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Seeking God in this Liminal Moment – Toledot 5783

It is a special pleasure to read Parashat Toledot on this day, when we have named two baby girls, cousins who will surely get along better than Ya’aqov and Esav.

There was a moment up front in what we read this morning where Rivqah, their mother, is suffering miserably as the two baby boys are wrestling within her. (I’m picturing them pulling classic entertainment wrestling moves: Esav is executing a “pile-driver” on his brother.)

The Torah reports that the experience is so miserable for her that she cries out to God (Bereshit / Genesis 25:22):

וַיִּתְרֹֽצְצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־ה’׃

The boys struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” And she went to inquire of God.

The JPS translation of lidrosh in the above quote is “to inquire,” but the verb לִדְרֹשׁ “lidrosh” really means to seek: Rivqah went to seek God. 

This verb is most familiar to us in the context of interpreting words of Torah. You may be familiar with various forms of this verb: one gives a “derash,” a brief interpretation, or perhaps a lengthier “derashah,” a sermon. “Midrash” is a story which fills in the gaps of the Torah’s text, and of course a “beit midrash” is a house of study, wherein we seek the deeper meanings of our ancient texts, as we attempt to discern the wisdom therein.

Rivqah, in her misery, seeks God.

Right now, we are in a time of seeking, and in particular, we should be seeking God right now. I’ll come back to that.

I was away at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative Rabbis about three weeks ago, and I had the privilege of spending several sessions learning with Reverend Susan Beaumont, an ordained Baptist minister who works as a leadership consultant to houses of worship. Speaking to a room full of rabbis, she introduced concepts in a language that, at least at first, was effectively Greek to scholars of Hebrew and Aramaic.

The theme of her remarks was “Leading in a Liminal Season.” “Liminality” is the period of uncertainty in between; when the old paradigm is gone, and the new reality has not yet revealed itself. Right now, a few years of pandemic have in many ways altered, if not fundamentally changed, the landscape for many institutions, including houses of worship like this one. The challenge for all of us in this liminal season is how to move forward in this in-between period.

An appropriate parallel from Jewish life is the concept of “bein hashemashot,” the part of the day between sunset and dark, when you are not sure if it is still day or night has fallen. This is particularly important on Saturday nights, at the end of Shabbat. Is Shabbat over when the sun goes down? Or when you can see three stars? The answer, as you all know, is the latter, but there is a period of about 30-45 minutes of in-between, when it’s not clear if it’s still Shabbat. We wait until at least three stars are visible so we are absolutely sure. But there is, at least in theory, a period of discernment when we are waiting for those stars to appear, just to make sure we are safely into Sunday, before we recite havdalah, the prayer of separation from Shabbat.

You might make the case that pregnancy is also a liminal season, that Rivqah seeks God not only because the twins are struggling within her, but also that it is a time in which she has clearly left behind her life before motherhood, but has not yet entered the next phase of her life.

According to Rev. Beaumont, one of the keys to finding our way in a liminal season, in leading when we do not know what is coming next, is to seek to understand the soul of your congregation, and to tend that soul as we seek Divine guidance for the future.

And when she said that, the room full of 30 or so rabbis immediately thought, “What on Earth is she talking about?” Soul is a concept about which Christians talk a lot, but the idea is sort of mystifying for the Jews. She explained that a congregation’s “soul” exists outside of the individual members; it is a collective sense of who we are. Not culture, not rituals, not the organizational culture, not the collective voice of lay or clergy leadership, but the truest sense of self of the institution, that which is based in our relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu / the holy, blessed One. The soul of this congregation is, as she put it, “the source of the Divine calling and character, and the protector of institutional integrity.”

I’m pretty sure I have seen the soul of Congregation Beth Shalom on display from time to time. I know I felt it when, two months ago on Rosh HaShanah, I could hear the hundreds of people in the room singing “Berosh haShanah yikkatevun; uvyom tzom Kippur yeḥatemun” (On Rosh HaShanah God’s verdict is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed in the Book of Life), singing those words together for the first time in three years in such numbers. That was an incredibly soul-filled moment; it brought me to tears. I might have caught a glint of Beth Shalom’s soul last Saturday night as we honored all of our past presidents.

But I do not think I could describe the soul of Beth Shalom. When pressed further on how to seek and find the soul of our congregations, Rev. Beaumont explained that it is not so simple. She described sitting alone in the sanctuary of her own church for six months in silence, waiting for some kind of revelation, and it did not come to her. So this is not easy work, but it is essential for leading in a liminal time. It is our soul which will guide us into the future. 

“We cannot presume,” writes Rev. Beaumont, “to strengthen an organization, its culture, its processes, its structures, without engaging its soulfulness.”

Considering the state of our wider society, we need to seek God right now because there are just so many struggles, so many ways in which we are wrestling with each other. The recent mass shootings are only one particularly tragic sort of manifestation of this struggle; the eruptions of anti-Semitism in pop culture is another. I am sure you can think of many such ways in which American society is struggling with itself. Some of this is clearly due to the fact that we are in a liminal period, that we are seeking leadership and in need of discernment. The soul of America is hidden from view, and we do not know what is coming next.

The Torah, the rest of the Tanakh, the Talmud, and all of the greatest works of rabbinic literature always see God as an essential actor in the Jewish story, in collaboration with the Jewish soul. We have always sought God in times of crisis, in times of pain and of joy. 

תהלים קל, Psalm 130 is one of my favorite psalms. It is one of the standard offerings of Taḥanun, the brief prayers of supplication which we recite on many weekday mornings. It opens with a reminder that the world is filled with, and has always been filled with, to use the polite term, tzuris. (That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew tzarot, meaning trouble.) 

שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֑וֹת מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ ה’׃ 

Out of the depths I call You, O LORD. (Psalm 130:1)

We call out to God every day, throughout our history. We are waiting for God’s presence, waiting for God to be revealed, because we know that we are in the ma’amaqim, the depths.*

But there is an even better line in the psalm, a little further down, v. 6:

נַפְשִׁ֥י לַאדֹנָ֑י מִשֹּׁמְרִ֥ים לַ֝בֹּ֗קֶר שֹׁמְרִ֥ים לַבֹּֽקֶר׃

Nafshi ladonai mishomerim laboqer shomerim laboqer.

I am more eager for the Lord than watchmen watch for the morning

What is curious about that verse is the repetition of shomerim laboqer. And I have seen some translations merely repeat the words, i.e. “I am more eager for the Lord than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning.” But that is a poor translation. More accurately, the metaphor is the shomerim laboqer, the morning watchmen who are shomerim laboqer, watching, waiting eagerly for the morning.

What we hear in that verse is the painful waiting for God. The silence, punctuated by the ticking of a clock running on a geologic scale. Where is the Qadosh Barukh Hu? When will our redemption come?

When I hear that verse, I hear my Israeli son, serving guard duty, being a shomer, at his IDF base in the middle of the night, calling me out of sheer boredom, waiting, watching, waiting for morning, for the shift change, so he can go to sleep.

The metaphor speaks powerfully across the ages. We need redemption from all that ails us; to borrow from Psalm 121, we continue to lift up our eyes to the hills expectantly; from where will our help come? 

It is that yearning, the ancient Jewish desire for God’s presence in time of need, which helps us be better people, which will ultimately guide us through the liminality of this moment. We need the sense of Divine action in the world, even if we cannot easily perceive it. We need the sense that help is on the way, even as we struggle with one another, and we have to hold ourselves together in the meanwhile, to find our way through the darkness. We wait eagerly for the dawn, and as we continue searching for our soul, we can reassure ourselves that we are not alone. That it is going to be OK. 

It was Voltaire who said, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.”

If God did not exist, it would have been necessary for us to invent God, so that we may seek God during liminal times. It is through seeking God, through the source of Divine calling to the soul, that we will find our way into the future.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/26/2022.)

* One of the most captivating features of medieval Ashkenazi synagogue architecture, visible (for example) at the Altneuschul in Prague, the oldest continuously-functioning synagogue in the world, is that the sheliaḥ tzibbur (prayer leader) stands in a depression in the floor, a few inches lower than the rest of the congregation. This reflects the fact that we are crying out to God mima’amaqim, out of the depths.

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Sermons

In Tension with Tradition – Noaḥ 5783

In 1958, Esquire published a graphic version of the story of Noaḥ, called “The Deluge,” by Jewish satirical cartoonist Jules Feiffer. He depicted one Harvey W. Noah, government employee, who is contacted by an angel in a dream to build an ark.

The angel instructs Mr. Noah more or less according to the story we read today in the Torah. Feiffer wrote:

“What a screwy dream,” thought Harvey W. Noah, and he went back to sleep, only to be awakened the next morning by a telegram being slipped under the door. “This is to confirm your hallucination of last night. Proceed as directed re conversation pertaining to deluge, etc.”

So Mr. Noah goes to work and speaks to his government supervisor, who proceeds to alert the Navy, which contacts the Atomic Energy Commission, and a series of committees are launched to respond to the message, which is soon hopelessly garbled. 50 boats are launched, one for each state, containing lawyers, doctors, philosophers, and atomic scientists, but no animals, and no Harvey W. Noah. So he heads home. 

And then it starts to rain.

Harvey W. Noah is caught in the tension between a message from an ancient God, and the response of modern institutions. And of course, Feiffer’s work is satire, so we can chuckle at the mess of it all, and maybe be grateful that we have never had such a dream, or all the more so received a follow-up telegram.

But we all live in tension between the ancient and the modern. In fact, we are all doing that right now, as we celebrate today with a young woman who was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, something which did not happen until 1922, but is an idea with truly ancient roots. The first indication that a young boy becomes an adult with respect to the mitzvot at age 13 is found in Pirqei Avot (5:21), which dates to the 2nd century CE.

The idea that we are in tension of any sort with our tradition is not a new one. You can actually find it just about anywhere you look on the Jewish bookshelf. 

Consider just the first verse of Parashat Noa (Bereshit / Genesis 6:9)

אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.

Noaḥ was a tzaddiq, a righteous man. Had the Torah stopped there, everything would be fine and dandy. But then there is a qualifier: תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו. He was blameless in his generation. 

So what’s the problem with that? The world at the time, as we learn in the subsequent verses, was filled with corruption and lawlessness. So when the text says, “in his generation,” what does it mean?

Rashi, the 11th-century French wine merchant, might have been sampling his product a little too hard when he wrote his commentary for this verse. On the one hand, says Rashi, this qualifier suggests a compliment: if he was righteous when everybody around him was corrupt, then how much more righteous would he have been in a righteous age! He would have been a saint! (Not that we have saints, of course.)

And then Rashi offers exactly the opposite. In his own generation, he says, Noaḥ was the most righteous. But in Avraham’s generation, Noaḥ would have been considered a nothing.

In other words, it could go either way. Thanks, Rashi, for clarifying that.

And there is even more tension in the verse, related to the curious end: 

אֶת־הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ

Which is generally translated as, “Noaḥ walked with God,” but that actually obscures the grammatical impossibility of what the text says, which, if translated somewhat more literally, might read, “Noaḥ walked God.”

Don Yitzḥaq Abarbanel, the Iberian commentator of the 15th century, tells us:

והיה זה לפי שאת הא-להים התהלך נח ר”ל שעם היות שדר בתוך רשעים לא הלך בדרך אתם אבל נתחבר ונדבק אל הא-להים לא נפרד ממנו כל ימיו

Being that Noaḥ lived among wicked people, he did not go along with them; rather, the text is telling us that he cleaved to God for all of his life.

In this case, resolving the grammatical tension leads to a different sort of tension, the problem of what it could possibly have meant for Noaḥ, who would have lived ten generations before Avraham and many centuries before Moshe received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, to “walk with God.” So what guidance did Noaḥ have that led him to be such a tzaddiq?

It is an intrinsic anachronism. We, the readers, know what it means to be righteous in our day. But how could Noaḥ have known?

The idea of living in tension with our text, with our traditions, is really an essential feature of being Jewish, and all the more so in the Conservative movement.

In 2005, Rabbi Neil Gillman, one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary and, perhaps coincidentally, the grandfather of our bat mitzvah, addressed the convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Boston. His talk was titled, “A New Aggadah for the Conservative Movement,”* and in it he attempted to reframe what it means to be a Conservative Jew.

