politicians were involved with planning the summit, and that was by design. Although a select few politicians addressed the conference, Laura affirmed to us that politicians do not necessarily have an interest in tamping down hate, because they capitalize on hate for their own purposes. And the same is surely true of outrage.

Being outraged at each other accomplishes nothing, and might even make the problem worse. Anger often yields more anger, which yields more hate.

But of course we cannot either slide into indifference, whether by our non-Jewish neighbors who fail to see anti-Semitism in their midst, or the indifference of Jews who would rather crawl under a rock and hope that the monster goes away. It will not.

Our goal, then, in this regard is to be intentional. To use the tools at our disposal to study, to prosecute, to legislate. We have to channel our energies into productive solutions. Those solutions will not be easy, but if we are sitting down at that table in the presence of our enemies, perhaps we can at least begin the conversation.

A final thought by way of Dr. Barry Kerzin, the personal physician to the Dalai Lama and the founder of the Altruism in Medicine Institute, which offers training in mindfulness and resilience for nurses in Pittsburgh and other locales.

Dr. Kerzin with the Dalai Lama

Dr. Kerzin spoke at the Eradicate Hate Summit as well, and he opened with a story about the survivors of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. For decades, the survivors were extraordinarily angry and filled with hate toward the Americans.

About fifteen years ago, Dr. Kerzin recounted, an extraordinary thing happened. Those survivors were able to turn their hate into love. They began advocating for worldwide denuclearization, and the anger fell away. It brought them new meaning for their lives, and their perspectives changed.

We will never cure the world of anti-Semitism, and I will certainly never excuse the actions of those who attack Jews for being Jewish. But Dr. Kerzin’s message is that it is possible to replace hate with love. And that requires that we do not turn away; rather, that we continue to mourn, that we hold fast as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and that we sit at the table that God has set for us, facing our enemies, and try to to replace outrage with love. It is only then that our metaphorical cups may be refreshed and overflowing.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/30/2021.)

* Jews commemorate a deceased loved one on the anniversary of that person’s death according to the Jewish calendar. This day is referred to as the yortzayt (more commonly spelled yahrzeit), Yiddish for “year-time.” October 27, 2018 was the 18th day of the Hebrew month Ḥeshvan, in the year 5779. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, the two dates only coincide only about once per decade.

** That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word tzarot, meaning “troubles.” It is apparently related to the word tzar or tzorer, “enemy” – that is, your tzar is the one who causes you tzuris. It is not related, as far as I know, to the title of the historical Russian king, the source of much tzuris for generations of Jews in Russian lands.

Categories
Sermons

Hinnenu / Here We Are: Responding to Hate – Vayyera 5782

I spent the first few days of last week attending some of the sessions at the Eradicate Hate Global Summit downtown. In care you did not hear about this conference, it was a stunning array of speakers and panels and sessions on various perspectives regarding hate in our world today: what causes it, what exacerbates it, how it spreads, how it is manifest, how it wounds and damages and kills, and how we might go about trying to stop it. Although the conference was not an explicitly Jewish conference, and presenters were of many ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and colors, it of course was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the deadly attack aimed at our Squirrel Hill Jewish community, and the remembrance of the victims, the survivors, and the trauma experienced by all of us was front and center throughout the conference.

While it is hard to say that I “enjoyed” listening to hours of discussion surrounding the problem of hate, I must say that attending this summit was truly rewarding because it provided me with a sense of relief. Relief that there are good minds thinking about this challenge: academics, religious leaders, think-tank people, entrepreneurs, Big Data companies, NGOs, victims, journalists, politicians and so forth. This conference brought together many of these folks, and there were just so many speakers, and the program was so jam-packed that there was not even enough time to ask questions. I am fairly certain that the organizers expect this to be an annual conference.

At one point, Beth Shalom member Nancy Zionts, COO and Chief Program Officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, tapped me on the shoulder to say, “Rabbi, I can’t wait to hear the sermons you’re going to give that will come out of the material from this conference.” I responded by saying, “There is so much material here that I’m not even sure where to start.”

So I’ll start with this, on this Shabbat on which we read Parashat Vayyera, including the Aqedah, the story of the binding of Yitzhaq: we as a society are in the midst of a test – a test which has been foisted upon us, one of which we are only just beginning to become aware. The test of how to prevent all the forms of hatred which are now conspiring from boiling over and destroying the order of the world.

The Aqedah, says the 13th-century Spanish commentator Ramban, teaches us that, since humans have free will, any time we are asked to do anything can be understood to be a test. But in Avraham’s case, says Ramban,

המנסה יתברך יצוה בו להוציא הדבר מן הכח אל הפועל, להיות לו שכר מעשה טוב, לא שכר לב טוב בלבד

God is commanding Avraham to turn the potential into the actual, so that he can be rewarded for his good deed, and not merely for his good intentions.

The good deed, in Avraham’s case, should be understood as carrying out God’s instruction, not, of course, actually sacrificing his son. But the notable item here is that when we are tested in the way that our society and our world are right now, the test is whether we can, in fact, turn the potential into the actual.

And that is exactly what we need to do: to figure out how to turn the potential into the actual. How do we go about solving the problem of hate? Avraham answers his call to action with one word: “Hinneni.” Here I am.

****

There were many summit presenters who were there to tell their personal stories, powerful stories of hatred and responding to it. 

There was Taylor Dumpson, the first Black person to be elected student body president of American University, who awoke to her first day in that position in 2017 to find nooses containing bananas upon which racist epithets had been scrawled scattered all over campus.

Taylor Dumpson

There was Navdeep Gill, who as an 18-year-old Sikh in suburban Milwaukee, saw members of his community gunned down while engaged in prayer at their gurdwara in 2012. 

Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

There was Alice Wairimu Nderitu of Kenya, the United Nations’ Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, who gave a keynote speech which asserted that this initial conference was like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples of which will spread far and wide.

Alice Nderitu

But I want to highlight in particular Tanya Gersh, a Jewish real-estate agent who refers to herself as a “Montana Mom.” Ms. Gersh lives in Whitefish, Montana, also the home of Sherry Spencer, the mother of notorious “white nationalist” Richard Spencer. 