Now, many of us tend to think of Conservative Judaism as being neither Orthodox nor Reform, but rather somewhere in-between with respect to practice and approach to Jewish life. And that is a somewhat over-simplified view. 

Rather, we prefer a definition which includes our adherence to halakhah / Jewish law. We like to refer to ourselves as being similar to Orthodoxy in that we respect and maintain (i.e. “conserve”) halakhah, the laws which govern our observance, while also sharing some similarities to Reform in that we seek lenient positions which allow for adaptations to modernity.

A perfect example: calling a girl to the Torah as a bat mitzvah can only happen because we are egalitarian – we count men and women as being equal under Jewish law, an idea which is not acceptable in mainstream Orthodoxy.

But Rabbi Gillman rejects calling our movement halakhic, even as he states that our conservation of halakhah is a foundation stone of our movement.

Rather, he says, the primary way we should describe ourselves is as being “in tension.” And he pulls no punches in describing the ironies of our movement. 

Our approach to halakhah is a superb paradigm of living with tension. Why do some laws change and others don’t? Why can we drive to worship on Shabbat but not to a museum? Why are all cheeses now kosher but oysters still treif? Why can a kohen marry a divorcee, but a Jew can’t marry a non-Jew? … Why change some portions of our liturgy but not others? I concede that these distinctions are real and important and I and my rabbinic colleagues can defend each of them, but for the layperson who has neither the education nor the time to study and speculate about these matters, the impression we make is total confusion. Our message is complicated… In contrast, the messages of the movements to our right and to our left, their aggadot [back-stories] are relatively clear. Polar positions are always clear. Center positions rarely are.

And he’s spot on. I spend a lot of my time trying to teach the nuance of what we do as Conservative Jews, and I often wonder how much is absorbed. We are complicated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is hard to relate, particularly in a world with attention spans that stop at 280 characters.

Rabbi Gillman concludes by saying that, rather than calling ourselves “halakhic,”

I suggest that we embrace the tension and ambiguity which has always been at the heart of our reading of Judaism. If we believe that all of God-talk is metaphorical, if we deny the historicity and the literalness of the Sinai narrative as it appears in Torah, and if we claim that the Jewish religion was essentially the creation of the Jewish people, of groupings of Jews at various critical moments in our history, … a notion that I am convinced most of the ideologues of our movement share—then we must conclude that authority in matters of belief and practice lies within the hands of the committed Jews of every generation. To say this is to relativize all of our ideological commitments, and effectively to consign us to a life of tension—which, I suggest we should embrace and which we will find liberating.

Now, I do not have time to unpack all of what Rabbi Gillman said here regarding how our religious tradition came into being; that is a lecture that would require several hours. But the tension which we experience as 21st-century Jews attempting to muddle our way through ancient rituals and texts is nothing new. It has always been a part of the Jewish experience, in every generation. 

And Rabbi Gillman is right on: we should embrace the tension. That is how Jews have always lived, and that is how our tradition, particularly right here in the ideological center of the Jewish world, will continue. This is what keeps our religion alive, relevant. Ledor vador / from generation to generation we wrestle with God.  

So what does that mean to us? How can we act on this today, here in Pittsburgh? 

It means that we can confidently continue living how we live: firmly in the contemporary world, and yet still striving to find the ways in which our tradition still helps us to be better people. It means believing on the one hand that we are still cleaving to the framework of the Torah’s mitzvot, given at Mt. Sinai, because they fill our lives with structure and meaning, and that we also adapt them to our current circumstances. It means that we can celebrate a bat mitzvah, and still see ourselves connected to the spiritual pathways of our forebears.

I am grateful to be living in that tension, and proud to be a Conservative Jew.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/29/22.)

* Aggadah: Aramaic, equivalent to the Hebrew haggadah, “telling.” Refers to the collection of rabbinic folklore, as opposed to the parts of rabbinic text that are law-giving (halakhah). The aggadah sits alongside the halakhah, in the pages of the Talmud and other works, giving context and story which often illuminate the halakhic discussion.

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Sermons

Creating Gan Eden – Bereshit 5783

We are back at the beginning again.

Some of you know that I love Parashat Bereshit, because it opens up all of the big questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Who is this God character, and where did he/she/it come from? How did all of Creation come into being? Why is humanity so complex? 

Not that the Torah alone is equipped to answer such questions, of course, particularly for modern people. On the contrary: Bereshit offers partial answers to some of these questions, but leaves others more or less untouched, and some of those answers are not particularly helpful, given what we know today through scientific inquiry. As is usually the case when we dig into a meaty piece of ancient text, we might come away from the opening chapters of Genesis with even more questions. And particularly for contemporary people of faith, since science addresses the question of “how,” but often leaves off the answer to “why.” That is one reason that we absolutely need Torah.

It makes sense that the Torah starts in Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden; we want our beginnings to be pure. In Hebrew, the term “Gan Eden” is used to mean “paradise,”* but that English term brings with it associations that are not really found in the Torah’s text or Jewish interpretations. Gan Eden is not a place of the so-called “afterlife;” it is rather, you might say, a sort of womb for Creation, a protected, natural space in which God could raise the newly-created plants, animals, and humans. Gan Eden was God’s nursery: fresh and flowering and nurturing.

Our popular conceptions about Gan Eden comes to us from Christianity: that the first humans created there were without sin and immortal, and upon having eaten the apple, experienced a kind of spiritual fall, which made them fundamentally sinful and mortal.

But we, the Jews, read the story in a very different way. Humans were created to be mortal. And, by the way, the Torah never mentions an apple; the fruit is a non-specific fruit, although some Jewish sources suppose that it was a fig or a pomegranate.

More importantly, we do not have the concept of Original Sin, or the Fall. On the contrary, humans were created with the ability to transgress. And of course, they mess up very soon. 

There is a wonderful midrash about the creation of human beings. Prior to doing so, God wisely consults with the angels to see how they feel about this new creature, which will be something like them, and they were not in agreement about humans. (As told in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, JPS 2003, vol. 1, p. 51):

The Angel of Love favored the creation of humans, because they would be affectionate and loving; but the Angel of Truth opposed it, because humans would be full of lies. And while the Angel of Justice favored it, because humans would practice justice, the Angel of Peace opposed it, because humans would be quarrelsome. 

To invalidate his protest, God cast the Angel of Truth down from heaven to Earth, and when the others cried out against such contemptuous treatment of their companion, God said, “Truth will spring back out of the Earth.”

After consulting with the angels, God’s response was effectively, “Thanks for your opinion. And don’t you worry about that Truth business: it will be with us for sure.” So God creates humans, and places them in this lovely Garden, knowing that they will fail. And they will lie. And they will soon be lying and killing and doing all sorts of mischief.

But God also knows that humans have the great potential to do good, to carry out justice, to love, to till and to tend the Earth respectfully. God knows that humanity is a mixed bag, and that, although people will be a source of much pain and grief, they will also pursue and hold up truth. We are not fundamentally sinful, nor can we possibly be exclusively good. Rather, we are somewhere in-between. We are exactly as God the Engineer designed us.

Gan Eden, in Jewish tradition, is not paradise. It is a point of departure, not a future destination. The beginning, not the end.

Nonetheless, the fantastical idea of achieving paradise meanders through human existence. Many cultures have such a concept in their mythologies. We do, however. have the concept of “Olam HaBa,” the world-to-come, and there are some Jews in the world who work hard at performing mitzvot, fulfilling the opportunities for holiness in Jewish law, so they can attain a place in Olam HaBa

Opinions found on the Jewish bookshelf on what Olam HaBa is vary tremendously, from visions of a pleasurable place (like Gan Eden), to denial that there is anything at all after we die. One such vision (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 17a) sees no Earthly pleasures in Olam HaBa, but rather merely sitting, with crowns on our heads, in the splendor of the presence of God, which will vastly exceed any kind of physical enjoyment. 

I have always subscribed to the idea that we perform mitzvot not for any future reward, but because that reward comes back to us in the present. And I have some good support here: there is a concept in Jewish life of Torah lishmah, learning Torah for its own sake. That is, we do not study our ancient texts and apply them to our lives so that we can get into Olam HaBa, but we do so because it is the right thing to do. The reward is the performance of the mitzvah itself. We read, for example, in Pirqei Avot, the second-century collection of Jewish wisdom(1:3):

אַנְטִיגְנוֹס אִישׁ סוֹכוֹ קִבֵּל מִשִּׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם

Antigonos of Sokho, received [Torah] from Shim’on the Righteous. He would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward; rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

Antigonos was onto something here, a more robust strategy for life. Since we cannot know what awaits us after we die, do good for the sake of doing good now and reap the rewards now. If it helps us in the Olam HaBa, harei zeh meshuba! All the better.

Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, extends Antigonos of Sokho’s words:

The Sages meant to tell us by this that one should believe in truth for truth’s sake. And this is the sense they wish to convey by their expression, oved me-ahavah, “serving from motives of love.” (from Rambam’s Introduction to Pereq eleq)

We should “serve” our Master (i.e. God) and “fear Heaven” by speaking truth (remember Truth?) and pursuing justice and living according to the mitzvot not because we hope to get there after we die and hang around wearing crowns in God’s court, but rather because we do so out of an act of love for other people and the world. That is its own reward. Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake, is what we reap, and it is right here, right now.

Gan Eden, ladies and gentlemen, is not some mystical future destination for which we should strive. Neither is it an abstraction. It is, rather, what we can create for ourselves here on Earth, in the present moment. 

We all have the potential to build Gan Eden, a place that is protective and nurturing, a place that is safe and innocent, green and pleasant and refreshing. All we have to do is make it happen by fulfilling the holy opportunities which have been given to us.

We create Gan Eden when we keep the Shabbat. Shabbat is a taste of the refreshment of Gan Eden, but only if you do it right – when you set aside your mundane stressors and focus on being there, being present with your family and friends, on gratitude and all that emanates from it, on the qedushah / holiness all around us.

We create Gan Eden when we reach out to others, when we work toward the common good, when we fulfill the mitzvot bein adam leavero, those mitzvot that maintain the qedushah between people: when we treat others with kindness, when we clothe the naked and comfort the mourner and feed the hungry.

We create Gan Eden when we gather in prayer, when we gather in joy and grief, when we fulfill the rituals of Jewish life which color our days with meaning.

One of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s most well-known songs is an ode to Woodstock, from their phenomenal 1970 album Deja Vu, although the song was written by Joni Mitchell (who was actually not at Woodstock because she had a gig on the Dick Cavett Show):

We are stardust
We are golden 
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

But Joni got it wrong. We cannot get back to the Garden. There is no going back.

But we can make it here. All we have to do is act on the truth that is our spiritual heritage.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/22/2022.)

* Interesting etymological note: the Hebrew עֵדֶן / ‘eden means refreshment or pleasure, so Gan Eden might be literally translated as “garden of pleasure.” The word “paradise” seems to have arrived in the English language via Latin and Greek from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza, meaning a garden enclosure.

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Remembering the Small Print – Shemini Atzeret / Yizkor 5783

One of the things that this season does to me is to remind me to read the small print in the siddur, to pay attention to details that my eye is trained to ignore during much of the year.

Since most siddurim / prayerbooks are used for a variety of days – weekdays, Shabbat, holidays – they are designed to reflect the changes in our daily tefillah routine. During the holiday month of Tishrei in particular, there are changes almost every day, which require you to pay careful attention to the smaller print. 

If one goal of the Tishrei holidays is to make us all pay more attention, then for sure these subtle changes in our daily prayer are helpful. Even the extra le’eila which we say from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur manages to keep me just a wee bit more focused for some time.

And that, of course is a good thing: tefillah / prayer should never be by rote. As we read in Pirqei Avot (2:13):

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי זָהִיר בִּקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע וּבַתְּפִלָּה. וּכְשֶׁאַתָּה מִתְפַּלֵּל, אַל תַּעַשׂ תְּפִלָּתְךָ קֶבַע, אֶלָּא רַחֲמִים וְתַחֲנוּנִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּרוּךְ הוּא

Rabbi Shim’on said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and the Amidah, And when you pray, do not make your prayer something automatic, but a plea for compassion before God.

In tefillah, as in life, it’s the details that are important. While it is easy to think that the essential part of tefillah is the recitation of the words, the mishnah suggests that we have to actually be paying attention. True tefillah requires pouring our souls into the pages of the siddur, such that the yearning for compassion, the honest gratitude, the heartfelt praise and requests which are the building blocks of tefillah come from an honest place and can actually be felt by the davener. 

It is not the outward symbolism which matters; not the broad strokes of being in shul (synagogue) and standing in silence and reciting the words; rather, it is the internal details. It is the richness of the ancient Hebrew idiom and how it lands on our souls which drive honest prayer. It is, in fact, the small print, laden with the special features of the season, which matters most.

And when we recall beloved family members and friends who are no longer with us, on days of reciting Yizkor prayers, the details of their lives are the most essential items. 

What makes a person special and unique? It is not their appearance, or what car they drive or the color of their kippah. It is the intangible details: their deeds, their sayings, their values, their relationships. 

You might have heard recently about so-called “click chemistry,” because three biochemists just received the Nobel Prize for their work in the area. Click chemistry is a relatively new chemical process which allows us to build new molecules with particularly desirable functionality using small, organic building blocks, somewhat akin to molecular Lego pieces. 

Without getting too technical, the research of these Nobel laureates has made it possible to reliably build new molecules from these building blocks in a way that is cost-effective and has a high rate of success. The process will supplant older, more cumbersome and expensive methods of synthesizing such molecules. This will enable chemists to easily produce and test a whole new range of pharmaceuticals, polymers, proteins and other organic compounds. It is truly a remarkable breakthrough.

Now, the chemical engineer in me is inspired by this new molecular technology.

But I also find the idea of being able to assemble easily new molecules from building blocks appeals to me from, shall we say, a more homiletical perspective. As people, we are more than the sum of our parts; and yet we are constructed from the very same types of molecules that can be easily assembled through click chemistry.

We are, of course, exceedingly complex creatures. We are shaped by all of the forces around us: the people we meet, the books we read, the experiences we share with others, the love we receive and give, and all of the other tiny ways we fill our days and our lives. And all of these things, all of these minuscule moments and interactions are sifted through our basic structure, coloring all of the intricate pieces of our personalities.

With human personalities, of course, it is the details that matter. Our external features are not so different from one another; our internals are much more complicated. We have different strengths and creativities, different talents and hobbies and favorite foods and leisure activities. We are drawn to a range of entertainments and political pursuits, tastes in clothes and art and philosophy. We each have individual ways in which we express ourselves and fashion our lives.

A lazy search of the Internet led to somebody else’s back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many molecules there are in the human body, and that answer is perhaps on the order of 1027, or a one followed by 27 zeroes.

Much of that is water, but a good chunk of them are organic molecules, of the sort that are put together with the basic building blocks, the simplest Legos, of life. 

But that is what makes us human: the great complexity of the chemical system of which we are made. Our memories, our knowledge, our experiences, remembered and forgotten, are all encoded into that organic soup of tiny, encrypted chunks of living matter. The variation of these codes, which make up our genetic material, yield people who may indeed look quite similar, but are vastly different in behavior and thought. 

A friend recently reminded me that the events from our past which we remember are not necessarily those things which others remember about us. That is, the picture of our lives is far more complex than what we see. This also suggests that all of those details, all of those interactions which we can recall are probably less than half of the story of our lives.

That is what makes those who were special to us so memorable; why they take up so much of our brain space and emotional energy: the great complexity of our parents and grandparents, the mysteries of our siblings, the tender mercies of our spouses. 

Tomorrow morning, we start reading Parashat Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah once again. We return to Creation ex nihilo, when God begins to speak, and the whole world comes into existence, from a point of light to the full flowering of Earthly bounty. You may recall that at the end of each day, the Torah tells us that God saw that what He had created was good.

It’s almost dismissive in its simplicity. Of course the creation of the sun and moon and stars was good. Naturally the flowering plants and trees and birds and bees and alligators and capybaras were good. But they were also incredibly complicated. 

The creation of humans, male and female, on the sixth day is described as tov me-od, very good, something which might make us raise our eyebrows, given what we know about humanity.

Life, Creation, cannot be merely good or bad, but rather full of contradiction and complexity and an unfathomable myriad of details. The Torah (or, one might say, the Priestly author to whom scholars attribute the first chapter of Bereshit) seems to fail here in its terseness. It merely gives a social-media “like” when an encyclopedic excursus is called for.

And as we turn now to the service of Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of the souls, I hope that we can endeavor to remember not just the broad strokes of their lives, but also the details, all the ways in which they were special. 

We should remember the parts of their personality that they gave us: the empathy he showed an elderly neighbor when inviting him for a meal, the pride she took in tending to her garden, the loyalty he had to his barber, her attention to detail, like ensuring the brass banister was always polished to a shine. 

We should remember the ways in which they provided for us: the household economy, the food, the gatherings, in setting a beautiful table for the celebrations / semaḥot he arranged, all of the schlepping she did from school to game to recital and on and on.

We should remember the things that they said when we need to be uplifted: the words of encouragement and inspiration, the moment of shared joy when you got that acceptance letter and the tears during your bad breakup, the hugs and the kisses and sometimes the little push out the door that we needed. 

We should remember the values they taught us, the Jewish rituals they loved, how he would make his special haroset recipe, how she loved to sing and tell stories and family lore. We should remember those times around the seder table, or in the kitchen, or in the Sukkah, or in the synagogue.

My grandparents, Rose and Ed Bass, zikhronam livrakhah

And we should remember that, as much as we recall of those who are no longer with us, there was ever so much more about them than we could possibly ever have known. All those many, many details encoded into who they were; all of the small-print details which made them special to others and to all those who knew them.

In broad strokes, we all had parents, and people whom we have loved but are no longer with us. But it is the details of who they were which made them special and unique. And those are the things which we should recall at this time.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning of Shemini Atzeret, 10/17/2022.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons Yizkor

Being There: Partnership or Death – Yom Kippur 5783 (plus Yizkor coda)

Once upon a time, in a distant empire, the royal fisherman was out on the lake and caught a huge fish. “This is wonderful!” he said aloud. “The Queen loves fish!” The fish thought, “OK, then! I’m going to get to see the Queen.” 

The fisherman took the fish to the kitchen of the castle, and presented it to the royal chef. “Ah, such a beautiful fish! Ze Queen, she loves fish. I will prepare zis fish in ze most perfect way.” The fish thought, “Ooh, I’m going to get special treatment! Maybe a massage…?” 

Before preparing the fish, the chef and the fisherman brought her to the Queen to show off such a perfect specimen of fish, arrayed on a gorgeous silver platter. The Queen beheld the fantastic fish, and her eyes widened. “Such a beautiful fish!” she said. “I love fish! I simply cannot wait to eat it! Go broil it immediately!”

At this point, the fish realized what was happening, jumped up and blurted out, “You don’t love fish! You love yourself!”

What does it mean to be in a loving relationship with the people around us? As we gradually emerge from the pandemic, many of us are still re-learning to be around people once again, to be in public spaces with lots of others, to feel like part of a community. Now is the time, as we have entered 5783, for us to reconsider how we can be better partners, spouses, community members, and citizens of the world. 

This is the fourth and final installment in the “Being There” series. We have up to this point discussed our avurah, program, which we will be rolling out in the coming months; we have discussed the beit kenesset, the synagogue, as a symbol of the continuum of Jewish life; we have considered our relationship with the qehillah qedoshah, the sacred community of Jews around the world, and particularly with those in Israel. 

Today, the theme is evruta / partnership. evruta usually refers to the traditional Jewish mode of study, native to the beit midrash / study hall, and also refers to the person you study with. Your study-buddy for Jewish text is your evruta.

A well-known slogan about learning in evruta comes from the Talmud, in one of the stories of Ḥoni the Circle-Maker, who is perhaps best known for his talent at being able to draw circles within which rain will fall. But he was also known in his beit midrash as the wisest person, who could answer any question.

The story (BT Ta’anit 23a), in brief, is that Ḥoni falls asleep for 70 years, and upon waking he goes to his beit midrash to learn some Torah. But now, since he has been gone for 70 years, nobody recognizes him, and they do not treat him with respect, so he dies. 

In responding to the story of his death, the sage Rava declares, “O evruta o mituta.” “Partnership or death.” If we do not commit to evruta, partnership, we might as well be dead. We need evruta. We need partners. We need to be in relationship with others.

There are two essential messages of the concept of ḥevruta:

  1. We all learn more effectively when we have a partner.
  2. I cannot learn and be completely satisfied with myself until I have also made sure that my evruta has learned as well. That is, we cannot move on until we both “get it.” So I am not in this just for myself – I am also doing it to help my colleague and friend. A good evruta feels something like mountain climbers tethered to one another, so both can reach the top of the mountain together.

Ultimately, to be in relationship with others means that we give out at least as much love as we receive. And I am not speaking only of romantic relationships, or friendships, or family bonds. Rather, we have to strive to understand that we are in relationship with everybody around us – neighbors, business partners, strangers on the street, even with our perceived enemies. 

What, after all, is society, if not simply a diverse, complex web of interpersonal relationships? Every group, every organization, every institution consists of people in relationship with one another.

Every other person around you is a potential ḥevruta. And Being There for those beyond our family and friends, for those whom we do not know, or come from a different culture, for people with whom we do not see eye-to-eye, for people with whom we might greatly disagree, is very difficult. Eizehu akham? Who is wise, asks Pirqei Avot (4:1)? Halomed mikol adam. The one who learns from every person. 

Each person with whom we interact is a potential partner. Each person has the potential to broaden our knowledge and our opinions to help us improve ourselves and our world. 

There is a wonderful tale in the Talmud about evruta. The story (BT Bava Metzia 84a) features the greatest evruta pair ever: Rabbi Yoḥanan and Resh Laqish, who lived in 3rd-century northern Israel. Rabbi Yoḥanan was one of the most highly-regarded scholars of his age, diligently studying from a very young age and ultimately opening a yeshivah / academy in Tiberias to which students flocked. Resh Laqish came from a more nefarious background: he was a former thief and gladiator. Rabbi Yoḥanan agrees to let Resh Laqish marry his daughter if Resh Laqish commits to studying Torah, which he does.

What makes their evruta so vaunted is that they came from such vastly different backgrounds and had such fundamentally divergent perspectives that they helped each other greatly in their learning. Rabbi Yoḥanan describes their learning relationship as follows:

בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא 

In my discussions with Resh Laqish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakhah by itself would become broadened and clarified. 

In other words, when they studied together, Rabbi Yoḥanan would make some kind of pronouncement about the text, and Resh Laqish would push back with numerous ways in which Rabbi Yoḥanan might actually be wrong. Rabbi Yoḥanan knew that in order to actually understand the Torah, he needed a evruta who would widen his perspective, and thus better interpret what God expects of us. 

Learning Torah, just as with learning about life, requires that our perception be challenged, that we have others pushing back at us, respectfully, to show us a wider picture.

When Resh Laqish died, Rabbi Yoḥanan was bereft; his students suggested that he study with El’azar ben Pedat, but Rabbi Yoḥanan found that El’azar was simply a yes-man: he would always agree with R. Yoḥanan, and Yoḥanan found this useless and frustrating. He missed his evruta so much, that

הוה קא אזיל וקרע מאניה וקא בכי ואמר היכא את בר לקישא היכא את בר לקישא והוה קא צוח עד דשף דעתיה מיניה בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ונח נפשיה 

Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, tearing his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Laqish? Where are you, son of Laqish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.

O evruta o mituta. Partnership or death.

It is through opposition that we learn. It is by being challenged in our views that we broaden our minds. It is by engaging with the other side with love and respect that we develop nuanced perception which enables us to moderate ourselves.

The principle of ḥevruta is a means to work through differences in order to reach a meaningful understanding of the other’s point of view. Being There, using the ḥevruta model therefore means seeing the humanity of your interlocutor so that you infuse the argument, and indeed the relationship, with respect.