Tanya Gersh

In 2016, Gersh was hired for real estate services by Ms. Spencer. When her son and his posse of thugs discovered this, Andrew Anglin, publisher of the online neo-Nazi rag the Daily Stormer, mounted a campaign of terrorism against her. Anglin published all of Ms. Gersh’s contact info – address, phone numbers, photos, personal family information, social media accounts, including that of their 12-year-old son, and of course explicitly mentioning that she is Jewish, and instructing the hundreds of thousands of readers of the Daily Stormer to launch a so-called “troll storm” against her and her family. He published 30 such articles. 

For months after, Tanya’s family’s life became a living hell. People called at all hours, saying things like, “I hope you die,” “Kill yourself,” and many, many other horrible things that should never be repeated in public, let alone in a synagogue. The family kept luggage packed in their living room for three months, should they have to flee.

But they never did. As traumatic as the experience was, Tanya and her family stood their ground. Eventually, attorneys provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a lawsuit against Anglin, and in 2019 won $14 million in damages. Andrew Anglin is currently on the lam.

Tanya’s message, for those who heard her story at the Lawrence Convention Center and beyond via Zoom, is to stand up. Don’t back down. Face this challenge. I must say that I do not know, if I were in her situation, that I could have been as brave.

And, pulling back the lens to consider the wider challenges of hate and its consequences, we have to stand up as a society. We are being tested; when God calls us, answer, “Hinneni.” Here I am. Rabbi Brad Artson describes this word as an expression of humility: Hinneni – I can only respond with the totality of my presence, my attention, my willingness to be in that presence. I may not know yet how to respond, but I’m here. I have shown up.

I might even be so bold as to amend Avraham’s word slightly: We need to answer in one voice: Hinnenu. Here we are. 

One of the overarching messages of this summit is that, while we may never solve the problem of hate, while it will never entirely go away, we must fight it with all the tools that we have: legal tools, technology tools, academic tools, and of course the tools of leadership. 

Laura Ellsworth, the primary organizer of the summit and Partner-in-Charge of Global Community Service Initiatives at Jones Day, stated quite clearly on the final day of the conference, that we all have the potential to be leaders in this regard. “Think about your role,” she said. “Don’t wait for leaders; be one, each to the other, every day.” Don’t wait for politicians to make this happen, because they will not. Rather, Ms. Ellsworth exhorted the attendees that if they could take one thing away from this conference, it would be that each of us has the potential to be leaders in our community.

We are not powerless against hate: but we do need to show up. We need to use all of those tools; we need to stand up when called. This test can only have one possible outcome; I cannot even allow myself to consider what the results will be if we allow the forces of chaos to win.

And that is why I am grateful to Laura Ellsworth and her team in putting this summit together, to inviting and coordinating the individuals and the organizations who have said, “Hinnenu,” here we are, who are working to face this test. 

As we come around to the 18th of Heshvan as a community day of mourning for the third time, and we remember those who were murdered on that day three years ago, we all have the opportunity to step forward and be the leaders that this world desperately needs right now. 

It’s just the beginning. But we cannot fail this test.

Hinnenu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/23/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

If I Am Only For Myself: The Toxicity of “Company Over Country” – Noah 5782

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי

[Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?…

Pirqei Avot 1:15

I was extraordinarily shocked this week to hear reports of the testimony from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who worked at Facebook in their “civic integrity department,” about how Facebook’s leadership has been aware, from their own extensive research, of potentially toxic effects of its products on its users’ mental health. Despite this research, showing, among other things, that the use of Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) increases thoughts of suicide and eating disorders among teenage girls, Facebook has done effectively nothing to prevent these toxic effects. 

But in particular, the thing that shocked me the most was that at Facebook meetings, CEO Mark Zuckerberg would often conclude by repeating the mantra, “Company over country.”

The accusation that weaves through Ms. Haugen’s testimony is that Facebook has, except in a few limited circumstances, consistently chosen to try to keep your attention focused on Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp, because the more you keep your eyeballs on those products, the more money Facebook makes, regardless of the cost to our mental health.

We must ask ourselves, how many fewer people could have died of Covid-19 if no misinformation had been spread via Facebook and other social media platforms? How many fewer young women would be suffering from eating disorders or other emotional health issues without the influence of Instagram? How many of us would be spending better quality time with our children, if our noses were not permanently pointed at our screens? Would there have been a home-grown terrorist attack on the halls of Congress, the seat of American democracy, without these tools?

But the problem does not end with Facebook. The wider problem with the very idea of “company over country” is that it sounds like our social contract is broken, that the ties that bind us together as a nation are dangerously frayed; that we have lost the social capital in our society that holds us together, that we have forgotten that we are all in relationship with one another. It is easy for us to recall the first part of the mishnah from the great 1st-century sage Hillel, “Im ein ani li mi li?” If I am not for myself who am I? But perhaps it is more difficult to remember the second part: “Ukhsheani le’atzmi mah ani?” And if I am ONLY for myself, what am I?

And the challenge here is not limited to our social and emotional health. What about the warming climate? The microplastics in the ocean? The chemical contaminants that are now found in our drinking water, and throughout our ecosystem?

Humans are brilliant at manipulating our environment with our God-given intellect and abilities. We are always striving to create new technologies that help us do that even better and cheaper and easier. But we are very, very bad at anticipating negative long-term consequences of such manipulation. We all rush to embrace new technologies, because if something makes your life easier and better, why wouldn’t you? 

But we rarely have the patience or the collective will to determine how these innovations will ultimately affect us over years of use and exposure, how they will affect our brains, our bodies and our environment. And when that change is incremental – rapid in terms of geologic time, but very slow in human years – it is even harder to see and respond to.

Ukhshe-ani le’atzmi mah ani? What am I? Who are we? And what are we destroying by being only for ourselves, and not looking out for others? By focusing on company over country, by looking out only for number one rather than considering the common good?

Parashat Noaḥ opens with a general observation about the state of the world, of the people of his generation (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11):

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

Vatishahet,” here translated as “became corrupt,” could be better understood as “destroyed.” The Earth was destroyed before God, in the passive (nif’al) voice. Medieval commentators want to make it clear to us that people did this, we were the destroyers. God’s Creation did not merely corrupt itself, as the passive voice suggests. Ibn Ezra, for example, writing in 12th-century Spain:

The meaning of לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים before God is that the humans acted brazenly, like a servant, who in the presence of his master, disobeys him and thereby shows that he does not fear the master.

And this is in the wake of God’s imperative to humanity, which we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (2:15):

וַיִּקַּ֛ח ה’ אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעׇבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׇׁמְרָֽהּ׃

God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.

The first people had a mission: to take care of the world. And, only one parashah, a few chapters later, like deceptive servants with no respect for their Creator, they abused Creation for their own purposes.

So what does God do to remedy this unfortunate situation? A flood, to start again. To give (as our bar mitzvah said earlier) humanity a second chance.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we have no respect for what we have been given, if we have no fear or reverence for our Master and Creator, if we continue to take, to steal, to abuse, to manipulate, our future looks bleak indeed.

We are destroying. We are corrupting the Earth and ourselves once again. We have placed company over country, time and time again. And we cannot be sure that there will be a second chance this time. 

So what are we going to do about it?

We could wait until the flooding is so bad that climate refugees are streaming into Pittsburgh. We could just wait for another mass shooting, streamed to Facebook Live. We could wait for the troops of chaos mustered by white supremacist groups to cause democracy to crumble. We could inspire even more young women to feel inadequate about themselves. We could install air conditioning in our sukkot, to keep ourselves from sweating as fall temperatures rise, and just let the challenges continue to mount.

There are naysayers in the world, and I am hearing their voices more frequently, who are saying that we are doomed. That we will never be able to prevent the corruption of all life that will lead to the ultimate cataclysm.

Noah, the Eve of the Deluge – 1848, John Linnell

But here is where I prefer to be an optimist. And here is the solution, ladies and gentlemen:

Prayer. Tefillah.

But not like you think. Not necessarily to move God to act to save humanity from itself. But rather, the human side of prayer, prayer which brings us together. Prayer that focuses us and galvanizes us to act. Prayer that serves as the fulcrum of the arm of intention.

Worldwide prayer. Prayer across communities. Prayer across continents and timezones. Praying together in multiple languages, in multiple religious contexts.

We have to say words of prayer together so that we can think together and act together and understand that we are all in this together.

And of course, some of you are thinking, “Oh, come on, Rabbi. Religion is going to solve this?” 

Well, I have news for you:  People of faith are great at one thing: Gathering. We gather for community, to harness intent and to tap into our spiritual well. It is through gathering with a holy purpose that we can arouse the worldwide will to take on the intransigence of governments and corporations, who actually have the power to save us from ourselves.

We have many microcosmic prayer groups scattered all over the world. But people of faith – people who understand the value of religious traditions and teachings and reverence for what God has given us – have much more strength if we are united, so that we can stand together against the corrupt, destructive path of “company over country.”

Google announced this week, perhaps inspired by Facebook’s missteps, that they will no longer place ads alongside climate change denial. Many of the world’s automakers have pledged to turn their fleets electric in the coming decade. Some governments are coming around to the need to rein in the “company over country” model. Those are all good pieces of news.

But what will really make sure that we understand that we will only solve these challenges together? It will only happen if we can lead the world to a better place through shared meditation, shared words of peace and reverence and contrition, gathering together, however that might happen, to respect the qedushah / holiness in one another, to break bread together and sensitize ourselves to the needs of the other, to see humanity over company and country, and to seek the common good over myopic selfishness.

Ukhsheani leatzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/9/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

It’s Not Good To Be Alone – Bereshit 5782

I must say that this past week we celebrated what I think was the most joyful Simḥat Torah of my lifetime. We were outside in the Ohel (tent) at Beth Shalom both Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, which made it more comfortable for many families with young children to come and join us. So it was wonderful to sing and dance with abandon, and to celebrate the ancient wisdom of our tradition as we do on Simḥat Torah, and to feel some joy after 18 months of isolation and anxiety. 

I have always been of the opinion, by the way, that if you want to really experience Judaism, and you only have two days out of the year on which to do so, you should be at synagogue on Simḥat Torah and Purim, not on the High Holidays. While the gravitas of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is certainly powerful, the true joy in Jewish life and practice is found on the celebratory days.

But what concerns me, of course, are the people who were not there, who still do not feel comfortable coming because they are anxious about the Delta variant or cannot get vaccinated for health reasons or have other complicating factors. It is for those people that we of course are still making our services accessible via Zoom, and of course we will continue to do so for some time. 

There is, however, a slight problem with Zooming synagogue services. I’ll come back to that.

***

You may know that I am fond of comparing and contrasting the two Creation stories of Parashat Bereshit; the first Creation story of Bereshit Chapter 1, the one which features six days of Creation followed by Shabbat, is about order, that the world which God created is an orderly one that is, in God’s estimation, “good.”

But the second story, beginning in Bereshit Chapter 2, is the human one, the one in which Adam is fashioned from the adamah, the Earth, and there is almost a sense of human-Divine partnership in that story. Adam is called upon to till and tend the Earth, and to give names to all the creatures and plants in the Garden of Eden. And ultimately, this story is about disorder, about human failure to meet God’s expectations, the messiness of humanity. 

Early on in that second story, Adam is lonely, and God says, (Bereshit / Genesis 2:18):

לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃

Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado; e’eseh lo ezer kenegdo.

It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.

It is of course striking that, as the 19th-century Volhynian commentator Malbim notes, that all of the other creatures were created in male-female pairs, yet this human partner to God is unique in that Adam is initially alone. But furthermore, one of the essential features of humanity is, of course, society. There could be no concept of “humanity” without other human beings. 

Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, in 15th century Italy, reads this verse as follows:

The purpose of the human species on earth will not be achieved while the one who is supposed to reflect the divine image will be left to personally carry out all the menial tasks of daily life on earth by being solitary.

In other words, we humans, having been created (in the first Creation story) betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, have a job, and that job is to be God’s hands on Earth, to spread physical manifestations of the qedushah, the holiness embedded in that fundamental relationship with God. And that task clearly cannot be completed by one person. Reflecting the Divine image requires a lot of people; it requires human society.

And so God creates a second human being, to be an “ezer kenegdo,” a term that is not easy to translate. I said “fitting helper” a moment ago, according to the Jewish Publication Society translation. But there is a complication here! The term “fitting helper” does not capture the sense of opposition in the Hebrew.. “Ezer” means helper. But “kenegdo” includes “neged,” which means, “opposing.” So the human partner here can both help and oppose.