Pulling back the lens, the only way humanity can function sustainably is if we understand that we have to find common ground with others, particularly our rivals in thought, in religious practice, in politics; that we are in relationship with them as well; that we cannot only love ourselves and those like us. We must broaden our perspectives, and for that we need evruta

I often feel, ladies and gentlemen, that we have reached a place in our society in which many of us are not listening to one another, in which virtually all of the messages we hear are from those like us, people with whom we find it easy to talk to and to agree. Our media environment has become fractured and even atomized, such that we tune into the outlets which tell the story the way we want to hear it. Our social media platforms enable us to be surrounded by voices that sound just like our own, and we pile on with likes and comments which reinforce our own views. 

We are all out for self-affirmation, for having our perceptions of the world constantly reinforced as the only possibly believable thing. Everybody else is crazy or dangerous. And everybody is angry; we all just want to tear down everything that does not fit our world view, to see only the broken tiles and not the larger mosaic.

The story of Rabbi Yoḥanan and Resh Laqish reminds us that a good evruta is also a bar plugta, a partner with whom you stand in opposition, and yet you both understand that you need each other. 

But many of us today are not seeing that need.

And in this environment, our institutions are losing out. Schools, houses of worship, social groups, families, professions, governments, and so forth – all are suffering from the sentiment that my opinion trumps yours, that my picture of the world is the only legitimate one. Libraries must kowtow to demands for books to be removed due to content which is objectionable to some; Zionists on college campuses are likened to Nazis. Politicians speak only to their base, and believe that they represent and must respond only to the people who voted for them.

We are quick to jump to conclusions and assume ill will; we are quick to be offended and not generous enough in spirit to give kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt.

And if I don’t like your position, I’ll berate you in public with a tweet or an Instagram post. That is much easier than calling you up and discussing our disagreement and seeking common ground, and it gets a whole lot more attention.

The author and scholar Yuval Levin, in his recent (2020) book, A Time to Build, describes the value of institutions, and how their declining influence is a great challenge to our society.

Institutions are by their nature formative. They structure our perceptions and our interactions, and as a result they structure us. They form our habits, our expectations, and ultimately our character. By giving shape to our experience of life in society, institutions give shape to our place in the world and to our understanding of its contours. They are at once constraining and enabling. They are the means by which we are socialized, and so they are crucial intermediaries between our inner lives and our social lives.

We need institutions, says Levin, even when they are somewhat flawed, because they shape us; they help us react to events in our world in a way that is healthy; they guide us in our interactions with others. But we are not using institutions the way we used to, allowing them to mold us into better people, according to Levin. Institutions, he says, have ceased to be formative, and have become performative. That is, we are using them as platforms through which we can advance ourselves, effectively through public performance, mostly via social media. 

Without the institution of democracy guiding us, how will we ensure that we have a truly representative government? Without the institutions of religion and medicine and law guiding us, how will we ensure that people will make good choices for themselves, for their families, for their neighborhoods? How will we prevent our society from breaking down into a murderous free-for-all?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out that the Hebrew word for responsibility, אחריות / aarayut, includes the word אחר / aḥer, other. For us to be responsible human beings, said Rabbi Sacks, we must incorporate the other.

Healthy institutions help create an environment in which the sense of aarayut helps to guide our discourse across ethnic or racial or religious or ideological lines, and also guides our public and private behavior. These are the spaces in which evruta flourishes, in which civility is fostered, in which true dialogue triumphs over mere shouting.

Yuval Levin’s solution to our society’s challenge in this regard is to recognize that our institutions need us to Be There.

What’s required of each of us is devotion to the work we do with others in the service of a common aspiration, and therefore devotion to the institutions we compose and inhabit. That kind of devotion calls for sacrifice and commitment. It calls on each of us to pledge ourselves to an institution we belong to unabashedly. To abandon ironic distance and dispassionate analysis and jump in.

Now, of course at this point I could make a plug for more and deeper involvement at Beth Shalom and Jewish life in general, but of course I already did that on the second day of Rosh HaShanah

So instead I will suggest the following: consider the ways in which you can bring the spirit of evruta to the world. Think about how you can be in relationship with others who are not like you, to broaden your perspective and theirs. Consider how your group of friends might engage with others for the benefit of everybody.

Your online social network is not your evruta. Your smartphone is not a bar plugta. Your aarayut, your responsibility to this world is to be in dialogue with real people, people who are not like you. You don’t need yes-men.

OK, Rabbi. So how about some specifics? How can I commit myself in 5783 to Being There for a better society and a better world? How can I act on the principle of evruta?

  • Bring your energy and your resources in a positive way to the institutions that shape your world. 
  • Join and financially support those organizations that reflect the values of a healthier society. 
  • Volunteer with organizations that provide social services. 
  • Get involved in the bodies of civic life: school boards, community organizations and partnerships, and make sure you do so while honoring the principles of evruta – of listening and helping your partners along, of being open to the possibility that you might be wrong, that there might be a better way.
  • Try to spend less time letting yourself be angered by all the dysfunction of this broken world, particularly as concentrated in toxic online spaces. 
  • Instead, focus on Being There for others, in person, whenever possible. Muster your love of people, and share it with them.

And, of course, come and daven and learn with us at Beth Shalom. By Being There for synagogue life, your involvement will pay off in many ways: in your personal spiritual satisfaction, but also in helping to foster an environment of evruta which permeates the entire world.

***

In August, the Presbyterian minister turned novelist Frederick Buechner died at age 96. In an appreciation of his life and work, New York Times Columnist David Brooks said the following:

“Buechner’s vocation was to show a way to experience the fullness of life. Of death, he wrote, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

What we yearn for, when we remember those whom we have lost, is not the pain of their absence. It is rather who they were in life, what they meant to us, how they made us who we are. 

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, said Buechner. What we find in the context of death and mourning is the accumulation of a lifetime of memories, of moments when your parents were there for you, when your brother made you smile, when your sister offered comfort, when your spouse gave you a hug and made all of the day’s troubles go away.

The people who are now no longer with us, they are the ones who gave us their life. All of that life is now ours. We do not carry their death; we carry their life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur 5783, 10/5/2022.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Being There: Why We Need Israel – Kol Nidrei 5783

First, a brief review: our theme for this year is “Being There” – being physically connected, being here, being present in both mind and body, and in particular how we need this especially right now as the pandemic is winding down and many of us are reconnecting to Jewish life.

I spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah about having your own minyan, that is, joining a ḥavurah, which is a small-group program that we at Beth Shalom will be rolling out in the coming months, and we hope you will participate.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the fact that Jewish tradition expects you to Be There, to show up. This is a continuum, and the synagogue has always been the primary place of gathering for the Jewish people. We are here for you at the corner of Beacon and Shady all the time, all the days of your life, and the nights as well. Come be here with us.

Tonight the theme is qehillah qedoshah, sacred community. Most of us may not be familiar with this term, but it is the universal Hebrew designation for “congregation.” Not synagogue, mind you (that, of course, is beit kenesset, “house of gathering”), but congregation, which is more a statement about relationship than about a particular building or location. A synagogue is a place. Qehillah qedoshah refers to the people. 

While most of us gathered here tonight are members of this qehillah qedoshah, this sacred community of Beit Shalom, we are also part of a sacred community which extends to all Jewish people around the world. You might call that Qehillah Qedoshah Am Yisrael. The Sacred Community of the People of Israel.

That sense of interconnection has been a part of the Jewish people as long as there have been Jews. Sure, we disagree with each other, and we certainly do not all see eye-to-eye about theology or halakhah / Jewish law or even who is a Jew. Our world-wide community is marked by a great palette of variation in practices and customs, foods and unique rituals, music, and stories. But we are all connected within this community of Jews around the world.

What does that mean, exactly? It means that when you meet another Jewish person from somewhere else, that you know that you share certain things: our Torah, our rituals, our Shabbat and holidays, our Jewish values, our mitzvot, our history. There are certain terms and ideas which transcend language and local culture. 

Years ago, I was at a Shabbat morning service at the Dohány Street synagogue in Budapest, the largest synagogue building in Europe, and I somehow managed to get an honor: hagbahah, lifting the Torah. So I’m sitting in the front row, and there is an older Hungarian gentleman sitting next to me, and he attempts to greet me. Now, my wife, being the daughter of Hungarian Shoah survivors, speaks reasonably decent Hungarian, but I know a few key words and nothing more. 

Dohany Synagogue, Budapest

It became immediately obvious to me and this older gentleman that we had no common language. But there we were, sitting in the front row in this 5,000-seat synagogue. And we shared that moment together, appreciating our mutual membership in the qehillah qedoshah, sacred community of our people.

Some of you know that Rabbi Shugerman and I participated in the Federation’s Mega Mission to Israel in June, along with about 240 other Pittsburghers, including about 25 who are members of Beth Shalom. Among the many things that we did was to visit the organizations and communities which our Federation supports, places like Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, which provides education and therapy services for people with disabilities of all ages, the United Hatzalah center in Jerusalem, where we dedicated a new motorcycle ambulance, and of course our partnership region in Karmiel and Misgav, all the way up north, where we not only celebrated with new teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but also packed supplies for the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees that the region has taken in.

Most of the Beth Shalom contingent on the June 2022 Mega Mission to Israel

It is something we might occasionally miss, sitting here in Pittsburgh, far away from such communities: we are part of an extended qehillah qedoshah. Our sacred community reaches around the world.

Last year at this time, I gave an emotional appeal for the State of Israel, about our connections to the people and land of Israel through the lenses of tradition, of culture, and of the issues surrounding Jewish power. I spoke of the philosopher Aḥad HaAm’s concept of the merkaz ruḥani, of Israel as the “spiritual center” of the Jewish world. 

This evening, I would like to remind us all about some fundamental truths about the State of Israel, things that we all should know. And I want you all to recall that Being There, that is, being a part of our qehillah qedoshah, our sacred community, includes feeling connected to and supporting our Israeli cousins. And all the more so right now, as American public opinion, and to some extent American Jews, are turning away from the State of Israel.

You may have seen the recent CNN Special Report on anti-Semitism in America, in which the CNN reporter Dana Bash, who is Jewish, covered several stories about the return of Jew hatred here.

One of the segments was about a painful incident which took place within the past year at the State University of New York at New Paltz. A Jewish student at New Paltz, Cassandra Blotner, was a founding member of a support group for survivors of sexual assault, called New Paltz Accountability, or NPA. Last December, she shared the following statement on her personal Instagram account, reposted from another Instagram user:

“Jews are an ethnic group who come from Israel. This is proven by genealogical, historical and archeological evidence. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.”

As a result, other members of the NPA group began to call for her removal from the group, because, in their opinion, anybody who is a Zionist is not welcome in the group, because Zionism is “racist” and “white supremacist” and that Zionists promote “genocide.” Members of the group accused her online of condoning oppression and violence against Palestinians, which she does not. 

The NPA’s Instagram account featured a post stating that, “The origins of sexual violence are rooted in colonialism… Colonialism uses sexual violence as a tool to uphold white supremacy and conquer stolen land,” and that any justification of “the occupation of Palestine” is therefore effectively condoning rape. 

Blotner and another member of the group, Ofek Preis, who is a Jewish Israeli, soon became victims of online harassment, including anonymous death threats. They filed a civil-rights complaint against SUNY New Paltz, claiming that the university failed to protect them from harassment and threats.

What is especially disturbing about this episode is that Ms. Blotner, a sexual-assault survivor who was seeking to help others like her by creating a support group, was further victimized by others who implied that her pro-Israel views were effectively causing sexual violence. If that is not an example of blaming the victim, I don’t know what is.

Along those lines, if you have not seen the new Ken Burns documentary, The US and the Holocaust, it is certainly worth the 6 hours or so of your time. The series deftly defuses the mistaken belief that the United States did not intervene to stop the Nazi horror because Americans were unaware of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe. This is a myth with which many of us were raised here in America.

On the contrary: Burns shows in abundance that the whole world knew, and even though President Franklin Delano Roosevelt personally felt that the US should intervene to save Jews, American public opinion was that our country should not open its doors to Jewish refugees. Sadly, this opinion was even espoused by some American Jews as well. 

In one episode, the Holocaust historian Daniel Greene points out that a poll taken in 1938 showed that two-thirds of Americans believed that Jews in Nazi-controlled areas were either partially or completely responsible for their own persecution. Let that sink in for a moment.