If we might envision this moment of the creation of Adam’s ezer kenegdo – when one became two, which became 4 and then 3 and then many others as we journey through the genealogies later in the parashah – as the beginning of human society, then we might read this passage as suggesting that we can stand with or against each other. We can advocate for each other or we can oppose. We can elevate the qedushah / holiness in the world together, or we can disagree about exactly how to go about that and accomplish nothing. We can solve problems, or we can argue about them.

That is one fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, to be in relationship with each other, to be a part of society.

And I am concerned that we are leaning too heavily into the “kenegdo,” the oppositional aspect of humanity today, rather than the “ezer.” 

And while certainly there are some bad actors who are doing this deliberately (e.g. those who knowingly spread false information about vaccines), there are many more of us who are doing this unintentionally. 

What do you mean, Rabbi?

Thanks in part to the Internet, which has allowed people to connect with and gather with each other and create micro-communities across continents and time zones, it is completely possible that today you can find the other people whom you perceive to be just like you all over the world. They think like you, they act like you, they have your particular tastes and inclinations. They watch all the same stuff on YouTube that you do.

So on the one hand, that’s great. It’s wonderful to know that people who have been marginalized for various reasons, for example, can find community.

But on the other hand, once you are socializing and forming communities with people who are far away from you, whom you cannot see in person, you are losing some of the essential aspects of what it means to be in relationship – that is, both the “ezer” AND the “kenegdo.”

And we are all actively creating this, even if we are doing it not on purpose. I am certainly not going to stop Beth Shalom from providing services via Zoom to people all over the world, but of course if you’re Zooming into a bar mitzvah from far away, and not actually coming to visit your friends and family in Pittsburgh, yes, you are sparing the atmosphere some carbon dioxide and contributing less to global warming. But you are also missing something else: the idea that synagogue, and, well, life takes place locally.

And of course this applies across all of our platforms, which both connect us and separate us.

The pandemic certainly has upended our lives in many ways, and the Zoom phenomenon is just one. All of the forces of isolation were in play long decades before the arrival of Covid-19, and even the Internet; sociologists and political scientists and psychologists have been talking about these things for years. (Many of you have heard me speak about the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon identified by sociologist Robert Putnam.)

But just one tiny anecdote that might hit home for us: the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle published a poll this past week regarding the building and use of sukkot in our community over the recent holiday. A few of the written responses that they published echoed this isolation:

  • “Unable to attend live services and visit the sukkah due to worry about leaving my ill wife!”
  • “I used to be Jewish. I am alone. People have not invited me to anything for a number of years.”
  • “Used to have a sukkah every year when my kids were here.”

There were of course some positive responses as well. But these kinds of statements make my heart ache. Social isolation is a problem in particular for people who are homebound, but it is growing for all of us as well. Perhaps we need to do a better job as a community to reach out to people who feel disconnected.

Fortunately, there is a remedy for that: communal organizations. And even more fortunately, we the Jews are very good at being organized: Bend the Arc, Repair the World, ZOA, NCJW, the Jewish Federation, and of course, your local synagogue are all organizations which help to mitigate the challenge of isolation. 

And in particular, in places like synagogues where you might rub elbows with people who are as much ezer as kenegdo, we need to ensure that we continue to be in touch with and serve all people, people of all walks of life, of all ages, colors, backgrounds, gender identities, financial means and yes, even people of all political persuasions.

That is what it means to be in community; that is what it means to be God’s hands in doing the holy work of being made in the Divine image. And that experience, of doing God’s work together in partnership, is a highly local endeavor, one that we do with ALL of our neighbors.

Yes, the pandemic is still going on, and of course we must continue to emphasize vaccination and the wearing of masks. But just as we saw lots of joy over this Simḥat Torah, just as people expressed their tremendous gratitude to me and other leaders of Beth Shalom for making it possible for us to be able to daven together in the building over the High Holidays, we will learn to live with this, we will continue gradually to protect everybody from the disease, and we will gather with even more joy and celebration and just the pure happiness of being together.

So, while I am grateful for Zoom, I am also looking forward to the day when we can all gather freely once again, to be ezer kenegdo to one another, as God intended.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/2/2021.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

What’s Wrong With Ecclesiastes (aka Qohelet)? – Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot 5782

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
מַה־יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכׇ֨ל־עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְאֶ֨ל־מְקוֹמ֔וֹ שׁוֹאֵ֛ף זוֹרֵ֥חַֽ ה֖וּא שָֽׁם׃
הוֹלֵךְ֙ אֶל־דָּר֔וֹם וְסוֹבֵ֖ב אֶל־צָפ֑וֹן סוֹבֵ֤ב ׀ סֹבֵב֙ הוֹלֵ֣ךְ הָר֔וּחַ וְעַל־סְבִיבֹתָ֖יו שָׁ֥ב הָרֽוּחַ׃
כׇּל־הַנְּחָלִים֙ הֹלְכִ֣ים אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם וְהַיָּ֖ם אֵינֶ֣נּוּ מָלֵ֑א אֶל־מְק֗וֹם שֶׁ֤הַנְּחָלִים֙ הֹֽלְכִ֔ים שָׁ֛ם הֵ֥ם שָׁבִ֖ים לָלָֽכֶת׃
כׇּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים יְגֵעִ֔ים לֹא־יוּכַ֥ל אִ֖ישׁ לְדַבֵּ֑ר לֹא־תִשְׂבַּ֥ע עַ֙יִן֙ לִרְא֔וֹת וְלֹא־תִמָּלֵ֥א אֹ֖זֶן מִשְּׁמֹֽעַ׃ מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה֙ ה֣וּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶ֔ה וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂ֔ה ה֖וּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂ֑ה וְאֵ֥ין כׇּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

Utter futility!—said Qohelet— Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a person / In all the gains one makes beneath the sun?
One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.
Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the wind;
On its rounds the wind returns.
All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full;
To the place from which they flow / The streams flow back again.
All such things are wearisome: No man can ever state them;
The eye never has enough of seeing, Nor the ear enough of hearing.
Only that shall happen / Which has happened,
Only that occur / Which has occurred;
There is nothing new / Beneath the sun!

Qohelet / Ecclesiastes 1:2-9

***

What’s the problem with Qohelet?

First, while some might point to this passage and see nihilism, that is, the idea that everything is meaningless, that our actions do not matter, that there are no objective truths or morality or values, that is actually not Qohelet’s philosophy. 