Ḥevreh, I cannot stand before you and say with a straight face that all criticism of the State of Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism. I have lived in Israel, and my oldest son is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces. There is plenty to criticize, with regard to the State’s historical treatment of Mizraḥi Jews, Jews from Arab countries, with regard to recent governments’ poor handling of issues surrounding freedom of Jewish practice for non-Orthodox Jews like us, and of course regarding aspects of the treatment of Palestinians in the territories. Israel is a real nation with real problems, governed by real people; she is also a thriving democracy, with a healthy free press. Citizens of China and Russia and Iran, and really much of the world would be envious of the robust debate and criticism of government policy found in Israel’s public discourse if they were aware of it.

But we as American Jews must also acknowledge that our Israeli cousins are part of our greater qehillah qedoshah, and in doing so we have to call out unfair criticism, particularly when it veers into anti-Semitic territory.

To that end, there are three things that you may hear some critics of Israel say which should make you very, very uncomfortable:

  1. Calling Israel an “apartheid” state.
  2. Labeling Israel a “colonial” enterprise, or a “settler-colonial” state.
  3. Accusing Israel of genocide.
  1. Apartheid

Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “separateness,” was the legally-enshrined racial categorization system that functioned in South Africa for nearly five decades in the 20th century. Under apartheid, all citizens were categorized into four distinct races: White, Black, Indian, and Coloured, and laws about whom you could marry, where you could live and work, how you could vote and for whom, were all a part of that system. It was a system that was fundamentally unjust, denying non-white people many of the rights that we all agree should be universal.

The application of this term to Israel is not only inaccurate, it also diminishes the suffering of Black South Africans under apartheid, and demeans their struggle and loss of life in defeating that system. In Israel, there are Arab doctors and lawyers and professors and judges, and for the last year even an Israeli Arab party in the governing coalition. While Israeli Arabs certainly face discrimination and inequities, many also thrive within Israel and are loyal citizens.

It is certainly true that the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank live in much worse circumstances, and the failures and intransigence among multiple parties involved in attempting to resolve these challenges continues to extend their predicament, including high unemployment and other serious social ills. And while Israel is certainly a part of this situation, it is not solely the fault of the Israeli government. And even in the Palestinian territories, applying the term “apartheid” is clearly only an attempt to unfairly characterize the situation to make Israel and Jews look bad.

  1. Colonialism

It has become fashionable in some circles to refer to Israel as a “settler-colonial” state, meaning a place where a foreign power sent settlers to colonize the state and establish an outpost of that foreign power. All of the nations in North and South America, and many other places around the world, would fall into that category. But Israel does not, for a few reasons:

  • There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel for at least 2500 years.
  • The Jews who left other countries in the waves of Zionist migration from the 1860s and onward were not sent by Russia or Poland or Germany or England or Yemen or Iran to establish outposts of those countries; on the contrary, those folks who relocated saw themselves as returning to the historical home of the Jewish people, and in many cases, were of course fleeing the native anti-Semitism in their former lands.
  • In doing so, they rejected the cultures of their former countries, reviving the Hebrew language, adopting Middle Eastern foods and cultural norms. No other settler movement has done so.

One can only conclude that the terms “colonial” or “settler-colonial,” when applied to Israel, are meant as a slur to delegitimize her, and deny that Jewish people have a right to live there. 

There is no statute of limitations on ancestral land, and we, the Jewish people are entitled to the self-determination that all other nations enjoy.

3. Genocide

This is an especially flagrant distortion. We, the Jews, know what genocide is: we still have living witnesses among us to the Shoah. 

General Dwight Eisenhower with American troops who liberated the concentration camp in Ohrdruf, Germany, April 12, 2945

Genocide, as attempted by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians, by the Nazis, in Burma and Bosnia and Rwanda and Cambodia, is deliberate and systematic, and the intent is to destroy the targeted group. 

After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the terrorist group Hamas took control of the territory. Whenever there is fighting between Israel and Hamas, and of course this has continued to happen from time-to-time due to Hamas’ continued attempts to kill Israeli civilians, the number of Palestinians killed is always dramatically higher than the number of Israelis. In May of 2021, in eleven days of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, followed by Israeli reprisals to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, 14 Israelis died, and 256 Palestinians. 

We should never dismiss the loss of any human life, and the pain of loss on both sides of the Gaza border is truly awful. But the asymmetric body count does not make Israel guilty of genocide. On the Israeli side, this is a fight for defensible borders, so that she can protect her people. But for Hamas, the stated goal is, in fact, Israel’s annihilation.

There are no roving Israeli killing gangs deliberately targeting Palestinians. There are no concentration camps, no transports to death camps, not even attempts to physically relocate the Palestinian population to Jordan or somewhere else.

The accusation of Israeli genocide is outrageously hyperbolic, and we should decry it as such.

***

OK, Rabbi. Even if those characterizations are inaccurate or unfair, why should we support the State of Israel if we have to constantly defend her actions? And why should we care, here in Diaspora? Should we not focus more energy on our spiritual needs here?

As tempting as it may be, we cannot look away. We cannot stand idly by while fellow members of our qehillah qedoshah, our sacred community, are slandered. It is up to us, the second-largest Jewish community in the world, to stand with Israel.

And I want to reinforce that that does not mean we cannot be critical. But we should do so in a way that does not amplify the voices of those who want to see Israel just go away. We cannot give ammunition to Israel’s enemies, and she has very real enemies, who are armed and dangerous and located very close by. On the contrary, the only way we are going to guarantee a sustainable future for all the people who live on that tiny strip of land, is to be in conversation with all those who are willing to work toward that future together. Coexistence is the only possible solution.

We cannot turn our backs. We cannot disengage.  We cannot afford to do so.  

On the contrary, we have to work harder to connect with and understand Israel and Israelis. 

As for the question of, “Why should we care?” Two generations ago I would not have had any reason to even address the question. But given some of the statistics which I have shared with you in the past about American Jews’ gradual disengagement with Israel, I find myself making this case again and again: Israel is worth defending. 

The idea of a Jewish homeland is worth defending, even for those of us who are perfectly happy living here in America. And Israel the country – with all her imperfections – is worth defending.  

One of those reasons is that of which we should never lose sight: had Israel existed in the 1930s, it is quite likely that six million souls would not have succumbed to the brutality of the Nazis and their willing collaborators. The Burns documentary makes that abundantly clear, when he reminds us that at the Evian Conference in July, 1938, 32 nations in attendance from around the world all expressed sympathy for the plight of German and Austrian Jews seeking refuge, but only the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica agreed to raise their immigration quotas. Hitler saw that as a green light to dispose of his Jews any way he wanted to; nobody else wanted us.

God forbid we should need Israel for that purpose. But there is a better reason for us to remain firmly connected to Israel: and that is that she is, increasingly, a source of inspiration for contemporary Jews around the world, not only as a tech powerhouse or a proud center of secular Jewish culture, but she is also rethinking Judaism for modern Jews.

In recent years, new batei midrash / houses of study have popped up in Israel, created by and aimed at secular and non-Orthodox Jews, where Israelis from diverse backgrounds are learning Talmud and midrash and other Jewish text. New egalitarian and contemporary congregations have formed, headed by a generation of young, native rabbis, who are re-envisioning what it means to be Jewish. Modern Jewish identity is changing. Rabbi Rinat Safania Schwartz, who leads a congregation in Shoham, recently wrote the following:

I want everyone to feel that the very fact of being Jewish confers both the privilege and the responsibility to take personal and communal ownership of their Judaism – of our language, tradition, culture, literature, and all aspects of Jewish creativity. It’s critical that we move people away from relating to their Judaism as if it were in a museum. People must feel that they can “touch,” feel, renew, and create from within.

From “From the Fruit of the Land: Ten Israeli Spiritual Leaders Reflect on the Budding Opportunities for Israeli Judaism Today,” The Honey Foundation for Israel, 2022.

Rabbi Schwartz’s language is quite different than that of most Orthodox Israeli rabbis; she is not alone in finding new ways for Jewish Israelis to express their Judaism.

The members of our extended Qehillah Qedoshah in Israel will help us all build the new Judaism of the 21st century. It is Israel which will be the Diaspora’s partner in maintaining a healthy non-Orthodox Judaism for the future. 

So what can you do?

  • Get to know our four shinshinim, young Israelis who are between high school and army service, who are with us in Pittsburgh for the year
  • Spend some time learning the history of how and why this patch of land passed from one empire to the next.  Learn how the modern state of Israel came to be.  
  • Become familiar with Israeli politics. This is an exciting time – the fifth round of parliamentary elections in three years, coming up in a few weeks.
  • Go there! We’ll have another congregational trip, probably in 2024
  • Send your kids to Israel! There are so many options now: Ramah, USY, HSI, Nativ, and of course Birthright.

It is up to us to recognize the bonds that tie each and every one of us people together around the world, and to acknowledge that Israel is the gravitational center of our peoplehood, Qehillah Qedoshah Am Yisrael.

Tomorrow, for our fourth and final installment in the Being There series, we will speak about ḥevruta, the essential Jewish concept of partnership.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur, 10/4/2022.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Being There: It’s a Continuum – Rosh HaShanah 5783, Day 2

This is the second in the “Being There” 5783 High Holiday series. You might want to start with the first one: You Need a Minyan.

***

The Big Book of Jewish Humor is one of the most-beloved items on my bookshelf. My copy was in fact a bar mitzvah present in 1983, and I have managed to hold onto it now for nearly four decades. Rabbi Goodman and I, in fact, are both so familiar with the material in that book that we occasionally walk by each other’s office and just recite a punch line, which sends us both into stitches.

The book includes a few faux-Hasidic tales by Woody Allen (pp. 200-201), including the following:

Rabbi Tzvi Hayyim Yisroel, an Orthodox scholar of the Torah and a man who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West, was unanimously hailed as the wisest man of the Renaissance by his fellow Hebrews, who totaled a sixteenth of one percent of the population. 

Once, while he was on his way to synagogue to celebrate the sacred Jewish holiday commemorating God’s reneging on every promise, a woman stopped him and asked the following question: “Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?”

“We’re not?” the rabbi said, incredulously. “Uh-oh.”

What’s funny and ridiculous, of course, is that it is clearly impossible that this Hasidic rabbi could have missed the memo on pork. 

And yet, I must say that it is surprisingly easy for even deeply-committed members of our community to miss things that are going on here at Beth Shalom. Yes, it is true that there are many, many things happening. 

But I am often surprised when, for example, a few months after returning from our last synagogue trip to Israel in 2018, a member said to me, “Gee, Rabbi, wouldn’t it be great if we could organize a congregational trip to Israel?”

It is true that we are not always paying attention. Not just to Beth Shalom events, of course, but to lots and lots of things. Part of the challenge is that there are so many more means of distraction today, and you all know what I am talking about. 

But of course there are many other reasons for this as well. Many of us are squeezed for time, as our work has invaded all corners of our lives thanks to the digital leashes that most of us are carrying around in our pockets. Many of us are pulled in so many different directions, between child-rearing or taking care of aging parents or trying to scrape together a living or just trying to find a few moments of peace. 

But the greater challenge regarding our ongoing connection to Jewish life is the disconnection from the institutions which have shaped our lives. Not just organizations like synagogues, but some of the essential ways that our contemporary society has structured itself. 

We are all, it seems, compelled to be independent operators; we are all, to some extent, “bowling alone.” And this disconnection from the established organizing principles of society and religion and culture threaten the foundations of our lives.

Our theme over these High Holidays is “Being There.” And the angle I am taking today is Beit Kenesset – the synagogue, the traditional “place of gathering” of the Jews. What I mean by that is that our Beit Kenesset, Beth Shalom, is here all the time – standing not only at the corner of Beacon and Shady, but also in our hearts. And most of us only set foot in it once in a while: on holidays, on benei mitzvah, or perhaps for a yahrzeit (that is, saying qaddish on the Hebrew date commemoration of a loved one’s death). 

But whether you come here regularly or not, Beth Shalom is always here, and Jewish life is a continuum marked by a set of rituals and traditions and halakhah / Jewish law. And those items, in particular those distinctly Jewish actions, are essential to being Jewish. Without them, without that continuum of practice, Judaism cannot provide the framework that makes you a better person and this world a better place.

I recently heard about a fascinating new book by University of Connecticut sociology professor, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas. It is called Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living

In it, Dr. Xygalatas describes how rituals “help individuals through their anxieties, they help groups of people connect to one another, [and] help people find meaning in their lives.” He describes how, when he was a child growing up in Greece, he was forced to attend church and participate in rituals that did not seem to have any immediate, tangible result. He did not appreciate the rituals, or understand why he had to perform them.

But academic studies have shown that all types of rituals provide a benefit to people, just not necessarily what they are ostensibly for. Fisherman in Papua New Guinea, for example, who perform a ritual before going out to fish in the open sea, cannot prove that the ritual actually helps them catch more fish. But it certainly helps them cope with the stress of open-sea fishing, which can be dangerous, and provides them a framework into which they can lean for support.

But here is the thing about rituals: you actually have to perform them regularly and consistently for them to have that kind of effect. And Judaism goes even one better than this, because if you are performing our rituals properly, and you are paying attention, you also know the textual basis from which they come, and that adds even more meaning and guidance.

evreh, you have heard me speak fairly frequently about the value of our ritual framework. About the value of prayer, of tallit and tefillin, of Shabbat and our holidays and kashrut and studying our ancient holy texts. 

So here’s the thing: I want you to make your Jewish connection less sporadic. Jewish life, Judaism, is not just something that you do on Shabbat morning, or on the High Holidays, or Purim or Ḥanukkah.

Rather, if you are doing it right, Jewish life is a thread that weaves through all the pieces of the fabric of your life. And it is up to us, following the model of Avraham Avinu / our father Abraham, to say, Hinneni! Here I am, as we read in the Torah this morning. To show up. To be present. To be there.

Consider, for example, a line which my son chanted on the day he was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah a month ago, in Parashat Re’eh. It is a line that you may know from the Passover haggadah:

Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:3

לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכֹּ֗ר אֶת־י֤וֹם צֵֽאתְךָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃

Lema’an tizkor et yom tzetkah me-eretz mitzrayim kol yemei ayyekha.

In order that you remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.

It appears in the Maggid / storytelling section of the seder, in the bit that you may know as follows (although it’s originally from the Mishnah, Berakhot 1:5):

אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “Behold I am like a man of seventy years and I have not merited [to understand why] the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night until Ben Zoma explained it, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 16:3), ‘In order that you remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life;’ ימי חייך – ‘the days of your life’ [indicates that the remembrance be invoked during] the days, כל ימי חייך – ‘all the days of your life’ [indicates that the remembrance be invoked also during] the nights.” 

The Torah tells us that we should remember the Exodus every day and every night of our lives. This should be read as not just once a day and once per night, but of course we should hold that idea with us at all times. 

There are good reasons for this: they are among the reasons that Pesa is among the most resonant holidays of the Jewish year, still observed by most of us: 

  1. We should never be so proud of ourselves that we forget our origins; our peoplehood was founded in slavery, and we remember what it means to be a slave.
  2. This collective memory should guide us in our interactions with others: recalling our historical oppression guides us to stand up for justice wherever we can.
  3. The redemption from Egypt also reminds us that we can bring future redemption: if we remain faithful to our tradition and to God, that holy partnership will ultimately yield a time of peace for the whole world.

We should remember the Exodus, and all of the symbolism and meaning thereof, all the time. And those of us who attend synagogue on a daily basis know that remembering the Exodus pops up in all sorts of places: in the third paragraph of the Shema, for example, so if you are saying it evening and morning (as mandated in the first paragraph), you are remembering the Exodus every day and every night at Ma’ariv and Shaarit. And we also mention it in the Friday night qiddush. And certainly we should remember the Exodus when we sit in the Sukkah. And, well, on every Festival. And it appears multiple times in the scrolls found in every set of tefillin. And so on.

So, if you’re doing Judaism right, the lessons learned from our having left slavery are with us every day, not just for a night or two in the spring. And the daily rituals which frame our lives in the continuum of Jewish practice give us the strength and resilience to appreciate and act on the meaning embedded therein.

But not just that: kashrut, the set of Jewish dietary principles, reminds us every time we put food into our mouths that we have an obligation to be holy. And that what comes out of our mouths should be at least as holy as what goes in. And those two activities, eating and talking, take up much of our days.

And there is more: the Jewish principles of business law which should guide our work activities, principles like not withholding wages from a day laborer (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:13) and using honest measures in the marketplace (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:35-36). This is the sort of guidance our tradition offers, and these principles guide us in making just choices every day.

I could cite many more examples of how the nexus of practice and text, of ritual and the Jewish bookshelf, help us be better people. But we cannot just cite them and be done with them; we have to perform these rituals. We have to live by them.

If our Jewish connection is always there, always present with us through our customs and values and text, it will help us through our days.

Yehoshua / Joshua 1:8

לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵ֩פֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֙עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכׇל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃

Let not this Book of the Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.

… says the book of Joshua, a verse which we read during the haftarah on Simhat Torah. Repeat these words day and night, and live by them, so that you may receive the benefits that our ancient tradition affords us. We recite tefillah / prayer and study and argue over our ancient texts so that we might prosper – not only financially, of course, but in our relationships with the people around us, which of course are far more important than money.

If you’re doing it right, the sense of connection to our tradition, to our text, to our rituals, to our values, should be with you all the time. Try to cut through all the noise in your life to keep these things in front of you all the time.

Think of your beit kenesset, Congregation Beth Shalom, which has been perched up here at the top of Squirrel Hill for an entire century. Stable, solid, consistent – standing here as a reminder to come back. We are the continuous beacon on Beacon Street, symbolizing and promoting what we have done for thousands of years, that ancient continuum of ritual and wisdom.

That is the principle of Being There. In order to reap the benefits, you have to show up. You have to be present. You cannot phone it in, or be using your phone while you are engaging with our tradition. Don’t let all of that day-to-day hustle crowd out the essential pieces of our tradition, the continuum of Jewish life.

And here is something else: the stakes are high. As we read in Pirqei Avot (2:15): 

רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה, וְהַפּוֹעֲלִים עֲצֵלִים, וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק

Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.

Somewhere along the way, in our embrace of modernity, we have forgotten that Judaism is not a “religion” in the Western sense, but a mode of living. That is, you cannot just show up sporadically or include little pieces or symbols here and there. Rather, we should always be striving to do more, to reach higher, to fill our lives with our tradition and its teaching. “Religion” is something you do in church; Judaism colors our lives with meaning.

Because the value is infinite, and our future as a people as well as the future of this world depend on our daily choices.

Rabbi Mark Goodman pointed something out to me recently: that the Zoom participants in our weekday morning services were not able to hear the shofar being blown. Apparently, Zoom’s noise-canceling software heard the shofar and immediately assumed that it was unpleasant background noise that needed to be eliminated, so the folks tuning in via Zoom could not hear it. Yes, indeed: Zoom canceled the shofar.

Now, there are two possible lessons to be gleaned here:

  1. That being in person for services is better. OK, so I certainly agree with that, and I am grateful that the vaccines have enabled us to do so safely, but of course there are still some people who have reason to be concerned due to their compromised immunity, and others who simply cannot physically make it into the building for other reasons, so of course we will continue offering services by Zoom. Nonetheless, it is better to be here in person!)
  2. The other lesson has nothing to do with Zoom, but rather is a question of really hearing the shofar, and everything else that we do. If your world is filtering out the content and meaning of Jewish life, if you find yourself unable to hear the words of the ancient bookshelf, then you are missing something. 

The solution to hearing the shofar over Zoom, by the way, is actually to turn on a setting called “Original Sound.” This setting turns off that technology that mutes the shofar.

I am going to suggest the following: find the settings in your life that will enable you to hear more, to do more, to derive more meaning from what we do. I understand that you may not be able to show up for every service, every program, every type of gathering (and we do offer many, many opportunities to gather). But the only way to keep that thread of Jewish connection flowing through the fabric of your life is to refresh the connection every day and every night. Don’t miss a note of the shofar, or a word of Jewish learning; it is through that continuum of practice, of Being There, that we can all truly benefit from our tradition.

The key to finding the meaning in Jewish life is Being There. And this place, the synagogue, the beit kenesset, both stands for that idea, and serves as the place in which we make it happen. So keep coming back.

On Yom Kippur we will talk about being part of our world-wide qehillah qedoshah, sacred community, and the true value of ḥevruta, partnership.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh HaShanah 5783, 9/27/2022.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Being There: You Need a Minyan – Rosh HaShanah 5783, Day 1

As some of you know, I went to see the Pirates play in PNC Park in August, on Jewish Heritage Night, my first time back to the stadium since 2019. (As some of you know, I threw out the first pitch as well, and didn’t embarrass myself…) And I remembered something extraordinarily important that evening, something which many of us might have lost touch with during the pandemic, an essential principle of human life: being there in person is much better than watching it on a screen.

Jewish Heritage Night, 8/16/2022. (Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates)

And I must say that I am concerned about us, ladies and gentlemen. I am concerned that the pandemic has dramatically accelerated a phenomenon that was already taking shape beforehand: not being there. I am, of course, not referring to Pirates games, but not being physically or spiritually present in general.

What do I mean by “not being there”? It is very easy today for us to be in touch with many people, using all the platforms that we have, without actually being in their physical presence. It is all too easy today to attend a meeting, a class, a work appointment, even a synagogue service, while you are actually somewhere else, and maybe even doing something unrelated. How many of us have Zoomed into work meetings or committee meetings while driving, or reclining on the comfy sofa in your living room? Some of us are doing it right now! It’s OK – I’ve done it too.

Now, on the one hand, that can be good. It certainly allows those who are physically unable to participate – for medical, or physical, or locational reasons – to remain involved with others. On March 15, 2020, Zoom suddenly became my primary means of meeting with people for services, for pastoral conversations, for teaching, and so forth. At the time, our community was acting on the essential Jewish value of piqqua nefesh, saving a life. We likely saved lives in doing so.

But our digital connectivity has also come with a number of downsides. We were already spending lots of time looking at screens prior to the pandemic, and then we were suddenly spending almost ALL of our time doing so. As a result, our ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time has been reduced even further, likely due to the infinite amount of amusing material available instantly at our fingertips from TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc., etc., and the constant interruption our mobile digital devices offer us: calls, text messages, alerts, notifications, and so forth. 

Second, all of that constant digital interruption and amusement has made it difficult to discern what is important. Is the latest Internet-generated crisis more important than having a conversation with a good friend who is sitting in front of you? Is watching videos or sharing memes more valuable than spending time in reflection and meditation in the context of your synagogue community? Our affection for our screens has distorted the picture of our lives by pushing into our field of vision ideas and opinions which may not actually be as important as they may seem in cyberspace. The tech giants control our eyeballs; the most frequent posters and influencers tinker with our perception.

Third, while Zoom meetings have made it more efficient for many of us to gather or work or communicate without leaving the comfort of our living room, I hope that the experience of the past couple of years has left you wanting: Wanting human contact; wanting to catch up with a friend before or after the meeting; arguing a finer point in the parking lot; shaking hands or getting a hug when needed. At least as of right now, you cannot do that on any platform in a way that feels like being in another person’s physical presence.

I am dedicating my High Holiday sermon series this year to Being There. (Yes, I borrowed the name from the classic 1979 film starring Peter Sellers, about the naive gardener who, by being in the right place at the right time, accidentally convinces everybody around him that he is the world’s most brilliant and inspiring person.)

Judaism has some essential principles regarding Being There:

  1. Minyan – The principle that daily synagogue services and certain other rituals require a quorum of ten people physically present
  2. Beit Kenesset – The synagogue, as the primary Jewish building throughout history, is the central place of Jewish gathering. Every community needs a gathering space, and both the Greek term “synagogue” and the Hebrew “beit kenesset” reflect that this is a house of gathering.
  3. Qehillah Qedoshah – The Hebrew word for a Jewish congregation; the literal meaning is holy community. Qehillah* is derived from the Hebrew word “to gather,” and is today the preferred term that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism uses to refer to its member congregations.
  4. evruta – This Aramaic word meaning “partnership” refers both to a pair of learners who study Torah together, and also to that style of learning, which is native to the beit midrash, the Jewish study hall. “O evruta o mituta,” says the Talmud. “Partnership or death.” We need holy Jewish partnerships for us to learn and practice our tradition, so that we might squeeze the most value out of it.