Others have suggested that Qohelet is the original existentialist, meaning that our individual choices are solely ours, the responsibility and consequences thereof are solely ours, and the universe is more or less indifferent to them. This is also not an accurate description of Qohelet’s world view.

When Qohelet says, “Havel havalim, hakol havel,” Utter futility! All is futility, he is not saying that everything is meaningless. What he is saying, rather, is that our actions matter, but not in a way that we could possibly understand. And for sure, we will be called to account for our actions, but we may not ever know why, so we should be grateful for what we have and enjoy it, even as life continues to slip past unnoticed.

He is actually in good company with the anonymous author of the book of Iyyov / Job, who, when he finally challenges God, gets the most unsatisfying response ever. God’s retort to Job is effectively, “Be quiet! Who are you to tell Me what I can do or not do? Who are you to decide what is right and wrong?”

I have never been a “The-Lord-works-in-mysterious-ways” kind of rabbi, nor have I ever really sought any kind of consistent understanding of God. 

However, the approach of Qohelet and Iyyov, which further obscure the way that God works, is especially problematic. It flies in the face of the most prominent piece of practical theology in Jewish life: the framework of 613 mitzvot, the berit, the covenant we have with God, in which we keep those mitzvot, and God provides us with life and sustenance and joy and love and meaning. If our job, at least according to how we read the book of Deuteronomy, is to keep those mitzvot, then it cannot be that our actions are not at all related to our fates.

Right?

Didn’t we just get through Yom Kippur, pouring our hearts into our fervent prayer and pursuing teshuvah because, as Rambam tells us (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4), we are supposed to see our lives in this period as hanging in the balance? That we have a number of merits, that is, mitzvot completed properly in their time and place, in the “black” column that is exactly equal to the number of transgressions indicated in the “red” column? That all we need to do is one more mitzvah than sin during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, to get a tiny nudge into the Book of Life?

That is why the ancient rabbis did not like Qohelet. There is actually a debate in the Talmud about whether or not Qohelet is actually a holy book (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5), compared to all the other books of the Tanakh.

But I am of the opinion that Qohelet is not only essential to Jewish life, it might actually be the most important work in the entire Tanakh.

Why? Because, while Qohelet might appear to contradict some other essential principles of Jewish life, he is also one voice out of many. And that is essential because we are not, and never have been, completely unified on any particular matter, including our understanding of how God functions. On the contrary: Qohelet provides a needed contrarian voice, one that subverts the “party line.” 

One of the traditions we have on Sukkot is that of Ushpizin, inviting ancient guests into our sukkah during our meals every evening. It is a kabbalistic tradition which draws on our understanding of the positive traits of our classical forebears, traits which we desire to emulate. Qohelet is not typically one of them. But consider this picture of some of those Biblical characters (although perhaps this is the wrong image, but I’m kind of picturing a Jewish version of da Vinci’s The Last Supper)*:

  • At the table we find Avraham, who is faithful enough to very nearly sacrifice his own son when God demands this. And yet he also challenges God, when God intends to destroy Sedom and ‘Amorah. 
  • And here is Sarah, who, though righteous and wise, laughs when she receives a divine message that she will have a child. 
  • Here is clever Rivkah, who carries out God’s word through deception. 
  • And here is hapless Isaac, who never takes the initiative and is always acted upon. 
  • And here is Moshe Rabbeinu, who receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, has an anger management problem, and also argues with God not to destroy the Israelites following the Molten Calf episode. 
  • Here is Miriam, who finds water whenever the Israelites are wandering in the desert, and leads the women in song, but also engages in slander of her brother Moshe and is punished for it. 
  • Here is Devorah the Judge, who leads the troops in battle, 
  • And here is Yael, a brutal assassin masquerading as a gentle homemaker. 
  • Here is Yonah, who runs away from God but is given a second chance, and still doesn’t quite “get it.” 
  • And here is David Melekh Yisrael, who captures Jerusalem, but steals the wife of Uriah and then has him killed.

And over at the far end, Qohelet. Sitting there, wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloises while looking all smug, saying, Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashemesh. There’s nothing new under the sun. We’ve seen this movie before. Don’t think you’re all so holy. Qohelet is really the only philosopher in the whole Tanakh. He does not care for dogma – he’s really all about the questions of why we do the things we do, a completely understandable Jewish activity.

And by the way, the JPS commentary tells me that Qohelet is likely not even a name, but rather a title, something like the town crier. The word is related to the Hebrew root q-h-l, meaning to gather or convoke, just like the titular word in Parashat Vayaqhel, in which Moshe convokes the Israelites for instruction on how to observe Shabbat. So this Qohelet, our Qohelet, is this figure that brings the Israelites together to discuss the transience of life and the futility of understanding God, as if in some ancient intellectual salon.

You see? Qohelet fits right in. He is as complicated as all the other human characters in the Jewish bookshelf. Why is he not in the regular list of Ushpizin invitees? Sure, so his philosophy is not necessarily what we want to hear, and contradicts in some sense the standard theology of the Torah. But when have you known the Jews to agree on anything, particularly God?

We need Qohelet because his voice is actually, sometimes, our voice. Maybe that is where we are today, with the sense of futility that occasionally marks our lives. No matter how good or bad our behavior, no matter our choices, we cannot deny that the sun will come up tomorrow, that some people will be born and some will die, that some of us will thrive and some will suffer. And no matter how pious or skeptical we are, we understand that we have no control.

I would like to think that just as there is a little Avraham, a little Moshe, a little Miriam and a little Yael in all of us, so too is there a generous portion of Qohelet. This town crier might just be crazy, but he might also be onto something: that as we go from holiday to holiday, from year to year, keeping mitzvot or missing the mark, expressing gratitude or asking for forgiveness or watching our children and grandchildren grow and learn and struggle and succeed, that we remember that this is how life goes, and we have to enjoy it if we can, while we can.

And I am grateful for his presence in my Tanakh.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/25/2021.)

* Not all of these characters appear in all Ushpizin lists (and I don’t think Yonah appears in any). Nonetheless, they might all be included as potential Sukkot invitees.

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Make Our Garden Grow – Shemini Atzeret 5782 / Yizkor

As I have shared with you on multiple occasions, I am an optimist. And yet, these 18 months of pandemic have tested my optimism severely.