Today, tomorrow, and on Yom Kippur, I will explore Being There – being connected to each other and our community in real time, in person, through these four essential perspectives, because we all can appreciate right now how much we need that personal, physical connection. And it is fundamental to Judaism and Jewish life, as well.

Today’s topic is minyan, the essential quorum of ten people. But I’m not going to take the angle that you might be expecting.

***

Let me begin with this: You need a minyan. Yes, of course you need a minyan for synagogue services, and we at Beth Shalom provide one every single day of the year, morning and evening. (I’m just going to throw out a quick Todah Rabbah / thank you very much for everybody who regularly supports our daily minyanim by attending, by leading services and reading Torah, by preparing and serving breakfast, by dropping everything to come to shul when we are in need of a ninth or tenth person, and of course by making it possible for all of you to come and daven and recite Qaddish and so forth. You all deserve so much credit, so many mitzvah points for being here frequently.)

But you need another kind of minyan as well. Remember that the word “minyan” does not mean “service,” even though you need a minyan for a service. What it means literally is “count,” “The count is 2 and 0.” 

The count, for Jewish purposes, is ten. (You may also know, BTW, that some Jews have a superstition about not counting people, so some will “count” the people in the room, when checking for minyan status, by “not counting”: not 1, not 2, not 3, etc. My father, the mathematician, loves this; only mathematicians can imagine a world in which ten people is “not 10.”)

What you need – what we all need – is a quorum of people whom you can count as your mini-community within this community.

I have been here in Pittsburgh for seven years now; this is actually my eighth Rosh Hashanah on this pulpit. At this point, I feel like I have a sense of how this community works. And there is something that I have noticed for a while, and I have been struggling for several years to figure out how to address it. 

You all know that Squirrel Hill is the most wonderful neighborhood in America, if not the world. OK, so we may not have the groovy vibes of Lawrenceville or the anything-can-happen, seductively dangerous appeal of East Carson Street on a Saturday night. But we have a center of Jewish life, stable and vibrant now for over a century, a neighborly place where everybody knows who lived in your house before you did. Some of you who grew up in Squirrel Hill have known each other your entire lives; there are days on which I am particularly grateful to the Allderdice Class of 1976 in particular for every way in which they help make this congregation run.

But something else has been happening for a while, something which some of the veteran members of this community may not have noticed: that while there are fifth-generation members of this congregation, and octogenarians who grew up here, there are also a whole lot of people, including yours truly, who are newcomers. We are people who grew up in New York and LA and Wisconsin and Florida and Western Massachusetts, and have relocated to Squirrel Hill. And we do not have the connections that you all do. We do not have cousins who belong to every shul in the neighborhood, and we do not bump into old friends who grew up on our street at the Giant Eagle. And the challenge here is that, as immigrants to Squirrel Hill, we do not feel as deeply rooted in the neighborhood as the people whose great-grandparents used to live in the Hill District.

Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I grew up

So we have on the one hand, a stable population of people who have known each other all their lives and are often related to each other, and a newer, more transient population who are less connected. What can we do about that?

And just to add another complication. As Americans, we are more isolated than we have ever been, and it is not good for our health, mental or physical. 

I was actually somewhat surprised recently to hear a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered about how to make friends. It is fascinating, and a little depressing, that we have reached a point in which we need to be reminded that to make friends, you have to go do things with other people, but that is more or less what the NPR story said.

That is why you need a minyan

One of the most powerful principles of minyan is that it brings together people who might not otherwise spend 45 minutes together in the same room. It is a source of social capital a la Dr. Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor of public policy who wrote the book on social capital, Bowling Alone. 

(Very briefly, in case you haven’t heard me describe this before: Putnam demonstrates, using various measures, that social capital, that is, the connections we feel to the people around us, has declined steadily since the early 1960s, and that this lack of connection is not healthy for us as individuals or as a society.)

Social capital – being interconnected with others around you – makes you more resilient. It creates an environment where you are supported by the wisdom, the perspective, and the friendship of the people around you.

So we have a solution, something that will help us build a stronger community and a healthier, more resilient Beth Shalom, and that solution is avurot

What are ḥavurot? A ḥavurah is a group of people within the congregation who meet regularly to do things together. The Hebrew word חבורה means “group”; it is related to the word חבר / ḥaver, meaning friend, or לחבר / leḥabber, to connect. Those of us who know some modern Hebrew might also think of the term חבר’ה / ḥevreh, meaning “folks.”

We have a few informal ḥavurot which have formed over the years, but we at Beth Shalom have decided to step up our game and facilitate the creation of these groups. The idea is to bring more of us together in a smaller, more manageable environment, so that you can all be more strongly connected with a wider group of Beth Shalom members. We are a congregation of about 600 families, and I dare say that while many of us know each other, we need to boost our social capital, to be more interconnected.

The idea will be, for those members of Beth Shalom who choose to participate (and I strongly urge you to do so), that we will attempt to group you according to various affinities: demographics like stage-of-life and activity interests. So parents with young children might form one avurah, and people who are interested in social action might form another. Our intent is that these avurot will be no more than about 10 family units (a unit being a family, a couple, or a single person). 

We will also provide some suggestions about how often to meet, and what to do with your avurah. The events that groups will hold will not necessarily be at Beth Shalom, although you might occasionally meet here. All the more so, the idea is to have events that take place under the umbrella of Beth Shalom, but also in your homes, in the park, at a cafe, and so forth. And they do not need to be explicitly Jewish activities, although having a Shabbat dinner or coming together to dance with the Torah on Simḥat Torah could potentially be avurah activities.

I am sure that some of us will welcome this idea, and immediately sign up. Some of us, I’m sure, are thinking, what do I need this for? 

I am going to offer two reasons: the personal and the communal.

  1. The personal: We all need stronger interpersonal connections. We need more robust relationships with one another, with the people immediately around us. Part of the challenge that we are facing today with the polarization of American society is that we barely know each other any more. Yes, I know that Squirrel Hill is bucking the trend (I know many of my neighbors). But there is no question that having more, and stronger interpersonal bonds will have many good outcomes for all of us.
  2. The communal: If we want Beth Shalom to continue to be the center of non-Orthodox Jewish life in Western Pennsylvania, we need to be a more highly integrated community. Everybody here should have the sense that this building is like an extension of their living room, and that the other members of the congregation are like family. And furthermore, we want people on the outside to also think, “Wow! Members of Beth Shalom are really tight. I want to be a part of that.”

Some of you might also be thinking, I have plenty of friends already. Why should I sign up for this? 

Here is something else I will suggest: you can create a avurah with, let’s say, six other families, and then open it up to invite four more in, so that you expand your connections within the congregation.

We are going to be rolling this program out in the coming months, after the holidays, and I hope that you will participate. Watch for the materials that we send you – we will ask you for some information to get the process started. Although this will take months and years to build and grow, we hope that this will ultimately be a benefit of membership that is unique in our neighborhood.

We will build social capital; we will create a more-interconnected, more resilient, more healthy congregation. And, post-pandemic, we absolutely need it; we need that spiritual support which a avurah can provide.

Back when I lived in Jerusalem, now more than two decades ago, I would occasionally be walking down the street, minding my own business, when I would be solicited to help make a minyan. I was always glad to help; I met interesting people, heard exotic synagogue melodies from places like Algeria and Syria and Iran, and of course helped out fellow Jews who really wanted to be able to complete their services. It gave me a certain amount of pleasure to do so, if I had time.

No matter how “cool” our devices are, no matter how “talented” artificial intelligence technology becomes, it will never replace the essential human need for personal contact, for being in the presence of others. Our tradition has both relied on and satisfied that need throughout Jewish history. And we need it all the more so today. 

Let Mark Zuckerberg try to make Meta the place where everything is happening virtually; you will still need a minyan of actual people, not just to say qaddish, not just to call 13-year-olds to the Torah for a bar/bat mitzvah, not just for weddings. 

Rather, you need a minyan to get that essential feeling of connection which comes only from being around others, and part of a tight-knit group.

As we enter 5783, we should be looking for ways to renew ourselves, our connections to others and to our community, our relationship with our faith and our people. This is the time to take on new challenges to help improve ourselves and our world, and here is an excellent opportunity to do so.

When the opportunity comes to sign up to join a avurah, please take it. Your willingness to participate will ultimately help to build Beth Shalom in many ways.

Tomorrow we will talk about the continuum of Jewish life, as symbolized by the synagogue itself, the beit kenesset.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh HaShanah 5783, 9/26/2022.)


* Yes, I know that USCJ and many other folks spell this “kehillah,” with a k. However, this disguises the fact that the Hebrew word is spelled קהילה, with a qof, and the Latin equivalent of the Hebrew qof is a q. They actually are even written alike – just reflections of each other (ק – q). Some Jews (e.g. Iraqis, Yemenites, and Persians), in their historical pronunciation of Hebrew, actually pronounce the ק differently from the כ (kaf), whose English equivalent is a k.

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Sermons

Qal VaḤomer: Standing Up in the Face of Anti-Semitism – Ki Tetze 5782

We passed an unfortunate milestone this week. Fifty years ago, on September 5th, 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists called Black September, assisted by West German neo-Nazis, entered the Olympic Village in Munich and took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Two of the athletes were immediately murdered, and the other nine were killed when the West German police bungled their attempt to rescue the hostages. The Olympic games were suspended for a day and a half while the hostage situation was taking place, an unprecedented act. The murdered athletes included Shoah survivors, including one who had participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as well as immigrants to Israel from Russia, Belarus, Poland, Romania, Libya, and the United States.

A paradox of those Olympic games that summer is that Mark Spitz, a Jewish American from California, won 7 gold medals in swimming competitions. When the hostage situation unfolded, Spitz had already completed his events, and was immediately whisked back to America lest he be a target for kidnapping as well.

Mark Spitz

On the one hand, this victory for a Jewish American was something for us to celebrate: a Jewish athlete who had performed miraculously, honoring his country and his co-religionists, and only 27 years after the Nazi horror was vanquished in that land. On the other, the tragedy overshadowed everything else: Jewish blood flowed once again on ground that was long soaked with the same, at a location 10 miles south of Dachau. The peaceful, non-political nature of the Olympics was shattered by an act of political terrorism, carried out against representatives of the only Jewish state in the world, who were murdered because they were Jews.

We, the Jews, know and understand tragedy; our history is littered with the tales of anti-Semitic persecution, people who were tormented just because they were Jewish. The Munich Massacre was only one highly-visible instance of the ways in which our people have been victimized due to our otherness.

But of course, we also know that we have survived, and often thrived, and in some cases, as with Mark Spitz, have been wildly successful despite anti-Semitism.

And let’s face it: 50 years may seem like a long time to some of us – I was 2 years old at the time, and thankfully unaware of what had transpired – but really, half a century is next to nothing when considering thousands of years of Jewish history.

And right now, many of us are deeply concerned about anti-Semitism once again. Some of you may have seen the recent CNN special report about anti-Semitism, which, although curiously omitting outright mention of the Pittsburgh tragedy of 10/27, did shine some light on the current state of affairs, and of course it is not pretty. 

We have a genuine reason to be concerned right now. The statistics of anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen dramatically in recent years, buoyed by the pandemic, the boost in white nationalist activity that occurred in tandem with the Trump administration, anti-Israel sentiments which often cross over into outright anti-Semitism, and all of this, of course, is aided and abetted by the fantastic new tools of social media. 

But of course, there is only one response to Jew hatred, the same approach that our people have always taken, and that is this: be loudly and proudly Jewish.

Qal vaomer, all the more so now that anti-Jewish activity is on the rise. Now is the time to recommit to tradition, because if there is one thing that makes anti-Semites recoil, it is a Jew who is not afraid.

The principle of qal vaomer, by the way, plays a starring role in my favorite mitzvah, which appears in Parashat Ki Tetze. What’s my favorite mitzvah? So glad you asked! In Hebrew, it’s called shillua haqen, sending the mother bird from the nest (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:6-7):

כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר ׀ לְפָנֶ֡יךָ בַּדֶּ֜רֶךְ בְּכׇל־עֵ֣ץ ׀ א֣וֹ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֙צֶת֙ עַל־הָֽאֶפְרֹחִ֔ים א֖וֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִ֑ים לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים׃ שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּֽקַּֽח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים׃     

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.