At one point during the last eighteen months of pandemic-induced isolation — it was sometime last winter, during the coldest, darkest, most isolated period — I found myself looking for a good recording online of a song that I had once sung for a concert with my synagogue choir at Congregation Brith Shalom in Houston when I lived there in the late 1990s. The song was “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, which was based on the novel of French writer and philosopher, Francois-Marie Arouet, best known by his pen name, Voltaire. I probably spent 45 minutes listening to various versions.

And I found myself crying. 

Crying from the pain of isolation, from the gnawing feeling of all of the missed opportunities for teaching, for celebrating together, for being unable to gather our community in person for all the things that we do. I was crying for what seemed at the time a lost world. 

And the song is just so darned beautiful. If you are unfamiliar with Candide, you might want to check it out:

And you know how some songs are just so appealing, so powerful that they give you the shivers, or that they make you cry? Well, I’m a sucker for a gorgeous song.

But even more so, what got me more than Bernstein’s music (the sextet, choir, and orchestra) was Voltaire’s message. Candide, published in 1759, was primarily a rejection of the philosophy of optimism, and in particular the school of thinking headed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German Christian polymath of the late 17th / early 18th century. Leibniz believed that we are living in the best of all possible worlds that God could have created. Voltaire clearly abhorred this philosophy, and set out to lampoon Leibnizian optimism by making Candide and his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, seem like utter fools for believing in it. As the book draws to a close, they realize the error of their ways. And so the operetta concludes thus:

Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!

“Let dreamers dream what worlds they please / those Edens can’t be found.”

The lyrics, written by American poet Richard Wilbur, include what might be a hidden nod to a well-known midrash about Creation: that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one. That is, the creation of the world that is described in Bereshit in the story which we will read tomorrow morning as we start the cycle of Torah once again is only the last one in a whole line of less-than-perfect worlds. (I do not think that Wilbur was Jewish, although of course Bernstein was.) 

A few chapters later in Parashat Noaḥ, God acknowledges that life on Earth has become corrupt, and destroys virtually all living things in the flood. The implicit message of the midrash and the subsequent flood story is that, although many worlds came before and God settled on this one, the world that we are in is clearly NOT perfect. We cannot be living in the best of all possible worlds, but God had effectively given up on trying to create that world.

Dr. Pangloss, and hence Leibniz, were absolutely wrong, in Voltaire’s opinion. And so when Candide and his friends sing these words at the end, they are confessing to the failure of optimism. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we have this world, and it is up to us to live and do the best we can, given that reality. We should, therefore, build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow, and not be deluded into thinking too optimistically about our lives. Life is ultimately about the hard work of taking it day by day, of not necessarily expecting the best possible outcome, but rather accepting the routine ups-and-downs.

Voltaire’s language even echoes that of Bereshit / Genesis 2:15, which tells us that God put humans in the Garden of Eden le’ovdah ulshomerah, to till it and to tend it, or in Latin, ut operaretur.

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

This conclusion is not far from that of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes, which we read on Shabbat morning. And I suppose that is why it was so cathartic when I played and replayed Bernstein’s musical take on Voltaire’s rejection of optimism.

The holidays of Tishrei run through a whole palette of emotions: from the foreboding and triumphant grandeur of Rosh HaShanah, to the gravitas and genuflection of Yom Kippur, to the pure family-centric joy of Sukkot, to the statement of vulnerability as we beat willow branches on the floor Hoshana Rabba, to the wild dancing and singing with abandon of Simhat Torah. Oh yeah, and then there’s Shemini Atzeret, whatever THAT’S about.

Well, actually, although the origin of Shemini Atzeret is as the eighth day of Sukkot, it is probably most associated today as a day of Yizkor, a day of remembrance of those whom we have lost. This is, of course, a Yom Tov day, a day of happiness and family meals (although eating in the sukkah is considered optional today), but the inclusion of Yizkor guarantees that this is a day of reflection, of perspective.

For Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah, at the very end of a long and grueling holiday run, I often find myself feeling a lingering sense of eternity, of looking at this snapshot of our lives as we begin 5782, and thinking, where was I last year, spiritually speaking, and what does this year hold for me? And it makes sense that on this day of reflection, we might flip back in our minds to both the good and the not-so-good times. 

That is why tomorrow, just before Musaf, when I chant the Ḥatzi Qaddish, I will use melodies from throughout the Jewish year in a relatively obscure, yet interesting cantorial tradition known in Yiddish as the Yahres Kaddish, the Kaddish of the full year. It is a reminder not only of these holidays, but the entire spiral of the Jewish year, as we continue onward and upward, around and around as we grow and mature and learn and fail and succeed.

These are days on which we remember not only grief and loss, but also joy and happiness and celebration. And we also remember to keep in perspective what enables us to keep going around in that upward spiral, that sense of taking each day as it comes, trying to do the right thing for ourselves and each other, working and learning and playing and spending time with friends and family. Good things will happen in the coming year: people will get married; babies will be born; children will graduate from high school; there will be moments of joy. And so too will beloved family members die, and get divorced, and projects will fail and people will have financial hardships, and there will be bored moments and suffering and of course more disease and corruption and malfeasance.

And all those things are features of the jumble of our lives. As Qohelet / Ecclesiastes (1:9) tells us, “Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashamesh.” There is nothing new under the sun. Put another way, Pirqei Avot (5:22) says, “Hafokh ba vahafekh ba dekhola ba.” Turn it over and over, because everything is in it. “It” of course, is the Torah, but Torah is likewise a reflection of the complex tapestry of our lives.

On this day of Yizkor, this day of remembrance, let us not forget that those whom we remember in these moments, who gave us life and nurtured us and gifted us their talents and wisdom and yes, sometimes even their flaws, are still a part of the weave of that tapestry.

And as we conclude this holiday season, we also remember that, in the words of Candide, we’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, but we will do the best we know. We will try to be satisfied with sacrificing the perfect for the sake of the good enough. And that is perhaps the most valuable message we might take away from right now, as we add another year, another layer.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shemini Atzeret 5782, Tuesday morning, 9/28/2021.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! – Highlighting the Holy Moments – Yom Kippur Day / Yizkor 5782

Before reading this sermon, which is the fourth and final installment in the “Make it Meaningful!” High Holiday 5782 series, you might want to read the first three: Gathering (Rosh HaShanah Day 1), Seeking the Why (Rosh HaShanah Day 2, and Engaging With Israel (Kol Nidre).

As is standard in many workplaces today, I have occasional performance reviews, and I am grateful to all of you for giving me a very positive review this past spring. There were, however, a few minor complaints – no big surprise for a community of Jews, of course; I would have been really surprised if there were NO complaints. 

But one such complaint was that I speak too often about items in Jewish law like kashrut, Shabbat, tefillah, and so forth. I am sure that some of you have heard or read my series of sermons about the fundamentals of Judaism, called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” I am committed to the idea that the essential pieces of Jewish living are good for us. So thank you for noticing. 

It reminds me of the apocryphal story about the rabbi who is applying for a position at a synagogue, and when the president picks him up at the airport, she starts asking pointed questions about the sermon the rabbi will give on Shabbat.

“Well,” says the rabbi, “I thought I would speak about the value of Shabbat.”

“I don’t know, Rabbi,” says the president. “Many of our folks work in retail – they all have to open their stores after Shabbat services.”

“OK, so then maybe I’ll speak about the importance of keeping kosher.”

“Not such a great idea, Rabbi. One of our major donors is the largest shellfish distributor in the whole state.”

“Well then,” says the rabbi, “What do YOU think I should talk about?”

“You know, Rabbi,” says the president, “something Jewish.”

But of course, I hope you will understand that advocating for Jewish law and customs and learning and tefillah / prayer is exactly what rabbis do! A rabbi, you may recall, is not a priest; the word “rav” in Hebrew literally means “teacher.” My job is to teach you about being Jewish and doing Jewish – you as individuals and as a community.

However, my approach to teaching Judaism is that I want your Jewish engagement to be meaningful! I want you to feel something, to feel a connection, to “use” Jewish life and learning as a way of improving yourself and your world! Even though I am clearly on the cheerleading team for Torah and mitzvot, I am decidedly not in favor of merely fulfilling a mitzvah for the sake of checking a box. That is why our High Holiday theme for this year is, “Make it Meaningful!”

I believe firmly that the real reason to practice Judaism – keeping Shabbat, kashrut, daily tefillah / prayer, digging into our ancient texts – is that they can fill our lives with meaning, that these things create a lens that will help you see the world a little clearer, that they will help bring the important things into focus, that they will teach you how to highlight the qedushah / holiness in your life and in your relationships with the people around you.

Most of us feel that being Jewish is important to our identities; the most recent Pew Research Center study of American Jews showed that about three-quarters of us agree that being Jewish is very or somewhat important to us. Most of us are quite proud to be Jewish. 

So that is good news! But here’s the less-than-stellar news: most of those folks who agree that being Jewish is important do not feel that doing traditional Jewish things is essential to being Jewish. When asked about the essential parts of being Jewish, only 15% (about one in 7) say that observing halakhah / Jewish law is important. By comparison, 76% (three-quarters) cite “Remembering the Holocaust” as essential to being Jewish.

Now, I know that re-interpreting what it means to be Jewish is all the rage right now, and I certainly do not want to throw shade at that idea. I am, however, concerned that, when the vast majority of Jews do not see learning about and practicing Judaism as being an essential aspect to being Jewish, we may be in an unsustainable situation.  

In order to actually pass on Judaism to your children and grandchildren, something which I know many of you are interested in doing, you have to “do” Jewish. You can’t just “be.”  

And yes, “doing” Jewish can take on many forms. It need not look like what Judaism looks like in black-hat Brooklyn, say, or what it looked like to our great-grandparents. But without the practice of Judaism, with only our sense of pride in being Jewish, we will have no basis for why living Jewishly is meaningful, and without meaning, our children and grandchildren will only be puzzled by their Jewish identity.

Here are a few examples of the fundamentals of doing Jewish:

  • Holy eating, also known as keeping kosher or kashrut, is meaningful because it reminds us of our role in the world “to till and to tend,” as the second Creation story in Bereshit / Genesis puts it. When we premise our consumption upon God’s expectation of us to live sustainably in cooperation with the Earth, we have a better chance of handing an unspoiled world to our children and grandchildren.
  • Putting on tefillin on a daily basis is meaningful because it reminds us on a daily basis of the need to connect our hearts and minds with our hands. Would that more of us could be mindful of how our actions affect others and our world! Physical rituals such as tefillin help reinforce our daily mindfulness with a tangible action.
  • Learning the words of our ancient texts – which you can easily do -is meaningful because it teaches us how to be better people, how to improve our lives and our community by understanding ourselves and the holiness embedded in all our relationships. Plus, there is the added bonus of keeping our minds flexible and engaged, something that the medical establishment certainly recommends as we get older.
  • Singing Jewish music, liturgical or otherwise, is meaningful because it brings joy to a world that could really use a whole lot more joy. Sometimes melody can express our deepest emotions, particularly when words alone fail us.

And here is something that we perhaps take for granted, and yet in which many of us participate in greater numbers than most mitzvot: lifecycle events.

Yes, you know what I’m talking about: those things that mark our lives as we saunter through: berit milah (you all know that by the Yiddish term “bris”, but I don’t speak Yiddish! I’m a Zionist – I speak Hebrew), baby-naming, bat mitzvah / bar mitzvah, wedding, pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born), funeral and mourning. Some might add confirmation in there, and of course some might add graduation from medical school as well.

And it is wonderful that so many of us are still doing these lifecycle events. Perhaps more so than most Jewish rituals, people still show up, at least to honor and celebrate with the family. Even during the depths of the pandemic, when travel was nearly impossible, people came to lifecycle events in droves: we had benei mitzvah services here at Beth Shalom that attracted well-wishers from Japan and South Africa and France and England and Israel and Thailand and Australia and probably a bunch of places I’m not even aware of. Berit milah, weddings, funerals, shiv’ah – all continue to bring in family members and friends from far and wide.

And that too, is wonderful. The power of the framework of Jewish lifecycle rituals is great. What is more meaningful to us than celebrating a newborn baby, dancing joyously with newlyweds, or mourning the loss of somebody we loved?

One of the greatest features of living a Jewish life is acknowledging holy moments. We actually have a berakhah, a blessing for that, one which you all know well. It’s the same berakhah – Sheheḥeyyanu – that I have been urging you to recite upon your first opportunity to return to the synagogue space after months of isolation. 