Rashi pulls a qal vaomer on this verse:

למען ייטב לך וגו’. אִם מִצְוָה קַלָּה שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ חֶסְרוֹן כִּיס אָמְרָה תוֹרָה “לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים”, קַל וָחֹמֶר לְמַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל מִצְווֹת חֲמוּרוֹת

That you may fare well, etc. If in the case of an easy command which involves no monetary loss, Scripture states “Do this in order that you may fare well and have a long life”, it follows, qal vaḥomer, all the more so, that this at least will be the reward for the fulfillment of mitzvot which are more difficult to observe.

That is, if you can fulfill the mitzvah of shillua haqen, which is not so hard (as long as you are looking for nestlings to eat) and the reward for this is long life, then qal vaomer, just think of the reward you will receive for fulfilling the more challenging mitzvot.

Likewise, in considering the ongoing scourge of anti-Semitism, we have to remember that we should celebrate our being Jewish when we mark our successes, when it is easy to celebrate and be proud and loud and open. Qal vaomer, all the more so when we are threatened, when it is hard to do so, we have to be even more loudly and proudly Jewish.

Because, let’s face it: anti-Semitism is not going away. We have lived with it for millennia. And we cannot act like ostriches and bury our heads in the sand and pretend it is not there. So of course we must do the best we can to protect ourselves, but more importantly, we have to try not to be afraid. 

I have mentioned in this space before an art song by the early 20th-century composer Joel Engel, based on the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev’s fabled din toyre, or lawsuit, against God

What Rabbi Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev says is, You, God, have given so much to so many: the mighty empires of this or that country, the powerful kings and great armies. But what have you given the Jews? Nothing but misery and suffering. All we have is Qaddish. All we have is a prayer for the dead. And yet, says R. Levi Yitzḥaq, in response to our God-given plight:

Lo ozuz mimkoymi! I will not move from my place! (Hebrew)

Khvel zikh fun ort nit rirn! I will not stir from my place! (Yiddish)

Un a sof zol dos zayn! There must be an end [to this suffering]

Un an ek zol dos nemen! It must all stop!

Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shemei rabba!  May God’s great name be magnified and sanctified!

You might say that the legal strategy of R. Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev is defiance. Defiance of those who hate us and persecute us. That is our primary weapon of self-defense. We will not move an inch from the place of pride, from the place of leaning into Jewish tradition, to practicing our rituals and laws and studying and applying our holy ancient texts. That is what we have always done. We ain’t movin’. Qal vaomer in the face of anti-Semitism.

I am very proud of our community, right here in Pittsburgh, that even as we continue to grieve for the 11 members of our community who were murdered by a person motivated by anti-Semitic hatred nearly four years ago, that we have not backed down from our own commitment to our tradition. On the contrary, our community is thriving. Qal vaomer.

According to statements he has made in the past half-century, Mark Spitz never really saw himself as a Jewish standard-bearer. But the juxtaposition of his Olympic victories alongside the terrorist horror of Munich made him an obvious target of “qal vaḥomerism”. Just as Jewish pride flows from the thrill of victory, all the more so from the pain of tragedy.

Lo azuz mimmeqomi. I shall not move from this place.

A final note: Pittsburgh is hosting the second annual Eradicate Hate Global Summit from Sept. 19-21 at the Convention Center. Among the keynote speakers are Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, United States Special Envoy To Monitor And Combat Antisemitism and Alice Wairimu Nderitu of Kenya, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. I attended as many sessions as I could at last years’ summit, and I can assure you that it is worth your time as well. It’s open to the public.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/10/2022.)

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Sermons

Dreams of Your Future – Re’eh 5782

Some of you know that I was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Pirates game against the Red Sox on Jewish Heritage Night at PNC Park on August 16th. I’m happy to say that I did not embarrass myself (or you). However, as I’m sure many of you know, it was a lackluster game – the Red Sox scored four runs in the first inning, and the Pirates never quite recovered.

You might have heard that at one point during the game, Dennis Eckersley, a color analyst for NESN, and hall-of-fame pitcher, described the Pirates’ team as “a hodgepodge of nothingness.”

However, I’m told that when the mic was off, he added, “They should send these guys to rabbinical school.”

***

It was almost two years ago to the day that we called my daughter Hannah to the Torah in this sanctuary, with barely a minyan in the room; everybody else was on Zoom. It was a fearful time, still the depths of the pandemic. We had at that point been in high-anxiety mode for less than half a year; vaccines were still many months away; the murder of George Floyd was still fresh in the American consciousness; anti-Semitic conspiracies were being spread by QAnon. I spoke on that day about facing the future without fear, quoting Rabbi Naḥman of Bratzlav’s most famous quotable: כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר לא לפחד כלל / Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od. The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important principle is not to fear at all.

On this day, on which my son was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah, we are at least in some ways in a different place. Thank God! I am certainly grateful that Divinely-inspired human ingenuity has yielded vaccines which keep us safe. I am certainly grateful that our children have returned to school, that we can safely gather, that we can see one another again in person, if not entirely fearlessly, at least with somewhat reduced anxiety.

Parashat Re’eh, which Zev read from earlier, is, like the rest of Devarim / Deuteronomy, one long soliloquy by Moshe as his final act before he dies. It opens with, 

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.

That first word, the imperative רְאֵ֗ה / re’eh, is curious language. It literally means, “see,” from the common Hebrew verb, לראות “lir’ot,” but of course you cannot actually command a person to see. “Look!” or “Behold!” are appropriate imperatives. But “see” is not.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, the 16th century physician and commentator from Italy, reads this as a suggestion regarding the importance of discernment:

ראה הביטה וראה שלא יהיה ענינך על אופן בינוני כמו שהוא המנהג ברוב

Pay good attention so that you will not be like most people who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground.

You cannot merely look, says Seforno. Rather, you must see. Moshe is telling the Israelites, you have a choice, and it is a choice of extremes: blessing and curse. This is serious. Your discernment is essential. Don’t just have a glance at the future; read the trends now. Understand the consequences of your actions. Take corrective steps now if necessary. 

Now, you may not know this about Zev, but he is something of a seer. That is, he has very vivid dreams, and he likes to tell us about them, at great length, and with a level of detail which I cannot comprehend (I rarely remember dreams, and if I do, only fragments remain). And I must say, we have often been amused and impressed by the high resolution and, well, fantastic nature of Zev’s dreams.

As you know, our tradition takes dreams very seriously. They feature heavily in the tales of our ancestors, particularly those of Ya’aqov and Yosef, who are both dreamers; the Yosef narrative, in particular, turns on his ability to interpret dreams.

The Talmud (Berakhot 55b) actually suggests a certain prayer that should be said if you have a dream that you cannot understand:

הַאי מַאן דַּחֲזָא חֶלְמָא וְלָא יָדַע מַאי חֲזָא, לִיקוּם קַמֵּי כָּהֲנֵי בְּעִידָּנָא דְּפָרְסִי יְדַיְיהוּ וְלֵימָא הָכִי: ״רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֲנִי שֶׁלָּךְ וַחֲלוֹמוֹתַי שֶׁלָּךְ, חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מַה הוּא. בֵּין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי אֲנִי לְעַצְמִי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלְמוּ לִי חֲבֵירַי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי עַל אֲחֵרִים, אִם טוֹבִים הֵם — חַזְּקֵם וְאַמְּצֵם כַּחֲלוֹמוֹתָיו שֶׁל יוֹסֵף. וְאִם צְרִיכִים רְפוּאָה — רְפָאֵם כְּמֵי מָרָה עַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ, וּכְמִרְיָם מִצָּרַעְתָּהּ, וּכְחִזְקִיָּה מֵחׇלְיוֹ, וּכְמֵי יְרִיחוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֱלִישָׁע. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁהָפַכְתָּ קִלְלַת בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע לִבְרָכָה, כֵּן הֲפוֹךְ כׇּל חֲלוֹמוֹתַי עָלַי לְטוֹבָה״. וּמְסַיֵּים בַּהֲדֵי כָּהֲנֵי דְּעָנֵי צִבּוּרָא ״אָמֵן״ 

One who had a dream and does not know what he saw should stand before the priests when they lift their hands during the Priestly Blessing and say the following:

Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours, I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others, if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Yosef.

And if the dreams require healing, heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy … [and then there are a few more examples of healing from the Tanakh]

The gemara then goes on to add that if you cannot say that whole thing, you should say merely:

וְאִי לָא, לֵימָא הָכִי: ״אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם, שׁוֹכֵן בִּגְבוּרָה, אַתָּה שָׁלוֹם וְשִׁמְךָ שָׁלוֹם. יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שֶׁתָּשִׂים עָלֵינוּ שָׁלוֹם״ 

Majestic One on high, Who dwells in power,
You are peace and Your name is peace.
May it be Your will that You bestow upon us peace.
That is, we should all see our dreams as entreaties to peace.

If we were to dream about our future right now, what would we see? If we pause for a moment to think seriously now about the blessings and curses which face us, what might our trend lines indicate?

Do we see a future in which people care about their neighbors, in which we understand that the only way we can successfully navigate the challenges that face our society is by working together for the common good?

Do we accept that it is our responsibility, as Zev read for us from the Torah this morning, to ensure that the needy people around us have food and shelter? כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ וְהַעֲבֵט֙ תַּעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ׃. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.

Do we see a world in which democracy continues to flourish and guarantee freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, of movement, of belief – for Americans and people around the world?

Do we see a future where all people have enough to eat? Where resources are equitably distributed? Where our wise use of God’s Creation leads not to environmental destruction, but rather to sustainability in holy partnership?

Do we see a world in which discrimination of all types is a thing of the past? In which nobody will feel targeted for their religion, their race, their gender? In which the anti-Semites have returned, cowering, to their holes of hatred?

Can we discern that the future will feature shared truths, or will we all be in our own individual “fact” bubbles, in which the only actual truth is the one that I alone perceive? Or will we acknowledge and maintain the reality that sometimes there are undebatable truths, which cannot be obscured with spin?

Do we see a future in which the digital tools we have created with our God-given ingenuity are used only for the betterment of humanity, and not to harm?

When I stand here, before all of you, before God, and most importantly before my son, who has been called to the Torah today in the context of his family and friends as a bar mitzvah, can I see a future for Zev in which all his dreams lead to peace?

We can create that future by seeing, and not merely looking.

By beholding the people around us. ALL the people around us, and particularly the ones with whom we disagree. By not treating everybody else like a faceless, personality-less other. By not lending ourselves to the tyranny of the majority, the minority, or any sort of orthodoxy. 

By understanding that the true curse of society comes when we look, but do not see. 

“Rabbi” Robert Zimmerman, the 20th century poet and philosopher from Minnesota, had something to say about looking vis-a-vis seeing:

How many times can a man look up, before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?

And to echo another one of our 20th-century “rabbis,” “Rabbi” Martin Luther King, Jr., I too, have a dream today. I dream that the world that my son enters as an adult at this moment regains its ability to see, to discern blessing from curse, to understand the consequences of our actions. 

I dream that we do not merely look at the others in our midst, but see them. I dream that the peace of which the Talmud speaks, the peace we invoke at the conclusion of every Amidah, of nearly every recitation of the Qaddish in pleading Oseh Shalom bimromav – May the One who makes peace on high bring some peace to all of us down here on Earth – be fulfilled. I dream that that peace will become a reality, not just in Ukraine and Myanmar, in Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan, on the bullet-riddled streets of America and of course in Israel. 

And I dream further that we find peace in our own hearts, and in those of our neighbors; that we find a way out of the culture wars that continue to rattle us all; that we seek to understand and not merely revile those with whom we disagree.

And I give this dream to you, my son, as you enter Jewish adulthood and inherit this ancient framework of mitzvot. As you have shared with me your dreams, I share this one with you.

Do not merely look, or regard the future with indifference. Rather, you must see. And work toward reaching the fabled blessings of which our Torah speaks.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2022.)