We mark our holy moments, not only with a berakhah, not only with ritual, not only by gathering with friends and family and sharing a meal and good times, but with meaning.

Think back for a moment to an especially meaningful lifecycle event for you. Was it your bat mitzvah? Your wedding? Confirmation? A dear friend’s funeral? (I’m guessing it wasn’t your own bris!)

What made it meaningful? Was it the people there? The words of Torah offered by the rabbi? The food?

Maybe all of these things. But also, perhaps what made it most meaningful was the sense of perspective. The feelings surrounding what it took to, as with the the berakhah, vehiggi’anu lazeman hazeh – to arrive to this moment, the feeling of the ancient hand-off play that we keep playing as Jews, from generation to generation.

Two different young people who recently became bat / bar mitzvah here at Beth Shalom asked me, not long before the ceremony itself, effectively, “Why am I doing this?” It seems that this question had not been answered along the way, perhaps lost in the shuffle of preparation, maybe further obscured by the pandemic. 

Now, I suppose I could have said, “Because it says so in the Mishnah,” but that would not have been an effective answer. “Because your parents want you to,” is also not really satisfactory.

Rather, I said the following: “Because you are the next link in a chain that stretches back thousands of years. You are the inheritor of a rich and valuable collection of wisdom and traditions that has crossed continents and centuries, and survived empires and attempted genocide. This ceremony, when you are called to the Torah as bar/bat mitzvah in the synagogue, in the presence of your family, friends, and community, is a signifier of the fact that you are now carrying the Jewish flame, holding it aloft to illuminate the world as our people have always done and will continue to do. We are handing this tradition to you, and now it is your turn to take care of it, cherish it, continue to deepen your understanding of it, and then pass it along to your children and grandchildren.”

They were speechless, perhaps because it had not yet been presented that way.

We should never take for granted that everybody involved in the holy moment of a lifecycle event appreciates the meaning embedded therein. That is why I am going to offer a pro tip for making your Jewish involvement even more meaningful, and this is something that comes from the author and consultant Priya Parker, who I mentioned on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, when we spoke about the meaning and power of gathering. Ms. Parker’s essential tip for making gathering meaningful is to prepare in advance. And yes, of course that means the food and the chairs and the guest list. But more than that, prepare the content. 

Give your attendees an assignment. For a wedding, for example, you could have them write out messages to the bride and groom to be displayed as part of the ḥuppah, or at the reception. For a baby-naming, have your participants do a little research into their own Hebrew name, to share at lunch. For shiv’ah, you could ask people who did not speak at the funeral to prepare in advance three sentences that describe the deceased, or even (as was fashionable a few years back) a six-word-eulogy.

And similar things can be done for holiday observances: have invitees to your sukkah bring an item that tells a story about their Jewish journey. Before lighting the Hanukkah candles, have everybody gathered around give an example of a way that they feel they have personally cast some light in this world. For Pesaḥ, have each participant prepare in advance a piece of the Exodus story to tell in their own words. And so forth. Your creativity only makes doing Jewish things that much more holy and special, and reinforces that sense of being a link in an eternal chain.

The more meaning we derive from these holy moments, the more powerfully connected we are to our history and culture and tradition, and the stronger the link in that generational chain.

It is the holy moments which frame our lives with meaning, give us structure and support, and help us through the tough times together. Ideally, they reflect our values, teach our wisdom, and connect us with our past and our future. Don’t let them slip by without trying to make them more than just gathering for dinner.

“Make it Meaningful!” conclusion:

I hope that over these High Holidays I have given you a few things to think about regarding making meaning in Jewish life: through gathering, through digging deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to understand the backstory, through engaging with Israel, and through framing holy moments.

It is worth putting a fine point on the message by reminding us all that merely “being Jewish” is unsustainable; it will not last another generation here in America, land of freedom and infinite choice. Rather, if you want your children and grandchildren to be links in the ancient chain, you have to “do Jewish” with them, and frame it properly. Teach them to love our tradition the way you do; show them how meaningful it can be by doing. Frame it with intentionality and love. And of course you can always reach out to me for guidance. It would be my pleasure and privilege to provide support on your journey. That is what I am here for.

Yizkor

And one final, related note before we move on to the Yizkor service.

Since Adar of 5780, also known as March of 2020, we have been subject to a worldwide pandemic that has, in many ways, turned our lives upside-down. The 3-year-olds in our ELC only know a world in which everybody is wearing masks in public; children have suffered from the failure of some schools to provide adequate schooling; in addition to the loss of so many loved ones and the suffering of those with long-Covid symptoms, there is evidence of so much more malfeasance in our society – addiction, abuse in all forms, and so forth, and the economic toll has been devastating.

Even if somehow we were all miraculously vaccinated tomorrow, there would still be so much pain – evictions, homelessness, joblessness, anxiety, and so much suffering.

A young man I know recently lost his father, from whom he had been estranged for a number of years. As you can imagine, he was filled with various types of regrets; his grief was palpable.

A recent column by New York Times columnist David Brooks (if you have been paying attention, you surely know that I am fond of David Brooks), spoke about the rising incidence of estrangement from family members. I have encountered this regularly in my pastoral work, and it is one of a range of social ills to which Brooks points as evidence of what he calls the “psychological unraveling of America.” We are suffering in so many ways, and often we have no salve for our pain, no balm for the many sources of grief we all carry right now. Brooks cites the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, who said, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”

And we the Jews, of course, have an extra measure of pain – the pain that has been handed to us from our history, from expulsion and pogroms and Holocaust and terrorism and anti-Semitic attacks, one right here in our own neighborhood.

But the silver lining here is that, at least with one kind of pain – the pain that comes from the loss of beloved family members – that we do have a way of transforming that pain: we have the framework of Jewish ritual for grief and mourning, including the Yizkor prayers that we are about to recite. Not only do we have shiv’ah, when we offer comfort to the bereaved for the week after burial, but also sheloshim and a year of mourning and annual yahrzeit observances, and of course Yizkor. 

And all of these are means by which we transform our pain and grief through ritual. By doing traditional Jewish things, we have a mechanism which helps to ease the pain, helps to remember the deceased, helps to remind us all that they are still with us, if not bodily, then at least in spirit. 

If that is not an argument for meaning-making in Jewish life, I do not know what is. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur 5782, 9/16/2021.)